Rachel Mundy Explores the Animanities

Rachel Mundy is one of three new Assistant Professors this year in the Department of Music. As a musicologist, she adds to the interdisciplinary richness of the Department with expertise in an area of research that is so new it was up to her to give it a name: animanities.

“I do a lot of work that looks at the history of recordings and transcriptions of animal songs and animal music in biology and compares the way that biologists talk about animal sounds—particularly examples they think of as musical like birdsong or whale song—to the way that people in music have traditionally talked about song in a human context.”

If Mundy’s research focus seems surprising, that may have to do with the fact that is was a surprise—or perhaps an epiphany—to Mundy herself. As a doctoral student, she traveled to France to study government support for contemporary music during the 50s and 60s. It’s the kind of careful, sometimes mind-numbing sifting of primary sources that often forms the foundation for new musicological research. Mundy spent many long sessions in the basement of the Bibliothèque Nationale poring over government paperwork, but when she needed a break, she found herself reading French ornithology journals. Already a lover of bird-lore, she had been in the habit of making field recordings of birdsong in the neighborhood where she lived near Manhattan’s East River. As she perused the ornithology journals, she grew more and more interested in the intersection between music scholarship and the history of science, and in particular, the application of evolutionary theory to those fields. With the help of a supportive advisor (the noted feminist scholar Suzanne Cusick), Mundy made what she would later term “animanities” the focus of her dissertation.

“If you look at the first half of the 20th century, up through around 1950, people who studied animal vocalizations were using the same tool kit as people who studied western music and folk song. There are books and collections of transcribed birdsong in music notation, just like there are books and collections of transcribed folk song.”

The study of human music and animal sound diverged by the 1950s, motivated largely by a backlash after World War II against comparisons between human races and animal species. Redefining the appropriate application of evolutionary theory was an important project of the post-war era, but in the process, some valuable areas of inquiry (such as studying structure in birdsong) were neglected. Other connections receded from memory but still exert a significant pedagogical influence. Describing her latest research, Mundy says,

“Right now I’m working on an article that looks at musicology —as a field—as a kind of bird-watching. I basically argue that style criticism, which is a technique we teach to undergraduates, grew out of evolutionary discourse at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.”

Mundy is enthusiastic about the students she works with at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Having taught in an Ivy League school as a postdoctoral fellow, she has been impressed with the curiosity and maturity of undergraduate students at Pitt.

“A lot of them in some ways have a much more adult life. They have jobs, they’re taking more classes than I can believe, and yet they’re really invested and they’re really interested, which I love!”

She is equally enthusiastic about her interaction with students in the Department’s graduate program.

“I’ve been thrilled to work with them. They’re interesting, they’re smart, they’re diverse, and they’re such good readers.”

The energy and interdisciplinary insight that Mundy brings to her research and teaching are sure to be invaluable resources as the Department of Music moves into a new era. Perhaps in a few years Pitt may even become a hotbed for study of the animanities, with Rachel Mundy leading the way.