Within the concrete blocks of the CFA’s music studios, the walls reverberate with the discordant sounds of competing music lessons. Perched at the top of the second floor staircase sits the office of Professor Mark Slobin, a room plastered with posters of jazz records and visiting Klemzer bands, not to mention the preponderance of exotic foreign instruments cluttered in the corners. Slobin’s office is the nucleus of the ethnomusicology graduate program, an internationally recognized institution that is acknowledged yet not entirely understood here on campus.
While there are those who may think of the ethnomusicology program as little more than a precious factoid meant to highlight Wesleyan’s eccentricity on admissions tours, the program has a cherished history, steeped in the school’s passion for music and the significant international bent of the student body.
“Wesleyan was always a little different,” said Slobin, a long time professor of music and American studies, whose areas of expertise range from Afghani folk music to the Eastern European musical tradition to the modern history of film music. “It plays to the idea of the experimental and new.”
Wesleyan’s general music department has been growing slowly since its beginnings in the 1930s, but it was not until the ’60s that the two major figures of the early ethnomusicology program arrived on campus: professors Richard Winslow and David McAllester.
McAllester was an influential member of the faculty since his arrival in 1947, when he founded both the anthropology and psychology departments. He was an ethnomusicologist by trade, spending countless summers working closely with the Navajo tribe of the southwestern United States and eventually becoming an expert in their musical traditions. On campus, Professor McAllester extended invitations to students to join in on traditional Navajo singing groups and pow-wows, an experience that proved to be a hit with the student body.
“I remember coming here, god knows, thirty years ago and reading in these guide books about how the big thing to do on campus was to go to these pow-wows on Foss Hill,” Slobin said.
However the true catalyst for the ethnomusicology program’s development was the endowment surplus in the early 1960s and then-president Victor L. Butterfield’s desire to establish curricula that would set the University apart from its peers. By then, Winslow and McAllester had developed the framework for their visionary “World and Experimental Music” program.
“These other places would start with typical western approach and theory, then tack on jazz, or tack on India, music,” Slobin said. “To them, all music of the world is equal.”
Butterfield agreed. Within a few years, the masters program in ethnomusicology would draw some of the most talented musical minds from across the world; its first doctorate was awarded to an Ethiopian student in 1971. This period saw a heavy influx of international students, including current Gamelan director and scholar, Sumarsam, who received his masters degree in world music in 1976. At the time, large numbers of graduates went on to study music across the world with an emphasis on treating all music as equal.
“People from Malaysia, Taiwan, Brazil, Korea—they looked for the way to think about music from ‘our’ perspective, but we left it open to their own influence,” Slobin said. “We wanted to avoid niches, and bring whomever we thought would fit and let them do their own thing, like, Anthony Braxton—you know, Braxton, he’s not jazz, not world music, but he’s, he’s Braxton.”
Ethnomusicology grads have found themselves in classrooms around the world, teaching at other elite schools such as Brown, Yale, and Amherst, as well as all over Europe, Asia, and Africa. This extensive network has helped build a worldwide interest in Wesleyan ethnomusicology; the annual meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology, which was held here on campus last year, was co-founded by McAllester in 1955. The event brought in a record number of ethnomusicologists (over 1,000) to Wesleyan over October break.
“It was the first time in 30 years we could hold it here and with the building of Usdan, we got that space,” Slobin said. “It was the best, concerts every night until one in the morning. Everyone was so happy to be there.”
Today, the ethno-musical tradition remains strong on campus, as students continue to push themselves into more and more diverse areas of music. Dissertations in recent years have covered Balkan music in America, the worldwide spread of the didgeridoo, and forays into modern musical forms such as hip-hop.
Eric Charry, an associate professor of music and the general curator of the world instrument collection, also trains graduate students to help curate and build an online database, the Wesleyan Virtual Instrument Museum, that features live demonstrations and extensive history.
“There’s no organology–that’s the study of instruments–course here, but we get a lot of students here borrowing instruments or finding inspiration for building their own,” Charry said. “For a liberal arts school, the world music tradition is unusually and remarkably large and rich.”
Though there is no formal study of organology, Charry is working on chronicling Wesleyan’s massive world instrument collection, which holds pieces from all across the world.
“Of the few hundred instruments in our possession, quite a few come from the 19th century,” Charry said. “Elephant horn trumpets and things were brought back from Africa by missionaries from Wesleyan’s Methodist days.”
Meanwhile, Slobin has recently published a book entitled “Global Soundtracks: The World of Film Music,” along with continuing studies in Afghani folk music and the music of Eastern European Jews. In general, faculty members work closely in their respective fields and often come together to advise projects, branching out as far as China, and finding themselves in whole new cultures of music.
And yet, even with the deep talent among the faculty, Slobin insists that it is the students that make the program as diverse and powerful as it is.
“Music at a liberal arts school is very different than music at a conservatory,” Slobin said. “These kids won’t be practicing for six hours a day like at Julliard, but we integrate whatever else they’re doing. There are double majors in everything from Econ to American studies to geology. We’ve seen rebirths in world and folk music here and the concert schedule of a big university, 47 new majors, all of it from student energy… We’re in a moment of growing.”
Charry could not agree more.
“We’re not sure what’s pushing all the interest in the Music major, but it’s injecting new energy into it all,” he added, summing it up with a chuckle. “Our time has come.”