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Humanities Institute

Karen Hiles, Visiting Scholar
Mellon/ACLS Recent Doctoral Recipients Fellow (2010–2011)
Assistant Professor of Music at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA

Karen Hiles joined UC Davis this fall as a visiting scholar for the 2010–2011 academic year on a Mellon/ACLS Recent Doctoral Recipients fellowship. She is an assistant professor of music at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in historical musicology from Columbia University (2009). Her research focuses on Vienna and Joseph Haydn. More generally, she is interested in the political, social, and cultural roles for music during wartime. Hiles also holds an M.F.A. in musicology from Brandeis University, and a B.A. in English literature and music from Swarthmore College. Hiles sat down with Tristan Josephson on Nov. 10, 2010 to talk about historical musicology, Vienna in the eighteenth century, and archival research. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Can you please tell me a little about your trajectory that brought you to the field of historical musicology?

The short answer would be that I fell in love with the movie Amadeus when I was little and became fascinated with Mozart. I went looking for every Mozart biography I could find. Like most musicologists, I started out as a performer. I began piano lessons at age 4, and then I added violin a few years later. So I grew up taking music lessons, and by the time I got to high school, I was really enjoying it, but was pretty certain I wasn’t destined for conservatories and the virtuoso concert circuit. In college, I was delighted to discover the field of musicology – here was a way to keep music at the center of my life! I also realized in college that eighteenth-century music was closest to my heart. So when I arrived at graduate school, I knew I wanted to specialize in some aspect of that period. At Columbia I sought out Elaine Sisman, a leader in Haydn studies (among other topics), and she became my advisor.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the eighteenth century – all of it – the music, the fashion, the political history, the architecture, the visual arts, everything. In terms of the specific project, I wanted to find something that would allow me to stay in touch with as many of those different aspects of that world as possible. When I look at my topic now, that priority is clear. I have a major composer at the center of the study, but then I also try to incorporate other fields, including military history, into my project.  And then of course I picked a topic that allowed me to undertake archival research in Vienna, which made me even more excited about my subject.

How has your archival research informed your project?

I loved being in Vienna, I loved walking the streets, getting to know the geographical layout and visiting the composers’ homes, and working in the archives. I can’t stress enough how exciting it is to request something from the archive, sit in a beautiful room, receive a box from the archivist, and open it, to have, for example, Haydn’s notebooks from his trips to London right in front of you. Holding them right there in your hands! There is something very powerful about that, about the aura of the documents. For any graduate student thinking about whether you have the time or money to visit an archive, I say, do whatever you need to do and go. You won’t regret it. In my case, Vienna as a city, as a musical world, set the stage for my topic. Physically being there does inform what I’m saying in my work. I understand the compactness of the city center, I understand that when Haydn rented an apartment in the city late in life, he was across the square from the crypt where all the Habsburgs are buried, and was around the corner from the court, so he wouldn’t have had to travel very far to go to the opera or meet with officials about his next commission. I’m certain I have a better sense of musical life in this period, just from seeing these locations and understanding scale, proximity, architecture – the complete setting.

Immediately after finishing your Ph.D. at Columbia, you took at job at Muhlenberg, taught for a year, and then came to UC Davis on your Mellon/ACLS postdoc this year. How have these transitions impacted your approaches to teaching and research?

I finished my degree in May 2009, so I had spent the previous fall sending out job applications and applying to every postdoc opportunity I could find. In the winter, Muhlenberg was my first campus visit and I loved the place, since I was hoping to find a position at a liberal arts college. I had gone to Swarthmore as an undergrad and I love to teach. Two months after I had accepted their job offer, though, I heard I had won the ACLS. Would I be allowed to defer the grant and take the job? Luckily, both institutions were accommodating. I decided to start teaching and defer the grant, in part because in my last two years of graduate school, I’d had writing fellowships, so I was coming off of two years of sitting by myself writing. The idea of a third year in a row of that sounded amazing, of course (relative to not having employment at all), but since I had the choice, I thought it would be better to get back into the classroom, take a break from my research, and let my dissertation sit by itself for a while. So I taught at Muhlenberg last year, this year I’m here, and then I return to Muhlenberg next year.

The first semester at Muhlenberg, one of the courses I taught was a seminar on Haydn and Mozart, which obviously overlaps a lot with my dissertation. I only had nine students, but they were terrific. It was so refreshing to be back in a classroom and talking with people about Haydn, listening to his music with them, and exchanging ideas about it, and hearing what students thought about many of the same articles I had read for my dissertation. Just being part of a conversation was perfect at that point, because graduate work can be very lonely. In leading that course, I learned so much from the students. I gave them a chapter from my dissertation to read and it was great to hear what they thought. Everyone talks about how important research is for teaching but I really lived it that semester. I firmly endorse the position that you’re a better teacher for being an active researcher, and that there is no substitute for bringing your own research and writing into the classroom. I’m certain it helps your own thinking as much as it helps the students to see a living model of scholarship.

Why did you choose to come to Davis for your ACLS fellowship?

When you apply for the Recent Doctoral Recipients Grant, you’re given a listing of many humanities institutes around the world offering to host visiting scholars, and you are asked to rank your choices. Davis was my first choice because it seemed to me that there’s a good eighteenth-century presence here, not just on the faculty, but through the research cluster, and also because the editors of Eighteenth-Century Studies are here. I was especially eager to meet people working on the eighteenth century outside of my field. Those are some of my favorite people to talk to. Of course, I always like talking to musicologists who work on the period (and really, all musicologists), but I especially enjoy talking to people who are working on eighteenth-century topics in other disciplines. Alessa Johns in English has been terrific; she’s the book reviews editor for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Meeting her and talking with her about my work, her work, the field – those are exactly the kinds of conversations I hoped would happen, so I’m already off to a great start.

Then of course the musicology program at Davis is excellent. I had met a couple of the faculty members and graduate students before, but for the most part they are people whom I have admired from afar through their research. I also knew Jessie Ann Owens and two composition faculty – Laurie San Martin and Sam Nichols – from Brandeis days.

And finally, I have to admit: I’m from California. I grew up in Monterey and have been on the east coast since leaving high school – so this was one way to be back west temporarily and spend time with my family.

What are you working on this year while you’re on fellowship?

This year I’m reworking some dissertation chapters as journal articles. I’m also working on my book proposal and have begun adapting my dissertation into a book. I’m starting to talk to editors and colleagues about my book project, and am learning about the various pathways through book publication. And I’m also just reading and reading and reading. I’m trying to read as much as I can, though in a directed way, since of course otherwise we could all just keep reading forever.

I had finished my dissertation in kind of a hurry because I had the job offer – I think everyone probably feels they finished in a rush no matter what their circumstances were – and during that last week before depositing, I literally created a file titled “Where to pick up in the future” with a bunch of further reading listed and some undeveloped ideas noted down. It seemed strange at the time, knowing there were things that I didn’t quite fit in. But it feels good to be returning to that work now, to be moving past it, actually.

One of the first things I did when I arrived at Davis was to I re-read my dissertation for the first time since depositing it. In some ways it was tough to revisit. But the positive discovery was that I realized that my fascination with Haydn and Vienna hasn’t diminished at all. I was never sick of my topic while writing, but with the marathon that is the dissertation-writing process, I was ready to find that stopping point in May of 2009. What a good sign, though, that I’m excited to resume thinking about all of it now that some time has passed. Of course, the summer and the early weeks of this year included some necessary recovery time from all the transitions you mention, physically and psychologically. But I’ve learned that you have to allow yourself those periods of recovery, to accept the ebb and flow of scholarship and of academic life. I’m pleased to have somehow found both – stimulation and rest – so far this year at Davis.

Story credit: Tristan Josephson
Photo credit: Karen Hiles

This page was last updated: January 3, 2011



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