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Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q&A: Music theory scholar Jennifer Iverson

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Music theorist Jennifer Iverson researches mid-twentieth century avant-garde electronic music like that made with the Lawo PTR mixing console (right) was once used by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the WDR studio in Cologne, Germany.
Photo Credit: 
Console image courtesy of McNitefly/Wiki Commons. Iverson image courtesy of Jennifer Iverson.
Avant-garde electronic music can sound intimidating--the jarring, unmelodious sounds not immediately registering as what we think of as musical. But Jennifer Iverson, a 2015-2016 external faculty fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, knows that the avant-garde music that emerged from the West German Radio studio in Cologne following the second World War was not meant to be a comforting musical experience. Instead, the “Darmstadt” composers reclaimed wartime technology and worked alongside scientists to create a new, experimental sound that people grew to be very excited about in the 1950s.
 
Iverson, an assistant professor of music theory at the University of Iowa, researches and writes about the mid-century European musical avant-garde, the connections between electronic and acoustic music, as well as disability studies in music. She has explored the music in Bjork’s film Dancer in the Dark in an essay published in the path-breaking collection Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability and Music (ed. Lerner and Straus, 2006). An essay about supplements in Bjork’s electronica appears in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, and an essay that further explores the disabled body in electronic music will appear in the “Colloquy” feature in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (forthcoming 2016). Her work has appeared in the journals twentieth-century music, Music Analysis, Tempo, and Music Theory Online.
 
Her current project explores the impact of the WDR (West German Radio) electronic music studio on the post-war European musical avant-garde in the critical decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The rise of electronic music at mid-century is deeply engaged with broader cultural questions about the role of technology in institutions, art, and life. This book reveals that electronic music made at the WDR drove the development of mid-century acoustic classical music, and shaped the proliferation of technology in post-war culture more broadly.
 
Here, Iverson shares her research process with us.


How did you become interested in mid-century avant-garde music?

I trained as a pianist through my Masters’ degree, and I always enjoyed the challenge of twentieth-century music. As a student, I would play anything. It’s often the case the 20th century music is more fun to play, and to think about, than it is to listen to. But after one gets some exposure and understands some of the basic issues, one acclimates to the “difficult” sounds fairly quickly. I found my way into so-called “difficult” avant-garde music by thinking about how it was constructed, what the composer was trying to accomplish, what kind of cultural and historical circumstances brought us to this point. Avant-garde artwork is critical by its very definition, so it’s a perfect opportunity to think about how culture shapes music, and vice versa.
 
What has been the most surprising angle you have discovered during your research?
The most surprising element for me has been realizing the great extent to which wartime technology is directly re-claimed in the post-war electronic music studio. The mid-century European avant-garde composers—like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and György Sándor Ligeti—came of age during World War II, but almost never spoke about the challenges and traumas they faced. They all suffered in their own contexts, some more than others; but in their writings they studiously avoid this topic whether on personal or cultural levels. I can imagine it was just too big; how does one come to terms with the Holocaust, for instance? There are no words.

Yet, my work shows that the electronic music studio of the 1950s is a site in which wartime technology is reclaimed and put to good use. The studio was housed within a radio station, and furnished with sine-tone and white-noise generators, magnetic tape recorders, filters, speakers, and amplifiers that were initially used in radio broadcasting and military communications. The mid-century European avant-garde composed music according to Claude Shannon’s information theory, a wide-ranging, generalizable discourse that grew out of Shannon’s experience as an Allied codebreaker, and then exploded in popularity in the 1950s. The primary scientist who worked alongside the mid-century composers, Werner Meyer-Eppler, was an expert on phonetics, acoustics, and broadcasting; his research was probably important for making advances in wartime military communications. In the post-war era, he was free to turn that knowledge and expertise toward the artistic products of the electronic music studio. In my excavations, I have found that the war is not some vague backstory, even though it’s almost never spoken about directly.

The electronic music studio was a way of dealing positively with the material traces of war, and putting those wartime machines and ideas to use for good. Everyone was almost universally excited about electronic music in the 1950s, to judge from the composers’ and critics’ writings, even though they found the music difficult and odd-sounding. My work helps us understand this enthusiasm for electronic music. It must have been very powerful to reclaim the machines and ideas that were developed for war and murder, and to domesticate them as tools for making music and for cultural progress.
 
How do you conduct your research on avant-garde music?
I read a lot—books and articles by scholars and journalists about related musical developments, history, technology, and institutional cultures. I trained in my PhD as a music theorist, which means that one of the things I study is the structure of music. I look at composers’ sketches, at published scores, and I use recordings to think about how the music may have been put together by the composer, how it works for the listener, and how it works as a system. I have learned some about how the electronic studio machinery, such as filters and noise generators, actually works; there are only a few places in the world where one can still compose analog electronic music on tape. I have interviewed composers and studio technicians, in the cases when they are still alive. One of my favorite archival projects recently has been transcribing and translating the correspondence between many of the mid-century avant-garde composers. It turns out that the composers were, in many cases, close friends who were in regular correspondence in the 1950s. In their letters, we can see them struggling with personal and professional frustrations and roadblocks, celebrating their breakthroughs, and developing new ideas in collaboration with each other. The correspondence gets us underneath the rigid, argumentative stance the composers often take in public, either in their published articles or in (records from) their public lectures. The electronic studio was actually a much more cooperative, collaborative laboratory-like environment, which deconstructs the myth of the individual-genius-composer producing his masterworks in solitude. 
 
Can you explain what the field of disability studies in music encompasses?
Disability studies shows that attitudes about bodies and abilities are shaped by culture, not given by nature. Our culture assumes that bodily differences like blindness, deafness, or an autistic mind, are dis-abilities, and dis-qualifiers from a “normal” life. This doesn’t have to be so, if we expand our idea about what is “normal.” Disability studies points out that our attitudes toward difference have much more to do with cultural presuppositions than anything inherently wrong in the body. Disability studies in music means that we investigate how musical works are products of these cultural attitudes. One might study the impact of a composer’s disability on his artistic path; one might ask how disability or bodily themes are woven into the music itself; one might study performers (like Evelyn Glennie) who work with disability themes and within different bodies, often to profound effect; one might ask how music shapes and is shaped by cultural discourses about disabilities. For instance, I analyzed the music in the film "Dancer in the Dark," which tells an extremely tragic story about a becoming-blind immigrant woman (Bjork), who eventually loses her son and her life. Film and disability scholars have long shown that disabled characters very often suffer these tragic fates onscreen or in literature. But the film's music, which is structured as a quasi-Hollywood-era film musical, tells a somewhat different story. Music helps create, and also critiques, the stories we tell about disabled bodies.
 
In your opinion, why is it valuable to study these topics?
Humans are by nature empathetic and compassionate beings, who have an incredible opportunity to learn and grow in this lifetime. We have a responsibility to seize this growing opportunity, to become more kind, and more fair-minded in our thoughts and our actions. Disability studies not only thinks about culture and ability in the abstract, but makes life better for all people by pushing our cultural attitudes, actions, and policies toward inclusion. We can celebrate difference; there is room for all. Sharing in a culture is a profound experience, and it’s great fun to think more about what that means to each of us. When we spend time thinking about topics like music, history, bodies, and disabilities, we gain insight into who we are, personally and culturally. That’s powerful.