Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, Patrick Huang interviewed the 2019 recipient of the Jerome Roche Prize, Dr Emily MacGregor, after her keynote lecture at the 2021 BFE/RMA Research Students’ Conference held online by University of Cambridge. Among other things, we asked Dr. MacGregor about her current focus, future research, and any advice for students. Note that this post is a slightly abbreviated version of the full interview.
Emily MacGregor joined the Department of Music at King’s College London in January 2020 following a Marie Curie Global Fellowship held first at Harvard University (2016-18) and subsequently at Royal Holloway, University of London (2019). Prior to this, Emily completed a DPhil in Music at Oxford University in 2016, an MSt in Music (distinction) at Oxford, and an undergraduate degree in Music and Drama at the University of Manchester. During her doctorate she held visiting fellowships at the Freie Universität in Berlin (DAAD, 2012-13), and at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (2014). Her forthcoming book is titled ‘Interwar Symphonies and the Imagination: Politics, Identity, and the Sound of 1933’.
photo credit: Oliver Bennett
PH: Could you speak a little bit about your prize-winning article ‘Listening for the Intimsphäre: Recovering Berlin 1933 through Hans Pfitzner’s Symphony in C-sharp Minor’ for our readership? What is your central argument and why might musicologists be interested?
EMG: The article focuses on the reception of Hans Pfitzner’s Symphony in C-sharp Minor (Op.36a) at its Berlin premiere in 1933, a work that was a re-orchestration of his String Quartet (Op.36). I analysed the language in the reception and the music within the context of the swift political shift to fascism, a moment when private and public space were conceptually contested. Broadly put, the two genres, string quartet and symphony, are historically linked with the public and the private sphere respectively, and I dissected how the language of the reviews explored ideas of shifting public and private space. I think it is important for us to pay close attention to the moments when political regimes change. That’s what I tried to do in this article. Of course that doesn’t always mean paying really close attention to one specific concert, as I did here, but I think there are contemporary implications: to understand the dangerous political shifts at present, we need to look at them very carefully, and reflect on them using historical knowledge and tools. That’s why we shouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable or divisive past moments.
PH: Your work is about early 20th century music and politics in North America and Germany. What inspired you to look into this field? Since the topic may step onto controversial territory, have you encountered resistance from within academia?
EMG: When I was thinking of what to do for my Master’s, I was really interested in the music theatre of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. I’d assistant directed a production of the Threepenny Opera as a teenager, and I was fascinated by the directness of the social critique, and, like many, the heady sense of an era of fractious politics, of wild parties, of theatre and music trying to say it like it was, and all on the brink of a political precipice. That was the starting point for my interest in Weimar Germany, and then, a bit later, in Depression-era America. But in many ways it was also random: I feel like I could have delved into almost any time period or topic and got excited about it.
Perhaps ‘methodological sensitivities’ is a more accurate way of putting what’s controversial about the work I do. I think a lot about subjectivity and space, and a lot of that can be to do with gender and race. Those discourses play out differently in the different political and geographical contexts I’m interested in, like Germany, like the U.S., as well as in Mexico and France—which I’ve worked on to a lesser extent. It’s important to me to be sensitive to my own positionality when doing work in those contexts. I’m constantly aware of the risk of enacting some kind of new imperialist perspective in the transnational work I do, particularly.
PH: What’s your most and least favourite aspects of your job?
EMG: What I enjoy most about the British postdoctoral research fellowship at King’s College London is that it guarantees a lot of time to do research and write. Additionally, I think the thing I appreciate most about my job is having the intellectual freedom to pursue things I find interesting and getting the chance to bounce ideas off other scholars, and then pursue the directions that emerge. And I don’t have someone standing over me saying “No, this is what you’re doing today” or managing my schedule. That’s a real privilege.
As for the least favourite part, thing that can be tricky in academia is the sense that all your time can start belonging to the job because there’s such a pressure to publish. Whatever task you are doing, you could also be doing another one, and prioritising can be quite stressful. So say you’re doing an administrative task or emailing someone, you tend to feel “Oh maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, and should be working on my article now”, etc. And it’s hard to turn off the guilt out-of-hours, although it’s a thing I think is really important.
PH: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
EMG: From an academic point of view, I’ve got a couple of things that have been very helpful to me. Someone once said to me that “a finished PhD is better than a good PhD”, that’s absolutely true. In many senses, it’s only ever a draft (of a book, or a series of articles, or whatever). Another thing that really helped was learning to write really messy first drafts, moving away from a model where I used to try to write polished prose from the word go. That freed up my writing process hugely.
PH: Have you had any mentors who have inspired you deeply?
EMG: There’re so many—I’ll never get to mention them all. But when I was an undergraduate at Manchester I was really inspired by Laura Tunbridge, who I think was the person through whom I realised that musicology was a thing, a real job you could actually have. As a graduate student I was really lucky to work with Peter Franklin and then with Daniel Grimley as my doctoral supervisor. Paul Harper-Scott has always modelled good mentorship with intellectual generosity and beer. There are also some wonderful people I met at Harvard and now I’m lucky to work with amazing colleagues at King’s College London. It really takes a whole village of people to intellectually develop a junior scholar.
PH: 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?)
EMG: It’s hugely important. That’s something I want to devote more time to over the next few years. I don’t really believe in the ‘inside/outside the academy’ distinction, but insofar as it exists, I want people outside the academy to be able to learn about the fascinating work we do! And particularly in the current political climate, there’s a self-preservation aspect: I think it’s vital that we go into schools, have open conversations with the wider media, or for instance give public talks at museums and concert halls, to make it much harder for people not to understand the value in what we do. For example, musicologists going into primary or secondary schools gives people a sense that “it’s a job that actually exists”. When you are trying to imagine where public funding for the arts or for universities goes, just having some faces to attach to the idea of “what the money actually does” is really vital. But academia also has an important role to play in protecting and improving music education in schools, and improving the pipeline for access to higher education in music and the arts and humanities for people of all different backgrounds.
PH: What music do you like to listen to or play when you are not writing about it?
EMG: It’s pretty eclectic. As a classical and jazz trombone player by training, I listen to a lot of jazz, and I really like funk and Motown, as well as Stravinsky, Mahler, Sibelius. I used to sing acapella, and I play musical theatre arrangements badly on the piano from time to time. I don’t know if this has been the same for other musicologists – but during the lockdown I’ve not listened to that much music. Instead I got much more into spoken word e.g. radio, various different podcasts, all of Jane Austen on audio book while I painted my flat. I would be interested in hearing whether, for other musicologists, music is something they engaged with more or less during the lockdown.
PH: Can you give us any glimpses into your forthcoming research?
EMG: Yes, I’m currently planning a project where I look at various diasporic and exile communities in New York roughly between 1930 and 1945, to discover how people engaged musically with ideas of technology and modernity, that is, obvious things like trains and radios. I want to explore technology as a kind of lens for ideas like assimilation or displacement or alienation. And importantly, to do so without universalising the idea of exile and diaspora into the bargain. However the pandemic has slowed things down, especially with the impossibility of travelling to New York.
PH: What is the most important advice you will give to doctoral students?
EMG: Good question. I would say two things: firstly, make sure you don’t let all your time get eaten up by the PhD and do proper time management insofar as is possible, for instance you could set regular working hours, always taking evenings and weekends off. Secondly, steel yourself to expect a lot of rejections, particularly at the level of applying for postdocs – I was told that a good candidate should be applying for roughly 40 postdocs or so to get just one. One more thing: academia really isn’t everything, and it’s far from the only career in which you could be happy and satisfied. Therefore, investigate careers beyond academia early and take them seriously: you might well find a career path that looks just as—or more—appealing.
 The Musical Quarterly, Volume 101, Issue 1, Spring 2018