Center Executive Committee Welcomes Natalie Zelensky

Fall 2020 has seen the addition of a new member to the Center for the Arts and Humanities Executive Committee: Associate Professor of Music Natalie Zelensky. Professor Zelensky first came to Colby in 2012 and has been an invaluable addition to campus. Her research centers on ethnomusicology, a unique interdisciplinary field which consists of the study of music in its social and cultural contexts. When completing her PhD in Music Studies at Northwestern University, Professor Zelensky studied the music of 1920s Russian émigrés in New York City, and how this music made its way into American culture and politics. Last year, she completed her monograph Performing Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination, which you can buy here. The book explores the Russian Vogue of the 1920s, which was based on stereotypes of Russian exiles, as well as the presence of Russian music in Hollywood films and sheet music, and the role that Russian émigrés played in US anti-communist Cold War propaganda. She also studied the way in which new generations descended from these Russian émigrés have used stylized versions of folk music and dances to hang on to an idealized, mythical homeland, thereby creating a new identity for themselves as Russian-Americans. “Average people within diasporas,” she said, “use music to shape their sense of self.”

This semester, Professor Zelensky is teaching two classes: an introductory course in Ethnomusicology and another in World Music. Her World Music course applies the techniques of ethnomusicology to diverse cultures across the globe. Students learn about the cultural practice of music in Cuba, Brazil, South India, Bulgaria, Russia, and other countries. The class recently finished a segment on music in Zimbabwe and South Africa which focused on the practice of traditional Shona music, its importance to anti-colonial rebellions, and its introduction into modern pop music practices.

In the spring of 2014, Professor Zelensky received a grant from the Center to develop a humanities lab, “Maine’s Musical Soundscapes: Ethnography of Maine”. When she first came to Colby, Professor Zelensky worked to make sense of this new cultural landscape. In developing this class, she was able to connect with local musical cultures and forge a bond with her new home. In her lab, which was held a second time in 2015 and a third time in 2018, students interviewed Franco-Americans—that is, French Canadians and the descendants of Maine’s first French settlers, the Acadians. There is a long history of discrimination against French people in Maine, and music served as a way for francophone communities to celebrate their heritage and reclaim their identities. With help from Visiting Instructor of Cinema Studies Erin Murphy, students made ethnographic films about their interviewees. This applied work outside the classroom, engaging with the local community, added a profound human dimension to the pedagogical work that the students were doing. This sort of work is usually only found at a graduate level, and Professor Zelensky is grateful that Center funding allowed students to experience it.

Center research grants have also enabled some of Professor Zelensky’s students to conduct their own ethnomusicological research. Last year, her student Dylan Therriault ’20, received a Center grant and conducted a research project titled Tradition, Inclusivity, and Participation in Maine’s Contemporary Contra Dance Culture: An Example of a Progressive Traditional Practice. The project was an all-encompassing ethnography of contemporary Maine contra dance as a traditional practice within the state, and it won the Lise Waxer Award for an Outstanding Undergraduate Paper from the Northeast Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. To read more about Dylan’s project, please click here.

Professor Zelensky believes that the Center is “crucial in fostering and sustaining a vibrant intellectual atmosphere on campus.” She appreciates the unifying presence of the annual theme, and the robust programming that comes out of it. Professor Zelensky told us that the Center “fosters interdisciplinary, cross-campus collaborations and partnerships,” and helps to forge partnerships between faculty and students. She is looking forward to playing a role in the Center going forward as a member of the Executive Committee, and recognizes the importance of planning events that fit with the atmosphere on campus while connecting Colby to the outside world. Professor Zelensky concluded, “I think that through conversations, and through programming, the Center will play an important role in offering a steady path in these difficult times.”