IASPM-US Interview Series: Daniel Cavicchi, Listening and Longing

by justindburton on April 22, 2013


Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum (Wesleyan 2011), takes an intriguing tact to explore the realities of a 19th century invention: the live music fan. Through the words of middle-class, urban men and women, Daniel Cavicchi creates a sort of archival-ethnography, and paints a picture of people who, for the first time, had music available to them at all times, on the streets, in private venues, and in massive public structures. The excitement and commitment of the words of these young music fans, in conjunction with historicizing contextual and theoretical writing from Cavicchi meld into a book that opens the door the the 19th century and does what a good historical study should: makes the past as real as the present.

Listening Longing

Dorothy Berry: The foundational construct of Listening and Longing could be described as an archival ethnography. By piecing together journal entries from a variety of 19th century young people (while acknowledging the racial and socioeconomic limitations of this process) you’ve created a social network of urbanites enamored with a new world of performance. Were there other, perhaps less successful, processes you attempted in trying to create a generation-spanning experience of music listening? How did you decide which journals to include, which archives to explore? Were you surprised at the experiential commonalities you found?

Daniel Cavicchi: All I knew when I started was that I wanted to understand American musical history from audience perspective. I was frustrated by the tendency of previous studies of historical music reception to draw on music journalism—particularly reviews—to understand how music had meaning for listeners and consumers. As a scholar of fandom, this has always struck me as slightly suspicious, since, at least in our own time, journalists have been a major source of distortion and hyperbole about fan audiences. (fans as “crazy” or “wacky,” a pathology, etc.). So, I went looking for more direct traces of listeners.

My instinct, even as I practiced history, was that of an ethnographer—to experience a culture, or “field,” for a certain amount of time, compare my own experiences with those of people who are already members of that culture, and, through that process of encounter, build new meaning. Entering the field, in this case, meant going to state and university archives and then following the paths that opened up to me through the materials I found. I really immersed myself in music culture of the past–especially the 19th century, where new institutions of listening, like concert halls and commercial performances, seemed to develop. I looked at all kinds of materials: sheet music, paintings and illustrations, novels, musical instruments, concert programs, pamphlets, letters, sermons. But the source that became most fruitful was diaries.

Diaries have lots of limitations—they were predominantly tools of the literate middle-class and understood as semi-public performances of the self—but the more I read them, the more I started to find detailed accounts of musical experience. The problem was that the finding aids for most of the archived diaries only occasionally noted the mention of music. At first, I started reading diaries that other scholars had already identified as fruitful. After I had read most of those, and gotten a handle on what to look for, I started to read diaries blind, with the hope that something intriguing might turn up. Many diaries taught me about housework, farming, the social life of girls, family politics, schooling, and other non-musical subjects, all of which was fascinating, but they often contained nothing about music. When I did unexpectedly encounter someone talking about music, I noted down the passage word-for-word in a notebook.

Over a period of several years, mostly during summers and semester breaks, I traveled to as many archives as I could afford, going to major ones like the New York Historical Society or the American Antiquarian Society, and also smaller county archives and local public libraries. I ended up accumulating hundreds of excerpts of people talking about musical experience, including some real gems–people who were clearly excited and invested in the act of listening, or even more specifically, concert-going. Lucy Lowell was a great example. I stumbled on her diaries at the Massachusetts Historical Society one summer and was blown away by her extraordinary enthusiasm for hearing music performed by others and by her eloquence in articulating the meanings of listening.

At any rate, after encountering roughly 50 people, and after thinking about what they were saying, I went back and tried to find out more about each of those people (investigating everything from obituaries to business directories) and about their environments (which led me to social history, urban history, and contemporary accounts of culture, politics, etc.). Finally, I started to organize what I was learning, which involved lots of indexing, profiles, and charts. At one point, I mapped out all the music venues in Boston people were mentioning between 1775 and 1865 and actually visited the places where they once stood. The most important thing for me, as it had been in my previous book (Tramps Like Us), was to let the listeners’ representations of their experiences guide me.

I did end up including multiple generations in the book, moving from people like Eliza Susan Quincy or Joseph Sill, who, in the 1820s and 1830s represented an elite urban generation used to the private concert as a social occasion, to younger listeners in the 1840s and the 1850s, who were going to commercial concerts and regarded them as far more exciting sensory experiences, tied to new ideas about the self. This started out as a simple puzzle: older generations didn’t write about their listening in the same way as younger listeners. As I note in the book, a shift emerged in the late 1840s. Before that time, people would typically write things like, “We had a band of music.” After that time, people who would write with far more specificity and individual focus: “I heard the Philharmonic perform Beethoven’s 5th last night and the POWER of the string section was even more extraordinary than when I heard it last year!”

Most of the young people were middle-class or aspiring middle-class, which I expected due to the nature of diary-writing, but also most were newly-arrived migrants in East Coast cities, embracing wholeheartedly what was often, to them, a new and radical culture. That raised all kinds of issues about how audience, musicality, and urbanity were developing together (in concert, if you’ll pardon the pun) in 19th century America, which is not something I had realized before. Otherwise, what really surprised me were the ways the younger urban middle-class concert-goers in cities were talking and acting a lot like modern “fans.” Obviously the specific details of experience were different, but the quality of their emotional attachment to performers and their careful extension of musical experience through various kinds of reproduction or pilgrimages, were remarkably similar. This raised for me larger questions about the history of fandom; while scholars tend to understand it as a 20th-century mass-media construction, the evidence suggested deeper origins.

In your exploration of 19th century music listening, you explore the concept of musical spectacle. The 19th century commitment to entertainment seems to have been as strong as the 21st century’s. While electronic mass-media certainly revolutionized entertainment, what commonalities have you found in your studies between the age of Barnum and the age of American Idol?

We tend to see the development of electronic mass media as a great transformation, separating the 20th century from the past, but like a lot of revolutions, the hype hid the fact that it depended on much of what had come before. Music, because it was at the forefront of both 20th-century media technology and 19-century urban entertainment, is good to think with, here. While the phonograph certainly fostered new kinds of repeated listening and intimacy with performers, one can also see the “possibility” of those behaviors opening up a bit earlier, especially in the culture of 19th century “music lovers.” We can’t attribute every aspect of contemporary music listening to 20th century playback technologies.

Actually, one of the things that struck me most in my initial encounters with concert-going music lovers in the 1850s was that they were acting quite similarly to the Bruce Springsteen fans about whom I had written previously, in Tramps Like Us. Like 20th-century Springsteen fans, music lovers of the 19th century had developed a deep belief in celebrities’ authenticity, ritual attendance at concerts, frequent pilgrimages to places associated with music, and a need to extend performance into everyday life through recording (diaries are the first records). Even the criticism of music lovers felt very “modern,” with cultural reformers publicly worrying about the dangers of excessive enthusiasm or audience members being duped by commercial interests.

This got me thinking again about “fan” as a concept. Fans are often associated with the electronic mass media of the early 20th century (and, in fact, the term was first popularized at that time), but even a quick glance at some of the music cultures of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will indicate that “fan-like” communities of listeners existed earlier, from the lions de la loge at the Paris Opera to minstrel-show regulars in Boston and New York to the immense audiences for Jenny Lind’s tour of the U.S. in 1850 to the Wagnerians who regularly made pilgrimages to Bayreuth, Germany, to see and hear Wagner conduct his own performances. While not ignoring the differences between such cultures, can we use the historian’s prerogative of hindsight to explore how fandom, as Lennard Davis put it, “opens up in the cultural field” of the industrial West before 1890s? How do we make sense of all the ways that people, over the past several centuries, have intensely aesthetized themselves through audience participation? Listening and Longing was a first attempt to make sense of these questions, but there is clearly still much more comparative work to be done on historical audiences.

Dorothy Berry is a second year dual masters student in ethnomusicology and library science at IU-Bloomington. Her research focuses on the commodification of race in turn-of-the-century African American musical theater and on creating functional, accessible performing arts archives and museum spaces.

Daniel Cavicchi is the Interim Dean of the Liberal Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is a cultural historian and focuses on the role of the arts in the lives of everyday Americans. His public work has included a number of consulting and writing projects on music and history, including developing the exhibit curriculum at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, establishing the first Pop Conference with Eric Weisbard in 2001, and creating the social studies curriculum accompanying Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series on PBS in 2003.

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