Q&A with Janet Schmalfeldt

Professor Janet Schmalfeldt, the Dean’s Visiting Chair in the Music Research Department this semester, is hosting a symposium this month: "Performers and Music Researchers in Dialogue."

Professor Janet Schmalfeldt is the Dean’s Visiting Chair in the Music Research Department of the Schulich School of Music this semester. Professor Emerita of Tufts University, she has recently held a number of prestigious visiting professorships, offering graduate music courses at the University of Chicago, Harvard, Boston University, and the University of Pavia, in Cremona.

Professor Schmalfeldt’s career has interwoven her background as both a performer (she has a master’s degree in piano from Yale), and as a researcher (her PhD is in music theory, also from Yale). As an invited speaker, she has held seminars and workshops on musical form, performance, and analysis around the world. Her performances as pianist have included solo repertoire, concerti, and chamber music.

This November, the Schulich School of Music community are invited to a special symposium hosted by Professor Schmalfeldt:

Performers and Music Researchers in Dialogue 
Saturday, November 24th
1.30-4.30pm
Wirth Opera Studio 

The centrepiece of this symposium will be a performance by McGill faculty members of the first movement of Brahms’s Clarinet Trio Op. 114, with Sara Laimon (piano), Simon Aldrich (clarinet), and Matt Haimovitz (cello). A selection of professors from the Research and Performance departments will also lead a panel discussion, moderated by Janet Schmalfeldt. 

Professor Schmalfeldt answered a few questions ahead of the November 24th symposium, about her time in Montreal this semester:


What have you been teaching at the Schulich School of Music this semester?

I thank members of the music theory area for nominating me as a potential candidate for the Dean’s Visiting Chair, and I’m greatly indebted to Dean Brenda Ravenscroft for accepting the nomination. From the outset, Dean Ravenscroft encouraged me to choose a graduate seminar topic that would bring together students from the Performance Department with ones from the Research Department (music theory and musicology); this is what I’ve done. The focal point in my seminar, titled “Performers and Music Analysts in Dialogue,” has been to “pair” analysis-oriented students with performers on selected pieces from the performer’s (or analyst’s) repertoire, towards joint presentations on the nature of their collaboration.

A workshop atmosphere has prevailed, and we’ve all agreed that, although performers and analysts tend to speak in different “languages,” the development of a shared vocabulary can bring analytic ideas into focus with performance directions. In short, we’ve explored the idea that performance and analysis are interlocking modes of musical knowledge, and that analysis is performative, just as performances can implicitly be regarded as analyses.

What aspects of both McGill University and Montreal at large have you enjoyed as Dean’s Visiting Chair?

My appointment at McGill brings me full circle, to the very institution in which my first full-time teaching career began, many years ago! It has been a joy to reunite with McGill colleagues from those days, to meet new scholars, and even to discover that some of my former students now hold distinguished administrative and performance positions within the Schulich School of Music. As for returning to Montréal, how can I express my pleasure! It has been a delight to bask once again in this city’s vibrant musical, social, and culinary life.

In the time that remains for me at McGill this Fall, I especially look forward to the symposium on music performance and analysis that I’ve been asked to organize. As the centrepiece, Sara Laimon (piano), Simon Aldrich (clarinet), and Matt Haimovitz (cello) will perform Brahms’ Clarinet Trio Op. 114. From both the Research and Performance Departments, Professors William Caplin, Roe-Min Kok, Jon Wild, Stéphane Lemelin, and myself, as moderator, will hope to engage performers, researchers, and the audience as a whole in a lively discussion about our shared concerns, our different tasks and goals, and our inescapable interdependencies.

Your background is in both piano performance and music theory – in what ways has this background influenced your work?

I attempted to address this question in one of the chapters of my book from 2011: In the Process of Becoming: Analytic and Philosophical Perspectives on Form in Early Nineteenth-Century Music. There I confess that I would not have entered the field of music theory and analysis had I not, much earlier, gained a profound love of music through my efforts to perform it. I cannot imagine teaching a theory class or presenting a paper without using my fingers at the keyboard to bring the music under discussion to life.

Indeed, I was led to the central topic of my book—musical form as process—by the performer in me as much as by my analytic and theoretic concerns. As a temporal art, music in performance insists that we hear it diachronically, that we perceive performances as processual; thus the challenges and the roles of performance lie at the heart of the book, as at the core of all my teaching and all my published work.

You have held visiting professorships at a number of institutions in recent years – what have you noticed in terms of current trends in music education across the board?

Most striking is the extent to which the fields of music education and research have expanded, especially within the last decade, to embrace much greater diversity. For example, one of my grad students at the University of Chicago in 2014 is completing a dissertation on music in video games; another, from Harvard in 2015, recently gave a paper on microtonal techniques introduced by a nineteenth-century female composer; a third, here at McGill, pursues the talent of improvisation on the double bass. In all the institutions I’ve recently visited, analytic studies in folk and indigenous musics from around the world have counteracted the old tendency within our field to be “Eurocentric.”

All told, and even though pessimists have predicted the decline of music education and theory at the college level, it’s an exciting time to be working in these fields. It’s also gratifying to learn that traditional as well as recent analytic concepts associated with Western repertoires remain of relevance to students working in such widely disparate arenas.


Find out more about her symposium: Performers and Music Researchers in Dialogue