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Getting to know Anna-Lise Santella, Editor of Grove Music Online

Meet the woman behind Grove Music Online, Anna-Lise Santella. We snagged a bit of Anna-Lise’s time to sit down with her and find out more about her own musical passions and research.

Do you play any musical instruments? Which ones?

My main instrument is violin, which I’ve played since I was eight. I play both classical and Irish fiddle and am currently trying to learn bluegrass. In a previous life I played a lot of pit band for musical theater. I’ve also worked as a singer and choral conductor. These days, though, you’re more likely to find a mandolin or guitar in my hands.

Do you specialize in any particular area or genre of music?

My research interests are pretty broad, which is why I enjoy working in reference so much. Currently I’m working on a history of women’s symphony orchestras in the United States between 1871 and 1945. They were a key route for women seeking admission into formerly all-male orchestras like the Chicago Symphony. After that, I’m hoping to work on a history of the Three Arts Clubs, a network of residential clubs that housed women artists in cities in the US and abroad. The clubs allowed female performers to safely tour or study away from their families by giving them secure places to live while on the road, places to rehearse and practice, and a community of like-minded people to support them. In general, I’m interested in the ways public institutions have affected and responded to women as performers.

What artist do you have on repeat at the moment?

I tend to have my listening on shuffle. I like not being sure what’s coming next. That said, I’ve been listening to Tune-Yards’ (a.k.a. Merill Garbus) latest album an awful lot lately. Neko Case with the New Pornographers and guitarist/songwriter/storyteller extraordinaire Jim White are also in regular rotation.

What was the last concert/gig you went to?

I’m lucky to live not far from the bandshell in Prospect Park and I try to catch as many of the summer concerts there as I can. The last one I attended was Neutral Milk Hotel, although I didn’t stay for the whole thing. I’m looking forward to the upcoming Nickel Creek concert. I love watching Chris Thile play, although he makes me feel totally inadequate as a mandolinist.

How do you listen to most of the music you listen to? On your phone/mp3 player/computer/radio/car radio/CDs?

Mostly on headphones. I’m constantly plugged in, which makes me not a very good citizen, I think. I’m trying to get better about spending some time just listening to the city. But there’s something about the delivery system of headphones to ears that I like – music transmitted straight to your head makes you feel like your life has a soundtrack. I especially like listening on the subway. I’ll often be playing pieces I’m trying to learn on violin or guitar and trying to work out fingerings, which I’m pretty sure makes me look like an insane person. Fortunately insane people are a dime a dozen on the subway.

Do you find that listening to music helps you concentrate while you work, or do you prefer silence?

I like listening while I work, but it has to be music I find fairly innocuous, or I’ll start thinking about it and analyzing it and get distracted from what I’m trying to do. Something beat driven with no vocals is best. My usual office soundtrack is a Pandora station of EDM.

Detail of violin being played by a musician. © bizoo_n via iStockphoto.
Detail of violin being played by a musician. © bizoo_n via iStockphoto.

Has there been any recent music research or scholarship on a topic that has caught your eye or that you’ve found particularly innovative?

In general I’m attracted to interdisciplinary work, as I like what happens when ideologies from one field get applied to subject matter of another – it tends make you reevaluate your methods, to shake you out of the routine of your thinking. Right now I’ve become really interested in the way in which we categorize music vs. noise and am reading everything I can on the subject from all kinds of perspectives – music cognition, acoustics, cultural theory. It’s where neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy and musicology all come together, which, come to think of it, sounds like a pretty dangerous intersection. Currently I’m in the middle of The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2012) edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld. At the same time, I’m rereading Jacques Attali’s landmark work Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977). We have a small music/neuroscience book group made up of several editors who work in music and psychology who have an interest in this area. We’ll be discussing the Attali next month.

Who are a few of your favorite music critics/writers?

There are so many – I’m a bit of a criticism junkie. I work a lot with period music journalism in my own research and I love reading music criticism from the early 20th century. It’s so beautifully candid — at times sexy, cruel, completely inappropriate — in a way that’s rare in contemporary criticism. A lot of the reviews were unsigned or pseudonymous, so I’m not sure I have a favorite I can name. There’s a great book by Mark N. Grant on the history of American music criticism called Maestros of the Pen that I highly recommend as an introduction. For rock criticism, Ellen Willis’columns from the Village Voice are still the benchmark for me, I think. Of people writing currently, I like Mark Gresham (classical) and Sasha Frere-Jones (pop). And I like to argue with Alex Ross and John von Rhein.

I also like reading more literary approaches to musical writing. Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful is a poetic, semi-fictional look at jazz, with a mix of stories about legendary musicians like Duke Ellington and Lester Young interspersed with an analytical look at jazz. And some of my favorite writing about music is found in fiction. Three of my favorite novels use music to tell the story. Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing uses Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial as the focal point of a story that alternates between a musical mixed-race family and the story of the Civil Rights movement itself. In The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem writes beautifully about music of the 1970s that mediates between nearly journalistic detail of Brooklyn in the 1970s and magical realism. And Kathryn Davies’ The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf contains some of the best description of compositional process that I’ve come across in fiction. It’s a challenge to evoke sound in prose – it’s an act of translation – and I admire those who can do it well.

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