• Jackson Harmeyer

102. Upon Graduation – Reflections on My Time at the University of Louisville


In my office at the Anderson Music Library

This Saturday, May 11, I graduate with my Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville. Although I will not be present at the ceremony—I will already be on the road back to Louisiana for the Sugarmill Music Festival—this Saturday still marks a major occasion for me. The following post reflects on some of my activities at the University of Louisville over the last two years since my last recap in May 2017. It’s been a busy time, full of ups and downs, but, overall, it’s been an experience which has prepared me well, complementing my liberal arts education at the Louisiana Scholars’ College and helping me to make connections in the music world near and far.


The main project of the last two years has, of course, been the thesis. This study is titled “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” My advisors have been Professors Caroline Ehman, Devin Burke, and Rebecca Jemian. The full thesis can be accessed at the Graduate Research page where you can also read the official abstract, but, in short, my thesis considers the changing relationship of harmony and timbre in the music of these three composers. The idea is that harmony and timbre have become confused—intentionally in some cases—so that timbre can act as the primary structural component, rather than harmony which has maintained order in Western music for centuries. The newly ambiguous relationship of harmony and timbre, which I call “liminal,” has led to an aesthetic shift which I consider in representative orchestral scores by these composers—namely Messiaen’s Chronochromie (1960), Murail’s Gondwana (1980), and Saariaho’s Du Cristal (1989). Each of these composers has been active in France and, indeed, Murail studied with Messiaen, so it is possible to draw a lineage between them even though they belong to different generations. All three are also connected in some way to spectral music, which I began researching in the directed study my second semester with Professor Ehman. Another directed study my third semester with Professor John Ritz let me further my technical knowledge of spectral music—an important aspect as spectral composers have been distinguished from others by their utilization of computer technologies to deconstruct and study sound through spectral analysis. I gave my thesis defense on Friday, April 12; with a few minor revisions, I submitted the final document two weeks later on April 26.


Stevie Ray Vaughan statue in Austin, TX

Besides the thesis, I have had several other opportunities at the School of Music to keep me occupied. In the 2017-18 academic year, I was a graduate teaching assistant as the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. In this role, I graded papers, led group review sessions, and worked one-on-one with undergraduate students. Then, this past academic year, I was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where I helped catalog items of the Grawemeyer Collection of Contemporary Music, managed interlibrary loan requests, processed recent acquisitions, and, in fact, opened and closed the library on Saturdays. This was a great experience for me, working closely with Director James Procell and Assistant Director Matt Ertz, and it has given me additional skills in research and in cataloging. As a part-time job, it also gave me the freedom I needed to complete my thesis and kept me right where my scholarly resources were. Some of my favorite experiences at the library were, within my first few weeks, when we received a donation of approximately two thousand CDs and spent the rest of August and much of September checking which ones were already in our collection and attaching holdings to those which were not; duplicates are passed to the students, and I know I went home with quite a few myself. I later led the charge on re-adding holdings to our LP collection after their holdings had been stripped a few years ago when they were moved to the basement. In these and similar projects, I felt good about opening these items to the public—they sat unutilized in storage previously—and specific items would also entice my own curiosity. There was also the day that a new book containing two articles I needed for my thesis appeared totally by chance on my desk, ready for copy cataloging, and just being in the intellectual environs of the library I felt motivated and like I was always learning new things.


Otherwise, over the last two years, I have presented at three conferences. As discussed in previous posts, I shared my research on Saariaho’s cello concerti in March 2018 at the AMS South-Central Meeting in Asheville, NC and again in October 2018 at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. Finally, two months ago on March 9, I gave my third presentation at this year’s AMS-SC in Sewanee, TN. The paper was titled “Liminal Aesthetics: How Tristan Murail’s Gondwana Subverts Harmony and Timbre,” and I offered an abridged version of my thesis chapter. Having conducted so much research for my thesis, I felt like a true expert in my field, although having to formalize my work and direct it to an audience that probably knew little about spectral music or its technologies helped me to also understand the material better. It was a real whirlwind of a trip, however, as I was a mere one week out from the full draft of the thesis being due and the rain let up little while we were “on the mountain.” The conference included many excellent presentations and we were treated like royalty by our hosts at Sewanee. Yet, where Asheville and Knoxville had turned into pleasant road trips, I had little time to explore and the incessant rain kept me from even the one hike I had planned. I have been on the road a lot this last year though as I have also begun visiting doctoral programs, including the University of Minnesota in September 2018 and the University of Texas at Austin this January. Both have strong programs and, in Austin, I enjoyed meeting with Eric Drott whose research on spectral music has been a major influence on my thesis work. This Friday I have another visit scheduled at Washington University in St. Louis and, in the fall, I plan to visit McGill University in Montréal. Then applications are due in December.


Beyond my academic work, I have kept up my listening, although the emphasis has changed some from my progression through the twentieth-century which I wrote about in my latest Listening Recommendations entry, Post-Serialism in Central Europe. After that post, I discovered a renewed love for nineteenth-century opera, encouraged both by a course in spring 2018 on the operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and then an abundance of opera CDs acquired in the free donations from the music library. Last spring I spent quite a few evenings huddled in my GTA cubicle listening to operas, score in-hand. Gradually, I worked my way through Verdi’s Otello, Rigoletto, and La traviata; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale; Hector Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust; and Jules Massenet’s Manon. I also purchased all four of the five-disc sets in the “Voices of…” series on EMI and Warner Classics dedicated, respectively, to Italian, French, German, and Russian opera, listening to these gradually throughout 2018. In the fall, I returned to full-length operas and, score in-hand, I listened to several twentieth-century operas, including Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, William Walton’s Troilus and Cressida, Sergei Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, and Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. If my Musical Travels posts have been any indication, I have also been listening to a lot of popular music in an attempt to chart unfamiliar but often local territory. There have been ventures into Appalachian ballads and bluegrass (Asheville); soul and early rock (Memphis); old-time music (Knoxville); and the blues (Clarksdale). I have also been listening to country music and funk, propelled by different CD series, and, as of Sewanee, I was listening to Broadway, namely George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat as well as selections from other shows thanks to a Smithsonian retrospective collection. This American popular music all has a certain relevancy and immediacy to it that I could not find in the twentieth-century avant-garde to which I had been listening or so much Eurocentric classical music; and, I found I desperately needed this relevancy amid the struggles of my all-consuming thesis work.


My award-winning photo, “Tranquility,” taken at Louisville's Cherokee Park

Notwithstanding, I have had some great experiences with classical music over the last two years. Last September, I began singing with the Louisville Master Chorale directed by Mark Walker. It is a different atmosphere from University Chorus where we sang mostly smaller, unaccompanied works. Instead, in Master Chorale, we have tackled big choral-orchestral works, beginning with Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah—all the encouragement I needed for joining this group. Our weekly rehearsals gave me a deeper appreciation for this favorite work, learning the individual lines rather than hearing only the big picture. This spring we sang, among other works, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, another choral masterpiece. In addition to my program notes for concerts back in Louisiana, my friend Ethan McCollum, a pianist, has also gotten me involved to write notes for several of his concerts here. The first of these was in fall 2018 for a performance of the Horn Trio by Johannes Brahms. Ethan and another friend, violist Lydia Mercer, have now started a viola-piano duo dedicated to rare music written for their combination; aptly titled the Mercer-McCollum Duo, they will bring my notes on their concert tour next month around Kentucky and to Tennessee, Ohio, and upstate New York. Though it means extra work, I have enjoyed showing everyone what I do all the time back home—write quality program notes—while complementing what they do—perform quality music. Ethan also got a group of friends together to go Christmas caroling around the Victorian-era St. James Court neighborhood where we live. Excursions up to Bloomington, IN have let me hear Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion (November 2017 with Ethan) and Bernstein’s MASS (this April with my friend, Drew Sarette, a violinist). I have also begun to make connections with the organizers of Orchestra Enigmatic, a local new music ensemble, and the Chamber Music Society of Louisville, which brings to town the world’s foremost chamber music ensembles. After winning their photo contest in September 2018, I have also built ties with folks at the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy.


So, I guess, it’s been an exciting two years here in Louisville since my last recap! I have not even mentioned here the festivities surrounding the Grawemeyer Award—the subject of my previous post. Things will certainly change beyond Saturday when I graduate. Several of my closest friends are moving to other communities, and I know not being on campus every day will be a change for me. But, now that I have made it past this milestone, I am eager to see where the future will take me!


JSH 19.05.08

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a master’s candidate in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has been awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. His current research focuses on French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho, exploring the aesthetic ramifications of timbre, harmony, and melody in this new music. He has recently shared this research at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Sewanee, TN and Asheville, NC and also at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. Since that time, he has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the Sugarmill Music Festival and the series Nachtmusik Alexandria. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.


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