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Sounds from the Dumbarton Oaks Music Symposium

Posted On November 28, 2023 | 11:21 am | by briggsm01 | Permalink
On Friday, September 22, music emanated from Dumbarton Oaks, as it often does. But never have so many concert attendees been compelled to dance on the North Vista.

A rollicking outdoor performance by all-female Go-Go band Be’la Dona was just one highlight of “Washington, D.C.: Music-Political Center,” which brought together academics and practitioners for Dumbarton Oaks’s first-ever scholarly symposium on music. Over two days of presentations and panels (and one night of concert festivities), speakers examined how the city’s racially diverse—yet structurally segregated—residents have cultivated a heterogeneous musical culture that is simultaneously hyper-local and internationally connected.  

Washington, D.C., established by the U.S. constitution to serve as the nation’s seat of government in 1790, shares its “made-for-purpose” history with several other colonial capitals. Yet, compared to the likes of Ottawa, Canberra, and Wellington, it stands out for the vibrancy and uniqueness of its cultural scene. While the music histories of cities like New York, Boston, and Los Angeles have received significant attention from musicologists, D.C. has earned far less consideration —despite this unusual confluence of geopolitical importance and cultural flourishing. This intersection was embodied by Robert and Mildred Bliss themselves, a diplomat and an arts patron who, in their pursuits, synthesized politics and culture. Motivated by the gap in scholarship on D.C.’s music and by Dumbarton Oaks’s prominent role in the city’s concert music scene, Library Director Daniel Boomhower convened the symposium with fellow musicologists Emily Abrams Ansari from Western University’s Don Wright Faculty of Music and Michael Uy from Harvard University.  

In their opening remarks, Ansari and Uy proposed a guiding framework for considering “official” and “unofficial” music history in D.C.: the city as a locus of private patronage and public music institutions overseen by a wealthy, largely white elite often working for or with the federal government, and as a space of grassroots musical activity emerging from sizeable yet marginalized local communities. Throughout the symposium, the two histories were engaged, challenged, and recapitulated in fascinating ways. Friday’s panel on the politics of gentrification and sound in D.C., featuring the founders of artistic activism group Long Live GoGo, offered an especially compelling meditation on this schema: what happened when Go-Go music—which originated in D.C.’s historic Black community in the 1960s and ’70s and remains a predominantly Black genre—was designated in 2020 as the “official music” of a rapidly gentrifying city?  

The symposium featured nine paper presentations and three panels, covering a wide range of popular and classical music-making and political expression. Boomhower and Patrick Warfield, of the University of Minnesota, brought us to the nineteenth century with papers that touched on the long domestic music history of Dumbarton Oaks and the 1850s rise of the United States Marine Band, respectively. American University’s Kip Lornell traced the origins of bluegrass as a hybrid genre in the city, while Music of Asian America Research Center director Eric Hung took the audience on a tour of diasporic music-making practices across generations of the DMV’s growing Asian-American communities, from Japanese koto instructors to Cambodian Buddhist music ensembles.  

On Saturday, Maurice Jackson of Georgetown University covered the city’s foundational history of Black jazz performance—as much a site of negotiation for equality and Black freedom as for cultural expression, as Jackson outlined—and the many formal and informal institutions that supported the music. Harvard University’s Carol Oja focused on the segregated landscape of D.C. concert halls that Black artists Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes faced in the 1920s and ’30s, bringing new archival depth to the study of Anderson’s famous 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance. Fernando Rios, from the University of Maryland-College Park, analyzed the nuanced political messaging of the Mount Pleasant-based Salvadoran ensemble Izalco amid the U.S.-Central American Solidarity Movement of the 1980s. And Valerie Lambert, Choctaw Nation and UNC-Chapel Hill, outlined how seemingly competing federal motives of racialized suppression and primitivist preservation shaped Indigenous music practices around the turn of the twentieth century.  

The tremendous dialogue between sessions was invigorating. For example, on Friday, Danielle Fosler-Lussier of Ohio State University presented an exciting paper on the People-to-People Music Committee, a government-funded volunteerism program “aimed at improving international relations through direct personal contact” with musicians and music educators worldwide beginning in 1956. Then, on Saturday, the topic of cultural diplomacy was animated again by a panel on “hip-hop diplomacy” that focused on the State Department’s Next Level program, a contemporary people-to-people program that sends abroad DJs, MCs, beat makers, and dancers to lead workshops and conduct outreach. Clearly in conversation with each other across time, the programs illuminated the distinct yet overlapping cultural politics of the Cold War era and our contemporary moment.  

Saturday’s midday panel on D.C. hip-hop brought the house down, as a lineup of local legends reflected on the city’s central and widely overlooked role in the development of hip-hop culture. Interspersed with a bevy of illustrative YouTube clips, the panel spoke presciently to the symposium’s key themes: the intersection of music and politics and the unique and understudied cultural legacy of the city. Rapper and songwriter Nonchalant brought it home in her final remarks: “I encourage young artists as well as older artists [in the DMV] to make sure that you speak,” she said. “Make sure that you say something ... Don’t let them cut your mic off after the record.”  

The conveners of the symposium are at work on an edited volume based on these two dynamic days of music, research, and reflection. As a home for the humanities in all their forms, Dumbarton Oaks is poised to continue supporting this exhilarating conversation.  

Amelia Roth-Dishy is a 2023–2024 Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow.