Five Questions: Joanna Demers

"We don't for a moment question that art history majors should know both about Warhol and Caravaggio."


The relationship between a music student and his or her professor is, quite possibly, the most important connection USC Thornton students will develop while attending the university. This semester, USC Thornton wanted to give current and prospective students a chance to get to know several members of our world-class faculty — as teachers, mentors, musicians and members of the USC Thornton community. Check back throughout the semester for more installments in the Five Questions series.

Joanna Demers

Joanna Demers is the chair of Musicology department at USC Thornton and a respected scholar in the field.  She received a PhD in musicology (Princeton, 2002) and a DMA in contemporary flute performance (UC San Diego, 2002).  Her research and teaching interests include popular and experimental music since 1945, philosophy and aesthetics, and electronica. She has published two books: Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford, 2010), and Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity (Georgia, 2006). Her articles have appeared in Organised SoundJournal of Popular Music StudiesCurrent Musicology, and Popular Music. Her essays have been published in The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital MediaTomorrow Is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, and Modernism and Copyright, as well as in Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Aesthetics.

What is the greatest challenge or obstacle facing the field of musicology today?

One formidable challenge is the same one facing the humanities at large, and probably the university at large as well: how to navigate between the need for a canon, and the legitimate desire to have diverse representation of styles, genres, and histories.  This has at times taken a venal turn at some colleges and universities, where historical surveys are being entirely replaced with buffet-style options catering to pop music genres.  Musicology can and must engage with pop, jazz, and non-Western genres — but it should do so with an eye toward some large-scale pedagogical goal, rather than simply filling seats.

What drew you to teach at USC?

Everything!  The opportunity to pursue research at a top institution; the chance to teach and learn from professional musicians who are also students; Los Angeles; and USC Thornton’s departments and programs.

What is your favorite piece of music and why?

It’s hard to choose, but I listen most frequently these days to ambient drone music. My favorite artist is Celer (Will Long).  Everything he does is magical. His recent album, Climbing Formation, is just perfect — especially the final track.

Why is it important for musicology students to learn about both classical and contemporary musical movements?

We don’t for a moment question that art history majors should know both about Warhol and Caravaggio.  I believe in classical education in general — and by classical, I mean the thoughtful study of models, whether they be in literature, art, or music.  There are abundant examples of classical models in pop and jazz, and any educated musician will want to know them as well as analogous models in classical music.

How can performance majors benefit from the study of musicology?

The textbook answer folks in my line of work give is something along the lines of: “Musicology will give you the historical background that will produce a more informed performance.”  That’s true — but it’s a stale answer, and not convincing to performers who, rightly so, need to spend hours in rehearsal and the practice room.

So here’s a better answer: As one of the humanities, musicology teaches us how to engage with texts, how to contemplate music, history, and philosophy, and how to ask the right questions of the music we play and write.  Why do we make music, anyway?  Musicology classes cultivate an aptitude to make connections between history and the philosophy of music-making, which is useful to any musician.

TAGS: Musicology, Research and Scholarly Studies,

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