Brigid Cohen is Associate Professor of Music at New York University. Brigid is a historical musicologist who specializes in the historiography of musics and musicians in migration. Her research and teaching examine the mass dislocation of peoples over the last two centuries, addressing conditions of empire, globalization, genocide, exile, and minoritarian citizenship. Her new book is Musical Migration and Imperial New York: Early Cold War Scenes.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
In college I became drawn to musical experiences that completely confounded me. Like listening to the brushing of cactus spines, as in Cage’s Child of Tree (1975). Or Berg’s Wozzeck—what is going on with those chords and their audacity of expression?! At the same time, I had long nurtured a strong interest in history—particularly 20th-century political history—because I had grown up in West Germany during the Cold War in a NATO military base town close to Bergen-Belsen and the East German border. My turn toward history was a way of dealing with the troubled silences and stresses of that environment. In college, this desire to understand the past eventually became connected with my craving for aesthetic bewilderment and intense sonic experiences. Given all of this, it is not surprising that I became a historical musicologist focused on political histories of modernism and the avant-garde.
Universities have made studying music history sustainable for me. After college, I entered a M.Mus. program at Kings College London and then a PhD program at Harvard. I applied regularly for fellowships that allowed me to travel and conduct research in archives. My dissertation formed the basis for my first book, Stefan Wolpe and the Avant-Garde Diaspora, which drew upon archival research in the composer’s archive in Basel, Switzerland. I was fortunate to enter into my first tenure-track job before the 2008 economic crash which eliminated many lines. At first, I taught at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I’ve taught at NYU since 2012. As soon as I moved to the city, I felt a more visceral sense of the global power of the institutions there, alongside a feeling of complicity in relation to my own place within them. I knew that I would focus my next book on the city.