The Man Behind the Musicology: Lawrence Kramer

Interview and write-up: @EmerNestor

Photographs: @FMarshallPhoto

Within the academic spheres of Musicology and English Literature, the name of Lawrence Kramer sits high upon the learned shelf. His prolific catalogue of writings serves as a veritable Smörgåsbord of interdisciplinary treats spanning the genres of literary theory, psychoanalysis, literary-musical relations, critical musicology, and musical hermeneutics. Kramer’s vast labyrinth of intellectual expertise lends itself to his role as editor of the international journal, 19th-Century Music. Currently Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University in New York, the American scholar combines a vibrant writing and teaching profile with a heartfelt passion for composition.

In a rare interview with the esteemed academic and composer, we chat about his early exposure to music and literature, the business of writing, his style of composition, and the future of 'New Musicology'.

If you had to represent your childhood/teenage years in literary form, what books/poems would you choose to shape that narrative?

They would probably be volumes of poetry by Walt Whitman and Hart Crane: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Crane’s White Buildings and The Bridge. Whitman and Crane were quintessentially poets of New York City, where I moved at age fifteen and where I experienced a major cultural awakening very remote from my suburban childhood. I discovered Whitman and Crane in a library near my apartment and felt as if they were articulating the possibilities and complexities of my experience of the city with a vividness and precision that astounded me. I’ve repaid the debt in recent years by editing the first critical editions of both The Bridge and Whitman’s Drum-Taps, the latter in its original form, which had not been reprinted as a commercially available book in 150 years. The literary awakening of those years, by the way, had a musical counterpart. Lincoln Center was new (who would have guessed I would end up teaching there?), and I was a frequent visitor to what was then called 'Philharmonic Hall' and also to the now defunct branch of the New York Public Library across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. The library had an amazing collection of classical LPs, from which I borrowed constantly.

When did the worlds of English and Music first collide for you?

In college, at the University of Pennsylvania. I was deeply involved in public radio, producing classical music programs featuring modern and contemporary music, and thinking about studying composition. But the prevailing musical aesthetic at the time, especially at Penn, was academic total serialism (or, if you wanted to be a renegade, the Cageian avant-garde, for which the people at Penn had little patience). I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted listening to debates on how one could make the serialization of rhythm and tone-color audible. (Forget Messiaen, by the way; Word on the street was, he didn’t get it...neither did Boulez.) I did find some of this music intellectually intriguing, but I did not tend to listen to it on my own and I did not want to write it. So I gravitated to English instead, where I had a lot of encouragement from excellent teachers and mentors who did not demand I toe an ideological line. I got back into music years later when the aesthetic climate had changed. And by that time there was no collision with literary study, but synergy.

What fed your initial interest in musical hermeneutics?

My ears. As I’ve hinted, I was an avid listener as a teenager, but I could never convince myself that the music that moved and excited me was doing so on purely formal or aesthetic grounds. I listened to the music because it mattered to me, which meant that in some way or other it either voiced my experience in ways I couldn’t or it pointed me toward modes of experience I could not have imagined otherwise. Obviously I didn’t have the vocabulary to say more at the time, but the impression remained, so it seemed natural enough that I would devote myself much later to finding the vocabulary — really vocabularies, plural — that could make these intuitions articulate. I didn’t want to allow knowing more to turn ironically into a way of knowing less.

Having produced such an extraordinary and impressive catalogue of publications to date, tell us about your writing process.

Thanks for the kind words. It took me a surprisingly long time to figure out that I do a lot of writing when I’m nominally doing something else. The first thing I often do after exercising or driving home from somewhere is dash off to my computer and transcribe the text I’d been producing half-unawares at the same time. It happens first thing in the morning, too. Of course that’s just a first step; revision and rearrangement and rethinking follow. It helps that I’m a night owl. Much of my sustained writing is done after midnight. All this holds good for writing music, too.

As editor of 19th-Century Music, do you think the current musicological scene has become oversaturated with writings by those panicked by the maxim ‘publish or perish’, or will there always be a responsibility to respond?

We get a lot of submissions from younger scholars, which we encourage and welcome. I’m sure that some of what we see is driven by the pressure to publish enough to get tenure; that’s unavoidable if you’re an academic in the US. But for the most part I’m impressed by the evident care and commitment that goes into the majority of these submissions. Most of our prospective authors are not just grinding out credentials, and that goes both for the authors of articles we accept and of those we decline. Similarly, these authors do not just follow well-trodden paths. They have a remarkable ability to find compelling new areas of concern, and discovering them is one of the great rewards of editing the journal.

You are defined by many as a 'musicologist' and 'composer', yet your early academic identity was associated with the English faculty at Pennsylvania; Fordham University affords you the opportunity to be associated with both its English and Music departments. How important is this interdisciplinary affiliation to you?

Fordham has been very good about that. The dual affiliation gives me a professional identity that nicely matches my actual activities. I mostly teach English; I mostly write about and compose music. The two constantly interact, however, both in the classroom and out. And the University also makes it possible to bring the two interests together for students, especially in a concert series called Voices Up! that regularly features new vocal compositions setting poetry by the winners of Fordham University Press’s annual Poets Out Loud prize series.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

That’s actually a tough question; there are too many bad ways to answer it. I guess two sorts of moment stand out, one sort for rewarding effort, the other for satisfying curiosity. First, with undergraduate teaching, there is often a eureka! moment when a student first fully realizes, in the bones, that it’s simply impossible to achieve understanding in the humanities by taking things at face value. Nothing is the same after that, and I love to help foster it. Second, longer term, it’s fascinating to observe how different generations of students (a “generation” here spanning three or four years) change in what they care about, what they know, and what they know how to do. The fascination goes along with work too, since one has to adjust for all that, especially as time passes: you get older and the students seem not to.

Putting all critical theory aside (if possible), why is classical music important to you?

Because it thinks deeply and feels deeply at the same time, without sacrificing either activity to the other, even at its most intense or most complex. That’s exhilarating for me as a listener, challenging for me as a composer and scholar, and a source of empathetic adventure when I attend live performances and observe the musicians rise to the challenge.

Is there a new 'New Musicology’ on the horizon?

I hope so. A full discussion of this question forms part of my new book, The Thought of Music, which the University of California Press will have published in January 2016. The original New Musicology — the old New Musicology, if you will — was concerned primarily with meaning, culture, and society in an attempt to bring the study of music into the mainstream of the humanities. That all started in the late 1980s with a watershed around 1990. In the years since, there has been growing interest in affect, embodiment and performance, which is certainly all to the good. Not that what I prefer to call 'critical musicology' ignored these topics, but it did not bring them to the forefront. The problem has been that the entirely justified interest in them has tended to ground itself in false dichotomies demanding black-or-white allegiances: meaning versus performance, interpretation versus embodiment, language versus affect, and so on. Not to mince words, this is nonsense, and inimical to any productive understanding. So the best hope for a newer musicology is for a widening of interest in which all these fruitful terms engage with each other in a multitude of nuanced relationships that cannot remotely be exhausted by a simple versus.

When did the creative urge to compose first seduce you, and how do you combine your academic voice with that of composition?

Well, the song of the sirens reached me in college, as I said earlier, but I had to stuff my ears with wax because they were singing as total serialists. I started composing around 1980, mainly because my wife’s mother suddenly gave us the old family piano and I couldn’t resist fooling around with it. Composing became a crime of opportunity! Music proved too important to me to be left alone. But performances were very hard to get, so I stopped about 1990 and devoted myself to scholarship. But the sirens kept singing and I picked up composing again in 2006-07, found that I needed to do it, and have been lucky enough to get an encouraging run of performances since that time.

Having gotten back to where I always should have been, it has not been hard at all to combine the two voices. In particular, I think my experience as a composer, especially in working with performers, has improved my work as a musicologist. The danger in scholarship is that one can lose touch with the things one cares about, the music or whatever else one tries to serve through scholarship. When you’re engaged in the exacting work and homely necessities of, in this case, putting a piece of music together and putting it across, it gets you back down to earth in a hurry.

How has your style (composition) evolved since the 1980s?

It’s much looser and freer than it used to be, and more fearless — I no longer feel any hesitation about calling up any expressive resource I want, from traditional melody lines to so-called extended techniques. I’m comfortable with any sort of harmony depending on the expressive needs of the music at hand. Breaking my own rules is a favorite device. I’d say that when I started out I tended to tell the music what to do, whereas I now think I’ve learned better to let the music tell me what to do. But I’m still learning.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Always. On the scholarly side, I’m preparing a collection of my writings on words and music, the majority of them on song and opera, for publication under the title Song Acts in 2017. I’m writing an introduction and revising some of the earlier articles. On the musical side, I’m in the final phase of revising two pieces: a string quartet, my No. 5, entitled The Far Field, for performance in New York in November 2015 by the Bleecker Street String Quartet, and a large song cycle for soprano and baritone, entitled Song Acts, like the forthcoming volume. The title of the quartet comes from a poem by Theodore Roethke, so there’s another literary-musical relationship for you. The song cycle, consisting of nine songs, was first done in Vienna in 2009, and parts of it have been reprised since. I’ve decided to add a song and divide the whole into two equal Books that can be performed either independently or in sequence. Book 2 will be performed in New York in April 2016, and I expect a performance of Book I, which has the most new material, in the following year.

Beyond music and literature, what gives you joy?

Family, friends, travel — the things everyone rejoices in. I’m not special in that respect. But I am now on the older side, somewhat to my astonishment, so I’ll answer by saying that, thus far, both my energy level and zest for living are undiminished...Knock wood.

What are your plans for the rest of 2015?

More string quartet writing: No. 7, Mosaics, for performance late in 2016.

All shots were taken at Fordham University, New York.

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