Researchers ‘cluster’ around local music history

In August, the UGA Jane and Harry Willson Center for Humanities and Arts launched its Faculty Research Clusters initiative, which UGA President Jere W. Morehead has said “will play an important role” in highlighting the arts and humanities at the university and attracting research funding, “a critical goal” of his administration.

The program supports groups of UGA faculty who are organized to address large-scale humanities and arts questions in partnership with colleagues from allied departments, colleges, centers and institutes.

The Athens Music Project is a research cluster co-directed by Jean Kidula, associate professor of music and African studies, and Susan Thomas, associate professor of music and women’s studies. Thomas and Kidula are ethnomusicologists in the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music who formed the cluster to create a platform for research, creative development and shared expertise in, about and for Athens’ diverse musical communities. Kidula and Thomas consider the city to be a unique location both regionally and nationally, and not only for its famed independent rock scene.

The Athens Music Project will take into account the city’s variety of African-American musical traditions, both secular and religious; its growing jazz scene; bluegrass and other folk music traditions; the Latin American/Latino musical community; new music and conceptual sound art; as well as Athens’ historic role in both classical music and musical theater.

The cluster will be designed to take in contributions from a wide range of sources. Associated projects currently underway include a study of early music education in Athens by Stephanie Tingler, associate professor of music; a project by music graduate student Mary Helen Hoque focusing on George Davis, an African-American bandleader who formed the city’s first civic band during Reconstruction; a project by Barbara McCaskill, associate professor of English, on Robert Allen “Bob” Cole (1868-1911), an African-American popular music composer who may be considered an early figure in the civil rights movement; and research on John Vaughan, an early-20th century hymn composer whose Athens publishing house distributed music nationally, by Kevin Kelly, the Hodgson School’s music librarian.

“Part of what we’re doing is to set up an infrastructure to facilitate other people doing research,” said Thomas, “whether that’s our students, or whether it’s people, both in the university and the community who are already doing that kind of work in a little vacuum so that we can give them a resonating space to share and showcase what they’re doing.

“As ethnographers,” she said, “we do narrow and deep research. With the Willson Center grant, we’re envisioning having the ability to build an infrastructure into which we can plug other ‘narrow and deeps.'”

In addition to the cluster’s potential value to academics, Kidula stressed that people outside the university have come forward with such an unexpected wealth of historical research, heirlooms and ephemera that the Athens Music Project could become a sort of “clearinghouse” for archival materials. And the response from local musicians to a cluster-affiliated class on Athens music taught by ethnomusicology graduate student and local musician Kai Reidl has been “incredible,” according to Thomas, with more offers to participate than the class can accommodate.

The cluster also interacts with the public through advisory events and roundtables focusing on production and community-oriented musical activism. An upcoming event is a roundtable discussion on the role of music production in communities-and in Athens in particular-Nov. 12 as part of the UGA Spotlight on the Arts festival.

In the spring, the Athens Music Project will partner with the second annual Slingshot festival, which blends music, art and technology, holding a symposium during the late-March festival. And a partnership with the UGA Institute for Women’s Studies will add an arts-focused performance component to the 2014 Women and Girls in Georgia conference.

Kidula sees Athens as an unusually fertile site for localized music research, and in turn a valuable asset for students. “It is a rich place with an immense amount of musical materials,” she said. “Most students think, ‘I have to go somewhere abroad-somewhere far away.’ They become blind to the opportunities that exist here that might actually spark an interest that will then become global.”

Thomas would like to see the Athens Music Project become a well-known, usable and, perhaps most importantly, permanent resource for anyone working on the long, complex, diverse history of music here. “A lot of people have done the early stages of this research already, and then it sort of disappears,” she said. “One of the things that I personally hope that this does is to put something there so that people don’t have to keep going back and doing it over-so that they can go forward, show us more and make it richer.”

The Willson Center research clusters have been organized around interdisciplinary research initiatives that can serve as bridges between the university and off-campus communities. Some of them have been established for years while others are in the planning stages, but all have been selected for their potential to communicate innovative academic research in the humanities and arts at UGA to the public and peer institutions.

The six clusters funded for 2013-14 are:

  • Athens Music Project (Susan Thomas, co-director, associate professor, Hugh Hodgson School of Music and Institute for Women’s Studies; Jean Kidula, co-director, associate professor, Hugh Hodgson School of Music and African Studies Institute)
  • Digital Humanities Lab (Stephen Berry, co-director, Amanda and Greg Gregory Professor in the Civil War Era, department of history; Bill Kretzschmar, co-director, Harry and Jane Willson Professor in Humanities, department of English; Claudio Saunt, co-director, Richard B. Russell Professor in American History, department of history)
  • EcoFocus Film Initiative (Sara Beresford, Director)
  • Ideas for Creative Exploration, also known as ICE (David Z. Saltz, executive director, associate professor and head, department of theatre and film studies; Mark Callahan, artistic director, senior academic professional, Lamar Dodd School of Art, and Willson Center associate academic director for innovation in the arts)
  • International Modernism (Jed Rasula, director, Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor, Department of English)
  • Neuroimaging, Movie Trailers, and Spectator Cognition (Tianming Liu, co-director; assistant professor, department of computer science; Richard Neupert, Wheatley Professor of the Arts and Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Theatre and Film Studies; L. Stephen Miller, co-director, professor, department of psychology)