I’m finally recovering from my whirlwind weekend in Montreal, where I attended the McGill Graduate Music Symposium, a three-day graduate student musicology conference put on by the McGill Music Graduate Students Society. It was the first time in my brief academic career that I attended a conference like this, and I had such a blast that I came a step closer to embracing my inner nerd.

It just so happened that on the same weekend, McGill was hosting a conference on Improvisation and Social Aesthetics put on by the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice Project. I hadn’t heard of this group before, but I recognized some of the scholars involved, including David Brackett and Ingrid Monson.  Much of the conference discussed issues of improvisation and jazz specifically, so I was fascinated to hear what they had to say about my favorite music.

At my conference, the topics ranged from the harpsichord sonatas of Johann Kuhnau to the problem of gender in the music of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, from the influence of Paul Whiteman on Bohuslav Martinu to an attempt to identify musical signifiers in the “Montreal Sound” of groups like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade.  If you click through those links you will find that none of that music sounds anything alike–I really enjoyed the variety and open-mindedness of all of the various people who presented.

The keynote address came on Saturday afternoon, and was given by music theorist and aspiring rock guitarist Matthew Brown.  He presented a Schenkerian analysis of Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody and defended the efficacy of applying Schenkerian analysis to non-classical music such as rock and jazz.  Having been studying with one of the other preeminent non-classical Schenkerians here at Rutgers, Henry Martin, I really dug what he had to say.

During the Q&A, Brown made a very interesting observation that I found particularly resonant: that his recent forays into learning rock guitar has completely changed his outlook on music theory and his understanding of its value.  Sitting in with rock bands, he discovered that there was a completely different set of musical skills that these musicians possessed that had completely escaped him during his years of classical training.  It was incredibly refreshing to see such a well-respected scholar and theorist giving credence to the expertise of non-classical musicians.  Compared to the stories my professors have told me of their experience of music conferences in the 1980s (“if it’s all improvised, then what is there to study?”) I take this as a highly encouraging development in music scholarship.

Of course, there was my turn to present as well.  I was pleased to meet Montreal-based pianist David Ryshpan right beforehand, although I missed out on hearing him play.  My friend and fellow Rutgers grad student Sean gave his presentation comparing Marc Ribot and Robert Johnson‘s irregular blues forms, I gave my talk on metric dissonance in the early improvisation of Jack Teagarden.  I got some interesting questions afterward and really enjoyed the experience.

The whole experience made me appreciate the academic preparation that I am receiving at Rutgers.  I really don’t think there’s anywhere else that I could get such a thorough, musically-informed education about the complex history of jazz than I have at Rutgers.  At the end of my presentation, it really felt like I was on my way towards becoming an expert in the field, something I don’t think I’ve ever really felt before.

The dinner that night was delicious–in fact, the non-presentation aspects of the conference were as much fun as the conference itself.  I spent most of the evening talking with Damian Blattler, who had presented earlier on Martinu.  I also got some useful feedback on my presentation from Eric Lewis, who co-chaired the ICASP conference.  He pointed out that “metric dissonance” is not the best way to describe what those early jazz musicians were doing with rhythm, because without it the music would sound awful, not more consonant.  Perhaps I should have called it “hip-sonance” instead …

The last presentation that I saw was Ingrid Monson’s discussion of improvisation, politics and the music of Malian virtuoso Neba Solo.  Although I hadn’t been there for much of the ICASP conference, I got the sense that many of them were bemoaning the fact that many artists seem to stick to outdated modernist or postmodernist aesthetics (they were especially hard on Nicolas Bourriaud.  At the end, Eric Lewis joked that they should send him a gift bag.) Monson herself wondered, with a thinly veiled sense of disappointment, whether jazz might be the “last modernist art form.”  She cited many musicians‘ desire to be framed as heroes or geniuses by their audience.

I, however, don’t share her pessimism.  Having been learning about jazz at Rutgers and seeing it live in the clubs in New York, I can see the tide turning.  The ongoing maturation of jazz discourse online, the music of forward-thinking musicians such as Vijay Iyer and Gretchen Parlato and the open-mindedness of both academics and journalists to these changing trends all point to a bright future for the music.  I hope that this confluence of trends leads to more connectedness between those groups; certainly, my long weekend in Montreal encouraged me to believe that it’s possible.

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