The Belgian Emissary

Submitted by Andy on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 10:22

Two years ago I made my senior circuit debut as a musicologist at the 2nd International Conference on Music and Minimalism in Kansas City. I really can't imagine a better place for me to have done that, since it was perhaps the only moment possible where major scholars would have tolerated a rigorous pitch analysis of a work that they not only had never heard but was titled Crazy Nigger. As you may recall from my report of that event, I was not murdered for my cavalier use of racial invective but instead announced myself as an Eastman scholar to people who actually knew him and were willing to share materials with me.

This past week was the next installment in that conference, having crossed back over the Atlantic to Leuven, Belgium. Maarten Bierens ran the best and most fun conference I've been to. Probably because of the guaranteed shared interest, and perhaps due to a common belief of being besieged by institutional bias, there is a much greater familial atmosphere than exists at the bigger dances. I haven't yet had the opportunity to go to Society for American Music, but at AMS at least the cliques appear to be cast in permanence from institutional history. This isn't to say I didn't spend him with my colleagues (in fact I think that [Peter] gave one of the best papers is year), but I was often drinking beer with a group of musicologists, theorists, and composers from both sides of the Atlantic.

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Did I mention beer? Because that's basically your main objective in Leuven if you're not (or even if you are) at the university. The Oude Markt (old market) is recognizable to anyone who has lived in a college town, although we clearly didn't see it in its prime because the neatly labeled exits never came into play. [1. Admittedly, we avoided the place on Thursday, which we were told was the traditional night of student revelry. Whereas I assume the American "Thirsty Thursday" tradition comes from when most bros are pulling up from last weekend's hangovers, Belgian students apparently go home most weekends.]

Most places I have traveled to either have cheap lodging and expensive food (Amsterdam, Dublin) or the reverse (New York, Busan). A combination of a hostel and a steady diet of sausages defeated both of these concerns, but the beer in Leuven was fantastically inexpensive. A bottle of Trappist ale, in a bar, was rarely more than €3.30, with Stella[2. No longer a Leuven beer, alas, having fallen to the syndicate that would become InBev years ago. Don't even get me started on the Francophile nature of their campaigns, what with Leuven being quite solidly in Flanders.], a somewhat classy option in the States, serving often as the last resort under 2 euros.

come out to show them come out to show them come out come out come out

The biggest thing to happen to minimalism scholarship, and by extension the conference, was purchase of Steve Reich's papers by the mighty Paul Sacher Stiftung. A couple presenters had gotten off the train direct from Basel, where they're sifting through massive, and as of yet largely uncataloged, collection. It was fascinated to hear about sketches, source materials (especially the tape/sampler works), and juvenalia from a composer who has thus far been so controlling of his own legacy. There was a fair amount of discussion about how the Reich archive was a very restrictive collection within an already restrictive institution, to the point of clearly going against best archival practices. I've written here before about dealing with composers who are inconveniently alive, and I cannot even imagine how self-conscious it must feel to hand over that sort of material. But then we get revelations about how it turns about he may have quit writing serial music because he wasn't great at it. MIDI, however, is a harsh mistress.

Overall, I was really impressed by all the papers and I won't hesitate to say that the level of scholarship was the highest of any conference I've been to. This certainly could be because I was actually interested in all the papers, but can only think of a handful that were either needlessly opaque, ill conceived, or poorly executed. Also surprising, considering how territorial musicologists in larger numbers can be, there was little chest-beating or posturing. Granted there is a clear generational divide and it may get interesting as younger scholars start to take more of a role in the society, which actually exists now. One thing I noticed, that composer/scholar Lauren Redhead pointed out better than I could, was the lack of women as compared to some of the other conferences I've been to. While Lauren discusses the lack of women scholars there, I'm starting to wonder where Pauline Oliveros and other female composers were.

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One thing I did miss was the lack of revelatory or just plain insane concerts. It is, however, perhaps unfair to expect anything to live up to the time bending weirdness of Charlemagne Palestine or Dennis Johnson's November. There were still performances every day, and more pertinently they were considered of equal weight to the paper sessions,[3. Anyone who has been to other musicological conferences can attest that while live music is usually available, it can generally only be attended in lieu of eating.] with Christopher Hobbs playing Terry Jennings, Bruce Brubaker playing Nico Muhly, and Andy Lee turning in a wonderful performance of Tom Johnson's An Hour for Piano. The Flanders Festival was happening concurrently with the conference, although only one of the two concerts was particularly minimal in nature (the other being mostly Varése) and I ended up being locked out, of it, with a prestigious salon des refuses that included Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann, due to arrival five minutes late from dinner. Who knew the Belgians were so uptight?

If some inscrutable reason you're interested in my paper, it was really a reframing of the last chapter and a half of my thesis, which should be freely available on ProQuest shortly, or I can email it as well my slides to any interested parties. I can only hope that the solidification of the Society and the air of legitimacy it brings doesn't become calcification into more staid musicological proceedings. There is uncertainly as to where the next American event will happen in two years time (perhaps that institutional bias in not entirely imagined), but I will buy you a regrettably more expensive beer should you be there.

Paul Epstein called us the Leuven Seven or Eight or whatever (indeterminate as to performance, I think) and wanted to make T-shirts. I've got pics, but couldn't find your address. Did the pinholes come out? I agree - good beer, lovely session.