Continuing our series of interviews with RMA prize winners, Dr Elsa Marshall interviewed the 2020 recipient of the Jerome Roche Prize, Dr Amanda Hsieh (Durham University) after her keynote lecture at the 2022 RMA Research Students Conference (University of Plymouth). The following blog includes edited excerpts from the interview, conducted on February 23, 2022.
Amanda Hsieh is Assistant Professor in Musicology at Durham University and has published in venues such as the Cambridge Opera Journal, the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, and Music & Letters. Amanda’s new monograph project adopts a transnational approach to investigate how Germany and Japan, as young and ambitious empires, articulated their domestic and international aspirations through opera.
EM: I was wondering if you could give us an overview of your research journey. What topics and methods inspired you to pursue an academic career in the first place and how have these developed in your research so far?
AH: I did my undergraduate studies at Royal Holloway, which is a place that has a strong research culture and I think that helped shape me as a scholar: people were very interested in each other and in the things that people did. I think that was very good for me. At that particular institution, there was a lot of emphasis placed on the Austro-Germanic culture, so I kind of threw myself into it and I continued that journey when I went on to do my Master’s degree at Oxford. It’s another institution that has a strong German research strength. I developed an interest in Austro-German studies because of the research environments, which I suppose I don’t regret, but as I got older, when I moved on to my PhD at Toronto, I suppose initially it was kind of culture shock because the Canadian society is much more multi-racial. I think they have their own set of racial conflicts and multicultural struggles, but you had more people doing more different things. I started to see more possibilities of research, not just because I was in Toronto but also because the shape of the discipline had started to change. When you go to conferences and things, you could see more people being more comfortable studying European music outside of the European context and that wouldn’t be understood as an ethnomusicological study, that would be seen as a ‘historical musicological’ examination, even though these disciplinary boundaries are tricky as well. I found myself in this place where I could bring together both my history of doing Austro-German scholarship, as well as my personal self, a rigorous scholarly self as an East Asian person, into this new Asian German direction that I’m taking.
EM: It’s nice to hear how in some ways the Austro-German side is from good professors early on, and then you developed your own take on it as your studies progressed.
AH: It is interesting, because sometimes I wished that I had a more transnational education, but I suppose there’s now a lot more time for me to explore these areas. I’m starting a working group in Asian German music studies with one of my colleagues in Australia. I was surprised by the responses that we have gotten. It’s really interesting because you could see people taking on different directions as you take on different directions because the discipline is changing.
EM: I’d like to talk a bit about your article on Alan Berg’s Wozzeck (première 1925), which won the 2020 Jerome Roche Prize. I really enjoyed it. It thoughtfully analyses the opera’s connections between characterisation and vocal technique in the context of the challenges veterans faced and political ideas of what ideal opera was in post-WWI Germany. One thing I really admire in your article is how you clearly show the nuance. You tell the story of this opera and its creation while highlighting all the complications that make the plot and its historical context not linear.
I was wondering from this research, what were some of the interesting discoveries that you made and how did you come to these discoveries?
It’s a tricky question. I really think that people start to know your work better than you do once it’s out in the world. This article also took me a tremendous amount of time to publish so it feels really old to me now. I first started trying to publish it in 2016. It went through two rounds of reversions (and I’m incredibly grateful to the reviewers!). But because it took such a tremendous amount of time, I was just so relieved to put it aside when it was done. In the past two years, whenever I hear about this article, it just feels like a very alienated thing to me. There was also a gap between the finalisation of the article and its appearance. By the time it’s appeared, I’ve almost forgotten about it already. But let me try to articulate what I have learnt…
The work on Wozzeck formed part of my PhD, which is an examination of wartime masculinities on the Austro-German operatic stage. In my PhD, I looked at canonical operas, like Wozzeck, but also less canonical operas as well, like Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Erich W. Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. There is a running theme for all the case studies that I looked at. I find the ways in which we have narrated the plots of these operas are quite set in stone. But those familiar ways of telling the stories don’t always reflect what actually takes place in the operas. When you have a particular conception about a plot, that kind of governs the way you look at it. So, I found it’s very helpful to look at the works and to think about what’s there but has been deemed secondary and perhaps not important enough to talk about. With Wozzeck, I found that the Sprechgesang voice is deployed to characters that don’t have much power. That kind of attention paid to the downtrodden people in the military is something I hadn’t quite seen before but that appeared to me to be very pertinent to how the opera is shaped.
EM: Your openness to the multiplicity of interpreting the opera comes across in the article. It’s an important way of understanding history and comes across in your overview of the changing criticism of Wozzeck even in the decade of its premier.
Did researching Wozzeck and other operas for your dissertation change your perspective on opera, composition, or research?
Over the course of my PhD, I became a much more archive-based scholar. I’m very mindful about talking about this shift because archival research is tied to questions of access: it isn’t just about what you can find in the archives, but also who can get to it. So much of that is about power and access to institutional support. I’ve been very fortunate to have adequate resources to do archival research. Although, things are also becoming easier because of digitisation. Just last October (2021), for the instance, the ‘Deutsche Zeitungsportal’ went online, which is fantastic. I wish I had this during my PhD. It is great seeing archives becoming more democratic maybe not by the minute, but by the day.
To think more about archives being sites of power: I think archival materials have taken on a different kind of meaning. The conversations have really shifted. We’re more sensitive to the presence and absence of materials and what such presence and absence might mean. When a culture has things, it also means that they are capable of culture production. In my current work, I think transnationally between Asia and Europe: although it’s not like Japan is disadvantaged as a geopolitical entity in terms of things, in terms of the Anglo-American musicological world’s imagination of it, there’s quite a bit of space for us to manoeuvre still.
EM: I think the mix of methods in your research projects of combining archival research with looking at the musical work itself through a critical lens, and considering the implications of these findings together, is constructive. I’m an archival researcher as well, and I always think about it in terms of, the stories are there, our job is to find them and shed light on them. Retelling these forgotten stories, or, as you’re doing, showing these stories to audiences who otherwise would likely not even veer near them.
AH: Yet, it’s a tricky thing because it’s not just about letting the documents tell their story or showing people things that they wouldn’t otherwise see. I’m conscious to not re-inscribe that old model of, look, I can get to this archive, so, here, this, this is the work that I can do, this is the work that I can afford to do. It’s a very subtle difference.
EM: Yes, and the digitised newspaper archives you’re mentioning provide a way of having a much simpler route to seeing the past and investigating it, although these are also sometimes barred by financial restrictions.
AH: Yes, absolutely. And in instances where there’re no digitised versions available: there are no resources to try and to fail. We’re rarely taught how to do archival research in the classroom. And even if we did, so much we learn on site. Having the financial resources to try things out is another issue.
EM: Would you like to give some tips on the publication process? Do you have any tips for somebody who’s doing that for the first time?
AH: Try, try, and try again! If it’s not an outright no from a journal, then I take it as a yes. I think it’s true because even a major revision is people telling you, hey we are interested in seeing this again.
EM: I think that’s a great tip. It can be hard, that trying again, but you have to keep going at it.
I’d like to talk a bit about your conference presentation. In your keynote for the RMA Research Students Conference in January, you introduced us to your new research on Japanese-German operatic and political relations in the early twentieth century. You introduced us to Felix Weingartner’s Die Dorfschule (première 1918), which is based on the 1746 Japanese play Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami. Your historical analysis of the work unpacks complicated transnational political, musical, and ideological relations. Could you introduce us to transnational music studies, and why it’s important?
I think it’s important because the people who are doing musicology are becoming more transnational (this is something that Daniel Chua has articulated in his keynote at the ‘Global Musicology – Global Music History’ conference that Vera Wolkowicz and I co-organised earlier this year). People are becoming more global – you see that from just going to conferences, and so I think that the discipline should reflect its membership. I think it’s important because the people have changed. The musicological memberships are changing. And I think it’s important because transnational/global studies reflect the ways in which the world functions. We are always interconnected transnationally, globally.
I also think transnational studies is important because it brings new perspectives to our understanding of music and musical practices. For a very long time, and this is a condition not just of musicology but also of its sister disciplines, a lot of studies have been very nation-centric. That approach restricts the ways in which we imagine things. If our unit of analysis is nation-centric, we tend to have narratives of exceptionalism. It’s very tricky to get away from the nation or the nation-state as our unit of analysis, but when we don’t take nation-state as our basic unit of analysis, we open up possibilities to think about how things can be put together beyond the confines of the nation-states.
EM: I like your description of the nation as a type of unit, a singularity almost, because even if you bring one other nation into the picture, you already have another entire set of perspectives, another entire set of backgrounds and all the dialogues between the two. All these nations are in dialogue, in a sense.
Could you maybe run us through what sparked your current research project on German-Japanese relations and your research methods?
AH: I think the fact that the discipline is changing is really important. I think that has allowed me to bring more of my personal self without being seen as simply ‘that Asian person doing Asian things’ in the musicological space. I’m still concerned about being pigeonholed, but I find myself more at ease doing work on Asia now. My current project is still steps away from my own personal backgrounds because I’m not looking at Taiwan. I’m looking at Japan. I’m aware it’s complicated. I want to keep a bit of distance from my research but I also want to introduce elements that are more relevant to me. I didn’t find it satisfying enough to look at only German topics and I wanted to research something that is more personally relevant, something that I have a stake in. This is a dangerous discourse because it is tricky, because it’s almost as if I am saying I couldn’t understand German music and culture fully or be at ease with it.
EM: I think, there’s saying “I don’t want to just do German studies,” but, as you pointed out with your explanation of transnational music studies, Germany isn’t just about Germany. In many ways you’re still doing German studies in considering a transnational perspective. It’s understanding that there are other characters at play.
AH: Yes, what’s German studies really?! How do we define it? German Studies is expanding all the time, too. For example, Black German studies is fast-growing as a field. Kira Thurman’s book about Black singers in Germany is fantastic (Singing like Germans). Asian German studies is also really emerging. Reflecting on what counts as German studies, it’s very productive and very empowering.
EM: And I really enjoyed your keynote in that regard because it’s a good example of what transnational music studies can show about both the connection between two countries but also about the countries in and of themselves in how they act in those relations.
One question to wrap up. I don’t know how it feels for you, but it at least appears that you’ve quite successfully navigated the challenges of being an early career researcher. I was wondering if you have any extra advice you’d like to share with those who are completing a PhD about what lies ahead.
AH: I think a well-placed publication can help, although I’m also mindful of the academic job market right now.
Reach out to people. It’s a very delicate thing to do because cold calls are so tricky, but if you happen to have made a connection, I think it’s very helpful to continue to cultivate it. If somebody has a conversation with you at a conference, it can be nice to follow up with an email just to say hello so you can continue that connection. I think that cultivating a connection is much easier than cold calling people.
The reality is that we are working in a very dismal situation. Mobility helps: it gives you a much wider range of options and you acquire different perspectives and learn about how things work in different places. But not everybody can afford mobility, for many different reasons.
Elsa Marshall is a film music historian and theorist. She recently completed her PhD on the business, labour, and techniques of formal integration in 1950s Hollywood film musical production. She is currently researching structures of film music education in America and Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. She is an organising member of the British Audio-visual Research Network.