15 Minutes with … the Dent Medallist (Interview with Alejandro L. Madrid)

As has become a tradition at the annual RMA conference, we interviewed the 2017 Dent medallist a few hours before he delivered his keynote address. Alejandro L. Madrid, a Professor of Musicology at Cornell University, is a musicologist of extraordinary intellectual range and breadth; throughout his career so far he has shown deep engagement with transnational and revisionist historical arguments across an astonishingly wide range of musical practice. Among other things, we discussed his academic roots, plans for future projects, and his outlook of the future of musicology in the academy.

  1. Could you tell us about your 2009 book Sounds of the Modern Nation? What is its central argument and how did you go about researching modernism following the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution?

That book is an expanded and revised version of my dissertation. The basic premise is that I wanted to question former stereotypes about how historians and even ethno- and musicologists have written about the Mexican Revolution, which is usually characterized as a moment of rupture and complete radical change. I argue the opposite, that there were a lot of continuities. Many of the ideological projects that were developed by the new regime after 1921 were returning to cultural premises that had been in place before, especially indigenism (or different ways of celebrating the Mexican indigenous past). I argue for a revised perspective of the Revolution, viewed from a musical lens. Another stereotype about Mexican music after the Revolution is that they were concerned with issues of nationalism, but my impression from the archive is that they were more interested in questions of modernism. Looking at the scores being played and what musicians were actually doing, I found very few overtly nationalist compositions but a lot of modernist ones from microtonal music to futurist music in the decade following the Revolution. Slowly after the 1930s, a new discourse emerged (written retrospectively) which suggested the Revolution was a moment of complete ideological, political, and aesthetic change. My argument is that it really wasn’t. At least at the very beginning, it was centred around ideas of cosmopolitanism and being part of the world that had been part of the imagination of Mexican intellectuals for decades.

  1. Your most recent book is about the composer Julián Carrillo. What attracted you to study Carrillo, and how did you approach this project methodologically?

Carrillo was part of my dissertation. The first chapter was about his first microtonal music, written in 1924. My original idea was to write a dissertation about Carrillo; but I didn’t want to write a hagiography. I didn’t want to just uncritically celebrate this musician. There are a lot of things to criticise about this figure. He was very problematic in the way he described himself and I didn’t know how to approach him from a more critical perspective. So I put the project aside, and I focussed on the larger question of what happened after the Revolution. But I always felt I had this debt to Carrillo: one of the first papers I wrote in Graduate School was about his First Symphony. Later, I came back with a better idea of how to do it. I decided to approach it not as a life-and-works kind of study, instead I employed a very different methodology to try not to construct a static picture of the past, but rather to put the past in dialogue with the present and the possible futures that never happened. This considered how Carrillo imagined himself, with his microtonal revolution as the future of music. I discuss this in dialogue with what happened to his legacy after his death. There was a group of musicians who kept his ideas alive in the 1970s and ’80s. It was through these musicians that I first learned about his music when I was a kid. I included them in conversation with the ideas Carrillo was trying to develop about himself, which were often completely at odds.

At any rate, for Mexicans of my generation, Carrillo came alive through the music and activities of these musicians, not necessarily through performances of his own music. Carrillo’s music has been played very rarely. It was recorded in the late 1950s, but otherwise, until recently, no-one really played it or programmed it with any type of regularity; so there are a lot of misunderstandings about him based on the lack of circulation of his music. So for me these musicians were a cultural filter that created a representation of what Carrillo was for me and people my age. I was trying to put all these things in dialogue: what he said about himself, how others represented him; all of this vis-à-vis the contradictory evidence I found in the archive. I wanted to double check these facts. The goal was to look at him, his music, his ideas, their reception as a performance complex, and how all of that becomes meaningful transhistorically; so, in the end the project was much more than just stating ‘this music is worth listening because this guy was a great composer’.

  1. If you hadn’t become a musicologist what would you like to be?

That’s an easy one, I would have been a filmmaker. When I was a kid, that was really my first passion. I used to make my own little movies and I would project them on the wall of my bedroom for relatives and friends to watch. I wanted to be a filmmaker, but my father decided he was not going to let me go down that path and discouraged me. So eventually I decided to become a musician.

  1. What are your favourite and least favourite aspects of your job.

My favourite aspect is that it is really a privilege to be able to do what we do and make a living doing what we do, which is basically thinking. It is something we are passionate about, and the fact we can do it for a living is just amazing. But I am not sure how much of this is going to last, I’m pessimistic about this neoliberal turn that seems to be taking over everything.

What I like the least is meetings and administrative work. I understand that it is something that we need to do, especially if we want to sustain the privilege of what we do, we need to be more involved in the democratic processes of the university. But at the same time, it really takes away a lot of your time.

  1. What would be the most important piece of advice you’d give to doctoral students aspiring to a career in academia?

Academia has changed so much in the last twenty years, maybe more. In practical terms, I would ask them if this is really what they want to do because it is a very difficult career and it is going to become more and more difficult. I don’t know how it is in the UK, but in the US many of the jobs are adjunct jobs with no security or health benefits. It is neoliberalism taking over academia. So, I would ask them if they are truly serious about it and advise them to work hard, persevere, and not take anything for granted. To be frank, there is always a degree of luck in any successful academic career; one has to be in the right place at the right time. It could be that random. Nothing can guarantee that it will happen but one can at least try to be prepared to take advantage of the moment if it arrives. So, work hard, be prepared, and do not take anything for granted, that would be my practical advice. My academic advice would be to be ready to put yourself in the position of the Other, look at things from a different perspective. Be sceptical about the narratives and methods one is disciplined in when trained as an ethno/musicologist.

  1. How important do you think it is that academia engages in outreach work? (What role does music studies have to play outside of the academy?)

I think it plays a very important role, and I am going to touch on it in my lecture this afternoon. It is becoming more and more important. I think we need to make scholarship relevant to society and contribute something to the world. It is great that we have ideas, but somehow we also need to have an impact on the world, an impact on everyday life. This is something we have to question constantly in what we do and in how we approach the music we study. One of the things that I have been pushing for since I started my academic career is asking different questions about and from music. Back when I was a grad student questions about aesthetic value still dominated the field. The idea that one studies ‘Great Masters’ and ‘Great Music’ was still very prevalent. But I always thought these were the wrong reasons to study music. The field was very hagiographic, so to speak, but part of my training was in performance studies and thus I started asking questions that deviated from what one learns in conventional musicological training. And many of them were related to how the music we study is relevant in everyday life and how the way we listen performs our field of study. So, if we focus on the performativity of music —on what happens when music happens— we invariably have to be concerned with the role of music outside of academia.

  1. Where do you see your research going in the future?

I am working on a biography of Tania León, a Cuban-American composer.  It has been a difficult project because she is alive, and I am working with her and I do not want to just write an uncritical celebration. However, she thinks of this project as putting her legacy out there. She is seventy-five; so she is thinking about what she is going to leave in the world. Reconciling the things I want out of the project and what she wants out of the project has been conceptually difficult.

I am also working on a project about masculinity and homophobia in musical practices from Mexico and the Mexican-American communities in the United States. That is probably the project I am going to focused on when I finish León’s biography. I have just published an article that is based on that research;[1] so I am moving forward with that project too.

I also have a project about sound archives and knowledge production. This is a critical take on the celebratory tone of sound studies and the idealistic belief some have about how sound is going to liberate us from logocentrism. This project explores the persistence of what Latin American scholars have called the Lettered City —the enlightened and educated elites that have shaped the cultural trajectories of Latin American republics and for whom the written word was an essential symbol— though the so-called ‘aural turn.’

Finally, a fourth idea, which is in a very early stage, is to write a book about a Mexican rock band called Café Tacvba in collaboration with the Mexican science fiction writer Pepe Rojo. He is kind of an underground writer but a really solid one intellectually. I was interested in collaborating with him as we have been friends since High School, and he has written about music even though he is not an academic. Nevertheless, I always felt that what he had to say about music was very compelling. Maybe because he was not trained as a musicologist and thus has a different perspective on why music is important. I also felt that working with a writer (someone who actually makes a living by writing on a daily basis) I could learn strategies about how to write in a more exciting manner. Anyway, those are the four projects I have currently on my plate.

  1. What do you listen to or play in your spare time?

I listen to music in a very obsessive way: I listen to the same music over and over again. On my way to Bristol, I think I listened to only two pieces of music for the duration of the trip: the Bach Chaconne played by Manuel Barrueco on the guitar and George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago.” I listened to just those pieces for over twenty-four hours! When I was writing my book on dance music I discovered a CD called Morricone RMX, which came out around 2001. I think I heard that CD non-stop for about two months in my office. I have recently discovered Maluca, a punk singer from Washington Heights. She is really cool, and I like her music a lot. Last year I transcribed and finished Julián Carrillo’s incomplete Quintet for piano and string quartet; it was later premiered and recorded at Cornell by the Momenta Quartet. I believe I had that recording playing in loop on my iPod for about three months. My 4-year old daughter is inheriting this habit: she requests the same music all the time… lately it has been The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love”; before that it was Silvestre Revueltas’ La noche de los mayas.

[1] Madrid, ‘Secreto a Voces: Excess, Preformance, and Jotería in Juan Gabriel’s Vocality’, GLQ 24/1 (2018), 85-111.

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