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Research beyond the sciences: Chasing melodies from the 18th century

Research beyond the sciences: Chasing melodies from the 18th century

Scholars of international acclaim, students and musicians came together for the first International Conference on Colonial Music.

April 9, 2020 at 2:45pm

The word “research” is mostly associated with people who wear white lab coats and safety goggles. Their instruments of choice? Test tubes, funnels, microscopes and maybe a trusty pair of tongs.

A quick look at FIU’s research clusters and highlights would seem to reinforce this idea. Neurodegenerative diseases, alongside other ongoing medical initiatives, take the spotlight. Exciting grants in the fields of engineering, environmental studies and technology have also helped diversify FIU’s investigative portfolio.

However, you don’t get to retain your status as a top-tier research university, or R1 category, by focusing solely on the sciences. How about research centered around international colonial music and art?

An ensemble of musicians recently gathered at La Merced chapel, an under-the-radar architectural gem located in the neighborhood of Allapattah. The diverse group assembled there had come from Europe, Latin America and various states in the United States. They sat under the watchful gaze of wooden carvings and sculptures, including a majestic figure of the Archangel Aspiel, guardian of hidden treasures. They represented an entirely different type of researcher. Their instruments of choice? A conductor’s baton, violins, harpsichords, cellos and more.

This group of renowned scholars, FIU students and musicians came together for the first International Conference on Colonial Music, focusing on the music and arts of colonial New Spain, presented by the FIU School of Music in collaboration with the Latin American Caribbean Center.

This year’s conference—held March 5-8 before social distancing guidelines were in effect at FIU due to COVID-19—commemorated the 250th anniversary of the death of Ignacio Jerusalem, who held the post of Chapelmaster of the Mexico City Cathedral for 29 years. Jerusalem was a prolific composer, and his work was well distributed in New Spain during his lifetime and immediately after. To this day, his works can be found in archives as far north as California and as far south as Guatemala.

“The idea of a research university is the idea of the university being a place where ideas are exchanged,” said FIU Orchestral Director Javier Mendoza. “And that those ideas are exchanged between students, faculty and scholars of international renown, and FIU provided that platform this week.”

For a couple of days, they convened at the Frost Art Museum to engage in multidisciplinary discussions, swapping papers on recent and original research topics regarding music, visual art and architecture in New Spain during Jerusalem’s lifetime.

From broad-stroke-tidbits of information on the historical and societal context of the time and place contemporary to Jerusalem and his music, to detailed descriptions of more banal aspects of life in the Viceroyalty, the picture painted was enlightening.

For example, imagine discovering that part of the reason behind some of the more unusual instrumental lineups used for arrangements and presentations in the cathedral had a lot to do with raids from insurgent, independence-seeking militias. Or finding out that, despite his awe-inspiring body of work, Ignacio Jerusalem was a bit of a slacker when it came to his actual Chapelmaster responsibilities. This information and the documentation that verified it were received with both, scholarly fervor and laid-back giggles.

“The magnificent spaces of the cathedral of Mexico City, the magnificent paintings, the sculpture of all of the saints up and down the nave… Does it really come alive until you hear the music?” asked Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, a visiting scholar from the Thoma Foundation who will be curating an exhibition at the Frost in the fall, elucidating on the multi-disciplinary aspect of the conference. “They all work together.”