On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, a music history seminar offered on American composer Aaron Copland in the Department of Music and Theatre Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire welcomed a special, virtual guest: scholar Howard Pollack, professor of music at the University of Houston and author of Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (University of Illinois Press, 1999)—the central biography on the well known music figure, and a staple of the seminar’s reading list.
Seminar professor Ryan Jones invited Pollack to zoom into the class after one industrious seminar student had reached out to him personally over email concerning related research inquiries. During his zoom chat, Pollack discussed his specific approaches to biography in work on Copland and other composers. “Our class had discussed if including a composer's deepest secrets and flaws was appropriate in their own biography,” recounted seminar student Davis Bitterman. “Dr. Pollack answered this question by acknowledging that as the author of a biography, it is his obligation to portray multiple perspectives of the people around Copland so that the reader can get a sense of how the composer was perceived. This may mean that some controversial tidbits are included for the public to read, but this is to ensure a biography that accurately portrays who that composer was while they were alive.” Pollack concluded the zoom session by fielding questions from seminar members about upcoming individual research topics on specific Copland works assigned as part of the course. “I took Dr. Pollack’s advice,” said another student Krista Witak, “and dove further into the intentional exclusion of certain parts of [my assigned] score, which has fueled a lot of the research I have completed since then.”
“To interact with arguably the most significant Copland scholar—a writer who has shaped the discussion of Copland scholarship and framed our seminar’s every discussion—was a rare opportunity for students in our program,” said Jones. “Considering that Pollack is the Copland scholar,” Erica Hiller offered, “I was intimidated by him at first, but his passion for the subject and for learning took over and it became a very informative, relaxed, and natural discussion.”
“If nothing else,” Jones added, “the experience of meeting and speaking with a figure whose work they’ve read and discussed so much throughout the semester really helped not only to humanize him, but to add another, unique dimension to our historical treatment.”
Other Student perspectives on the visit were similarly revealing. “Getting to see and hear Pollack and interact with him as a class was a unique experience and a beneficial one,” stated India Carpentier. “We often have guest artists and performers come and speak in classes and ensembles, but that was the first time I have ever had an author of our ‘textbook’ speak to one of my classes. For me, just getting to see a little bit more of what his personality is like makes the reading more meaningful.”
“It was awesome to put a face and a voice to the book we are reading for seminar,” observed Nick Miskimen. “I think what struck me the most is that Pollack's writing in his biography of Aaron Copland is conversational, in that it feels like a conversation from the writer to the reader.”
According to Bitterman, “I was pleasantly surprised that such a successful musicologist like Pollack would be so interested in discussing the details of Copland’s most prized compositions with us. He has been pivotal in developing scholarship on Aaron Copland for decades, and the fact that he was willing to sit with sixteen undergraduates with very limited knowledge on Copland’s life or music and patiently guide us through learning about Copland as deeply as possible was astounding.”