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Michael Alan Anderson is a professor of musicology and the artistic director of Schola Antiqua. He’s also the author of Music and Performance in the Book of Hours, which surveys references to Gregorian chants and performance cues in books of hours, or Christian prayer guides. As Michael explains, “these devotional manuals were the most popular and widespread books of the late Middle Ages.”
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I got a late start as a musician, when I was asked to join the high school choir as a sophomore. The unusually demanding director got me hooked on ‘serious’ choral music, and I took a second major in music as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Moving back to my native Chicago after graduation and taking a mundane corporate day job, I performed at nights with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, ticking off the warhorses for a few years. But something was missing, and it was bugging me: I was searching for something deeper from that musical experience that music directors and my fellow singers could not provide.
While serving as a cantor at church one day, I ran into a former professor of mine from Notre Dame, who wondered if I wanted to learn more about the plainchant I happened to be singing that Sunday. This began my journey into early music scholarship, the plunge to graduate school (University of Chicago), and an unexpected appointment at the Eastman School of Music, one of the world’s great music conservatories. I kept my performing career going, though, and remain the artistic director of the Chicago-based early music ensemble, Schola Antiqua.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I’ve mentioned one already, who nudged me into early music. My teachers at the University of Chicago pushed me further to understand that notes on the page are just a medium to understanding people, their circumstances, and society more generally.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day.
Every day seems different, which is part of the joy of my work as a professor of music. The three legs of the academic stool—teaching, research, and service work—fill each day in shifting proportions. Lecturing and grading student work is cyclical and less glamorous, but important and gratifying, especially when you see the light go on for students! I also have the time and flexibility to engage in scholarship of my own and pursue various projects that advance the field. I am further involved in committee work, which brings me in touch with my wonderful colleagues in search of progress within Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester more broadly.
Tell me about your current research interests.
My book Music and Performance in the Book of Hours was recently released by Routledge Press. It surveys references to Gregorian chants and performance cues in books of hours, or Christian prayer guides. These devotional manuals were the most popular and widespread books of the late Middle Ages.
Why do you find this area of research so interesting?
As their astounding survival suggests, books of hours were owned by many individuals, not just the elite or the Christian clergy, as was typical of other surviving books in Europe from centuries ago. Musicologists have scarcely paid attention to books of hours because they lack musical notation. Art historians, on the other hand, have had a major stake in this genre, on account of some of the fascinating and intricate images that were sometimes included in these books. But the reenactment of liturgies—not gazing at images—was at the heart of one’s experience with a book of hours. And those liturgies present texts that transmit a rich sound experience that a trained musicologist can quickly ascertain and uncover.
What would you like to see more of in music-related scholarship right now?
The field is blossoming in all directions at once, with all kinds of new critical perspectives brought to global repertories past and present. I guess I would like to see the disciplines on musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory just become “musicology” or “music studies,” instead of remaining in old, rigid silos.
What’s your favorite part of the work you do in music?
I like teaching students who have some interest already in Gregorian plainchant or Renaissance polyphony. I also enjoy developing concert programs for Schola Antiqua. It doesn’t seem like enough to simply perform ancient music uncritically. There needs to be some kind of angle or truth that emerges in programming for our own historical moment. I welcome that opportunity in these fragile times.
What’s one tip that you’d give a student considering a life in music scholarship starting out right now?
Everyone loves music. And if you find yourself becoming an expert in one area of music, by all means pursue it to its fullest. However, if you thirst for understanding many dissimilar kinds of musics (say, early opera, French romantic organ, bebop, and gamelan music) and love writing about them, musicology could be for you.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
Probably music and healing. I have edited the Eastman Case Studies series for the last seven years. In the series, we shine a light on issues in the contemporary music landscape and frame them as management scenarios for class discussion. Of the 22 case studies I personally wrote, I was most moved by the Phoenix Symphony’s partnership with Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. In multiple phases of a research trial, symphony members were paid to develop custom programs and perform live music for patients with advanced stages of dementia who were living in long-term care facilities. I saw up close the promise that music can have for saving and extending lives of our most vulnerable citizens. I was also glad to see the documentary Alive Inside (2014) bring this kind of idea to a wider public.
What was the best music / video or film / book you’ve enjoyed in the past 12 months?
This medieval and Renaissance music historian has been listening to a lot of Bill Evans during the pandemic. Most of this is driven by my 15-year-old son’s obsession with jazz. I was also moved by the movie Coda!
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