Rocker/Academic Leads New Institute for Popular Music at U. of Rochester

Richard Baker, U. of Rochester

John Covach
January 28, 2013

John Covach, who is an academic by day and a rock musician by night, has found a way to make his two worlds converge. The University of Rochester professor is founding director of the university's Institute for Popular Music, which opened this year.

Mr. Covach adds his new title to his other roles, as a music professor and chair of the music department as well as a professor of music theory in the university's Eastman School of Music.

The new institute, believed to be the first year-round American college program of its kind, will offer courses, lectures, and workshops on scholarly analyses of popular music, along with performances as a means to increase understanding of the field. Guest speakers will lecture this semester on topics like gender-related narratives in country music, songs of the Civil War, and African-American female vocalists.

Mr. Covach, 53, says he wants popular music to be regarded as highly as other types of music. "Talking about the Beatles or Elvis or Springsteen should be no different than talking about Beethoven or Bach," he says.

Seven faculty members besides Mr. Covach are associated with the institute. Its 13-person advisory board is made up of professors from the United States, Canada, and Britain.

The institute, which plans to eventually offer pre- and postdoctoral fellowships, will gradually add to the nearly 30 courses in popular music the university already offers. One being introduced this year is "Starmakers," which looks at music stars and the publicity campaigns that helped make them famous. Students can also participate in musical-theater workshops through the institute.

David LeBlanc, a 2009 Rochester graduate who majored in music, says taking Mr. Covach's rock-history course during his sophomore year opened his eyes to the complexity of popular music.

"When you first look up in class, you think, 'Oh, we've got an ex-hippie here,'" he jokes, referring to Mr. Covach's long ponytail and occasional guitar playing in class. "But as soon as he starts talking, you think, 'This isn't a hippie, it's an academic.'"

Mr. Covach has published articles on popular music, the philosophy and aesthetics of music, and a method of composition known as 12-tone music. He also wrote the textbook What's That Sound?: An Introduction to Rock and Its History and was one of the editors of Tracking Pop, a series on popular music published by the University of Michigan Press.

Daniel Harrison, chair of the music department at Yale University and a member of the new institute's advisory board, says Mr. Covach's leadership in the field makes him the ideal person to direct the new project.

"John's signal contribution has been taking musical structures seriously," Mr. Harrison says. "He wants you to listen and think about musical materials in a sophisticated way."

After office hours, Mr. Covach can be found on stage wielding a blue electric G&L guitar in one of his six bands, which play mostly 60s and 70s rock. Being a performer helps him understand the historical figures he teaches, he says, and being an academic increases his appreciation of many musical styles.

"I've lived in two worlds my entire life," Mr. Covach says. In music school at the University of Michigan, "I would study Schoenberg and Stravinsky during the week, and on Friday, I'd get my amp and my guitar and play 'Boogie Oogie Oogie' at the bars. I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"Now I've found a way to do the rock thing in the academic context."