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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

95. Musical Travels – Asheville, NC: Presenting on the Music of Saariaho at AMS South-Central

At the Biltmore Estate

Last weekend, I had the honor to present on the music of Kaija Saariaho at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter in Asheville, North Carolina. The American Musicological Society, or AMS, is one of the leading societies in the discipline of musicology. It is an international organization, with chapters throughout the United States and Canada, committed to the advancement of “research in the various fields of music as a branch of learning and scholarship.” Its South-Central Chapter includes Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Only a limited number of the papers submitted are accepted for presentation at the two-day annual meeting, so it was a great privilege for me to present my research before professors and students in my field.

The location of the Chapter’s annual meeting changes each year: this year it was in Asheville at Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts school buried in the Smoky Mountains. It takes a good six hours to drive from Louisville to Asheville, so I left on the afternoon of Thursday, March 22 after my classes had ended for the day. Dinner was in Knoxville, Tennessee, my main stop along the way, where I explored their historic downtown. Unknown to me until my arrival, it was the weekend of the Big Ears Festival: I should have stayed for a concert, but alas I did not! The meeting started early Friday morning, and ran throughout the day with presentations on everything from Donizetti’s French opera La fille du regiment to the music of the Pride and Prejudice films. A presentation on the music of the film Cold Mountain, a fictionalized account of events that had happened at a nearby locale, prepared us for the keynote address which was to close Friday afternoon.

That keynote was given by Sheila Kay Adams, a seventh-generation Appalachian ballad singer and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. She was chosen to give the keynote, the meeting’s organizer told us, not only because she was a native of the area but also to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the pioneering ethnomusicologist Cecil Sharp’s visit to Appalachia. Right from the start, Adams proudly admitted – and to a room full of music scholars – that she had never learned to read music: that every song she knew was learned orally and preserved by memory. There was no hostility on either side though: just an appreciation of the different musical cultures that had intersected in that room. Adams was loud, brash, and wholly authentic as was her music which she sang “Acapulco” and also played on banjo. Moreover, she possessed a certain magnetism that was truly inspiring. She herself, I realized, was the carrier of this community’s music: it was preserved in her, not in notation and not on recordings but in her very person. After her address had concluded, I introduced myself and we had a nice conversation.

A stunning view of the Smokies from the Biltmore terrace

My presentation was on the morning of Saturday, March 24. Titled “Timbre and Melody in the Cello Concerti of Kaija Saariaho,” my presentation discussed the works Amers for cello, ensemble, and electronics (1992) and Notes on Light for cello and orchestra (2006) by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. I had first become acquainted with Saariaho’s music in spring 2016, but have studied it extensively over the past year as part of my directed study on spectral music and in the work that has gone into my master’s thesis. It is powerful, expressive, and intellectual music, informed by the spectral approach but also apart from the core French movement. Her opera, L’Amour de loin, received the Grawemeyer Award in 2003 and was staged at the Met in December 2016, the first opera by a female composer performed there in over a hundred years. In my presentation, I argued that Saariaho has found new melodic possibilities in spectral music – an aesthetic previously dominated by slow, shifting harmonic-timbral masses – by allowing timbre to operate within the melodic line itself. A full abstract and PowerPoint slides can be found at my new page, Presentations and Panels. Overall, my presentation was well-received. There were many in attendance who had heard the music of Saariaho, but had not understood its innerworkings. I received several insightful questions from the scholars gathered there, and afterwards many also congratulated me on a job well done.

The names Wagner and Gounod are inscribed to either side

After the conference had ended, several of us headed to lunch before we went our separate ways. I had chosen to spend an extra night in Asheville, wanting to see the Biltmore Estate while I was in-town. Biltmore was the home of George Washington Vanderbilt II, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Constructed between 1889 and 1895, Biltmore is the largest privately-owned home in the United States. Built to entertain, it is a reflection of Vanderbilt’s good taste in art and music too, if the grand organ is any indication. Sunday, I made a much briefer visit to the former Black Mountain College where the composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham, his partner and frequent collaborator, had once taught. It was here that Cage staged his first “happening.” I also visited the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway where I purchased two CDs from the Smithsonian Folkways label. One included Appalachian ballads and the other bluegrass. They were much of my listening on the way back to Louisville that afternoon – a marked change from the French opera which had livened my drive Thursday. Inspired by Sheila Kay Adams’ keynote address, I figured why not give it a try! And, anyway, I had been meaning to explore more bluegrass since moving to the Bluegrass State almost two years ago. It’s good stuff, I’ve since learned!

Attending the conference this weekend was a really rewarding experience. Not only did I have the chance to share my research, I also met my colleagues in musicology. As the only student currently pursuing a master’s degree in musicology at the University of Louisville, it has tended to grow lonely on occasion. Nor have I always known how I measure up. Meeting my colleagues this weekend – most are based in Lexington, Memphis, or Athens, Georgia – I know I am making the progress I should be. I also have made new friends and professional contacts who I will likely see in-person at least once a year, and perhaps more often in some cases. Ultimately, the conference has given me a sense of common purpose and camaraderie with the musicologists and students of musicology in this region. On top of that, it was a great adventure!

JSH 18.03.31

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in musicology at the University of Louisville where, in April 2017, he was awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, Louisiana following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” From 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria, and since that time has remained concert annotator for presenters of classical music across Louisiana. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He recently shared this research in March 2018 at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. Also a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into compositions which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His compositions have been performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival and New Music on the Bayou. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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