The Center for American Music is proud to introduce our new Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dr. Bethany McLemore. In addition to ongoing research and writing, Dr. McLemore is currently teaching a new upper division undergraduate course called “Music and the American City”. We recently sat down for a chat about her fascinating research and current work with CAM here at the University of Texas Butler School of Music.
Alan Retamozo – Welcome and congratulations on your position as post-doctoral fellow at Center for American Music.
Dr. Bethany McLemore – Thank you!
A – So what first sparked your interest in musicology and how has that led to your professional work and research?
BM – Well, I started in music, as most of us do, and I didn’t really know what I was going do with it at first. I started in music education—I’m a flute player—but I have always had many different interests. In fact, I had a hard time even deciding on music in the first place, because I felt equally interested in so many different things.
During undergrad (I went to a small liberal arts school), I was part of the honors program and I took these Humanities courses starting my first semester. The first Humanities course I took centered on the nineteenth century, and we basically just looked at a hodge-podge of everything. We took glimpses into the fabric of western society in the nineteenth century: science, history, art, music, etc. and we were looking for connections between all of those things. And, for me, it was the first time that I was able to engage with so many different things that had always interested me, all at once, and not have to limit myself to just one thing.
That got me excited, and sparked my interest in… whatever “that” was… I didn’t really have a word for it at the time. But, whatever it was, I thought, “I want to do this.” It wasn’t until I took Music History when I finally got a label for what “that” was. When I was searching for a topic for my first big research paper, I described what I wanted to do—I wanted to talk about art and music and science and philosophy, etc. etc.—and my professor told me, “…so you want to be a musicologist” (both laugh). And I was like, “I don’t know what that is, but sure!”
But that set my course and thankfully I ended up at UT where I got my Masters and PhD. And yeah, then it was the same sort of situation where it took me a long time to find my scholarly niche here because every topic I encountered seemed new and interesting and fun. Eventually I figured out that music, feminist theory, American history, and women’s history were my main priorities which led me to my topic: the impact of the corset on nineteenth-century women and their voices.
Which is honestly a little weird, I realize, but when I was studying a nineteenth-century German opera for my master’s thesis, I came across a pedagogical manual which said, basically, “no, you can’t sing in a corset” which led me to question the assumption that I had always held, (and I think a lot of people have) that the corset would impact your ability to breathe and to sing, (or to do anything, for that matter) and I realized that no one had written about that. So I started digging into this very simple question: “does the corset impact singing, and how?” But my work has ended up becoming more of a statement on women’s engagement with material culture, and how material objects impact bodies, performances of femininity, and culture more broadly. In other words, I study how women have an impact on mass culture and also how they are also impacted by it, so yeah (laughing)… it got bigger and bigger as I got more and more into it, but it’s been really fun. And thankfully being at UT allows me to do innovative, out-of-the-box things like that because the professors here have always been very supportive and encouraging and just with each new idea would respond like, “yeah, go with that for a while and see where it goes.”
A – So I understand you recently graduated with a PhD?
BM – Yeah, in December, this last December 2016.
A – Oh awesome yeah, congrats, that’s quite a feat!
BM – Thank you! Thanks, yeah it’s still sinking in. (both laugh)
A – So, there’s a new course I understand you’ve designed and are teaching that seems fascinating. I’m very curious to hear more about it and your other work at CAM.
BM – Yeah, so I’m teaching an upper-division undergraduate course called “Music and the American City” and we’re looking at four different cities, two northern, two southern: Boston and Chicago, and Charleston and New Orleans; then we continually come back to here—Austin. We alternate weeks looking at each city, taking a roughly chronological approach from Colonial Boston and Colonial Charleston to here and now, zooming in on moments in all of these cities. All in all, we’re spending two or three weeks on each city, and throughout the semester we’re going out into Austin and using it as our laboratory to test different theories that we’re encountering with these other cities, while continuously considering: what is it about Austin that made/makes it the “live music capitol”? What is it that makes a “music city” a “music city”? How does music interact with institutions, and with the social makeup of a city? We’re focusing specifically on the roles that race, class, and gender play in shaping a city and shaping its music; looking at immigration patterns, institutional developments, governmental power, all of these things that all have an impact in shaping economic systems, cultural institutions, and musical systems.
A – Wow, that’s incredible.
BM – Yeah, and it’s a really small group and for a lot of them, this is the first time they’ve had any American music class. And for several of them, a lot of the issues in American history we’re encountering are also new, just because they’re specific to these places and they may have not encountered that before. So while we’re taking a broad approach chronologically and historically, we’re also trying to get some basics of American music history as well, because this is filling that gap for several of them too. And yeah, I’ve kept it very flexible – I’ve been adapting the readings and the discussion based on the students’ interests. And by the end of the semester, they will produce their final project on Austin music and culture. So that’s the end goal: we’re investigating the relationship of music and urban spaces, ending with the class together contributing to our understanding of Austin’s musical culture.
A – Yeah, Austin being a city that’s having such dynamic change, the way I guess those cities did in different time periods also I guess.
BM – Right, and Austin is also a place that hasn’t had as much written about it as places like Boston and New Orleans and Charleston and Chicago, right? Austin, comparatively, doesn’t have a lot of musicological works dedicated just to it. Part of the class work is that in addition to reading the writings I’ve chosen about these other cities, the students are responsible for building the Austin portion of the syllabus, for finding secondary sources, for looking at what archival sources are there, what monuments to music, what museums to music, what institutions, what venues, what people, etc. – basically: what is here that could be used to fill in the gaps in Austin scholarship?
I think they’re doing pretty advanced scholarly thinking, but in a guided way throughout the semester. Like this: first, let’s first see what’s out there, see what makes this a music city: what venues are out there, what museums, what monuments, what archives? Ok, and what has been written about it? Ok now, where are the gaps, and what do we need to fill them? And that’s where they get their final project topics. But we’re just taking it step by step together. Right now we’re still in the exploration stage, so it’s like: go out there, see something, bring back the information to share, you know, as long as you don’t have to make a fake ID for it. (both laugh) But yeah, it’s been really fun so far and we have these mass documents that we’re compiling together as we go.
A – And it’s all basically new because it’s all about what’s happening right now? That’s really cool to have an undergraduate class that can be involved in the material in that way instead of just a kind of dictated review of historical topics or something. That’s really cool.
BM – Yeah, I’m having a blast. I think they are too. I hope they are too, but in any case, I’m having a whole lot of fun. (both laugh)
A – And your other work with CAM?
BM – Yeah, other than teaching, I’m working on developing my own research. I’m working on a book proposal which I’ll be submitting soon – which is a further development of my dissertation research on the impact of corseting on American women performers. And I’m presenting a portion of that, and working on a couple other articles at the moment too. So, yeah. Keeping busy.
A – So do you have any thoughts about your experience living in Austin? I guess you’ve been here at least seven years and the relationship with Austin, UT, and American music?
BM – Yeah. Not to be cheesy… but I think it does cross my mind on a daily basis, especially in teaching this class, just how lucky I feel to be here in Austin and to be at UT. It’s my eighth year here which I realized recently is like two undergraduate degrees, (both laugh) but yeah, not only to be at the school of music and having the resources here, but also being in Austin, I sort of take for granted how much there is to do and hear on a daily basis: how large the musical community is, how much diversity there is, how many different kinds of things I have access to relatively easily which is not something I had before coming here, but something that I’ve already gotten spoiled by I guess, in these seven years. And that’s not only just for me but for my students as well. In this class it’s so easy to just say, “yeah, go out and hear some music,” and not have to pull out a calendar for them to figure out when and where they can hear something…no, they can find it.
A – It’s great that UT, being in Austin, has access to, you know, a real, dynamic music environment.
BM – Yeah, and also UT’s musicology and theory programs have a very strong showing in American music, and we’ve got a lot of resources and methods for thinking about American music history at our fingertips, combined with being in a place where you have easy access to a living music community, and so it’s a breeding ground for being able to come up with research topics and original things to say about them. Which all comes back to benefit this course, where I actually get to take the opportunity—and give the opportunity to my students—to explore what we’ve got out there.
A – Awesome yeah. Thanks so much for this interview and for all your thoughts about your fascinating work and research!
BM – Yeah of course, thank you!