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 By Elena Chang (and Hannah Bechtolt)

Featuring Sara Haefeli

 

Elena: What is your teaching background?

 

Sara Haefeli: I teach music history classes, everything from music in ancient Greece to music that was written or performed yesterday. So, it's pretty broad, mostly with an emphasis on Western, what we call “art music,” or “classical music.” 

 

 

 

Elena: How did you end up at IC? 

 

Sara Haefeli: I was teaching at the University of Northern Colorado as an adjunct faculty member. I love Colorado; I grew up there. I finished my dissertation and it was time to look for a full-time position. Ithaca College was the first place where I interviewed and I got the job. I love Ithaca.

 

 

Elena: What is your interest in research with students?

 

Sara Haefeli: Music history is all about research, about asking questions. I'm not sure it's taught that way very often. Most of the time history classes are taught as, “here are the answers and you have to memorize these answers.” Yet, history is so much more about asking questions, and then having the skills to figure things out. I really want to model that kind of inquiry for students and with students.

 

 

Elena:  What projects are you currently working on that are involving students?

 

Sara Haefeli: I just completely redesigned my music history classes so that they are not lecture courses with three tests and a research paper, the way that music history has been taught from the dawn of time, but rather, we’re working in groups on case studies. I've designed case studies that are studies of moments in music history or a musical artifact––something that really opens up a lot of questions about how music is made, how it's consumed, how's it produced. The cases should inspire questions such as, How do we understand that? What does it mean to us? This is the first time I've done this class with groups and case studies and it presents some challenges. In law, medicine, and business, people use case studies all the time. Case studies are a problem that needs a solution, or it's a question that needs an answer. In music history, the case is not a problem that needs a solution, but something interesting that can inspire further inquiry. 

 

The very first case study we looked at this semester was Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. Also, it's the first time music history students in a music history classroom have looked at pop music, and there are very few examples in the classical canon by women or people of color. That album, really challenges notions of what is music: Is it just how the piece sounds? Or, is it also how it looks, because Lemonade was a visual album? What does it mean to have your personal life totally tied up in the content of the music? The case study teases those things out. 

 

The students have been starting to wrestle with great questions of how music can be deeply meaningful. Together, we read a scholarly article on Lemonade and worked through the article. Then in groups, they have to come up with their own research questions, and then going and doing further research. A lot of the groups were asking questions like, How is Lemonade specifically influenced by African American spirituals or by Afro Cuban music or by Western “art” music? One group got inspired by the question, Who is Becky in the album (especially the line, “Becky with the good hair”) and what does it mean for a black woman to be talking about a woman with good hair? Then they found out that Becky is hip-hop slang for a slutty, white woman. That's supposedly who Jay Z cheated with-- Becky, some slutty white woman. So they started asking, well does she have some sort of sonic representation in the album? Is there some sort of sound that accompanies Becky? Their answer was no, but that Beyoncé is drawing on very typical or very powerful black traditions to identify herself against this idea of a white Becky. Beyoncé is re[resenting herself in the sound of her music as a black woman. The students only worked on this case for two weeks, but this work is something that they could probably get published if they pursued it. It was a very creative inquiry.

 

 

Elena: What is the use of your research in the wider community? 

 

Sara Haefeli: My research has two aspects to it. My primary music history research is on the composer John Cage. He was active in mid-20th century America and his most famous piece is called 4’33”. It's literally four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. That piece really challenged notions of what is “music” and what does it mean to listen to music. His whole point with that piece is that if we just stopped and listened for a moment, all of a sudden we would notice how much noise there really is in the world. And if we can frame that noise as kind of a musical sound or as an aesthetic experience, it might be quite pleasing. Cage is very inspired by Zen Buddhism, by philosophy, and by other visual artists. For example, the visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, who was a good friend, painted a series of all white paintings the year before Cage composed this piece. So what does it mean for a canvas to just be all white? If the painting is placed in a gallery, you might start looking at it differently and you might notice, “oh, it's not just white, but there's shadows and the surface is rough,” or whatever. 

 

Cage’s work is challenging. He's most often talked about as a real maverick like he's going outside of the mainstream and he's breaking the rules. My research, specifically this past year, has been focusing on his work between the years 1967-69. That time period’s called “the Summer of Love”––the height of the psychedelic era and right at the end of the Vietnam War. Cage is supposedly this outsider to the tradition of Western “art” music. My thesis is that he's actually quite an insider. Even though he's breaking the rules, he's breaking the rules within this tradition of modernism where artists are constantly trying to re-break the rules and rewrite or creatively make a new world every time they make a new artwork. Cage is drawing on strong institutional support from universities, from grants, and traditional institutions for music instead of going out into the street. If he really wanted to create some revolution, he'd be doing street art, but he's not doing that; he's doing it in the academy. The project that I was working on this last year was about Cage during that time period and his connection to art institutions and powerful higher ed institutions. 

 

Elena: What are your goals for this project? 

 

Sara Haefeli: Hopefully, the work will culminate in a book with a great name like John Cage in the Summer of Love. However, that's just one string of the research. My other research is on music history pedagogy. This research asks, How should we be teaching music history? I've done a lot of writing about how to teach students to write about music, which is really difficult, and I'm the editor of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy. I'm very serious about thinking of ways to better serve our students and right now, especially about ways to add more voices to our history instead of just white, male, European voices in order to really diversify the curriculum. My goal is to make the curriculum more accessible, more diverse, and to make it more engaging.

 

Elena: Why do you think it's important for students to be involved in the research?

 

Sara Haefeli: Because that's what it's all about, right? I mean, if you're teaching at an institution of higher education, what you're hopefully doing is teaching the students how to be lifelong learners. Now more than ever, it's really silly to teach facts, because we all have facts in our pocket, right? We can look them up in a moment. So to just teach students how to memorize facts or to regurgitate facts or dates or names or, you know, “how many symphonies did this person write?” that's really silly. Hopefully, what we're teaching is how to think, how to find sources, how to evaluate sources, and how to do that for your entire life.

 

 

Elena: Could you provide some details about the grant?

 

Sara Haefeli: I received an ACE Grant from Ithaca College. It's designed to support scholars doing preliminary research for a larger project. The grant supported a trip to Los Angeles so that I could spend some time in the David Tudor archives at the Getty Institute in LA. Tudor was a close friend and collaborator with Cage and they have a lot of material there about Cage. I spent about a month there really looking through those archives, which unfortunately are not very well organized. A lot of my work was just sifting through Tudor’s papers. Some of the materials were items like: receipt for suit, grocery list, random notes on something, the instructions for an electric razor, and occasionally, “oh, here's a musical composition!” or “oh, here's an interesting letter!” Most people would have thrown out probably about 90% of what was in the collection because it really was a lot of trash. Yet, once the Getty gets it, they're not going to make those kinds of decisions because they can't predict what scholars in the future will want to see. Maybe someone really will want to see this person's trash. I found it very difficult because Tudor was clearly somebody who had a severe OCD hoarding disorder. It was the remnants of this very troubled life. Yet, within those remnants are real jewels; treasures that describe what the music scene was like in the late 60s, what they were doing, where they were going, how much money they spent on travel, you know, things like that. 

 

 

Elena: Were you able to find a lot of the research that you were hoping to find?

 

Sara Haefeli: I did. There were great collections of concert programs. Quite a bit of correspondence, scores that Tudor had marked up with notes about how to perform them. Those things, and great photographs. They did a tour in Japan in 1962 that I was really interested in reading about. One of their hosts made a photo album for Tudor that is in the Getty Institute, which I got to see. Then he made a photo album for Cage with different photographs. It was intentionally different because these two were very close friends so they would have compared their photo albums. They're different, but all photos from the same tour. The Cage one is at the Cage archives at Northwestern University in Chicago, and I saw that one in February, when I was on sabbatical. I spent October in Los Angeles and then I spent part of January and February during the polar vortex in Chicago. I maybe should have done it the other way around! I got to see those two archives but the ACE grant was specifically for travel to the Getty Institute.

 

 

Hannah: How was the grant writing process for you?

 

Sara Haefeli: For me, it was pretty easy. This is in one way exploratory research because I had never seen those archives. On the other hand, this is a type of work that I've been doing for quite a while. It's easy to articulate what I want to find out, what I suspect might be there, but I don't really know until I'm there. So grant writing is about asking those questions. I think it's important when you're writing grants to make it clear what your goal is, your research agenda, your research question, and why you have to be there to do that research. Writing a compelling narrative about why I have to be there was pretty easy because it's a treasure trove of riches (and trash). It’s a relatively unexplored but pretty important collection.

 

 

Hannah: What inspiration has really led you to do some of this research like personal inspiration or even like professional inspiration like coworkers or quotes, books, specific pieces you heard a John Cage piece and it really lit a fire?

 

Sara Haefeli: When I was in grad school doing my Ph.D., I thought that I would do my dissertation work on a topic in Vienna because four years earlier, I had lived in Vienna and had done some research there. I thought I'd go back, but I got pregnant in grad school. So I knew that I wouldn't be able to travel with a baby and do research. Doing research abroad is very slow because they're very tight-fisted with their resources. In the U.S., you go into an archive and they're like "Here are all the resources. Help yourself.”  Over there I could only look at five things a day and they were almost mean about it sometimes. In grad school I took a seminar on John Cage and the teacher of that seminar urged me to submit my final project for a national musicology conference. It was accepted, which is kind of amazing in retrospect, because it's hard to get a paper accepted at those conferences. When I was at that conference, I met a lot of other Cage scholars, and they're really interesting, wonderful people. One of these senior colleagues suggested that I write my dissertation on this one particular Cage piece called “Harpsichord,” except he spells it “HPSCHD” because he used a computer to help compose this piece in 1969 when you could only save computer files as six letters or numbers. I started doing research and I got so interested in it, especially because he talked about the piece as an anarchic, utopian experience. At the same time, he's using the computer technology at the University of Illinois that was paid for by the military. It was used for military research specifically for measuring radioactivity from nuclear bomb blasts and things like that. Talking about utopia at the University of Illinois in 1968 and 1969 is strange because it was an incredibly elitist environment. Less than 1% of the student population at that school was African American. In 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. there were riots on campus because they had new students specifically recruited to try and increase their 1%, but then gave them substandard housing. They also didn't give them scholarships that they had promised, and so the students protested. Cage was there on campus during this whole time, but doesn't say anything in any of the press or in any of his diaries about these protests. Cage’s anarchic utopia doesn’t include diversity at all, so it's a fascinating study. It's the time period of social unrest; it's the time period of incredible technological innovation. For the music for that piece, he borrowed from pieces for piano from the historic repertoire and then kind of cut them up according to chance operations and made new harpsichord parts. It's like making art out of, you know, a collage of things. So what does it mean when he's cutting up the historical masterpieces and rearranging them into his own new “masterpiece”? That event had day-glo colors, projections and lights and slides, and it took place in the basketball arena. It was this kind of wild psychedelic experience but in a very elitist, exclusive place on Earth. The whole social context is so interesting to me. I think that's what really drives my research. It also relates to how I'm redesigning my classrooms; trying to recognize the privilege that we have as white musicians and thinking about how we have really intentionally excluded diverse voices and how we can do better in the future. 

 

 

Interview with ACE Grant Recipient - Sara Haefeli | 0 Comments |
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