Created on Tuesday, 16 October 2012 03:44
Written by Pete Blais, Staff Writer
In a highly unusual occurrence, Pitt’s music department brought in three new faculty members this year to replace three retirees. Even more unlikely: The three have previous ties to one another.
The department hired Rachel Mundy and Emily Zazulia this year, while the third, Gavin Steingo, was hired in 2010 but deferred until this year to finish his postdoctoral study. Mundy, an assistant professor of 20th-century music, and Steingo completed the same postdoctoral study at Columbia University before entering Pitt. Zazulia, an assistant professor in medieval and Renaissance music, also attended graduate school with Steingo at the University of Pennsylvania.
Steingo, an assistant professor of African music, marveled at the improbable hirings. “They ended up getting three people in the same year, which is very unusual,” Steingo said. “And not only that, but three people who were quite closely connected, even though the search had nothing to do with that.”
Mundy was likewise surprised and pleased.
“For all three of us, getting a job at a school like Pitt is actually a real privilege,” she said. “It’s very exciting. I was just looking to get something.”
The department began its search for new faculty in 2008 after faculty members Don Franklin and Mary Lewis, who bath specialized in historical musicology, retired.
Department chairman Andrew Weintraub said there were more than 150 applicants for the two historical musicology positions and about 45 for the ethnomusicology opening. During the search process, part-time faculty frequently stood in for the missing full-time members.
“We’d been searching for someone to replace those retirement people for about four years, and we weren’t successful,” Weintraub said. “But the University kept supporting us.”
In 2010, a third retirement by Bell Yung, who specialized in Chinese ethnomusicology, added to the dilemma.
But the lengthy search process eventually came to fruition, as the three hired each bring a unique and diverse background to the department, Weintraub said.
“They bring different areas of interest. They are young, so they bring a really fresh approach to what’s going on,” he said. “We’re trying to teach students how to maybe find some new opportunities and think about music in a different way and inspire them so they enrich their own musical lives.”
The three each have their own ways of doing this.
“Speaking from my own perspective, I think the thing that ties us together is that we all have a slightly unorthodox approach to thinking about music, but we all have different roles,” Steingo said.
Along with leading an African ensemble, a group currently consisting of 22 students that play both traditional and contemporary African music, Steingo teaches two classes on African music.
“There’s a mythology of African music,” he said. “My job is to get people to get past that mythological way of listening and get them to try to reflect on how they’re listening.”
Steingo also focuses on the bigger-picture issues surrounding music.
“I’m trying to give people the sense that music is not some elusive or ineffable thing, but we can actually talk about it, understand it, think about it,” Steingo said.
Part of the way Steingo emphasizes his idea is shedding light on the global forms of music-making.
“So not to think of America and Africa as separate, but to think of circulation between Africa and America, which is what popular music is, but from the perspective of Africa,” he said. “If we look at music technology from the perspective of Africa, it actually gives us a different vantage point, on the same issues.”
The idea of examining perspectives through music also interests Mundy and Zazulia. For Zazulia, the connection between the concepts of music and time — her main area of expertise and research — factors heavily into her teachings.
“We always talk about the nature of time and the organization of time. We also talk about, on a larger scale, in what ways music organizes our day,” Zazulia said. “In the Middle Ages, one’s life was built around certain things being sung at certain times. This rhythm of life is still governing ours, as well.”
As the medieval and Renaissance periods represent widely studied topics, Zazulia realized there were similarly themed courses within the University applicable to her music students.
“I hope to draw students from those programs and get my own students to branch out and interact with scholars in [medieval and Renaissance] departments,” Zazulia said.
Mundy has similar hopes of “building bridges” between departments.
While her area of focus is 20th-century music, she’s also conducting a side project studying bird songs.
“I can talk to people in sciences about this research, because it deals with evolutionary biology,” Mundy said. “[Pitt] also [has] a very strong department in the history and philosophy of science. Because of that, it’s a nice way to build bridges with other people in the University.”
Like her colleagues, Mundy also focuses on the understanding of music. She said the way we experience and consume music has changed drastically within the past century, adding that music no longer exists just in concert halls, but on iPods, cell phones and in dorm rooms.
“That time period created a scenario in which you have to take a class in order to understand this music,” she said, referring to the way in which music composed for concert halls requires new levels of analysis now that its removed from its intended setting. “It also means you can teach students to think critically about why that gap [in methods of music consumption] developed.”
Mundy’s goal in teaching is clear.
“What I want students to walk away ... understanding [is] that no matter what they hear, everything that you hear is something that you as an individual are just as able to think about critically and understand and become a sort of responsible listener,” she said.
Whether that sound comes from Beethoven or a hummingbird, Mundy said, “You can learn to think about sound as part of your world in the way that you think about everything else.”
Mundy also specializes in the Japanese flute and even has a teaching license, written in Japanese, hanging in her office. Mundy said that with enough interest, she’d love to teach about the instrument.
Zazulia and Steingo also have their specific areas of performance.
This year is Steingo’s first time leading an ensemble, and he admits it will be a “bit of an experiment,” as he’s trying to accommodate the range of levels of expertise and training among his students in his African ensemble.
“[The] ensemble does do traditional music, but also popular music to show how the pop music is always relating to the history of Africa,” Steingo said.
Zazulia, who is formally trained in choral singing, will also experiment with performance teaching. Next semester, she’ll teach a course, Singing Early Music, and hopes to start a choir at Pitt focusing on the same idea.
In reference to her start here at Pitt, Zazulia said, “I think it’s a really exciting time in the department. We’ve got great things going on.”
“All three are very vibrant scholars who are doing very interesting work,” Weintraub said.