Justin Patch introduces fresh perspective to music studies

Justin Patch, a music professor with a background in anthropology, employs innovative techniques in his classes. He is particularly interested in certain pedagogical aspects of the way people interpret sound. Photo By: Vassar College
Justin Patch, a music professor with a background in anthropology, employs innovative techniques in his classes. He is particularly interested in certain pedagogical aspects of the way people interpret sound. Photo By: Vassar College
Justin Patch, a music professor with a background in anthropology, employs innovative techniques in his
classes. He is particularly interested in certain pedagogical aspects of the way people interpret sound. Photo By: Vassar College

Justin Patch’s father did not want a TV in his home. “Instead, growing up, I always had the radio on, something to listen to, and as a result music has always been around me,” Patch said. Now, he is a Post Doctoral Fellow of Music.

He began playing instruments at a young age. Starting with the piano, then toying with the trumpet but dropping it due to the difficulties of playing with braces, he ultimately picked up his dad’s guitar. “I fell in love with it,” he said, “And when I decided between studying religion or music in college, I chose music.”

Patch now plays electric and classical guitar and electric and upright bass. He has played at prominent music festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, as well as other venues in New England, Texas, Minneapolis and California.

Patch studies American music and its relationship with violence. In 2008 he wrote his master’s thesis on anti-war music in Austin, Texas and worked with an anti-war group’s protests. At Vassar, Patch teaches classes on both American and world music, with an emphasis on the social ecosystem in which performance, industry and audience are constituted. For example, he has taught area classes on Asia and Latin America, as well as a class on the history of rock. And this fall, he pioneered a class called “Soundscapes: the Anthropology of Music.” The class focuses on how humans hear and perceive sound. Patch said, “The class was interactive about recreating sound and visual stimulus to see how sound works.”

“Soundscapes” was chock-full of innovative assignments requiring students to work hands-on experimenting with sound. For example, students recorded some of their everyday experiences and cobbled together three to five minutes of sound that illustrated their day-to-day life. Students also created mash-ups of popular music and analyzed each others’ work, using a public relations video from the Vassar YouTube site as a template and remade its sound to reflect how they individually feel about Vassar.

To execute this class, Patch utilized the Listening Classroom, a space adjacent to the George Sherman Dickinson Music Library in Skinner Hall. Its good acoustics, high-definition sound and projector, and various sound manipulation tools, such as plug-and-play keyboards, enabled Patch to teach students to experiment in a flexible and thorough way.

Patch said, “In a nutshell, I teach stuff that is a little off the beaten path, funkier and more contemporary than most classes in the school of Music. My classes have the deepest focus on contemporary culture.”

Accordingly, Patch’s research interests are in music anthropology. He specializes in music and the experience of US politics from the grassroots to the presidential campaign, and his writings concern the interplay of institution, sound and emotions in the political process. His work has been published in notable journals such as The European Legacy, International Political Anthropology and Americana.

Samuel Deffenbaugh ’14, who took “Anthropology of Music,” “Advanced Topics in World Music” and “History of Rock” with Patch, appreciated the integration of Anthropology into each of Patch’s classes.

“Prof. Patch’s background in Anthropology has influenced every class I’ve taken with him so far. While ‘political campaigns’ did not specifically factor into all of his classes, his experience with how musical scholarship is gathered and how music is presented in other cultures is certainly a central issue which he addresses. In particular, the class on Anthropology of Music was an amazing insight into not only music in other cultures, but also how other people hear and interpret sound,” wrote Deffenbaugh in an emailed statement.

Patch wrote his master’s thesis for the University of Texas at Austin on anti-war music just as the 2008 Democratic primary was getting fired up.

“I found myself reading the news compulsively,” he said, adding, “I wanted to chase the Democratic primary, and found myself working for the Texas Democratic party. I ultimately wrote my dissertation on the sound of American politics.”

He is currently working on a monograph based on his dissertation. “It is about what American campaigns sound like, and the importance of sound and the feeling of mass participation in the democratic process,” Patch noted.

“It is about how rhetoric works to get people actively involved in the pre-election process, and how sound plays into that framework, motivating people to contribute in small ways—by volunteering to solicit donations, posting on Facebook, spreading the word to friends and neighbors, etc.”

Patch’s monograph is tentatively titled Discordant Magic: Audition, Affect and the Presidential Campaign. Patch is currently in the beginning stages of writing an article for the journal American Music about music and political campaigns. In the article, Patch compares will.i.am’s song “Yes We Can” to Bob Marley’s song “War.” The article will focus on how musicians take other people’s words, such as the “Yes We Can” mantra that Barack Obama used in his 2008 campaign and translate them into song.

In the classroom, Patch’s enthusiasm for his studies stimulates his students’ intellectual curiosity. “Prof. Patch’s class was interesting in that I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying it until it was almost over. It was so consistently engaging and thought-provoking that it seemed to infect the way I was approaching my other classes,” wrote Deffenbaugh.

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