Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed December 23, 1996
Contact: Linda Mahdesian

Two Brown University professors receive NEH fellowships for 1997

Comparative literature professor Karen Newman and music professor James Baker are the two Brown University professors chosen to receive NEH fellowships announced Dec. 19, by the NEH.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Karen Newman, University professor and professor of comparative literature, and James Baker, professor of music, have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), announced Thursday, Dec. 19. Each of the grants totals $30,000. Nationwide, 172 NEH fellowships were awarded, for a combined awards total of $5,160,000.

Karen Newman

Newman, who has taught at Brown for 18 years, is studying how the organization of urban space shaped cultural production in 16th- and 17th-century London and Paris. Her book in progress is titled Cultural Capitals: Early Modern London and Paris. "I've become interested in this project because I noticed the themes, questions and genres of writing that were said to be specific to the 19th century... in fact could be found much earlier," Newman said.

Her current research grew out of her work on a previous book, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, specifically a chapter on consumerism in early 17th-century London. At that time in the city's history, Newman said, "there were lots of new markets, availability of goods and centralized markets for the first time ... so I became interested in the impact of urbanization on cultural production - theater, printmaking, the book trade."

Urbanization, with its concentration of population, shaped leisure time activities, including, for example, the promenade. "Walking through the city became a leisure activity," Newman said. "Plays written at this time begin to have urban settings where lovers meet while shopping for luxury goods, rather than imagined settings characteristic of earlier works." Urbanization and consumerism also gave rise to travel literature and early versions of the "grand tour" guidebooks.

A massive fire in London in the 1660s destroyed many records and archives, according to Newman, although the extant records are widely available in microfilm and microfiche. However, most of the archival materials relating to Paris are housed in archives in that city. Newman will use her NEH grant to spend next year in Paris doing archival research.

While in Paris, Newman will study the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. It was the first bridge built solely for traffic rather than for trade. "Before that, other bridges had shops built into the sides and a shopping area," she said. "Then increasingly they were used only for traffic. I'll be studying an early satire written about a traffic jam on the Pont Neuf. I'll also be looking at engravings of the bridge that distort the space in order to represent every level of society on the bridge - from street cats and dogs to carriage-born aristocrats."

James Baker

"I'm thrilled to get this award. NEH funding is increasingly scarce due to recent cuts, so I was immensely surprised and pleased," said Baker, who has taught music theory at Brown since 1983. His NEH grant will fund research for his upcoming book titled Implicit Tonality: Tonal Structure in 19th- and 20th-Century Music.

The subject of "implicit tonality" in modern music has been an area Baker has worked on during his entire teaching career, which spans 26 years. Baker coined the term "implicit tonality" to describe a phenomenon in the music of modern composers such as Scriabin, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, as well as Liszt and Wagner, in which the tonal structure is implied rather than explicitly stated.

Baker extends the work of Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker (d. 1935), who devised a graphic method of analyzing music using music notation symbols. "Words are often inadequate to describe musical structure," Baker said. "The Schenkerian graphic technique makes it possible to analyze music in purely musical terms."

Schenker used his method to show the structural coherence in Western art music from Bach through Brahms, which is based on a common harmonic language called "tonality." Baker applies this method to modern music and shows that many compositions widely considered as "atonal" (without an overriding focus on a single key center) have a central tonal structure after all. "There certainly is music that is atonal - some of the music of Schoenberg and his followers, for example, and maybe even some later music of Liszt," Baker said. "But the only way to determine whether a piece is tonal or atonal is to apply a rigorous analytical method systematically and consistently. My aim is to test the limits of tonality in modern music."

According to Baker, this is the first general study of the phenomenon of implicit tonality. "Typically, scholars specialize in the music of one composer," he said, "since each composer in the 20th century tended to develop a special personal language. Much of my work to date has been studies of individual composers, such as Scriabin, Liszt and Webern. Now I'm seeking a more general theory." He adds, "Tonality, in the same sense that Schenker demonstrated in the music of Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, still underlies a lot of modern music. But it's not there on the surface, explicitly stated. In a way, the listener has to listen between the notes for the elements that govern the tonal coherence of the work."

Baker said this phenomenon - stating by implication - began with romantics like Chopin and Schubert. "These were people who wanted to express infinite longing, the ineffable. Therefore, they needed a language that suited this feeling. It can't be stated baldly in block chords - that wouldn't work. Instead, for instance, you get pieces that start in the middle of the action, that don't define their tonic center at the outset. They wend their way toward the tonal center over time. In much 20th-century music, even in compositions that are acknowledged to be tonal, it's difficult for theorists to agree on what the tonal center is. I hope my work will help clarify that."