Written and interviewed by Stephen J. Trygar
It is with great pleasure and honor that I get to introduce you to a dear friend of mine, Andrew Shaw. Andrew is an active music historian and vocalist in Philadelphia. He participates in several performing groups, such as Singing City Choir and Chestnut Street Singers while remaining involved in research and writing for a few performance groups in the Philadelphia area.
Andrew and I met while in our first class together, Research in Music, as masters students in Temple University’s music history program. That same semester, we were also part of a seminar of only a few students titled Current Topics in Musicology. It was in this class, due to the philosophically intense nature of the course, that we became fast and close friends. We would also come to realize that we were two of only three in our major at the time (others came in during our second year), and therefore, we took many of the same classes together throughout those two years. Out of our peers in the music history program, ours matched up the most; we started at the same time and intended on graduating in the minimum amount of years it took to complete the degree. From the very beginning, we would bounce our thesis ideas off each other, and when it came time for me to hunker down and finish the project, he was one of my biggest supports.
After a bit of time, outside of running into each other at various performances and Dungeons and Dragons sessions, I was finally able to sit down with Andrew and catch up with him on what he’s been doing professionally since we graduated. I asked Andrew to be my first interviewee for this blog because I knew he was going to give me his honest opinions and experiences in his career. Andrew’s interview, as well as all my future interviews, seek to reveal the truths, excitement, hardships, and fulfillment of being a classical music professional. Andrew’s track, while not entirely rare, is certainly a special one. It is my hope that his experiences will shed some light on this path.
So, you market yourself as both a musicologist and a performer. Do you have one side you prefer to focus on?
No. I think they’re both equal. I’ve never been a performer who wants to forget the performance practice, history, or the narrative itself. At the same time, I don’t want to be the musicologist who forgets about the practice itself. We’re talking about music that was either practiced, performed, or lived in a certain way. My career as a music historian came from the fact that as I was performing, I was just as, if not equally, interested in the background, aspects of theory, the anthropological impact, and things encompassed in the music’s history.
How do you manage to balance both professions at the same time?
I have noticed that because I’m not weighing one more than the other, I’m either doing double the work or progressing a little more slowly. This is just part of the grind that a lot of young professionals in our fields of performance and music history do in pursuit of their goals. Because I’m content and have an intent of keeping that balance, sometimes I notice that I’m not the one going to thousands of auditions or finding auditions when I can take them. I’m continually finding things that will keep that balance.
Since our graduation, your success as a historically informed performer has been growing! What have you done so far that combines performance and history?
I try to find outlets where I have opportunities to blossom in both fields at the same time. When doing the Amherst Early Music Festival, it didn’t feel like I was just applying and auditioning. It felt like I was walking that middle ground. I wasn’t going up there just to sing or for a 50 minute lecture. We went up there to perform, but at the same time, not going into it completely blind. More recently, I joined the Chestnut Street Singers, a small, cooperatively-managed chamber choir based in Philadelphia. In addition to singing with them, I help with program notes (e.g. writing and editing) and lend my perspective with certain repertoire when called for. So, yeah… it’s sometimes hard to balance but it’s rewarding! I’ve always enjoyed digging into repertoire from numerous perspectives, so getting chances to do that is always worth it in my book.
As you may remember from school, My studies have focused on Russian Music and, more recently, Theatrical and orchestral music as a whole. Do you have a particular area of study you focus on?
Yes and no. My immediate gut response is “yes, song” because even beyond theater (theatrical song or dramatic song), song exists as a mode, as a mode of storytelling, of history. Some of the oldest histories we still have exist through song, oral poetic traditions they weren’t just reciting. I’m very drawn to song as a tool, as a mode, and not just because I’m a singer, but because I think it’s fascinating how it’s been such an active part of history. However, while I’ll always be in love with song, I’ve more recently been swayed by particular historical-period interests, building out from the social, political, and economic histories of a time and place and seeing how, if at all, it’s reflected in the music surrounding it. I love thinking of past times and places, where you can seemingly peek in and be looking in on a totally different place, but then realize how similar the struggles and joys of the people there were to us now. When those interests, song and cultural history overlap, that’s when the real magic happens.
Two large areas within song that you’ve been particularly drawn to is the German Lieder Tradition and the English Art Song and Folk Song Traditions. Is there something you’ve recently done outside of those traditions that you’re surprised you found interesting?
Yes! I have two examples. The first one is, as I mentioned before, when I stumbled into an opportunity with the Amherst Early Music Festival. We did a program on music of the Troubadour diaspora out of Occitania into northern Spain and northern Italy in the mid to late 13th Century. I was initially thinking “this is really cool music”, but over that week as I became immersed in the Troubadour music, cultural history, and practice, it became so much more—a real, living celebration of this 800-year-old art form. The second example is something I’m hoping to come back to soon as a project. It was initially my first concept for my master’s thesis, concerning an album of songs set to James Joyce poems where only 500 copies were ever printed. What makes this particularly interesting for me is that we have this grab-bag of modernist composers from the beginning of the 20th Century; a number of them with backgrounds in the folk-song revival of that period. On the same side, included in that album, were a bunch of essays by friends and colleagues of Joyce, who happened to be a part of the early Irish revolutionary movement. When the essays come in, that’s where it complicates things. If it had just been thirteen songs, it would be just another song album that was published by someone—a not too uncommon practice during the early 20th century. As I sifted through the fascinating implications of this album, I realized that this subject was so much more than a 75-100 page thesis. I’m excited to dive back into this project with a bit more experience to see what might come of it.
Thank you, once again, Andrew for taking the time to sit down with me and discussing your involvement in the classical music scene! Congratulations on all your accomplishments thus far, and good luck with all your endeavors.
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