Musicologist Writes to Set the Record Straight

Musicologist Writes to Set the Record Straight

Gabrielle Cornish, musicologist and assistant professor at the Frost School of Music, lectures on Soviet Union-era experimental music. Photo by Gonzalo Mejia
By Maritza Cosano

Gabrielle Cornish, musicologist and assistant professor at the Frost School of Music, lectures on Soviet Union-era experimental music. Photo by Gonzalo Mejia

Musicologist Writes to Set the Record Straight

By Maritza Cosano
Gabrielle Cornish, assistant professor of musicology at the Frost School of Music, writes for the New York Times about a subject that’s close to her heart: musicology and its impact on culture and politics in the information age.

“It wasn’t like I went from zero to sixty, writing for the New York Times,” says Gabrielle Cornish, assistant professor of musicology at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. She has the unique vantage point of researching experimental music in the Soviet Union after Stalin.

“I often tell my students: you need to develop a voice for public engagement and a repertoire in your C.V. to legitimize yourselves,” says Cornish, “so when you do pitch a story to a big venue like the New York Times, you’ve got some street cred.”

As we’re living in an age of information, Cornish’s advice couldn’t have been timelier. Her May 13 New York Times article, “When Ukrainian Music Wasn’t Under Threat, It Thrived” has given her a platform to set the record straight about the role of history, culture, and politics.

Cornish was first published in 2018 when she was finishing up graduate school in Moscow, Russia. The World Cup was happening then, so it was a very exciting time for her—the sort of excitement that she hasn’t felt for Russia in the past three months.

The first time she wrote for the Times, in 2019, editor Zack Wolf was impressed with her knowledge of Russian musicology. “A lot of people are curious about my chosen studies, thinking I have Russian heritage, but I don’t,” she says. “Like most people who are involved in music, I fell in love with Russian composers like Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich at a very young age. I wrote an essay in seventh grade about Sergei Rachmaninoff. So, as you can imagine, I was really popular in middle school! It was just this part of the world that seemed so mysterious to me at that time.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, as someone who studies Eastern Europe, Cornish felt particularly helpless. She was following Russian and Ukrainian language news and tried to connect with her friends who live in both of those countries. “I felt kind of silly writing a book about music, sound, and technology during the Cold War when there are people who are dying, and whose generosity I benefited from in the past,” she says. She went into the New York Times piece really thinking there was a story that needed to be told—in terms of what composers from Eastern Europe study and talk about, who they don’t study or talk about, and why.

Cornish felt she was in some ways uniquely qualified to contribute to the discussion. And though she was very well aware that her article wasn’t going to be ending any wars any time soon, she put to use the skills that she’d developed while living in Moscow, into a story of modernism in Kyiv in the 20th century.

As she writes in her article, “for a brief period in the early 20th century, Ukrainian composers put a national twist on modernism, free from Russian or Soviet regulation. Ukrainian composers at the turn of the last century, many of them rooted in the Russian Orthodox choral tradition, wrote more for choir than any other ensemble.”

Cornish’s passion for Russian and Ukrainian history is also evident in her classroom. She enjoys teaching about Russian musicology and seeing the reaction on her student's faces when they learn that Russia has gone through at least three major political and infrastructural transformations throughout one-hundred years, at a speed in which we, in the United States, haven’t experienced.

Since historical facts and figures are readily available through the Internet, she thinks of herself as training citizens, more than teaching music history at Frost. “For me, it is most important that they leave my class being curious about the past,” she says, “being curious about the way it impacts the present, and being able to think critically about different narratives that we are told, to be able to evaluate in our daily lives.”

Because Frost students are naturally inquisitive and engaged students, she hopes her New York Times article makes them think. In her piece, she mentions the idea that Russia is using music as a cultural weapon. And the question becomes: is culture beyond politics? So one day, she asks her students to define music.

She tells them, “You are all music students. I have a Ph.D. in musicology, so we should be able to come to an answer together.” Sound.  Pitches. Organized sounds. Rhythm. They answer. And because she’s cheeky, she replies, “What about the people? Does music just exist, or is music something that’s created and consumed by people?”

Music is not just in the ether, she explains. It requires people to make it and hear it. And then she probes even further. “Are people political? We all have a certain politics. Be it our own ideological or political beliefs or who we are in the world and the sorts of different structures that we may benefit from. We all have a politic, so if people ultimately create music for people, then music is political because we are political beings.”

A good example of this is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is overtly political because it’s emblematic of our country’s patriotism. Or Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964) which was a rallying song for the Civil Rights movement. Or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969, which quickly became an anthem for anti-Vietnam War protests.

To explain this point, Cornish points us back to her Times article. As part of her research for the story, she interviewed Liuba Morozova, a music critic and the artistic director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra over the phone, speaking in Russian. Morozova is quoted as saying, “The people who say that culture is beyond politics are the ones who are usually using culture as a form of political warfare or violence.”

That quote from Morozova changed the entire tenor and direction of her Times piece. It is important for Cornish that her students not just see this, but more importantly, understand that historians create nuance in the narrative.

“We see everything in shades of gray, and that’s very much our job. That’s what makes history so salient and urgent,” she says. “But there are some situations that are in black and white, and this war is one of those. There are people in Ukraine who are dying right now. For all of the nuance that we should bring to these issues, we should also remember that there’s a very real ethereal impact to the stories that we tell, and it is affecting people in a very real way.”