UC Davis Hosts Society for American Music Annual Meeting in Sacramento

What do Leonard Bernstein, Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and the Talking Heads all have in common?  They were all subjects of scholarship at the Society for American Music (SAM) meeting in Sacramento.

UC Davis hosted SAM’s forty-first annual conference from March 4-8 at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento, drawing together performers, composers and scholars from around the world to focus on music of the Americas and its associated activities and institutions. UC Davis music professor Beth Levy served as chair of the Local Arrangements Committee, also staffed by Davis professors Jessica Bissett Perea in Native American studies and Carol Hess, also in music.

The conference combined research presentations, music performances, and outings to the Sacramento area and Davis’s Mondavi Center.  While it maintained a traditional focus on western concert music, the conference also showed a promising move toward interdisciplinary music scholarship.

“The Sacramento SAM meeting provided an excellent showcase for UC Davis’s strengths in American music,” said Professor Henry Miller, chair of the music department. “In addition to demonstrating our institution’s interdisciplinary commitment to American music, attendees had the opportunity to marvel at the Mondavi Center, our world-class performance venue.”

Spiller added that UC Davis faculty and grad students from music, Native American studies, cultural studies, and performance studies were all involved in the meeting.

Highlights included a plenary panel on “Putting Scholarship into Practice,” featuring renowned scholars and artists George Lewis, Mark Katz, and Carol Oja.  The panelists all shared a concern with musicology as a field in the public humanities.

Lewis, the H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, discussed putting his practice as a composer and community activist into his scholarship. Lewis highlighted a sound installation he created at the Point Loma Waste Water Treatment plant, and his polyphonic or “many-voiced” composition style inspired by anthropologist James Clifford.  Harvard music chair Carol Oja spoke of her research on artists of color who have performed with the New York Philharmonic, and Katz from UNC Chapel Hill discussed his “Next/Level” initiative, a State Department-funded program that takes hip hop “ambassadors” to countries around the world.

Perea delivered an insightful reading of Tanya Tagaq’s reclamation of Nanook of the North, a 1922 film about Inuit people that is sometimes billed as one of the first documentaries, and much discussed for its problematic depictions of Inuit people. Tagaq, along with percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot, rescored the film with Tagaq’s vocals.  While Tagaq’s vocal style includes what is commonly referred to as Inuit throat singing, Perea pointed out “vocal games” may be a more appropriate term, because of the spirit of play that animates the practice.  Perea emphasized the importance of this sonic “reclamation” project in the ongoing legacy of settler colonialism, and the generative alliances that Tagaq has formed with jazz musicians.

Another interdisciplinary conversation occurred in the panel on musicology and media studies. The panel featured professors Christina Baade from McMaster University, Sumanth Gopinath from the University of Minnesota, and Neil Lerner from Davidson College.  During what many consider a “crisis” for the humanities, the panelists discussed fruitful connections with media studies that resulted in classes on music in video games and the possibility of new graduate groups in sound studies.  This proved to be a provocative discussion, as it involved a shift from the Society’s historic concern with concert music.

That abiding concern was not absent, of course.  SAM also recognized African American composer and scholar Olly Wilson with an honorary membership, complete with a performance of his “Piano Trio” by the Bay Area’s Delphi Trio performance ensemble. UC Berkeley, where Wilson was a faculty member for over thirty years, sponsored this honorary induction. Wilson’s compositions recognize the common ground between African American music and modernism, and he has conducted extensive fieldwork in West African music and electronic music.

Meeting attendees also got outside the concert hall with excursions to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, Sutter’s Fort State Historical Park, the California State Railroad Museum, and the Clarksburg Wine Company.

The conference also hosted historical music ensemble Anonymous Four at the Mondavi Center. The SAM meeting was also supported by the UC Davis Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies dean’s office and the Music Department.

Whether through orchestral suites, punk rock or experimental jazz, the Society for American Music meeting proved that UC Davis has a lot to sing about.

— Amanda Modell, doctoral student in Cultural Studies