Steve Swayne on Music and Making the World a Better Place

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Steve Swayne

(Photo by Rob Strong ’00 )

By Joni B. Cole

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is one in a ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Steve Swayne is the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music and chair of Dartmouth’s music department. The author of two books, with two more in the works, Professor Swayne talks to Dartmouth Now about stretching the boundaries of musicology, the morality of MP3s, and how a gay man who once served as an evangelical chaplain redefined his calling.

Why Stephen Sondheim as the subject of your first book?
When I applied to graduate schools in 1989, I sent a paper I had written on Sondheim’s musical Merrily We Roll Along. In part, I wanted to see how graduate programs reacted to something that was a novelty. After my first year at Berkeley, I went to lunch with Joseph Kerman, a professor who had written a book on opera that was groundbreaking in many respects. I asked Joe, “What should I work on?” He said, “Sondheim.” I said, “The academy will laugh me out of its ranks.” Joe’s response was, “Somebody has to pave the way. Why wouldn’t you want to be at the forefront of inventing a new aspect of what we do in musicology?”

What inspired your second book, Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life?
I made the error of opening up a solicitation in the mail for the Columbia CD of the Month Club.

You joined?
There was a CD of three of Schuman’s symphonies, so I thought, OK, I’ll join the club so I can get that disc. Plus, I had colleagues telling me, because of my work on Sondheim, “You are an Americanist.” I was thinking about my next book project, so I thought maybe doing another American topic would be useful.

So the CD convinced you to write a 692-page book?
I get the CD and listen to the third symphony, Schuman’s breakthrough piece. It was as wonderful as I remembered. I hear the fifth symphony; it’s called Symphony for Strings. And I’m thinking, this is such a marvelous work! The eighth symphony I had never heard before because this was the only recording at the time. That opening chord [plays chord] … I tell you, I’m getting chills right now.

Judging from your Schuman book’s reviews—“ostentatiously researched,” “extensive endnotes,” “highly detailed bibliography”—is it safe to say you’re a detail-oriented person?
Yes, which you wouldn’t get an impression of by looking at my office [laughs]. My husband would say it’s because I like to win an argument. I like to have all the facts at hand so I can make an assertion. For the Schuman book, I wanted to write a book that, having written it, nobody would ever need to do that work again.

When did you decide you wanted to be a musicologist?
I graduated from Occidental College in 1978 and took a year off to figure out what I would do with the rest of my life. And what I figured out was I’d become a musicologist. I was all set to start graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Five hours before the plane was supposed to take off, I decided not to go.

Why the change of heart?
The chief reason: I was gay and wasn’t dealing with the fact. I was trying to hide it. I was involved in a religious community that believed homosexuality was a sin, and I felt that being that far away from my social support system and going into an artistic community with a significant population of gays was going to be injurious. So I took another year off and figured I’d been involved in leadership in the church, and I thought, certainly God will honor me if I redouble my efforts in ministry, so I got my master of divinity degree.

You’d been chaplain at Seattle Pacific University for five years when you decided to get your doctorate in musicology. Do you see any overlap in your two callings of ministry and music?
I’m no longer professionally religious. I chose to get a PhD in music rather than religion, because music is really where my heart was at the time and is still. But I still see what I do as a vocation. I see my role in life, not merely at Dartmouth, is to help college-age men and women live better lives, to equip them to make the world a better place.

Your bio also notes your life as a concert pianist. What’s it like being on stage?
At its best, performing is a moment where you are completely lost. I can remember seeing a video of me playing with the university symphony orchestra at UC Berkeley, and it’s one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire, Brahms’s second piano concerto. I slaved over that work. I didn’t play it flawlessly, but I played it well. And I remember watching the video and just being amazed. I said, “I look like a pianist!”

Do you still play?
It was made clear very early in my tenure at Dartmouth that I was going to be evaluated solely on the kind of scholarship I produced, and how I position myself within my guild. So I basically stopped playing piano for eight years. When I came up for promotion to full professor, I wrote in my file that if you promote me, you should know that I’m going to go back to playing piano again.

You’re working on a book about American composer William Finn, and another related to your course, “Addiction, Obesity, Pollution, Thievery, and Other Music-Related Topics.” Why the latter?
I arrived at Dartmouth in 1999; that’s the year Napster takes off. I’m watching as the whole economy of music—and the way my students understand their relationship with music—changes dramatically. The notion that we can freely distribute songs without remuneration to anyone struck me as profoundly, morally wrong. I’m also looking at the number of hours we spend daily listening to MP3s and iPods, and I’m asking: Is it possible to be addicted to music?

Dartmouth graduates a fairly small number of music majors. What’s it like teaching in a relatively small department?
I went to a liberal arts college. I believe in a liberal arts education. I don’t see myself as training up the next round of musicologists, although some of our graduates do go on to become musicologists. I often tell people: Many Dartmouth grads are going to go on to be community leaders. They will inevitably be asked to serve on the boards of symphonies, museums, opera companies. Have we done what we can do to equip them to serve well in that capacity? That’s what I see as my bigger responsibility here—to give them the tools they’ll need.