Meredith Schweig, PhD
Assistant Professor, Ethnomusicology
The Music Department sat down with Dr. Schweig recently to discuss her work and her time here at Emory.
How long have you been on the faculty at Emory?
This is my second year at Emory. My first year was excellent—I have wonderful colleagues, who were very welcoming, and I spent a lot of time trying to get to know Emory’s campus, the culture of the campus, and the students.
I did a lot of learning. There’s always a certain kind of adjustment that happens for first-year faculty: all of a sudden you’re designing new courses, you are trying to contribute to the growth of your program, and developing a sense of how the curriculum works or what could be working differently. It was a year of a lot of adjustment and a lot of growth, but I’d like to think that I did okay!
Talk briefly about your musical background and training. How did you decide you wanted to be a university professor and to study Ethnomusicology?
My primary instrument is voice. I started singing very early on in life and became a very serious vocalist in high school and thought about going to conservatory. I also play double bass, although I’m pretty terrible at it. I actually like to tell my students that a lot, that you don’t have to do everything equally well. I’m much more comfortable with singing than I ever was playing bass.
I started playing bass mostly because I wanted to compose for string ensembles back when I was in high school. I was actually interested in film scoring—I could listen to film scores for hours and hours at a time—and so I asked my orchestra teacher in high school if they needed any instruments, and she said, “Well, we always need double basses!” I said, well, okay, sign me up. I borrowed one from school and got to work.
I played in my high school orchestra and then all through college in pit ensembles and the Harvard Pops Orchestra. I was actually the principal bassist, even though I am, as I said, really terrible. We had a few other basses come in and out of the ensemble, but I guess I had the most staying power; I was the most persistent!
I still have copies of my college application essays, improbably enough. I was looking at them not so long ago and saw that I actually wrote that I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist, which I have almost no memory of! But I had a combined interest in music performance and composition and also in the kind of social, cultural, political contexts that I understood music to be embedded in from a relatively early age. I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a professor, though. I worked outside the academy first. I worked in cultural nonprofit, and I worked for an architecture and design firm that I really loved, but, ultimately, I decided I wanted to return to the academy because I felt so drawn to teaching and research. And there was a lot of room to expand on the English-language scholarship about East Asian music, especially Taiwan, which is where my interests lay. So that’s how it happened.
You were previously at MIT and attended Harvard for your education. How does Emory compare to those institutions?
MIT students and Emory students especially have a lot in common. I had a lot of STEM students at MIT who were passionate about music but seeking new approaches to writing and thinking about it—I find that’s the case here, too. I also had a number of double majors and music minors with extensive performance backgrounds, in European classical music traditions, world music traditions, and popular music traditions. Students with diverse backgrounds at Harvard, MIT, and Emory come to the music department for a lot of different reasons. Some of them are looking for a certain kind of personal fulfillment, and in some cases, they understand music as existing in dialogue with the work they do in STEM, social science, or other humanities fields. They’re also incredibly determined and willing to put in the work to grow through their classes, although that sometimes entails making tough choices about how to divide their time up amongst many obligations. And students from all three schools all have access to a top-notch university library, which I think makes a lot of unique opportunities possible.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear MIT has a Department of Music and Theater Arts.
As they are often surprised to hear that Emory has a music program, right? When I was at Harvard, people would say to me,” Oh I didn’t realize Harvard has a music department.” Harvard has a marvelous music department. So does MIT. So does Emory!
What are some of the upcoming projects you are planning for the next year?
I’m working on my book. It is a pretty radical expansion and revision of my dissertation, which is on the rap scene in Taiwan and on rap music as a form of storytelling after the end of martial law. It’s been an incredibly fulfilling project to work on and it’s changed my life in many ways.
I assume that a lot of Western readers of your book may not be familiar with the music. Would you have an accompanying CD of the works you discuss in the book?
One of the great things about researching and writing about the rap scene is that the community of musicians who I work with in Taiwan are incredibly Internet savvy. So I think perhaps more practical than including a CD would be including a guide for English speakers on how to search for this music online. There’s more and more of it all the time. You just have to know where to find it.
I think prospective students reading about you would be really interested in this and would say “Oh, there’s Taiwanese hip-hop? I need to listen to some right now!”
There is. There is a lot!
What are you listening to these days?
Well, I do a lot of traveling; I’m on airplanes a lot. I listen to music when I travel on an airplane, and because I’m a little bit of a nervous traveler, usually I like for the music to have a kind of transporting quality, something that I can get sucked into and that will make the time go fast. And, so I tend when I’m traveling to listen to a lot of music that is strongly narrative, that tells a story. A story that I can feel transported by and through.
I teach the Music and Storytelling class in our department, MUS 381, and actually I find myself listening a lot to the music that we discuss in that course—Appalachian ballads, Child ballads, hip-hop, Malian griot, and a lot of Broadway. I am especially into this musical right now called Hadestown, which I saw last summer at the New York Theater Workshop.
I listen to Hamilton as well because we talk about it in the course. I’m looking to find a way to integrate Hadestown into future version of MUS 381 because it’s another in a very long line of Orphean operas.
I also listen to a lot to the Vijay Iyer Trio when I travel. I love their albums Break Stuff and Accelerando.
What is your vision for your upcoming work here at Emory?
First of all, I’m excited to keep developing the courses that I already teach.
Your Music and Storytelling class has really become a hit, just in the short amount of time you have been here.
I’m so happy about that because I love teaching that course. Every year my syllabi change a little bit, they adapt. The frameworks designed to adapt to the times, to the changing times. So, I hope to continue to revise. I also, of course, want to introduce new courses about popular music, global popular music, and East Asian popular music, especially.
I’m very interested in collaborating with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship at some point in the near future. Right now, I’m brainstorming ways to design a digitally integrated course that is about the Atlanta hip-hop scene that gets students out into the community to learn more about the growth of hip-hop in this very special locality.
Yes, this city is an epicenter of hip-hop in this country, and I think a lot of our students don’t veer off of the Emory campus.
Right! The ECDS is developing some really cool new software, geospatial technology and data visualization software, and it could be really exciting, for example, to design a course that has students going out into the community and creating a digital hip-hop map of Atlanta. My hope is to do work that gives my students, simultaneously, a very solid grounding in the core methodologies of musicological scholarship and at the same time introduce them to some new and very rich content areas, especially in the realm of popular music and local popular music.