Emily Zazulia Brings Early Music to Life

­How do you teach students with little or no formal musical training how to hear and understand the subtleties of music from the 14th and 15th centuries? That was just one question musicologist Emily Zazulia, a specialist in early music and one of three new assistant professors in the Department of Music, had to grapple with as she taught a new course titled Renaissance Music: Reason, Ritual, and Representation.

“It is idiomatic in a way,” says Zazulia, “which can cause things to sound similar, but how can we differentiate? What can we listen for? What can that tell us about the musical culture of the time?”

Zazulia employs a number of strategies to help students gain a more nuanced understanding of early music such as delving into the text and making connections to more contemporary idioms, like blues and modern pop, but she also encourages them to try to imagine what it would be like to step into that cultural milieu.

“One thing I try to get my students to think about is being empathetic with our historical forebears and trying to understand their position. It will never be exact—we can’t un-hear or un-learn or un-see things—but we can imagine, for example, what it would be like to have most of the music we listen to be chant sung in a church.  How does a heightened historical awareness change our own hearing of some of these pieces?”

Zazulia’s thoughtful approach to the classroom follows the pattern of positive experiences she herself had as a student. Like many singers, her first introduction to early music was through her choir in college, an ensemble where exploring and embracing early music was encouraged. Her newfound appreciation for early music was nurtured by teaching assistants and professors who specialized in music of the 15th and 16th centuries and she eventually designed a thesis around the subject. An exploratory meeting with Professor Sean Gallagher led to the thesis topic that would form the foundation of her research interests going forward.

“He sat me down and said, ‘Tell me about things that you’re interested in.’ I said, ‘Well, if I hadn’t been a music major I would have been a math major. I like numbers, I like reasoning; I obviously like 15th century music…’ A sly look came over his face, and he said, ‘I have an idea.’ And so we embarked on a semester study of the mensural practice of composer Antoine Busnoys who has some of the craziest rhythmic and metric writing practices and innovations of the 15th century. Now I didn’t know at the time that this was quite as ambitious or crazy a topic for a first endeavor into research as perhaps Sean did, but I thank him for starting me on this path, and I really think I can trace—even though my research has gone in different directions—I can trace a lot of what I’m doing back to that early training.”

Zazulia’s current research focuses on the performative aspects of notation in the 14th through the early 16th century. She is particularly concerned with compositions in which performers (usually tenors) are required to carry out prescribed transformations of the written material.

“The singer has to manipulate the music in some way, from turning it upside down to reading it backwards to reading it without certain written symbols. This sort of composition opens up a space between written and sounding music. So I’m interested in probing this performative kind of aesthetics—space between what you see and what you hear—because composers make a distinction between the two.”

Specific projects include a contribution to the forthcoming Cambridge History of 15th Century Music and beginning work on a monograph about 15th-century notation and aesthetics. She’s also at work on a new article on Johannes Tinctoris’s and Antoine Busnoys’s L’Homme armé masses based on a paper she presented last year at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society.

All of these projects—new courses, articles, and books—are ambitious ones to be sure, but Emily Zazulia is no stranger to ambitious projects, and there will be plenty more to come as her academic career continues to unfold.