Where Music Fits In by James Primosch

A few weeks ago a fellow parishioner came up to me during a break at a church choir rehearsal and said, "I heard you're the dean of the music school at Penn," which came as a surprise to me, of course. Then there was the acquaintance who, when told I am serving as Music Department chair, commented, "Gee, I didn't know Penn had a music department."

It is experiences such as these that made me accept the invitation to write this piece about Penn's Music Department and about music in an academic environment. It would be foolish to try to characterize a department in 1,000 words, but perhaps I can clear up a few misconceptions and point out a few highlights.

The invitation came in connection with Almanac's preparing an article on the University Wind Ensemble's "Civil War" concert; I am writing this during a break from practicing my solo for that program. Although performance is by no means our main focus, it is the way many people become aware of the department, and indeed, we are very proud of the Music Department's performance activities. We sponsor some half a dozen performing ensembles that give members of the University community the opportunity to make music in professionally-led groups, each of which puts on one or more concerts every semester. With Penn Contemporary Music and Ancient Voices the department puts on professional concerts, emphasizing underrepresented repertoires. Thanks to a special arrangement with the Curtis Institute, our graduate composers have their music played by the superb Curtis students in a regular series of Penn Composers Guild Concerts. (In this case, performance is at the heart of an academic program.) And our Music 10 program provides modest stipends to support applied music lessons with outside instructors for music majors who successfully pass a competitive audition. It is an impressive array of activities, especially when one realizes that Penn's Music Department, unlike so many departments at peer institutions, has no performance space to call its own. In fact, there is absolutely no truly hospitable space for musical performance on the Penn campus, a scandalous situation that will be partly addressed if the renovation of Irvine auditorium is an acoustic success.

So if there are all these performing activities, but they are not the main focus of the department, then what is? To answer that question I need to describe several models of how music can fit into higher education. At one end of the spectrum are independent conservatories such as Curtis and Juilliard, emphasizing training in instrumental and vocal performance as well as studies in composition. Some large universities, such as Indiana and Michigan, include a School of Music under their institutional umbrellas. (Conservatories and schools of music sometimes offer a Bachelor of Music or a Doctor of Music Arts degree instead of a B.A. or a Ph.D.) Sometimes a music department exists as part of a school of arts and sciences (thus offering a B.A.) while still maintaining degree programs in musical performance. The music department at my own undergraduate school, Cleveland State University, adheres to such a model. Then there is the model we find at Penn and its peer institutions, a model perhaps at the opposite end of the spectrum from Curtis and Juilliard. At Penn's Music Department we do not offer degrees in musical performance, nor do we have a performance faculty. Instead, we focus on the various forms of musical scholarship and on composition.

Having said what we are not-a conservatory-it must be emphasized that the Music Department is by no means narrow in what it does do. Music at Penn is characterized by diversity of discipline and approach, by the plurality of scholarly styles, by the multiplicity of populations served. On the undergraduate level, our music majors study music theory and history intensively as part of a liberal arts education, while hundreds more students take classes that introduce them to one or more of the world's musical traditions or challenge them to work directly in the musical languages of various stylistic periods. Technology, in the form of our undergraduate computer lab for music theory classes, and the Music 21 web site, plays an increasingly important role in these courses.

Our graduate students pursue studies in the areas of history, theory, ethnomusicology and composition, but there is plenty of work being done by both students and faculty that does not fit neatly into predetermined disciplinary boxes. There are scholars in our department who study the history of music theory. Are they historians or theorists? There are those who bring the ethno-musicologist's interest in cultural contexts to bear on repertoires not, until fairly recently, associated with ethnomusicology. We foster looking at music (and listening to it) from every conceivable vantage point: historical, theoretical, textual, anthropological, sociological, etc., and our students' experience is the richer for it.

You may have noticed that my own field of composition is not mentioned in the foregoing paragraph. This is not because we composers stand aside from this diversity and boundary crossing. In fact, we are a special case of such boundary crossing because the imaginary line we cross is a very basic one: that between the scholar and the artist. It seems that different disciplines take different approaches to the place of the artist in an academic department. Our Music Department chooses to incorporate artists as part of the teaching faculty, and I think it is stronger for it. When a composer teaching a music theory course tries to get you to hear and comprehend the significance of an augmented sixth chord, that professor has struggled with the significance of such patterns of structure in her or his own creative work. While the insights that scholarship reveals are of interest to the artist, I believe scholars also benefit from being in an environment where compositional issues are being dealt with on a daily basis. There are tensions inherent in being an artist in a landscape dominated by scholars, but I think they are a source of fruitful energy for all concerned.

So no, you can't get a degree in piano at Penn. But you can find a remarkable multiplicity of ways of being in and around music. Perhaps I'll see you in class or I'll see you at the next concert-but for now, to borrow the phrase pianist and Curtis Institute director Gary Graffman used as the title of his memoirs, I really should be practicing...

Dr. Primosch is associate professor of music, chair of the music department, and a recent Pew Fellow. The latest of his numerous recordings is a CD to be issued shortly on the New World Label, and his "Fire-Memory/River-Memory" will be premiered by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia on April 25 at 8 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 17th and Sansom Streets.

Almanac, Vol. 44, No. 27, March 31, 1998