Alumni Q&A with Professor Gibb Schreffler

UCSB Department of Music alum, Gibb Schreffler (M.A. Ethnomusicology 2002, Ph.D. Ethnomusicology 2010) was recently hired as an Assistant Professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Professor Schreffler sat down with us to talk about teaching, his research, and his work with the Pomona College Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble.

Alumni Q&A with Professor Gibb Schreffler (MA/PhD Ethnomusicology)

MA Ethnomusicology, Spring 2002 – UC Santa Barbara
PhD Ethnomusicology, Summer 2010 – UC Santa Barbara
Hartford, CT

Q: Congratulations on your recent hire as Assistant Professor of Music at Pomona College! What courses do you most enjoy teaching at Pomona?

A: At Pomona, all incoming first-year students must take a course of their choosing from an array of offerings in a “critical inquiry” series, which is taught by professors in all departments. So far I have twice offered a critical inquiry course called “Bad Music.” I enjoy teaching this course because it questions the typical modern Western worldview that presumes “music” to be something “good” by default. By examining musical phenomena that someone or other considers “bad,” for any reason, students find the chance to practice critical thinking while engaging subject matter and life experiences with which they are already intimately familiar. It’s fulfilling to be able to reach a rather deep level of critique because of this, as opposed to having to spend much of the course on the basic exposition of unfamiliar material. 

I also enjoy teaching “Introduction to Ethnomusicology” because, as I like to teach it, the implications of the course go beyond the study of ethnomusicology alone. Ethnomusicology is treated as a representative academic field to exemplify how academic disciplines, in general, develop and fit into social discourse and educational institutions according to practical and political interests.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of teaching, and what drew you to pursue a career in academia?

A: My favorite aspect of teaching is the opportunity it affords to have “long” and progressive conversations with students. One gets to be part of a series of discussions that continue to develop over the course of a semester as new information is introduced and more opinions are aired. In everyday life, these sorts of extended conversations are usually not possible. I was drawn to a career in academia in part because I like to sustain focus on given topics and, with time, attain deeper and deeper understandings of them.

Q: Your research interests are quite diverse, and cross cultural and artistic divides. Could you summarize your main fields of research, indicating the nature of your most significant findings/realizations in each? How do you balance your research topics, and prioritize?

A: At a liberal arts college it doesn’t pay to focus exclusively on one area of research, so I try to maintain at least two active areas of specialization. 

My most current research agenda involves the application of thinking from ethnomusicology to the historical musical topic of nineteenth century maritime work-songs. Most notably, this work centers the experiences of Black Americans in order to re-envision the historical development of the genre best known to the general public as “sea chanties.” The resultant picture situates sailors’ singing during shipboard work within a larger phenomenon of African-American work-singing in many other labor contexts. Doing this has been challenging because much that has been presented on chanties in the last one hundred years has created a strong bias against seeing Black people as agents in the creation of the genre.

 I will soon return to further research in the area in which I focused during graduate studies at UCSB, which is vernacular music of South Asia’s Punjab region. In a culture where performing music indicates very specific things about those who perform, I am interested in what it means to be a musician. Professional musicians of Punjab walk a fine line between practicing their craft to support their families and facing social stigmatization for engaging in something that many people consider disreputable. In my work to this point I have analyzed both the normative and transgressive acts of Punjabis making music in order to interpret how the very concept of “music” is understood in Punjabi culture. As I put it in my teaching, there is a sort of “tension” that surrounds music in traditional Punjabi culture, which makes it challenging to understand when approached from a modern Western worldview. 

Q: Could you list some of your publications for us?

A: My publications on Punjabi music include individual articles on the dance-musics jhummarsammi, and bhangra, published respectively in Asian MusicSikh Formations, and South Asian History and Culture. I was guest editor of a special music-focused issue of Journal of Punjabi Studies, in which several of my articles also appear. I have entries forthcoming in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Ethnomusicology and Brill’s Encyclopedia of Sikhism. My entry into publication on maritime work-songs was called “Twentieth Century Editors and the Re-envisioning of Chanties,” in the Maritime Studies journal, The Nautilus.

Q: What parts of the world have you traveled to for your research? Any special memories from those trips?

A: In my Punjabi music research I have covered all areas of the Punjab region, including India and Pakistan, along with Punjabi diaspora sites in England, Canada, and the U.S. My maritime songs research generally takes me to archives and ports in cities around the U.S.A. that were nodes of maritime activity, including perhaps unexpected places like Mobile, Alabama and Galveston, Texas. Most recently, I traveled in a traditional sailing ship from The Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic, to the coast of France, to study applied seamanship in order to better understand the historical texts I study.

Q: Like many of the ethnomusicology faculty members at UCSB, you also perform the music that you research. What inspired you to learn to perform? How does it enhance your research experience?

A: Learning to play the large Punjabi drum, dhol, was an essential part of my research in Punjab. Without doing this, many of my interlocutors would have had no idea how to relate to what I was doing in “studying” Punjabi music. In addition, playing the instrument gave me insights I never could have gained had I only listened to the music. As I demonstrate in one of my Pomona lectures, for example, drumming on the dhol is very difficult if not impossible to “hear” and to transcribe accurately without either being taught to dance to it or to play the instrument itself. 

Because the maritime work-songs I study belong to the past, attempting to recreate their performance helps me to imagine them and to solve problems related to the lack of detailed information. Since 2008 I have been posting my renditions to YouTube of nearly ever chanty song ever documented, not so much to chart my progress as much as to simulate, psychologically, the process of acquiring a repertoire and learning the genre’s method and style. I have carried that experiential process into labor contexts whenever possible, including whilst sailing in the traditional ship across the Atlantic that I mentioned above.

Q: You founded and continue to direct the Pomona College Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble. Can you tell us a little more about the ensemble, and what types of performances you present?

A: The Maritime Music Ensemble ran for a year and attracted an impressive enrollment of students. It required no prior formal “training” and we developed each participant’s role according to their strengths. In addition, each student had the chance to take ownership of at least one song to develop as they saw fit. All the music was taught orally/aurally, to simulate a realistic way of acquiring the tradition. Indeed, whereas a majority of the material consisted of chanties, and whereas chanty lyrics are customarily improvised, I never sang the same words twice when teaching these songs. The result was that our meetings were not like rehearsals, but rather more like participatory “jam sessions.” When it came time to perform for an audience, the emphasis was on achieving the most direct communication to our listeners and the most sincere and individual expressions from the students. If one were to listen only to a recording of only the sounds from the event, one might hear only a group of “untrained” singers, but to be at the performance—really, a theatrical event—and to experience the dialogue and rapport between performers and audience felt like magic. 

Due to teaching load and space restrictions, I probably will not be able to direct the ensemble in the future, however I will teach a classroom course called “American Maritime Music Worlds” which will include a performance component similar to the ensemble.

VIDEO: The Pomona College Sea Chanty & Maritime Music Ensemble (Spring 2014 semester) 

Q: What was it like studying at UCSB? Who were some of your most influential mentors and professors?

A: Ethnomusicology was, or so I imagined, one of the more time-consuming and challenging graduate majors. In most cases, we are expected to learn several foreign languages and several musical instruments. We must be both performers and scholars—skills that demand an entirely different rhythm of time-management. Not only do we have to learn the literature and methods of our field, but we are also expected to keep abreast of those in related fields like Anthropology or History. And then we must utilize each summer break, as well as go abroad for a year, to do fieldwork. 

I found UCSB beneficial for the access to opportunities it offered. My educational experiences on the East Coast, before coming to Santa Barbara, had never been so open. I remember for instance in my first semester of study being invited into Prof. Marcus’ Middle East Ensemble. Where I’d come from, attitudes were more exclusive. So, I made up my mind to take up as many opportunities as I could.

 One of these opportunities I saw was to study Punjabi language, which was being taught for the first time (and rarely taught in other American universities) during my first semester. Doing that brought me into a specialized area, and prepared me to go to India in the summer after my first year—setting me on the path to my dissertation. By the end of my time at UCSB I was teaching the Punjabi classes, another opportunity that helped me to diversify my teaching experience. Prof. Gurinder Mann in Religious Studies was tremendously influential in guiding my initiation into these studies of Punjabi culture.
Music professor Scott Marcus was most influential on what I put out in the classroom, whereas Tim Cooley influenced what I put down on the page. These two fine professors helped me learn to balance the scholarly and the performative aspects of my field. I was also fortunate to study at UCSB during the time of Prof. Emerita Dolores Hsu, whose training in bibliographies came in handy later on, and with Nina Fales, a former ethnomusicology professor who was very dedicated to her students.
Read more about Professor Schreffler on his faculty profile page on the Pomona College website.
Gibb Schreffler (photo courtesy of Pomona College)