Discourses in Music: Volume 2 Number 1 (Fall 2000)

A Letter from Around the (Golden Horseshoe) Bend

Have you ever felt lost when Derrida or Barthes suddenly crop up in a discussion of Mozart? Or when someone mentions the relevance of Lacan's mirror phase to Offenbach's operatic repertoire? It seems today's musicology students can no longer be satisfied with a comprehensive grasp of music theory and history; they must be able to discuss deconstruction or psychoanalytic thought as readily as they can debate the periods of Beethoven's oeuvre. The study of music is becoming increasingly a field of interdisciplinary research. The integration of critical approaches with traditional musicology has radically broadened the scope of academic discussion around music. But students trained in traditional musicology programs, for the most part, still seem ill prepared to handle these new challenges. Where can graduate students develop their capacity for critical thinking?

I recently transferred to McMaster University's School of Art, Drama, and Music in Hamilton, Ontario, in hopes of addressing this lack in my own education. McMaster has developed a Masters of Arts in Music Criticism degree expressly to meet the challenges of twenty century musicology. This two program is designed to encourage critical thinking and its application to the study of music. This term, for example, I am taking a course in the literature of music criticism. But instead of focussing on a genealogical survey of stylistic periods, each student chooses a critical paradigm – Marxist, feminist, post, or psychoanalytic, to name a few – with which to analyse critical writings over the term.

We also engage directly with music. The other graduate course offered this term (only two graduate courses are offered each term) teaches the skills of practical music criticism. Our instructor is National Post writer Tamara Bernstein, one of the most controversial and incisive critics currently writing in Canada. The aim of her course is threefold: to develop a personal critical voice that is clear, concise, and free of jargon; to develop a discerning, critical ear; and to introduce students to the rigours of journalistic writing for the public (and face it, many of us will be looking for jobs outside of a university faculty).Other classes offered over the course of the program explore current theories of music criticism, issues in performance practice, the theoretical analysis of music using such models as Schenker, and popular music studies. There is also one self reading course in which students may pursue an area of personal interest. Usually, this course doubles as preparation for the master’s thesis, which may take the form of either a traditional paper or a critical portfolio.

The faculty, though small in number, possess a wide range of academic interests. For example, Dr. Susan Fast, the current head of Graduate Studies, balances her research into medieval music theory with critical dissection of popular music trends. Professor James Deaville is a Romantic specialist who focuses on how music criticism has served various political and social needs. Because the music department belongs to the larger School of Art, Drama, and Music, students can also draw on the knowledge of a wider pool of professors. Recent theses have benefited from the guidance of specialists in performance art and film studies. Most students appreciate the personal attention from faculty the intimate scale of the program allows.

The interdisciplinary interests of the faculty are reflected in the diversity of students who pass through the program. The nine students currently enrolled include your typical B.Mus. graduates, students from liberal arts, a rock musician, and even a Ph.D. in psychology. Needless to say, this encourages a diversity of perspective and interest unusual in more traditional music faculties.

The program’s focus on music criticism also highlights the importance of cultural and societal context in the study of music. By analysing the reception of a work in various times and places, students learn to identify and challenge the assumptions that influence current perceptions of music. This is, perhaps, what I appreciate most about the Masters of Music Criticism program. At McMaster I am learning critical skills that extend beyond the study of classical music. An understanding of how music is received not only places classical music in the wider web of Western music, but recognizes it as a fundamentally human practice.