Alexander Rehding

Alexander  Rehding

Alexander Rehding

Fanny Peabody Professor of Music
Co-Creator of Humanities 11b. Frameworks: The Art of Listening

Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University. A native of Hamburg, Germany, he received his Ph.D. in 1999 from Cambridge University. He held postdoctoral research fellowships at Emmanuel College Cambridge, the Penn Humanities Forum, and Society of Fellows at Princeton before joining the Music Department at Harvard University in 2003. In 2005 he was an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin. During that time, he was promoted Gardner Cowles Associate Professor, and a year later, in 2006, Professor of Music. Since 2007 Mr. Rehding has been co-editor of Acta musicologica, the journal of the International Musicological Society.

As a musicologist, I often get asked what I do, and if I play an instrument. The answer is, yes, I do play instruments, trombone and piano, but that’s not the main part of the daily work of a musicologist. Our work is usually informed by our perspective as musicians, but we engage in teaching and research, and we ask all sorts of questions about the history, theory, and culture of music.

I started playing the piano early on and added the trombone in high school, mostly because the school orchestra was short of trombone players. As a trombonist sitting in the back of the various orchestras I played in over the years, I spent a large amount of time in rehearsals and concerts counting rests, often hundreds of them in a row. I had a lot of time to listen to the rest of the orchestra at work. This experience has shaped my interests in various ways. First of all, while I have always treasured my experience as a performer, especially in ensemble work, I knew fairly early on that my real passion about music was intellectual and concerned the wider questions about music, this strange fleeting phenomenon that is so effective at stirring our emotions.

One of my central interests is the broad question of how and why different periods in history have thought differently about music and made different kinds of music. The givens of sound have been the same throughout the ages and boil down to some fairly straightforward acoustical facts. And yet, the music that different musicians have shaped with these materials can be extremely diverse. How is that possible? 

For a very short answer to this big question, it turns out that there are at bottom two fundamentally different approaches to understanding sound: one thinks of sound as number—ratios, frequencies, numerology—and the other as experience, locating sound in our perception. The first approach can be said to take sound as something “objective,” as “out there,” whereas the other takes sound as “subjective,” and effectively psychological. These two approaches can be found throughout history, going back to the ancient Greeks. In fact, among the Greeks the Pythagoreans and the Harmonicists discussed these two approaches quite controversially. But there is no one correct answer: these two positions had to be negotiated anew in different periods and came up with different answers.

My interests have focused on the European nineteenth century (with sideway glances into the eighteenth and twentieth centuries), focusing on composers such as Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, Schoenberg and others. A recent book, titled Music and Monumentality, explores the music of these composers. How do the “big sounds” that we know from composers like Beethoven, Berlioz, Wagner, and Bruckner translate into a sense of “greatness”? Is this music sublime or merely bombastic? Whose greatness is it that this music invokes and commemorates? What happens to the listening audiences when they encounter such music?

Another recent project takes my big questions to the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. This period was the first time that the west encountered music from China. Enlightenment thinkers were fascinated by this distant culture whose cultural accomplishments rivaled and even surpassed those of the west. Its history offered a fundamentally different model of culture and society that served philosophers as an alternative to what had seemed unquestionable truths in Europe, notably the rule of Christianity and aristocracy. These questions were particularly explosive during the days before the French Revolution. Music formed an important part of these discussions: western musicians were confronted with a different musical tradition that was not easily assimilated and that challenged certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of music. I worked with a group of students to organize an exhibition on this topic in the music library and we are currently working on making the online catalog available.

One area that I am currently interested in is the question of listening. We listen all the time, to all the sounds around us. In fact, we cannot turn our ears off. We have no ear lids. From the perspective of listening, music is in many ways a special case, a highly controlled listening environment that offers us experiences that we would not otherwise encounter. But listening goes beyond the concert hall and the iPod.

We make sense of a large part of our world through listening, as my two-year-old twins remind me on a daily basis: every time a plane flies over our heads they point up to the sky and say “a-pee” (airplane) or “coca” (helicopter). In all likelihood, I would not have noticed these flying objects without their intervention. There is a lot that we hear but have learned not to listen to; over the years we have learned what sounds matter and what sounds can safely be filtered out. But these filter mechanisms are not yet in place in two-year-olds, they hear them and listen to them.

It is experiences like these that have raised my interest in the question of where the boundaries lie between music and environmental noises. And this question, after a century of experimental music—or, put more pointedly, 60 years after John Cage’s 4’33”—is not an easy one to answer.

This year, 2013-14, I am the organizer of a university-wide seminar, “Hearing Modernity,” which puts such questions front and center.  We will bring together a diverse group of scholars, from anthropology, history, and literature, via sociology and media studies, to cognitive science and beyond, to discuss how aural culture helps us make sense of the world. I am also in charge of the new Sound Lab (or SLAB) at the Loeb Music Library that offers four state-of-the-art work stations that allow students to record and edit sounds. It is, in a word, a small recording studio. 

In the course “The Art of Listening” Hum 11b, which my colleague John Hamilton and I will be offering for the first time in the Fall of 2013, we pursue similar questions. We study important philosophical reflections on listening, from Plato, via Rousseau and Nietzsche, to Barthes and Derrida; we learn to navigate our sounding environment and explore the world of oral literature and poetry, and last but not least, we will listen to a lot of music from very different backgrounds. We will explore Harvard’s many hidden sound treasures: the whisper arch at the entrance of Sever Hall, the Lowell House bells, the Woodberry Poetry Room, and the Gamelan at Hilles. And, using the equipment from the SLAB, we will learn to become sound editors and produce our own tracks and sounds.

John and I are excited to teach the Art of Listening. There has never been a course quite like this at Harvard. Listening is a fundamental cultural activity that is essential to the ways in which we interact as individuals and a community - in a word, that is essential to us as humanists, and as humans.


See also: Faculty