Digging deeper into the cultural undertones of music

Written by Aria Mia Loberti ’20

There is no denying the power, size and influence of the music industry in today’s world. Whether offered by a multibillion-dollar business for mass consumption, or as an artist’s cultural or self-expression, or both, the musical arts offer important tools, experiences, and benefits. And it often reflects a cultural moment, an era or a political cause.

Indeed, digging deeper into the cultural undertones of music offers a new perspective on historical moments and a new way to appreciate the diversity of the world around us. For Vilde Aaslid, URI assistant professor of music, it’s another day at the office.

She puts musical theory into practice through her work in musicology and music history. Aaslid uniquely works to integrate genres like jazz into studies of musical form and function that are typically only reserved for classical or Western-influenced music. It’s all an effort to make music studies more accessible, approachable and culturally inclusive.

Aaslid is preparing to launch that effort in a new way with a book. Currently in progress, it highlights the political intersections of jazz and poetry.

“When jazz musicians and poets come together often what they make is explicitly moving and inspires a reaction or action,” she says. “Jazz’s encounters with poetry gives us an opportunity to understand jazz better. Often when we are talking about absolute music — music without an external referent — we bump into challenges when we try to describe what the music is actually doing. When we put language to it and watch how it reacts — as through poetry — we can learn more about what jazz signifies.”

For example, take artist Samora Pinderhughes who composed a piece in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The work includes improvised passages, a jazz score and poetry.

“When I went to the performance, I was struck with how overwhelmingly earnest it was,” Aaslid says. “Here was this intense, emotional plea for engagement.”

She noticed how the poetic elements of the piece draw on sentimentality, which she underscores in her book.

“The piece’s main job is not to impress you or comment on something. Its primary purpose is to move your heart,” she says. “With your heart moved, you may take action.”

Her book also includes chapters on the politics of genre, gender and language in jazz, the politics of interactivity and Black Nationalism in the 1960s. The wide-ranging project is one Aaslid describes as fun, challenging, and incredibly satisfying by drawing on music’s intersections with philosophy, gender studies, rhetoric, sociology and beyond.

She hopes that her work can cut across the often-rigid boundaries of music studies, where the methods of research are too often determined by the kind of music being studied rather than the kinds of questions the researcher wants to answer.

“In both my research and in my teaching, I find myself bouncing into walls: ideological walls, political walls and unintentional restraints that people have placed on interactions with music in their lives,” she says. “Whenever I encounter those, I want to tear them down, because they stop us from having a free and full relationship with music.”

Aaslid has long infused music into every aspect of her life. She grew up in a musical family. Her grandfather played violin and her grandmother played piano in the small Norwegian city where they lived. As a child, Aaslid trained as a violinist and attended a pre-college conservatory where she took a music history course.

“It became clear in my first year in conservatory that my interests were academic,” she says.

She turned her attention to music’s research components. By age 19, she was teaching music history classes at that same conservatory at which she was previously a student.

She pushes students to grapple with the complex narratives underlying music and connect music to disciplines outside of the performing arts.

Aaslid later completed her doctorate at the University of Virginia, which houses a cross-disciplinary training program in critical and comparative music studies. After completing her degree, she moved to New York and taught at Brooklyn College. Then, she completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University.

In 2016 she interviewed at URI.

“What really drew me to URI was this attitude of, ‘bring what you have,’” she says. “They needed someone who could do many different things.”

She settled in not only continuing her research but taking on a varied teaching role. Here, she has taught almost every core history course the Music Department offers, exposing freshmen through seniors to her own research.

She pushes students to grapple with the complex narratives underlying music and connect music to disciplines outside of the performing arts. Her pedagogical approach is exploratory and invites students to drop preconceived notions of a music’s purpose or background, and instead make more informed interactions with music or to engage with non-Western musical traditions and histories.

“If we understand where judgments and assumptions are coming from,” she says, “our relationship with music becomes freer and less hierarchical. But, of course, music can be just pleasure, too. To reconnect us with that is very meaningful, especially when we are not constrained by ideas of what music is supposed to be.”

Even outside of her teaching and research, Aaslid seeks to exemplify this open mindset. She plays Norwegian folk music on the hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument from her home country. But it is her research that motivates her, and one of the many reasons she enjoys coming to work each day.

“I feel so privileged to get do this work,” she says. “I am so fortunate.”