For our November blog post, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Aliso DeSimone, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. To read more about all of her incredible accomplishments and involvements, click here!
GSC: How did you become interested in eighteenth-century studies?
AD: I became interested in eighteenth-century studies through my interests in Baroque music (composed between 1600-1750). I fell in love with Baroque music through performance, first; in college, I started taking organ and harpsichord lessons, and immersed myself in music from this time period. What I love the most about Baroque music is the tension between tight, rigorously controlled formal structures embedded in the music, and the extravagant virtuosity on its surface. As I started thinking about a dissertation topic, I kept returning to George Frideric Handel’s music, which I had been listening to non-stop. His music was the gateway to learning more about eighteenth-century Britain, and what a fascinating place it was in terms of political strife, religious conflict, and issues of class and gender. After I started digging into the literature, I was hooked!
GSC: What critical transformations have reshaped the field of eighteenth-century studies over the course of your career?
AD: In musicology, there are a number of really exciting trends that are reshaping the field. While it’s taken some time, many compelling new studies that are coming out aren’t focusing on composers, specifically, but rather on other aspects of music-making in the eighteenth century. For example, reception history is becoming an important way of interrogating and deconstructing the canon of eighteenth-century music that we often take for granted. Studies that have influenced me, particularly, are those that focus on the history of performers and performance—especially singers and what they contributed to the development of opera across Europe in the eighteenth century. I have also been excited to see so many recent interdisciplinary approaches to eighteenth-century music. I have friends writing books and articles that borrow methodologies and theories from cultural history, theater history, comparative literature, and art history. My own book project takes the idea of the literary miscellany, which emerged in the seventeenth century, and applies it to early eighteenth-century music, so I have been indebted to studies in English literature and history as well.
GSC: What advice do you have for graduate students who are transitioning to the role of assistant professor?
AD: Protect your time. It is so exciting getting a tenure-track job and starting off at a new school—you might feel like you can do anything and everything! But the transition from being a dissertating graduate student on fellowship to a full-time faculty member can be really tough. I had a couple of one-year positions in between finishing my Ph.D. and starting at UMKC, but I remember how difficult it was to come off of a few years of dissertation fellowship and into a 2/2 (and now, a 3/3) teaching load. It can be incredibly difficult to find time to write, so learning how to say “no” to things that might be extraneous and not necessarily helpful for tenure (being on that extra student committee or adjudicating that regional paper prize) becomes even more important.
GSC: What scholarly writing methods/strategies have served you well over the course of your career?
AD: Everyone writes differently. What works for me is a combination of two things: letting ideas marinate (actively thinking about them) and carving out a full day for writing at least once a week. Some people say “write every day,” and while I was able to do that in graduate school, I’ve found less time and energy for that approach now that I am a full-time faculty member. However, as long as I am able to save one full day a week (even if it’s a weekend day) to sit down, collect my thoughts, and really work deeply on an article or a book chapter, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. On those days, I’m usually able to write at least 10 pages of prose, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I only had an hour here or there during the week. But the only way I’m able to churn out that much writing is because I am always actively thinking about my writing projects, whether that’s through reading or simply turning ideas over and over in my mind during the week.
I also make sure to get friends and colleagues to read my work. This isn’t always easy, as people are busy and deadlines are often tight! But with major publications, I try to workshop my writing as much as possible, and I’ve come up with a really great group of friends/colleagues who are always there to provide honest feedback.
GSC: Could you describe your approach to mentoring graduate students? What are some important attributes that graduate students should look for when choosing a faculty member?
AD: I’ve been so lucky at UMKC to have graduate students who are absolutely top-notch and responsible. It’s been a real pleasure to work with all of them. My approach in mentoring is to treat each like a peer as much as possible. I am, of course, here to guide them in learning how to research and write, but I really like my graduate students to follow their own instincts. I try to lead them by asking questions and shaping their ideas from the sidelines, rather than telling them exactly what to work on or what their arguments should be.
In looking for a mentor, I think it’s important to understand how you work best. Do you need lots of deadlines? If so, find someone who will make sure you stay on track and who will check in with you constantly. Do you need significant help with your writing? If so, find someone who will really spend time with your work and who will give you really good, consistent feedback, rather than just skimming your writing. I would say, above all, do not work (or continue to work) with someone who is not treating you like a human being; make sure you have a healthy and productive relationship with your advisor or mentor.
GSC: What advice do you have on selecting topics? What advice do you have for grad students on writing a dissertation prospectus?
AD: At UMKC, we don’t have a Ph.D. program in musicology, so I am mostly working with master’s students who are writing theses. That said, I think the same strategies apply. 1) Find a topic that genuinely interests you, and that you think you could spend 2+ years working on. If you choose a topic that someone forces you into, you may never finish your degree. 2) If at all possible, choose something that will give you a jumping off point for future projects. My dissertation ended up becoming a number of articles, rather than a monograph. But a lot of the ideas in the dissertation ended up inspiring the direction of my monograph; essentially, I took the questions that frustrated me in my dissertation, that I never got to answer, as the impetus for my book project on musical miscellany. 3) Write on a topic that engages with broader cultural/social issues. I’ve found that my successes as a scholar have come from being very interdisciplinary, and I always encourage my graduate students to immerse themselves in topics that will bring in scholarly literature from many other disciplines. I think it makes for a more interesting project, and I think it looks more interesting to Ph.D. programs (or to search committees once you hit the job market).
GSC: What classes have you most enjoyed teaching? How has your teaching evolved over the course of your career?
AD: My favorite class to teach at UMKC is my seminar on “Gender and Music Before 1800.” I love teaching this class because it’s interdisciplinary in its approach, and because my students are so invested in the material. For performers, especially, gender issues are still so relevant, and so I think they find it really interesting to see how much has changed, and how much has remained the same since the early modern era. I organize the course into a series of units, such as “Women as Musical Patrons” or “The Castrato” to investigate the different ways in which gender and music collided before 1800.
I think that the main way my teaching has involved is that I pay more attention to issues of diversity and inclusion in the core classes that I end up teaching. Nearly every semester, I have to teach the Western music history survey course, which—if using a textbook—barely acknowledges how Western music engaged with other traditions and cultures across the world, especially in earlier musical periods. I’ve tried my best to incorporate a broader array of musical examples by women and by composers of color. I also try to discuss ways in which people participated in music beyond composing it: as patrons, as audience members and domestic consumers, and as performers.
GSC: What advice on securing competitive research grants do you have for graduate students?
AD: Apply for everything. When I was a graduate student, I probably applied for 50 grants and fellowships, and I was probably awarded about half of them. It’s free money, and if you don’t apply for it, you’re not going to get it! Also (and I can say this because I’m a performer), practice makes perfect. I really refined my grant-writing skills simply because I was writing so many applications year after year. Again, I was rejected from a lot of those opportunities, but by the end of my time as a graduate student, I was able to articulate aspects of my project in ways that would serve as the basis for job applications.
GSC: What advice do you have on attending conferences and giving conference papers?
AD: Attending conferences can be really fun and really stressful at the same time, especially if you’re on the job market. My favorite conferences to attend are ones that are smaller and more intimate, and because of that, I’ve gotten to know the regular attendees very well. I also like bigger interdisciplinary conferences such as ASECS because I always learn something that is absolutely essential and relevant to my topic, but that I might not hear at a more general musicology conference. I would say find those conferences out of which you get the most constructive and supportive criticism, and where you can get to know the other regulars to the point where you might be able to ask them for letters of recommendation (or a job!) at some point.
GSC: What are your current research interests? What are you working on at present, and what do you want to work on next?
AD: Right now, I have a number of pots in the fire. I’ve just finished up editing an essay collection (with my co-editor, Matthew Gardner [University of Tübingen]) on the history of the benefit performance in eighteenth-century Britain. It will be published by Cambridge University Press in December. Now that that’s done, I’ve been able to focus more on my monograph, which considers musical miscellany in early eighteenth-century London—specifically, how musical miscellany (in concerts, operas, songbooks, musical compositions, and musical aesthetics) helped to shape public taste and opinion, especially concerning the relationship between English music and foreign music between 1700–20. My manuscript draft is due in May 2020, so that is most of my focus at the moment!
I’m also rewriting an article on Elisabetta de Gambarini, a female composer and performer, who, as I discovered in the archives two summers ago, was also physically abused by her husband. (See Elisabetta de Garmbarini’s portrait below, which was engraved by Nathaniel Hone in 1748 and is found as the frontispiece to her Op. 2 collection of songs for the harpsichord.) I decided to write a feminist biography of her that discusses her as a musical entrepreneur while not diminishing her experiences as a victim of domestic abuse. This project has also led me to a new interest: researching women as musical entrepreneurs in eighteenth-century Britain. I will be writing a book chapter for an essay collection on that subject next summer, and it is my hope that this will eventually become a second monograph. But first, I’ve got to finish my other monograph!