Professor of Music Hao Huang on Engaging with Histories of Violence in the U.S.

BulletsI am trained as a classical concert pianist and scholar of Western art music. My research interests extend to popular music, ethnomusicology, and philosophies of music; I have published articles on ritual Tewa Indian chants and dances, traditional Hawaiian music and hula kahiko and aunana, mainland Chinese rock and roll, the jazz performance practice of Billie Holiday, and the avid Chinese participation in Western classical music. This past fall, I stepped into the role of director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute for the 2015-16 academic year, which has brought me into contact with scholars, writers, and thinkers representing a range of disciplines, including history, law and public policy, art, dance, and media studies.

Since its founding in 1986, the Humanities Institute has presented a program series of lectures, exhibitions, and performances each semester on topics related to the humanities, bringing prominent and younger cutting-edge scholars to campus. I wanted this year’s series to complement the current Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities Core I theme, Histories of the Present: Violence, which explores the ways in which violence has been conceptualized and represented historically. The problems and issues we chose to look at—such as the relationship between political organization and state violence, or the role of literature in pointing to limits that define and enable dominant ways of thinking—involve a wide variety of values and categories, including law and justice, humanitarian intervention, gender and sexual difference, race, universalism, cultural affiliation, and individualism.

I originally conceived this year’s series as a yearlong inquiry. I first engaged with scholars and activists to learn about current circumstances of violence, and then connected with those who are responding to such circumstances by creating alternative modes of interaction within our society and systems. I felt that the series should not just present relevant data but also offer pathways to hope—or, in the words of Ellen Browning Scripps, encourage students to “think clearly and independently… and live confidently, courageously and hopefully.” I organized fall programs under the rubric Dangerous Conversations; these included lectures and workshops exploring some of the forms that racism, sexism, and classism take in our current cultural moment. This spring, programming shifts focus to Interventions and Resistance, examining how activists are engaging productively with violence in order to stem or end it. I am hoping that the series as a whole not only encourages in-depth engagement with social injustice but also inspires actions that might begin to effectively address it. I also hope that it helps our students to understand that education is not a one-time thing—we have to keep learning from and communicating with each other throughout our lives in order to combat the forms of violence the series raises.

Some might observe that my activities as Humanities Institute director seem very distant from my career as a classical musician and music professor. Actually, I don’t think of this role as a change for me at all. As a young Fulbright scholar, I used music as a way to both teach and explore what I perceived to be a central issue in American studies: the idea of American exceptionalism, which is the popular belief that the United States is unique in its democratic character and ideals and offers social and economic mobility found nowhere else in the world. As a United States Information Agency Artistic Ambassador, I officially represented the U.S. overseas as a scholar and a performer on four foreign tours, teaching on music but also on the culture and history of the United States. So it seemed appropriate for me to draw on my academic background, interests, and experience to engage with Scripps Humanities Fellows in an exploration of contemporary American culture. In a Tuesday Noon Academy talk I gave this past fall, “Whose American Dream? Hope, Fear, and Loathing in the U.S.A.,” I touched on how the American Dream means different things to different people in this country, and therefore how this core aspect of American exceptionalism both unites and divides us.

I believe my work as a teacher and scholar demonstrates how the freedom to be interdisciplinary at Scripps College is significant and special. Being at Scripps has permitted me to engage with multiple issues that matter to me as a creative and thinking person, beyond being an internationally active Western classical music performer. I am really grateful for that, and I am privileged to share that experience with my students.

Hao Huang, Bessie and Cecil Frankel Endowed Chair in Music and professor of music, is director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute for the 2015-16 academic year. Currently, his research focuses on Asian music philosophy and the relationship between literature and music of the Harlem Renaissance.


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