An interview with Professor Alexander Silbiger

For the first Music Theory Doctor interview, I spoke to Prof. Alexander Silbiger, Professor Emeritus at Duke, about his musical background and research.

The idea for this interview had a relatively long history: In the summer of 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic was waning, I attended the Annual Conference of the Society for Seventeenth Century for the first time. Because of the geographical distance (the SSCM’s conferences have always been held in the US), attendance had previously been very difficult for me. That year, however, the conference was held online. In an open discussion towards the end of the conference, a suggestion was made for lecturers to invite other lecturers and researchers to visit their respective courses, not least since online classes allowed one to join a seminar at the click of a mouse button.

Promptly taking up this idea, I invited four researchers from three different countries (and continents) to answer questions about some of their research as part of a course I was teaching during the winter of 2020/21 on the ground-bass technique during the past five centuries. One of these researchers was Professor Alexander Silbiger, who I had known previously only through numerous scholarly publications.

Feedback from students was very positive and I decided to ask Lex to interview him, in order to share his profound insight and experience with members and followers of my Facebook group Music Theory Doctor, to which he kindly agreed. After finding myself unwilling to condense much of Lex’s fascinating ideas, I decided to upload the full version here (via Youtube) and post the same video in three parts on Facebook.

We covered an array of topics, including

• how he developed an interest in music (1:33),

• the institutional divide between music theory and musicology (4:25),

• paradigm shifts in music and possible links to socio-political changes (10:13),

• how Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin shaped our understanding of the genre (15:09)

• how Bach’s piece relates to earlier association of the chaconne with dancing and lasciviousness (20:43),

• why ostinato forms were popular in the 17th century, almost died out in the 18th and experienced a revival during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries (22:02),

• improvisation and risk taking by performers in the classical music tradition, and the role of the composer (25:44)

• and, lastly, (open) access to music sources and scholarship (30:51)

If you'd like to know more about Lex's personal story, please do also watch him remember his escape from the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, as part of the 2020 Yom HaShoah Commemoration.

I hope you find his background and research as fascinating as I do. And if you’d like to be notified of future interviews and blog posts regarding music theory and analysis, sign up for the newsletter to receive updates!


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