Associate Professor of Music Brian Mann has been continuously teaching in the Music Department at Vassar since 1987, when he replaced a professor who was on sabbatical leave. And in his twenty-five some years at Vassar, Mann has seen the College’s music program grow and change greatly. In many ways, he has been an instrumental part of these various changes.
“Because the music department is fairly small and because there has been a great deal of change in the nature of the discipline, so to speak, of music history, I teach a lot of courses,” Mann explained. “I’m a music historian or musicologist, so in principle the courses I most often teach are courses in history.”
Mann teaches courses in the history of jazz, as well as the first semester of the three-semester music-history survey course for majors, the music in film course— which is cross listed with the film department— and opera. But with cutbacks to the music department as a result of the recession, Mann has been required to teach an even greater variety of material, now lecturing for music theory as well as music history classes.
“In the last several years, because of staffing issues brought on by the recession, I’ve been teaching other courses that I have not done so before,” he explained.
“Normally courses in music theory are taught by our composers. We now are being called upon to teach these courses in music theory, which we are perfectly able to do in our training, but they are just courses we haven’t done before. Next fall I will be teaching, for the first time ever, Harmony 105, a year long course in harmony which you need to take to be a music major.”
Though he is able to teach courses in music theory effectively, he is more drawn to musicology. “I’m much more interested in the broad range of music history, going all the way back to the middle ages. I love studying different bodies of music and stylistic changes,” Mann said.
“Music theory, in my view, has always been a little dry. In other words a musicologist can go to European archives and look at the original manuscripts or look at the biography of a composer. There’s a huge range of activities for musicologists, whereas theorists just analyze a piece of music closely and write an extremely elaborate analysis of a piece of music without much historical or cultural context,” he explained.
Previously, he has taught the advanced harmony class, and is currently teaching the fundamentals of music class, which covers basic music literacy. Mann, as a jazz pianist himself, finds that teaching these courses, though outside of his usual discipline, is rewarding though a little challenging.
“I’m a piano player, so harmony is just something that I live and breathe, but teaching it and making it clear and coming up with useful exercises is another matter. That takes a lot of thought,” he said.
“I am going to be turning to my colleagues and looking at their material. I take suggestions and get ideas and then end up doing my own thing.” Mann usually performs in a recital at the Skinner Hall of Music over the summer, inviting musicians from New York City to accompany him.
Mann received his Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He earned an M.A. at the University of California, Berkeley, and then went on to write his Ph.D dissertation on a subject in the 16th century Italian madrigal at the same institution. He taught from 1982-1987 at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Though his research centers on 16th century music, Mann has also been drawn to jazz from a young age. As a child, he taught himself how to play jazz piano.
But as Mann asserted, academic interest in jazz has grown and grown over the years. “When I came to Vassar there were no courses in the music of jazz or music in film, but we started them because they’re growing fields of interest for students and in scholarship,” Mann explained. “The availability of recordings makes it possible to teach these at a fairly high level.”
Like jazz, music in film was not taught at the College, but Mann has helped to spearhead the study of this increasingly popular subject in academics. And through the course, he has been inspired to expand his areas of research outside of the classroom to film music, particularly music in French films.
“I love film music. I’m teaching it this semester for about the third time in the last 6 years,” he said. “That’s been a lot of fun for me, and because of teaching that class and doing research and looking very closely at certain films, I got to the point that there were films I wanted to give scholarly presentations on.” A self-proclaimed Francophile, Mann has lectured twice at an annual conference at New York University on film music.
Last fall, Mann also provided a novel course for the music department: a freshman writing seminar. The music department had not offered a freshman writing seminar in over thirty years. The course was comprised of two major units, the first covering music in the classical period, such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, and the second covering operas based on literary models, such as Richard Strauss’ Salome, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s work of the same name.
“We would read the plays or novel in verse, and [the students] had a kind of comfort zone in dealing with literary texts, and then we moved to the operas and tried to see how these literary works were transformed into musical works. It’s a very interesting process to see how a literary text is transformed into an opera,” he explained.
In his many years at Vassar, Mann has found the music department to be a strong and innovative department whose strength is also built on the closeness and collaboration among its professors.
“I think this is a great institution and a very strong music department,” Mann reflected. “It’s small and tight-knit, and we all get along very well.”