Around the Quads
Five Minutes with ... Giuseppe Gerbino
Giuseppe Gerbino is an associate professor of music, specializing in Renaissance music, and also chairs the Department of Music. Born and raised near Brescia, Italy, Gerbino earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Pavia, and both his master’s in music and Ph.D. in musicology at Duke. He has worked at Columbia since 2001 and was honored this year with a Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award.
How did you become interested in music?
I began to study piano when I was pretty young but my training in high school was in classics, Greek and Latin. Partly because of that, I developed an interest in the legacy of classical antiquity and therefore the Renaissance as a historical period during which classical antiquity provided the foundation of a body of knowledge and philosophy that affected the way European thought developed from that point on. I began to study musicology in college, which allowed me to combine these two passions, music and classical antiquity, in their historical convergence in the Italian Renaissance.
What characterizes music of the Renaissance?
My work focuses on the century and a half from 1500 to 1650. Probably the most important type of music that was in fashion at the time was a rather complex form of polyphony — which is to say, music for multiple independent voices, both secular and sacred. Later, as you reach the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the 17th century, a renewed interest in the expressive power of the human voice led to the emergence of a new style of solo singing and vocal virtuosity. This is also the time when opera emerged as a form of musical theatre.
What do you enjoy about teaching Music Humanities?
First of all, the fact that you have students from so many different backgrounds. It’s very satisfying to discuss music with them in a way that doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of music theory and instead explores music as a fundamental aspect of the human experience. The sheer variety of the music we study in Music Humanities, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, is a great tribute to the human imagination.
The other thing I love is the interdisciplinary spirit underlying the Core Curriculum. As I see it, the four components of the Western Core are not four independent courses: literature, philosophy, art history and music. Rather, they are inextricably intertwined points of entry into the intellectual life of the West through four fundamental manifestations of human behavior: the linguistic, the abstract thinking, the visual and the auditory. It’s fascinating to observe the same object from these four points of view — almost as a “quadridimensional” object — and it’s the synergy among the four components of the Core that makes teaching any one of them such a stimulating and rewarding experience.
Do you find that students from nonmusical backgrounds are intimidated by Music Humanities?
Sometimes, yes. Music is an ephemeral object; it unfolds in time, and it is never present in front of you in its entirety in any tangible way. It’s not so easy to grasp the nature of an object that cannot be observed the way a painting can, or whose temporal directionality cannot be controlled the way we do with a book when we flip back and forth between pages.
One advantage, though, is that the emotional response to music allows you to get into contact or in touch with it in an instinctive and profound single act of perception. At that point you can begin to ask yourself: “Why am I reacting to this piece this way?” The music may sound alien at first but what is important is that it was meaningful to the people who created it, shared it and performed it. And that’s when the discussion takes off.
What other undergraduate courses do you teach?
One that I love — which is open to all undergraduates regardless of their musical background — is called “Music and Myth.” It is a study of the musical adaptation of classical mythology in Western culture. I usually choose five myths to study in detail, for example, Stravinsky’s post-WWI, neoclassical oratorio “Oedipus rex” or Prometheus and Beethoven’s third symphony. I also teach the first semester of the music history survey for the major and a course on Bach’s vocal music, one of my favorite composers.
What music on your iPod would students be surprised to know you have?
Perhaps the most unusual item on my playlist is a collection of songs from the former Soviet Union, especially by the Red Army Choir and Band. Their performance style and repertory can be hauntingly evocative and terrifying at the same time.
What’s your favorite place to be?
I’ve always had a bit of an attraction for the mountains. But if I were to pick a city I would say New York. I find the synergy between Columbia and the city to be unique. The experience of living in a city like New York changes you deeply — the same way a great piece of music or a great book can change you forever. I fell in love with the city and the institution from day one and, after 12 years, I think it’s still the honeymoon.
Interview: Alexis Tonti ’11 Arts
Photo: Eileen Barroso