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Arts Toolkit

Arts Toolkit: Music

Kentuckians in Music

Professor and Musicologist Ronald Pen
Lexington, KY

Who Ronald Pen received his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky in 1987, writing his dissertation on the biography and works of American balladeer and composer John Jacob Niles. Ron has continued his research in the area of American vernacular music with an emphasis on the music and culture of the Southern Appalachian region. He has written book reviews, articles, forewords, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and documentary films focusing on topics such as shape note hymnody; early folk music collections; fiddle tunes; and traditional, country, and bluegrass musical styles. Ron was elected to the board of the Society for American Music and served as both program chair (Madison, WI) and local arrangements chair (Lexington, KY) for annual conferences. In addition, he serves as the book review editor for the journal American Music. He is an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and the director of its John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, which serves as a repository for research materials and actively supports the dissemination of scholarly research in American music. Ron’s own ongoing scholarship includes completion of a book on Niles for the University Press of Kentucky and research on the history of old-time music and early folk music collections. At UK, he has received both the Great Teacher Award and the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Influences “My father played a Hohner Echo model harmonica, and I clearly remember taking it and playing the Beethoven ‘Ode to Joy’ theme on it. I had never touched a harmonica before, and I am not sure how I knew that melody—obviously my parents had played it on the record player. Somehow I just knew how to play it, though.

“A story on the exact moment at which I decided to become a musician and headed down that particular path:

“I was in an English literature class and had waited until the last moment to write a paper on T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland.’ I was in trouble, but so was a friend of mine who played electric guitar. So the two of us, in desperation, decided to make a musical ‘translation’ of ‘Wasteland.’ After an all-nighter, we submitted the tape cassette to our professor, who looked at the assignment oddly but reserved judgment until after he listened to it and played it for the composition teacher at school. I received an A. Pushed in that direction, I took a music course and found myself composing ‘Water Music’ for a large chamber group, several dancers, several narrators, a tape of the waterfall behind our hippie farmhouse that I had altered with a synthesizer, a light show, and several performers with squirt guns. A prestigious New York contemporary music performance ensemble was in residence at the school, and the leader of this group had just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This group, along with musicians and friends from the university, performed the ‘Water Music’ piece one evening at Lee Chapel. When ‘Water Music’ began, it started raining, and you could really hear it on the chapel’s roof. When the piece ended, the rain ceased. At that point I knew I was going to be a musician. It was later that I decided to become a musicologist.

“Various musicians and musical styles have influenced me at various stages of my life. As a child, I was influenced by Mrs. Mary Maj, whom I had for eight years of elementary music. I wrote my first piece of music for her—‘Für Mrs. Maj,’ patterned on ‘Für Elise’—at age 6. I had a piano teacher, Robert Metzler, who came to my home every week for 14 years to teach me piano lessons. He was a hard disciplinarian, and I did not always love piano, but he persevered and so did I. My high school music teacher, John Austin, was inspirational, and I patterned my aspirations on him in so many ways. A Harvard-educated lawyer, he was an imaginative composer with an open mind who taught glee club, music history to uninterested high school seniors, and composition to me in private sessions. His willingness to listen to Jefferson Airplane as a classical musician made me realize that it was possible to span different styles of music in an open-minded way. In college, I was privileged to be a large fish in a small pond. When I finally fell into music as a possible major, I took all the courses I could with the two faculty members who comprised the music faculty. Robert Stewart taught me composition and 20th-century music. He was a brilliant musician and like a father to me. Jim Cook was a wild-man-as-professor, a Juilliard-trained pianist who directed men’s glee club and piano and taught most of the music history. Jim opened my eyes to all the possibilities of music and was a close friend. He had a sense of the zany; he cultivated my sense of humor in music and made me appreciate Frank Zappa. In graduate school, composer Robert Lombardo taught me the appreciation of a sense of line—as only an Italian composer understands. Don Ivey was my mentor in all things, and he confirmed my musical and musicological instincts; following in his steps, I began specializing in Appalachian music and jazz rather than purely ‘art’ music. I became an Americanist. Along the way there were countless others who directed my path and influenced me: composer Russell Wood, remarkable church musician Robert Lodine, and then all those musicians from whom I learned to play informally—traditional musicians like Marion Sumner, Lee Sexton, Clyde Davenport, Rich Kirby, Jean and Edna Ritchie, Don Pedi, Bruce Greene, Homer Ledford, and on and on....

“How can I describe their influence? When one is ready for something—whether one knows it or not—there is often someone at hand with enough power to change your directions or make you recognize and admit what you only suspected. Those are the influences that slowly uncovered layers of my being until I became who I am.”

What “I work closely with a community of traditional musicians spread throughout the Appalachian region. I also work closely with colleagues in the university, particularly the musicology division, the Appalachian Studies faculty, the staff of the Little Fine Arts Library, and the community surrounding the Gaines Center. Outside the university, I also collaborate closely with music and community organizations such as Appalshop in Whitesburg and the Hindman Settlement School.

“The hardest part for me is the disparity between what I want to do and what I am capable of doing. I find myself saying yes to so many things that seem wonderful, so many things that I would like to assist with, so many things that would make the world a better place—but then I don’t have enough time to complete the tasks that I have already consented to undertake. I have a substantial amount of writing and research as a senior editor of the new edition of the American Groves Encyclopedia, the book review editor of the Journal of the Society for American Music, president of the South-Central Chapter of the American Musicological Society, and co-editor of the Folk Music in North America series for Scarecrow Press. These are all outside commitments. In addition I have all my university-oriented commitments and teaching. I am also in the ‘un-writing’ or editing stage of a book that I have taken 20-some years to complete on John Jacob Niles, as well as the final production stage of an edition of the Kentucky Harmony and Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony—so there are two books dangling close to completion. The hardest sort of work for me is completion of grants, and I am in pursuit of a large NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] Challenge Grant that is in its third year now.

“As of last year, the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music is a formal part of my teaching/service/research assignment. The center was just an idea for many years, but it became a reality about eight years ago when we acquired the physical space in the Little Fine Arts Library and acquired the Wilcox Collection. Since that time, I have nurtured the center as a labor of love. The center is extraordinary as a collaboration between the College of Fine Arts and the university libraries; both the School of Music and the Little Fine Arts Library have been very supportive.

“I view the center’s mission as twofold: archival/preservation and programmatic. There is the public performance face of the center and there is the more internalized scholarly face. I have developed a very fine traditional music concert series called ‘Appalachia in the Bluegrass’ and have sponsored and hosted various symposia, colloquia, and concerts. The archival aspect has resulted in the acquisition of several wonderful collections, including the John L. Lair Research Collections, the Glenn and Helen Wilcox Collection, the Charles Faber Collection of Recorded Sound, the Temple Adath Israel Centennial Collection, and the WoodSongs Archives—a wonderful ongoing collaboration with the WoodSongs radio program.

“I have been involved with the Niles Center from its beginning to the present. I have been its only employee and its only staff member. I hope to leave it to a new director who will have the firm foundation of wonderful spaces, strong research collections, collection acquisition endowments, and endowed programmatic activities. The center is pretty close to this ideal at present, lacking one critical grant and one bequest to become somewhat self-sustaining. I want to leave the center behind as a testament to one of my favorite maxims: The power that rises from the soil closest to home has the most power to affect us. We need to preserve and celebrate our own music, the music that springs from our own cultural roots.”

When/Where “I see very little separation between my work and my life. I am working almost every waking hour, but it is hard to quantify all my activity as work. Even a recreational exercise like watching a film in the evening over dinner becomes work in the way that I observe the soundtrack, which can lead to teaching/research observations or can lead to thesis work by graduate students. Work and pleasure are not mutually exclusive terms, though there is certainly a job hidden in my work (meetings, reports, etc.). So, how many hours do I work a day? I am at school usually four to five days a week and arrive by 6:15 a.m. and leave usually about 5:00 p.m. But this is only a general schedule; I am frequently in town for concerts, jam sessions, and meetings, and many days are actually 16-hour days. My weekends are often flexible, but I do have many musical and work activities that occupy that time.

“A lot of my work time is in my office at the computer, whether at home or in the Library or in the School of Music Building. I am in the classroom very little in terms of actual teaching hours—but these hours are the focus of much work. I am working at the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music in the Fine Arts Library often.... My time spent playing fiddle or singing shape note music is likewise work, but this is more open-ended—out on porches, around bonfires, at square dances, in churches, etc.”

How “I greatly rely on my computer. I do much of my work on Microsoft Word, classes are now augmented with PowerPoint, I use e-mail extensively, I use the web a great deal, I rely on print materials from the Little Fine Arts Library, I use a number of Mac products every day: iTunes, iPod, etc. My musical instruments are tools—my fiddle is the one most often out of the case. Homer Ledford once showed me his old pocketknife and said that ‘This is my workshop.’ Like Homer, I find I use my pocketknife daily for a number of small but indispensable jobs.”

Why “The relationship with people is the most rewarding facet of the job: sharing music with people, sharing in the learning process with students, experiencing little epiphanies each day in the company of other people. It is also very rewarding when one of the long-term projects comes to fruition: when the Niles Gallery is packed for a concert, when a conference convenes and runs smoothly, when a CD is released, when a book is published, when a film appears on KET. The reward is in seeing the tangible product actually appear after much preparation.”

Getting There “Preparation for musicology requires a pretty standardized course of study that generally takes the form of a B.A. in music, a master’s degree in music history, and a Ph.D. in musicology. That preparation includes acquiring the ability to perform on an instrument or instruments, play in ensembles, comprehend the theoretical framework of harmony and counterpoint, acquire a background in music history, acquire foreign language competency, familiarize oneself with all forms of research materials, and become acquainted with grant writing and other forms of economic support. There are different branches of musicology that require more specialized training, whether it involves archiving, fieldwork, performance practice, or pedagogical studies.

“There is a certain passion that is essential to driving a person through the long and tortuous path to a position as a musicologist. This is a pretty esoteric job that requires a lot of specialized training. It is not a short path, so you need to burn with desire to transcend all the speed bumps. Understanding why you want to do it, understanding what you hope to contribute to the world, provides meaning and helps you to transcend the trials, such as qualifying exams and preparation of a thesis, and disappointments. To be truly joyous in a job, the job and your life must essentially be the same. You need to really know yourself to know whether you possess the requisite strengths that complement the demands of musicology.

“Imagination, persistence, idealism, creativity, ability to communicate articulately in both written and spoken form, sense of drama and good vocal production, love of music, organizational skills, language facility, ability to read music and ‘hear’ it internally, technological competency, personal warmth and charm, firmly grounded in English writing and editing skills, a liberal outlook and flexible world view, and the ability to make music and perform competently—these are all qualities that would benefit a career in musicology.”


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