This past semester, Frederick R. Selch Assistant Professor of Music History James O’Leary taught MHST 337: Introduction to Organology, a study in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century musical instruments from the Frederick R. Selch Collection of American Music History.
Through this course, Prof. O’Leary taught eager Oberlin students how to critically consider the history of instruments, both aesthetically and practically. We were lucky enough to get the chance to hear him explain a little for us (and for you!) about the course as well.
And now, we’ll let Prof. O’Leary explain more:
If on the first day of the semester somebody had described to me what would eventually happen in the Selch course, I would have laughed in disbelief. I had envisioned a course that would demonstrate how instruments of our modern orchestra changed over time. But it quickly became much, much more.
The students approached the subject in ways I didn’t foresee: one wrote about the effects of amplification on acoustic instruments at the dawn of recording, another wrote about the complex industry of clarinet making during the early nineteenth century, another reconstructed an instrument builder’s shop to describe the process of making a woodwind instrument from start to finish.
But this course expended even beyond the history of objects and the people who used them— it became a history of sound. Members of the performance faculty demonstrated the wide palette of sounds that instruments can have based on where, when, and how it was made. Why would a German cello be appropriate for some works and not others? What are the differences between the sound of a Steinway and the sound of a Broadwood?
To me, the effect was to defamiliarize what I thought to be familiar sounds. Before the course, I was confident that I knew what a cello sounded like. But now I have found myself entering orchestral concerts as if I were a stranger, ready to become acquainted with a wider range of musical sounds than I had previously realized I could hear.
This is the gift of the Selch course— to make us strangers to our own profession, to our own passions. It also allowed for the musicology department to collaborate with the Allen Memorial Art Museum, the performance faculty, the Historical Performance department, and local instrument restorers— and I am excited to be part of such a collection, knowing that it will continue to foster such connections in the years to come.
Photographs by Emily Peragine
Michael Lynn shows off some awesome historical flutes as a part of Intro to Organology!
Paradise: Instrumental Sonatas of Antonio Bertali is the new album by ACRONYM Ensemble, a fun group made up overwhelmingly of Obies based in New York.
The album features pieces by baroque composer Bertali, and is out on Olde Focus Recordings (a part of New Focus Recordings!). Find audio samples at the label’s page!
This concert in Cleveland Heights will feature Prof Michael Lynn, masters degree grad Susan Shaw, and current student Gabriel Benton!
It’s happening this coming Saturday (Feb. 15) at 8 PM at St. Alban Episcopal Church!
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