Q&A with IAH Director Mark Katz


August 15, 2014 | Angie Barker

 Music scholar Mark Katz became IAH director July 1. Here Mark speaks about his passion, his influences and his vision for the IAH.
IAH: What is your passion?

Katz: I love to explore – in all senses of the word. That could mean exploring new musical genres. It could be discovering new meanings in books I’ve read many times before. It could be traveling and learning about different cultures, and learning something about myself in the process.

What drives most of us at the University is intellectual curiosity. We search for meaning and enjoy discovering things about the world. We all have a particular starting point – anthropology, English, history – and then we let our passion take us wherever it might lead.
My starting point is music, but then I roam. And through music I seek out connections to anything and everything, whether literature, visual art, race, gender, economics, war or technology.

IAH: How did your parents influence your interests?

Katz: I have fond early memories of listening to my mother play piano. We had a baby grand, and I would lie under the piano and listen to the music. She was a school teacher by profession and an art historian by avocation. She was a docent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for decades. As a child, I would tag along with her on tours at the National Gallery. She encouraged me to see art in new ways. I remember spending a lot of time staring at paintings like Rubens’ Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Monet’s Woman with Parasol or Pollock’s Lavender Mist.

My dad has very different interests. He designed houses, and I often accompanied him on tours of construction sites and model homes. (I also worked for his construction crew for several summers.) He had a sharp eye for design, just as my mother did for art. We would walk into a house and he would immediately size it up and tell us what worked well and what did not. He also loves crossword puzzles, and I remember aspiring to be able to finish the New York Times Sunday puzzle like he did – in one sitting and in pen. From him, I gained an appreciation of architecture and design and a love of words and wordplay.

IAH: What led you into musicology?

Katz: I originally wanted to be a lawyer. In college, I was a philosophy major because I thought it would help me develop the critical thinking and argumentation skills I would need as a lawyer. But it turned out to be extremely useful for everything I do. Within the first year, I felt that I could understand things more clearly. I’d taken a logic course, so, with my freshman arrogance, I would pick out all the fallacies in the arguments – about politics or whatever – that I would hear from my dorm mates. But I really do feel that I think and write more clearly because of my study of philosophy.

Gradually, however, I realized that my real passion was music. Looking back, I think a seed planted when I was a teenager led to my career path. I started playing violin when I was 10 and was in the orchestra in high school. One day, the group was misbehaving, and the conductor punished us by sending us to the library to write a report on the music we were playing. I was fascinated. I realized that I liked so much more about music than just playing it.

When I got to college, I remember going to the library and discovering there were journals about music. That was something completely new to me – journals about Beethoven, Bach. I ate it up. I began thinking that I would go to law school and become a lawyer and then teach music history in retirement. As I went along, I kept pushing it up earlier in my career.

By my senior year – I was president of the Pre-law Society by then – I realized I didn’t want to pursue law at all. My negotiation with myself completely flipped, and I decided to go into musicology, something I did not even know existed before I went to college.

So I graduated in philosophy and took a year off to shore up my gaps and weaknesses in music. I worked at the Library of Congress processing collections of records and sheet music – it was a tremendous education. I then went to graduate school at the University of Michigan to study musicology. I wrote my master’s thesis on Schubert’s use of dactylic rhythms and my Ph.D. dissertation about the influence of recording technology on 20th-century musical practices.

IAH: Why did you pursue the IAH directorship?

Katz: To me, the IAH represents the academic ideal. It’s a place that brings people of different interests, backgrounds and disciplines together for vibrant, stimulating conversation. It promotes the exchange of ideas and offers the opportunity to develop exciting new projects.

It also provides the opportunity to interact with people from across the University. Every faculty member exists in some department, and we become deeply engaged in the life of that department. But it’s important to get outside our silos to engage with colleagues in other disciplines and see how their work might enrich or challenge our own.

Personally, what appeals to me about the IAH directorship is that it offers me an outlet for my intellectual curiosity and gives me the opportunity – really, the responsibility – to learn more about other fields and subjects.

I also enjoy playing matchmaker, intellectually speaking, by connecting scholars and artists with complementary interests. If you put smart, creative people together, they will come up with ideas that perhaps none of them would’ve had on their own.

At the IAH, we do that on a daily basis – through the Faculty Fellows Program, Academic Leadership Program, Chairs Leadership Program and through our lectures, workshops and conferences. As director, I have the privilege of seeing all this exciting collaborative work in action.

IAH: What is your vision for the IAH? 

Katz: The IAH is now more than a quarter-century old. When it was first conceived, the arts and humanities existed on the margins of campus life. Today, they are flourishing at Carolina, thanks in no small part to the work of the IAH under the leadership of Ruel Tyson and John McGowan. The arts and humanities face new threats, however, from shrinking budgets, breaches of the public trust and our difficulty in articulating their relevance to the public.

My vision for the future of the IAH, then, is that it continues to serve UNC’s faculty through its leadership and fellowship programs but, also and crucially, helps faculty engage more deeply with the world around us, both in order to help fulfill our mission as a public institution and to demonstrate the value of the arts and humanities as a public good.

IAH:  How can others help?

Katz:  Partner with us. That can mean faculty coming into the kitchen to enjoy some coffee and conversation with colleagues and IAH staff. It can mean administrators collaborating with us to find new ways to retain our excellent faculty. It can mean alumni attending our events, learning about what we do, asking questions and getting involved.

People on campus often don’t realize just how important our alumni partners are. Hyde Hall and the many programs and events it houses would not exist without the incredible generosity, energy and ideas of our alumni. We have and will continue to depend on them to fulfill our mission.

So, on behalf of the College of Arts and Sciences and UNC in general, I want to thank our alumni for allowing us to do our good work. And let me personally extend the invitation to faculty, alumni and the public in general to come to Hyde Hall and, as we say here, Join the Conversation.


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