Research@Schulich: Trevor Penoyer-Kulin

Trevor Penoyer-Kulin is a fourth-year PhD student in Musicology, and he will present his research at the 2018 AMS/SMT conference in San Antonio.

Originally from Toronto, Trevor Penoyer-Kulin is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Schulich School of Music. He holds a Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto (2013), and a Master of Studies in Musicology from the University of Oxford (2014). His research at McGill is funded by a Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS Scholarship.

His doctoral research focuses on French operetta from the early Third Republic (1870-1898 specifically), and is still an ongoing project. His presentation for the American Musicological Society (AMS) conference is titled “Religious vs. Sacred Music in the Contemporary Reception of Rossini’s Stabat Mater.” 

What made you choose McGill for your studies?

I was looking for a university that was well-regarded and a supervisor who I felt would be a good match. McGill fit the bill.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

It’s a pretty nurturing environment. I did my Masters at Oxford and the approach there is so hands-off and intense, McGill feels very humane by contrast. It’s also nice to be in a French-speaking city since my dissertation research is about a French topic.

Explain your research in three sentences or less:

I study French operetta in the early Third Republic. It’s a very underexplored period in the genre’s history and so my task is to establish some basic historical signposts for how it was evolving: i. e. in terms of institutions, audiences, critical discourse, economic influences, and so on.

There’s also some really interesting questions about genre that need to be figured out, so there’s going to be a theoretical dimension to the project as well.

What led you to this particular topic?

I performed in Gilbert & Sullivan groups all through my late teens and early twenties, and that gave me a real affection for the genre of operetta. I was curious about the other national schools and that led me to the French stuff. Once I realized that this was a good scholarly niche and that I would have it mostly to myself, I decided to make it the basis for my PhD research.

How does your research add to what was already known?

Like I said, it’s laying down a lot of historical groundwork that hasn’t ever been done before, so it’s going to hopefully provide a more solid basis for future scholarship in that area.

Were there any findings that you found particularly surprising?

There hasn’t been anything too surprising so far. I tend to approach my research topics from a place of intuition, and so I guess what surprised me about this one is that what I had intuited was mostly dead-on. That isn’t always the case. Actually, the paper I’m presenting at the AMS conference was originally written on another topic that I had to throw out at the last minute because my hunches just weren’t being borne out by the historical evidence. That was a stressful two weeks but it was also very instructive; a lot of the things I learned from researching the old paper I was able to incorporate into the new one.

What are the practical implications of your research?

Practically speaking, the implications aren’t substantial; this kind of research is going to interest people who want to know more about music theatre, and that doesn’t have much of an effect in the real world. Its importance to scholarship lies mainly in the fact that operetta is such a glaring absence in musical historiography and you really feel that I think. It was hugely popular and intersected with pretty much every musicotheatrical form of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so I think our ignorance about it has a ripple effect on our understanding of the other genres, including opera.

Watch and listen to an excerpt from French operetta Les Mousquetaires au Couvent here:

What are your next steps?

I want to try to publish some of the papers I’ve accumulated over the past four years I’ve been at McGill. I think the paper I’m presenting at AMS this year is going to be a solid one once I’ve expanded it out a bit more, and I wrote a fun essay on the soundtrack to Gone Girl that I’d like to see out there in the universe. Other than that, I still have to research and write my dissertation. I’m going to have to go to Paris probably next spring to help that process along.

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

I would tell them to aim to get a couple of things published before they finish their degree, since you only really do a PhD in Musicology to go into academia and publications are important things to have on your C. V. for that.

Where is your favourite place to study?

I normally don’t get the chance to study there except when I go home for the summer, but I did a lot of my comps prep at my family cottage in Ontario and it was great. The lack of internet access there always forces me to read a lot, so I figured I may as well read my school things.

Where in Montreal can you be found on a day off?

I’ll either be at home or hanging out with a friend; occasionally I’ll bike to somewhere in the city I’ve never been before. My spare time otherwise is usually split between reading, listening to a podcast, watching a movie or some TV, or working on a piece of writing not related to school.

What is your earliest musical memory?

I have an older brother and he took piano lessons before I did. One of his lesson books was an old Bastien compilation of Christmas music, and for the carol “Angels We Have Heard on High,” there was a cartoon of a girl holding some angel-shaped sugar cookies with the tastiest-looking pink glaze on them. I don’t know what it says about me that my earliest musical memory is primarily a visual one, but I really coveted those cookies and I basically taught myself to play piano learning that song.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

A writer; probably a novelist.

What was the last book you read?

Imitation of Life by Fannie Hurst.

If you were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I’d go to L.A. One of my best friends lives there, and I’ve been meaning to visit her for years but haven’t gotten around to it.

If you could invite any four notable figures to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

You’d want people who have interesting minds and who can speak and who haven’t done anything heinous. Leonardo da Vinci would be a good choice. I could listen to David Milch talk all day, and although he was apparently involved in some pretty yeesh-y stuff when he was younger, I think he’s a good enough person now that it wouldn’t matter too much. I don’t want our party to just be men though so I’ll throw Ada Lovelace in there too. She seems like she’d be fun and she and Milch could chat about gambling if things got slow. My fourth would have to be Jesus, because even though I’m not so sure he’d be the greatest conversationalist, he’d have our rapt attention anyway.