Introducing Joseph Straus: Visiting Professor

The Schulich School of Music is thrilled to welcome Professor Joseph Straus as the Schulich Distinguished Visiting Professor and Dean’s Chair in Music for the Winter 2020 semester.

Professor Joseph Straus is a scholar with wide-ranging expertise, including in the theory and analysis of post-tonal music and in Disability Studies in music. He is currently a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has written technical music-theoretical articles, analytical studies of music by a variety of modernist composers, and, most recently, a series of article and books that engage disability as a cultural practice.

Prof. Straus is also known for his textbooks that have become standard references, including A Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony, Elements of Music, and Introduction to Post‑Tonal Theory. Many of his books and articles have received publication awards from the Society for Music Theory (SMT), of which he was President from 1997–99.

The Schulich School of Music is thrilled to welcome Prof. Straus for the Winter 2020 semester. He will be teaching a graduate seminar and leading a number of valuable professional development workshops throughout the semester. He is also planning a Symposium on Disability Studies in Music, which will be held on April 15th. 

What are you looking forward to teaching and presenting during your time here at Schulich?

I will be teaching a doctoral seminar on Music and Disability. There’s a fairly new, interdisciplinary field called Disability Studies, that does for disability what feminist theory does for gender: understand it as a social and cultural manifestation rather than a biomedical condition. We’ll be applying the insights of Disability Studies to the study of music (and perhaps offering a few insights of our own in return). We’ll be talking about composers with disabilities (exploring how disability affects the creation and reception of music) and performers with disabilities (exploring how disability affects the way music is played), as well as the sorts of stories that music can tell about bodies and minds that are unusual in appearance or functioning. The large and growing literature on music and disability (some of it written or edited by me) will be our central focus.

In addition to the seminar, I will be leading a series of professional development workshops, helping doctoral students to propose and present conference papers, to write scholarly articles for publication, and to navigate a challenging academic job market. I will also give two presentations on my own work-in-progress. It will be a busy semester!

Your book Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory is a standard text in colleges around the world, and your widely used harmonic textbook (Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony, co-authored with Poundie Burstein) now contains a substantial unit on post-tonal music. How did you become interested in post-tonal music, and in writing textbooks about it?

Modern classical music has a forbidding reputation among the general public, as harsh and dissonant, hard to understand and harder to love. But I have always loved it, since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on an opera by Stravinsky. And I’ve not only loved it, but found it fascinating, and I’ve spent my whole life as a scholar trying to understand it. Writing a textbook is a form of teaching—slow-motion, long-distance teaching—where you try to distill and clarify complex ideas, and convey a sense of joy and enthusiasm about the subject matter. For all of the many scholarly articles I have written in professional journals, and the many academic monographs I have written, music students mostly know me as the author of one of these two textbooks. When I hear a student say, “We use the Straus for that class,” I find it very gratifying!

You have also published several books on the study of music in relation to disability - can can you explain a little more about what the subject involves, and why it’s important?

Human bodies and minds are infinitely various—an astonishing biodiversity and neurodiversity. In different times and places, this infinite variety is partitioned into normal, healthy, ablebodied, and abnormal, unhealthy, disabled. Disability is any culturally stigmatized bodily difference. Lots of people identify themselves as having a disability (in the US, it’s something like 20%--a large minority group). But disability does not just affect people with disabilities. Indeed, the sorting of bodies into able-bodied and disabled—the ability/disability system—enmeshes us all. Whether we think of ourselves as able-bodied or disabled, as long as we have a body, we’re caught up in it, privileged or stigmatized by it. Just as we all have race, gender, and sexuality, ability and disability are fundamental aspects of being human. And they affect everything we do, including the way we compose and perform music, and the ways we understand music. Once you start thinking about the world, including the musical world, in this way, you find that disability is everywhere, and my articles and books have traced it in various directions.

As an expert on the subject of twentieth-century music, name some composers (or specific works) that you would recommend to people hoping to become more familiar with modern music.

The sort of modernist music I study has its roots mostly in Europe in the first half of the twentieth-century, in music by composers like Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, and Bartòk. But it has flourished throughout the world in the years since World War II and remains a vital, living, exciting form of musical expression as we enter the third decade of this century. There is so much great music being written these days that I hate to single out just a few composers, but among living composers, my favorites include Thomas Adès (Great Britain), Kaija Saariaho (Finland), Sofia Gubaidulina (Russia), and Chen Yi (China).

What aspects of both McGill University and Montreal at large are you looking forward to exploring and enjoying during your tenure as Distinguished Visiting Professor?

First, I’m looking forward to working closely with the superb doctoral students in music at McGill—to work with students with this level of ability and preparation is a privilege and a joy. Second, I will have the opportunity here to interact with a remarkable faculty in music theory. McGill has one of the top music theory departments in the world, and I’m seeing this as a valuable opportunity to learn interesting things from some very smart people. That many of the professors here are old friends and/or former students is an added bonus! I’m also looking forward to getting to know Montreal a bit better—it’s always been one of my favorite cities, but there are lots of places (and restaurants!) I haven’t had the chance to explore previously.

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