Introducing Susan C. Cook, the new director of the UW-Madison School of Music

The UW-Madison School of Music enters a new era this month with the appointment of Professor Susan C. Cook as its new director. Cook, a musicologist and previously the academic associate dean for the Arts and Humanities in the Graduate School, replaces Professor John Stevens, who will retire next spring after a distinguished 29-year career as UW-Madison professor of tuba. Directors are elected for a five-year term, but Stevens, who also held the position from 1991 to 1996, decided to retire at the end of this academic year.

Prof. Cook, who began her musical studies as a harpsichordist, will be only the second woman to serve as director of the school of music.  She is also the former executive director of the UW-Madison Arts Institute and briefly served as interim director of the University Press. She joined UW-Madison in 1991 after earning a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Michigan and teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Susan C. Cook
Susan C. Cook
Photograph by Michael R. Anderson

Among Cook’s areas of interest are American music and dance, issues of gender and music, and women in the arts. She has served on the boards of the American Musicological Society, the Society of American Music, the Society of Dance History Scholars and the Madison Cultural Arts District. She co-edited the award-winning collection Cecilia Reclaimed: Feminist Perspectives on Gender and Music (1993, University of Illinois Press) and most recently Bodies of Sound: Studies Across Popular Music and Dance (2013, Ashgate). She is the author of Opera for a New Republic (1988, University of Rochester Press), an exploration of the 1920s Zeitoper (topical opera) and its primary exponents, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith.  Her essay “Watching Our Step: Embodying Research, Telling Stories,” on the gendered and racialized meanings of ragtime social dance won the Lippincott Prize from the Society for Dance History Scholars. She has also held the Walt Whitman Chair in American Culture Studies as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Teaching Program in the Netherlands.

Cook can sometimes also be heard giving pre-concert lectures prior to performances of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Susan agreed to answer a few questions about her life, her interests and her appointment as School of Music director.

Do you own an iPod, and if so, what’s on it?

“Funny you should ask.  Even with my research and teaching interests in contemporary music and music and recorded sound, I only got an iPod last semester in order to better teach my class on Music and Ethnicity in Wisconsin.  So, mostly what’s on it are materials for that course—everything from various kinds of polka, to field recordings of British Isles ballads to contemporary powwow and klezmer.

“Before a recent airline flight I did load up a number of discs of Ravel’s piano works and music by the Québécois band “Le Vent du Nord,” who played recently at the Fête de Marquette festival on the east side of Madison.

What instruments do you play?

 “As a fulltime musicologist here, I perform in the classroom, in public lectures and on paper through my scholarship.  As a child, I started with piano and violin, but in college switched my keyboard interests to the harpsichord, studying with Max Yount at Beloit College.  I continued harpsichord study in graduate school with Edward Parmentier and taught harpsichord as part of my first job at Middlebury College.  Since coming to Wisconsin, I’ve played for my own enjoyment.  I just purchased a new violin so I can start learning fiddle tunes—I’m trying to learn by ear to improve my skills to play for contra dances.

As a musicologist and music historian, what are your particular musical interests?

“I just co-edited a volume of essays on popular music and dance with a dance historian at Temple University, Sherril Dodds.  Many of the contributions focus on international contemporary dance and music practices.  My contribution is one of the few historical ones, examining an aspect of ragtime dance c. 1910 and its relationship to the emergence of the recorded sound technology.  Ragtime dance has preoccupied me for some time, and I’m currently working on a book about it that examines why it was considered a dangerous activity, especially for women, and how women literally used the dance floor to negotiate new social roles for themselves.  I’m utilizing lots of archival sources here at the University, which makes the work especially interesting as I explore how faculty and administrators confronted student leisure behaviors they found ‘eccentric’ and even ‘disgusting.’

What do you want to do as director?

“I know it sounds like a cliché, but I want to help insure that the School of Music can maximize all its resources so it continues to be the best 21st century institution it can be.  I want the School to be part of larger University-wide conversations about the important roles music study and the arts in general play in a public institution like ours; we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to be where we want to be five, ten, 15 years from now.  In the short term, I want to make sure our new dean of the College of Letters & Sciences and our new chancellor, know how well we fulfill the University’s educational mission and how beautifully we embody the Wisconsin Idea of contributing to the state, nation and world.

Why did you want this job?

“I actually enjoy the challenges of administrative work.  For the past six plus years I’ve been the academic associate dean in the Graduate School for the arts and humanities.  I oversaw critically important research competitions for faculty and staff and had an active role in shaping processes related to funding opportunities for graduate students and other aspects of the graduate education.  That work gave me a big picture of the university especially as I worked side by side my fellow associate deans who represent the social, biological and physical sciences.  They had different ways of doing their teaching and scholarship yet we all shared a common goal of research and educational excellence.  I’ve learned a lot about how departments large and small carry out their work and how they function both separately and as part of a larger whole.  I was also able to take part in nationwide conversations about the role of public higher education and the changes and challenges facing graduate education across the board.  I was ready for a change, and when John Stevens decided to step down early, it seemed like an appropriate time to take my administrative experience back to the place I love most.

What do you think the SoM brings to the University and State?

“I’m especially proud of the quality of teaching we have here and the high level of professionalism demonstrated by our faculty and staff in all they do.  Everyone works very hard and is deeply committed.  It’s become standard now in Universities to call for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to what we do—I want to communicate with the University and others how the SoM has been a model of that kind of “mixed methods” approach for decades through its combination of studio and classroom instruction.  We approach the study of this activity and thing we call “music” from lots of different ways, learning through performance, research and study.  Music students learn the value of daily practice, something they can bring to all parts of their life, as well as learning how the experience of music has shaped past practices and beliefs and continues to shape ideas and relationships in the present time.  We’ve increasingly taken a global approach to the musical experience as well, which I hope to foster as music is an especially powerful way to engage with other cultures.  We provide our audiences, which of course includes the citizens of our state, with powerful experiences of pleasure and opportunities to better understand what it means to be human.

What are your favorite courses to teach?

 “I love teaching and especially enjoy having a balance of music majors and non-majors as well as graduates and undergraduates.  I especially enjoy teaching my American Music survey because there are so many ways I can relate aspects of the course to what students have experienced.  It gives me the opportunity to put the US into a larger dialogue with the rest of the world.  It’s also a course that changes every time I teach it in response to new things I’ve uncovered in my own research and new things that have happened, such as who’s won a Pulitzer prize or what new ensemble or individual is of particular interest to the students.”

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