Why Music at MIT?

Presented by Nina Davis-Millis at "Music at MIT," a panel held at the spring 2001 meeting of the New England chapter of the Music Library Association.

I'm Nina Davis-Millis, the Information Technology Librarian for MIT Libraries' Public Service division, and Peter's predecessor in the Music Library here. I'm absolutely delighted that Peter invited me to chair this afternoon's panel on "Why Music at MIT?"

Peter asked me to kick things off with a brief overview of the history of MIT's musical life. No doubt he thought this was appropriate as I myself might be considered a kind of musical relic here: although I shall always consider myself a music librarian, I actually departed the music library about ten years ago. The more I thought about it, though, the more it felt presumptuous for me to sketch out that history. First of all, I feel pretty dumb talking about the history of MIT's musical life in front of our panelists - three people who've been pivotal in writing that history. I should also say that of these three gentlemen, two have an even longer history with this place than I do. As I recall, I met Lowell Lindgren and Marcus Thompson the day I interviewed here in the winter of 1985.

Second, I must note that the person who really put this place on the map in terms of music librarianship is in the audience today. Although Linda Solow Blotner has not been part of MIT's musical history for the past couple of years, her influence on our music library and its role in the teaching and musical life at the Institute is very much a part of our lives here today. Knowing what I know about the enormity of Linda's accomplishments during her time here, it feels a bit nervy to hold forth on the subject of MIT's musical history in front of her!

Nevertheless, Peter did ask me to say a brief word about the development of MIT's musical culture, and since I always do everything Peter tells me, here goes.

In 1985, the year I came to work here, MIT's Technology Review ran a feature article celebrating "100 Years of Music at MIT." The author, China Altman, described the period from 1884-1932 as being characterized by "sporadic, happy and hopeful amateurism." During the '30s and '40s, classical music concerts became a regular event on campus - concerts, Altman tells us, "with no sideshows or novelty acts."

In 1947, MIT appointed its first full-time director of music, Klaus Liepmann. Although Professor Liepmann had already been in retirement for over a decade when I arrived here, so strong was his influence that I feel as if I'd known him. Liepmann's personal vision established, guided and shaped MIT's musical culture, both within the classroom and throughout the Institute.

Professor Liepmann retired in 1972, but his legacy continued (and indeed still remains strong.) The '70s and '80s were marked by a remarkable flourishing of musical life here, both in terms of performance and of the study of theory and history. Choral and symphonic music had already been well established by the early '70s; chamber music and experimental music found a place here during those years.

In 1985, MIT launched a reappraisal of its undergraduate curriculum, with particular focus on the place of the humanities in the education of budding engineers and scientists. Out of that reappraisal, and thanks to the work of several visionary faculty committees, came a renewed commitment to the role of the arts on campus and in the education of an MIT undergraduate. The position of Associate Provost for the Arts, first held by a musicologist, Ellen Harris, was established in 1987. As I recall, it was around the same time that the Music Section was expanded to become the Music and Theatre Arts Section. Our world music program was established shortly thereafter. In the fifteen (almost sixteen) years that I've been here, our academic programs have expanded - and of course our music library has been renovated, too.

Our panelists today were among those who created and nurtured the programs that I'm alluding to; I shall leave it to them to give you more detail.

As some of you know, I rarely actually leave the MIT campus. In addition to my "day job" here in the library, my husband and I are housemasters in one of the undergraduate dormitories. I can tell you that, day or night, the air of MIT quite often rings with music - and most of it is damn good music. We have serious composers, wonderful singers, and gifted instrumentalists among our students. MIT has a symphony and a concert choir, a gamelan and an African music ensemble, a chamber music society and a jazz ensemble, a Musical Theatre Guild and a Gilbert and Sullivan Society. To name just a few - and please don't anyone fault me for what I've left out. My point is simply to impress upon you the richness and diversity of musical life here at the Institute.

But of course, our greatest musical asset is our wonderful faculty, and so it is with enormous pleasure that I introduce three of the best colleagues anyone could ask for. I've decided that, in the librarian spirit, I'll call upon them in alphabetical order and ask each of them to give his own answer to "Why music at MIT?"

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