Arts and Entertainment | Music

Musicologist Eric Rice, GSAS ’02, on combining music history and performance

  • REPRESENTATION | Eric Rice, pictured here with his orchestra, hopes to show students how music can reflect political culture.

Eric Rice, GSAS ’02, who holds a doctorate in musicology, will return to Columbia with his Ensemble Origio to perform a set of madrigals, motets, and moresche from the Renaissance on Thursday, Oct. 8.

The performance takes place at the Italian Academy, and will be preceded by a discussion with Rice about the set. Given its rich cultural context, it aims to entertain, as well as to shed light on Italian society in the late 16th century. Spectator spoke with Rice about the goals of this performance, and what Music Humanities has to offer.

DANIELA RODRIGUEZ: First things first, you’ve studied at Bowdoin College, you’ve studied at Columbia, and you’ve taught at several other institutions, so how does it feel to be back?
ERIC RICE: I get to visit every so often, but it’s wonderful to get back and give performances that I know will be different, and I hope interesting for students who are involved in Music Humanities. My whole goal in doing these things is to combine my own research into music history with performance, and show people where those kinds of intersections lie, between performance and scholarship, and just make the repertoire and the history come alive. That’s the whole idea.

DR: The performance that’s happening later this week is titled “Motets, Madrigals, and Moresche.” How did you go about choosing this set?
ER: One of my interests in music history is how other cultures get represented in music, oftentimes through parody. I got interested in the moresche in particular because of the representations of moors. The second set consists of these six or so moresche. So what you have in these texts is a combination of Neapolitan dialect, which is hard enough to understand, and then these words that for a long time people thought were just gibberish, but they’re actually words of Kanuri, the language of the Bornu Empire.

To me, it’s really interesting to think about the representations of cultures that all still exist in one form or another, and how race relations, commerce, political culture are manifest in this music.

DR: Do you prefer singing or do you prefer conducting a choir? And what draws you toward one or the other?
ER: I sang for the entire time that I was at Columbia in churches in New York that perform medieval and Renaissance music in their liturgies, and I looked at this a lot like an ethnomusicologist would look at doing field work. I go into field to try to see how the music is used and how it reflects the culture that creates it. I loved doing that, I learned an awful lot from it, and I continued to sing professionally after I became a professor. But it became difficult to do all of the things I wanted to do at the same level, and so eventually I gave up singing. I do call myself a conductor, but at this concert half the program I’m not conducting. I’m more of a kind of organizer that puts the program together and hires the musicians to make that happen.

DR: Does being a choir director differ from teaching in a classroom?
ER: This relates back to my Columbia experience. I run the early music ensemble at UConn called Collegium Musicum. I did the same thing at Columbia for three years while I was a graduate student. You do this program in such a way that it teaches the students something about the history of music, particularly the repertoire they’re performing, but they pick up on a lot of those historical details through osmosis. On the opposite side, teaching a music history class is mostly lecturing and playing examples to get people to hear details.

The most fun is having students in both settings, trying to get the overlap of the two so they have aspects of each reinforced by the other. At Columbia, one of the things we tried to do was go into all the Music Humanities classes and sing one of the pieces they were studying. It was something of a tradition I started in the late ’90s. It’s always better to interact with music in a live performance if you possibly can, and understand what it means and what it takes to bring a piece to life. There’s a dialogue that takes place between the performers in the present and the composers of the past.

Eric Rice will be speaking and conducting the Ensemble Origo for “Motets, Madrigals, and Moresche” on Thursday Oct. 8 at the Italian Academy. The event starts at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. | @ColumbiaSpec


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