How might we listen to travel?
This question brought together a diverse group of faculty, graduate students, and independent scholars at the Newberry for four weeks this summer to participate in “Music and Travel in Europe and the Americas, 1500-1800,” a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute for College and University Teachers. We came from San Diego and Providence and Minneapolis, from small liberal arts colleges and large public universities: a broad cross-section of teachers and researchers interested in exploring how movement through space and across borders intersects with all kinds of music and sound (see Figure 6 for a photo of most of the group). We spent every morning in discussion, often led by a visiting scholar with expertise in the field, and every afternoon researching individual topics in the Newberry’s collection. Because of the library’s particular strengths in material related to both travel and music, we were in the perfect place to develop our projects.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I applied for the institute. The idea of getting away from the many details of daily life on a busy campus appealed to me, as did the opportunity to work with other scholars from a range of disciplines. We all had different specific reasons for being there. I teach at an institution with a conservatory of music, and hoped to learn ways of incorporating music history into my teaching even though I’m not trained as a musician. Carla Zecher, the director of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies and the library’s Curator of Music, and the other senior scholars who served on the application review committee, demonstrated their acumen for reading between the lines of applications when they chose our group of literary scholars, musicologists, and historians. The group they assembled connected across disciplinary experiences to find the common ground that all too often gets covered up by institutional boundaries. Similarly, while some of us had extensive performance experience, others—like me—had not been in front of an audience since the eighth grade.
Carla and the rest of the Newberry staff made sure that we got all of the readings assigned to us by visiting faculty, which was not an easy thing to do—now I understand why my own students sometimes complain about having to get up early to finish the reading before class! Joking aside, I know that I probably would never have found these readings on my own, or been able to understand them half as well without the discussions we had in class. James Akerman, Curator of Maps and director of the Smith Center for the History of Cartography, put together a kind of tasting menu of the Newberry’s map collection for us, reducing me (I was going to write “all of us” but I think really this applied mainly to me) to a state of incoherent delight at the rich visual language and complexity of these beautiful atlases (see Figures 1-4).
The Newberry staff also helped us with details and questions ranging from the mundane to the sublime, accompanying one of us to the emergency room in a crisis, arranging a visit to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra archives, suggesting good nearby restaurants and free concerts, and even making it possible for each of us to have much-coveted advance preview passes to the mad scramble that is the annual Newberry Book Fair. One of the best things about our group, though, was how so many of us made an extra effort to plan special excursions. One of us arranged a special visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, where his sister is a curator. When a few members of another participant’s early music ensemble were in town, he invited us over to hear Monteverdi, Dowland, and a few other beautiful sixteenth-century pieces performed—truly an experience of musica riserva, literally the “reserved music” from which the modern chamber music tradition developed.
Our institute concluded with what Carla dubbed a “mini-conference.” We gathered each morning to give informal presentations about the projects we had been developing over the last three weeks. This is really where we came into our own. Questions abounded. How can we teach undergraduates who are not music majors to attend to music as carefully as they might read a poem or analyze a film? What does it mean for a sound to be described as “monstrous” in the seventeenth century (see Figure 5)? How does the history and representation of deafness provoke new insight into travel and music? I am pleased to report that we did not reach any definitive answers to these questions. The purpose of gatherings like ours is to open gates to new fields of study precisely by posing questions that are not easy to answer. When people think about the Newberry, they probably think of it most often as a place for conservation and quiet study, but creating the conditions for lively—even contentious—interchanges is also part of the Newberry’s mission. I feel very fortunate to have been one of the voices in the conversation this summer on Washington Square.
Posted by Monica Rico, Department of History, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin.