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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Roll over Beethoven: department stretches the bounds of scholarship and sound

Carolina has one of the oldest doctoral programs in musicology around, known worldwide for the caliber of its musicians and scholars.

Its core strength has long been the performance and study of classical music, whether from medieval Italy or 19th-century Germany.

In the past half-century, other strengths emerged, including popular music (jazz, rock, country) and music technology.

What has been different the past three years, under the leadership of outgoing chair Terry Rhodes, has been the purposeful infusion of new faculty in specialized areas not covered before.

The mix of new hires has not diminished the department’s foundational strengths, but instead has built upon them, Rhodes said.

When Rhodes moves to South Building this summer as senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, her successor as chair will be Mark Katz, who said he plans to continue what Rhodes started.

Another strength of the department is the manner in which senior faculty have embraced change, he said.

“All of them have written books in the last year or two. They have long since passed the need to prove themselves, but they continue to produce world-class scholarship – and they are not repeating themselves,” he said.

“They are pushing the boundaries of musicology and that is why this is such an impressive department and why it is so exciting to work here.”

From Schubert to Qbert

Perhaps no one embodies that ideal of expansive curiosity more than Katz, Rhodes said. Through his scholarship, he has changed the way people think about and listen to music.

Katz

Katz, who joined the department in 2006, flew to New York City last week to attend a party for his latest book, “Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ,” which was supported by a National Science Foundation grant.

“It is a strange thing to many people that I wrote this book on hip-hop DJing because I was a classical music nerd when I was a kid, and in many ways, I still am. I didn’t play air guitar to recordings – I played air violin,” he said.

“I’m just interested in music that speaks to me. That’s violin playing, but it’s also scratching records.”

At the book party he was greeted by GrandWizzard Theodore – the hip-hop DJ from the Bronx credited with inventing scratching, the turntablist technique used to produce distinctive sounds by moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable.

In terms of creating something new, Theodore is to turntablists what Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini is to classical violinists, Katz said. “He created a sound in pop music that is heard across the world.”

Katz went to the Bronx to interview Theodore and other hip-hop DJs for the book.

“They are the people who can most authentically represent themselves, so I am drawing upon their cultural credibility for my scholarship,” Katz said. “They, in turn, draw upon my academic credibility. One thing they have dealt with ever since they have been scratching records is dismissal – the questioning of whether what they do is music.

“They saw me, I think, as a very interested, curious and respectful outsider. They wanted people to see what they do as a legitimate form of music making, and they understood that I could communicate the legitimacy of their art to people who would not be very sympathetic to them.”

Katz said Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser (a noted concert organist) came to appreciate the legitimacy of the music after Katz showed him a video of Richard Quitevis – a Filipino-American turntablist and composer known by his stage name, Qbert.

“He watched very seriously and said, ‘I am not sure this would be my favorite music, but there is no doubt what this person is doing is making music and at a very high level,’” Katz said.

Recovering a forgotten past

Rhodes said that to continue producing leading scholarship and creative activity, the music department has to become more inclusive and diverse.

Hiring new faculty such as Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, Louise Toppin and Lee Weisert helped accomplish that goal, Rhodes said.

Toppin

Ndaliko, an ethnomusicologist and composer, will join the faculty this fall after she completes her doctorate in African studies at Harvard. Her work combines research and social engagement with a central focus on the power of film and music to initiate social change in Africa.

Toppin, a soprano opera star hired last year, has spent a significant portion of her career promoting the music of women, African-Americans and under-represented composers. She appears on 16 CDs of American music sold around the world. Her latest, “Heart on the Wall” on Albany Records, is with the Dvorak Symphony from the Czech Republic and features art songs with orchestra by African-American composers.

Last fall, Toppin also created and taught the music department’s first course on African-American composers. “Music as Culture: The Music of African-Americans” is a survey of African-American music from its roots in Africa to hip-hop, through the lens of the classical composer.

“Classical composers play an important role in chronicling the social and political movements in the African-American community, yet are often ignored in the discussion of African-American music,” Toppin said. “In the class, students have an opportunity to view important historical events from a variety of musical perspectives.”

Toppin also serves as director of Videmus (from the Latin “to see”), a nonprofit organization that promotes the classical works of under-represented composers. Last month, the group celebrated its 25th anniversary with a five-day festival at Hill Hall (see www.videmus.org).

A growing freedom to explore

While Toppin mines history for forgotten gems, Weisert, literally, has probed the hidden sounds of nature.

With a sound installation called Cryoacoustic Orb, Weisert used hydrophones frozen inside ice to amplify the sounds of the melting process, which were then electronically processed and transmitted throughout a darkened gallery space.

“I am interested in nature because it is an easy way to come up with amazing new ideas that you could never have thought of on your own,” Weisert said.

Weisert

“When you listen to what it sounds like when ice melts, it is like a gift offering a new way of thinking about the evolution of sound over time. I don’t even have to create it. With the help of a microphone, I can just steal it from nature.”

Like scratchers, Weisert is stretching the bounds of sound accepted as music.

As incoming chair, Katz said he is very excited about seeing what faculty members come up with, collaboratively or on their own.

That spirit of discovery, Katz said, is what led longtime faculty member Brooks de Wetter-Smith, a flutist who has performed in 20 nations, to take off to Antarctica a couple of years ago with a different instrument: a camera.

When he returned, de Wetter-Smith combined his photography with his music to reveal the connection between the arts and the natural world.

“That, I think, is what is impressive about this department,” Katz said. “We go where we are drawn. For Brooks, it was Antarctica; for me, it was the Bronx.”