John Ferguson

Phi Beta Kappa Address

April 17, 2008

John A. Ferguson

Elliot & Clara Stockdahl Johnson Professor of Organ and Church Music

(Note: This is the manuscript from which the speech was delivered. Parts, such as the vignettes and the experiment, were explained extemporaneously.)


Thank you – when Todd Nichol told me of my election to this auspicious group I was flabbergasted – while still in shock asked me if I would give some remarks after the dinner – well done Dr. Nichol, you know when to get what you want –shock someone and while they are still vulnerable go for the jugular.

My understanding of an after dinner speech is that it should be witty, interesting (they are not the same things although often confused) and still offer something of significance – especially so in such an academic gathering as this evening.

But then perhaps the real function of an after dinner speech is to give a bit of time for the digestive system to get to work without detouring the blood to the brain because of excessive stimulation.

But I’ve agreed to say something so would like to speculate for just a few minutes on music and words, music and words at St. Olaf and perhaps make at least a tenuous connection, see if there is any relationship with those of us gathered here this evening.

To begin, I’d like to share two St. Olaf-music related vignettes and then try a brief experiment.

  • cartoon
  • Chris & Sarah Tim Mahr at IU
  • Joy – Amazing grace

Now you may be thinking I’ve stacked the decks in this little experiment. Most of us know J & AG so our reactions are not all that objective, uniformed by previous experience. I admit this is true, yet in a way, this conundrum is part of the fascination I find in exploring this issue of how music works and more specifically how music and text interact, support and under gird each other.

In effect, I’m asking at least two questions here.

Does music in and of itself have meaning? Phenomenologists and philosophers have argued this question for centuries and the jury is still out deliberating. I do know that I believe with every fiber of my being that music is a rhetorical art form, a communicative, provocative, evocative language. It does have its own rules of grammar (ask any music theory student), principles that musicians ignore at their peril. While it cannot communicate with the specificity of a spoken language, it also can communicate with everyone – in a sense it is a universal language, a global language. Yes we sometimes may not quite get, but even the untutored can draw some experiential significance from listening to, experiencing a piece of music.

Think with me a minute – telephone – someone reading a passage of scripture in church. They know how to pronounce the words but don’t know the meaning of the words. And we sense that fact.

In the same way, some musicians with fabulous technique have yet to understand what a piece of music has to communicate, have yet to gain insights into its construction, its historical/contextual identity, so do not communicate the entire spectrum of experiences the composer envisioned for the piece. And even those of us untutored in the language of music can sense when the communicator is not telling the whole story. I take this to be evidence of the global nature of music as communicative art.

There is another interesting thing to consider when we explore the communicative nature of music. AC here this week – asked what do you think – answered you are the performer what do you think.

In music there is a person in the middle between the composer (the creator) and the audience – the performer or the recreator if you will. The composer lets go and trusts, must trust that the performer will attempt to discern what he or she was trying to communicate when composing the piece.

So, the answer to my question – does pure music have meaning is yes, but that meaning is difficult to unpack using words because we are dealing with a different kind of rhetoric.

My second question is how does a specific text wedded to a musical setting impact our perception of the meaning of the text. Can a composer exegete a text? I believe that this possibility is a real one and our experiment singing texts to differing tunes was intended to affirm my conviction. As a composer and arranger, I love trying to probe the text and see how my musical understandings can complement my conception of the text.

Now, let’s return to the two snap shots I shared at the beginning. In the cartoon, the bubble about the singing squirrels did not have only music notes, it had text! “Now thank we all our God.” Smart squirrels. Smarter cartoonist, who understood the role music in the St. Olaf milieu. We sing a lot here. Our founders considered music one of the liberal arts. (The St. Olaf Band is the oldest collegiate music ensemble in the US whose conductor’s salary was paid for by the administration, not the dues of its members.)

Yes, we sing a lot here and the words we sing interact with the music to better unpack the meaning both of text and tune. What a great example of cross-disciplinary collaboration in action!

Now what about my second snapshot. I believe that something very special happens here in much of our music making. It’s not unique to St. Olaf but perhaps more pervasive and significant here than on most campuses across the country. Our musicians do not make their music in an academic vacuum. St. Olaf’s music department is just that – a department of a rigorous liberal arts community of scholars. We are not locused as a professional school – a training school for performers. We aspire to provide a rigorous training for our students but because we are part of a liberal arts college rooted in the Christian Gospel, our professional degree for music majors envisions a much broader range of non music courses than most conservatories (music trade schools) offering the same degree. Our students study philosophy, science, religion, history, foreign languages. A much broader range of academic experience than most academic institutions with comparable music programs leavens our music making. Additionally and perhaps even more significantly, music making here is not limited to music majors. Our son, the history major, made music with musicians and with others in various disciplines. This cross-cultural experience (to use those words in a slightly different way) has better equipped him to be a historian and also provided a treasured group of life long friends. Of course this happens in other ways on this campus – one of our special strengths – but I do believe the interaction between music major and non music major -interaction possible primarily because of the extensive ensemble program – is really most significant, not just for us here on campus but because of its life long implications.

And as his wife Sarah, an Olie music major (they met in the band and their first date was a bus date on band tour), as Sarah observed at that concert in Indiana, music making at St. Olaf involves a profound depth of understanding – an understanding informed by the range of experiences and mix of people involved. The wonderfully intelligent people who are a part of these ensembles also inform it, encourage that probing deeper beyond mere notes, mere technique.

And here is where you gathered here this evening come in. Your strengths, your intellectual rigor, your leadership in this community is of extraordinary value – not just to those of us who study and make music, but to all of us. Cross-disciplinary learning goes on here all the time – much of it not in the classroom. These high levels of learning, that growing is what all institutions in academe covet. And as a musican welcomed into this rich learning environment I thank you for what you all have done and will do to assure that such life continues to thrive on this campus.