The wit and wisdom of Bruno Nettl

The wit and wisdom of Bruno Nettl

One of the great perks of my job as a small-town newspaper reporter in C-U is interviewing and writing about interesting people who live here.

One of those is Bruno Nettl, a UI professor emeritus of music and anthropology and a pioneer in the field of ethnomusicology. In that area, he is best-known for steering a middle course between those who considered ethnomusicology a music discipline and those who considered it anthropology.

A few folks have asked to read my story on Bruno, which was published Dec. 26. So I re-publish it here on my N-G blog, Art and About:


CHAMPAIGN — In his foreword to Bruno Nettl’s latest book, "Nettl’s Elephant: On the History of Ethnomusicology," Anthony Seeger calls Nettl a living legend in the field.

For decades, Nettl shaped thinking in ethnomusicology and participated in many of its events and processes that he describes in the new book published by the University of Illinois Press, Seeger noted.

"Professor Nettl is an author of considerable wit as well as erudition, as anyone knows who has heard him give lectures or tell stories or received his holiday e-mails," Seeger (nephew of Pete) wrote. "The essays are fun to read partly because he often uses ‘throwaway’ lines — frequently placed at the end of paragraphs — to make his most profound statements or critiques, doing so without the fanfare and self-congratulation so common in our field but rather with humor or apparent (but not real) unconsciousness."

In that sense, the book of essays — Nettl calls it a personal retrospective of the field he helped establish — also offers glimpses into his life.

But perhaps better in that regard is another book, self-published this year by Nettl and his wife, Wanda, through their publishing firm, Elephant & Cat, a name that’s a nod to the elephant figurines that he collects and the feline ones she favors.

That book, "Perverse at Eighty, for family and friends," is a collection of the poetry that Nettl has written through the years to celebrate birthdays and other important events and to tell of his earlier times and "excursions into academe" as well as other subjects that strike his verbal muse.

Nettl self-deprecatingly calls his poems verse or doggerel, but the subjects of his verses ("Perverse" means through verse and is not a reference to a sexual peccadillo) likely don’t view them in that way. One is Alice Herz Sommer, a pianist and music teacher who at age 107 is the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor.

In 2003, when Nettl was 73, he hopped an airplane to London just to attend her centennial birthday party — and he returned the next day to his home in Champaign.

Here’s the first stanza of that verse for Sommer:

A hundred years? Can’t be! With flowers and wine,

They came from far and near; in disbelief

(Sampling the sweets and music), said, "Good Grief!"

"She doesn’t look a day past fifty-nine.

You, oldest friend, who knew me from Day One,

My mother’s chum, in Prague, her student days

Before the worst of times, the world ablaze,

The bitter era of the darkened sun.


Personal history

A Czech Jew, Sommer had visited Nettl and his mother in Prague, where he was born, from the time he was an infant. She remained in Czechoslovakia and survived the Terezin concentration camp; her story is to be told in an upcoming documentary.

Nettl and his parents — his father was a music historian and his mother a pianist — also came from a Jewish background. However, the German-speaking Czech family became Holocaust escapees, leaving Prague in 1939 for the United States.

"We lived for a half-year under Nazi occupation," Nettl said. "During the last weeks, my father apparently was being pursued by the Gestapo. In some ways, I’m not sure why. In one way, I know he was involved in helping refugees from Germany and later from Vienna who were coming to Prague.

"For a while, he was sort of sleeping at other people’s homes. And for a while, he checked himself into an insane asylum to escape the Nazis."

On their way to America, the Nettls had at least one close call. Traveling by train, they were turned back at the Dutch border for a bureaucratic reason.

Before taking care of the matter, they lived underground for several days in Muenster, Germany, sheltered by a German Jewish family who did not survive the Holocaust.


College days

The Nettls — Bruno was their only child — had obtained an exit visa to the U.S. because Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., had provided Bruno’s father, Paul, with a contract.

They lived in Princeton for seven years before moving to Bloomington, Ind., where Paul Nettl had landed a position as a professor of historical musicology.

"Good European kids always go to college at home, if there’s a college there," Bruno Nettl said.

So he attended IU as a general music major, not sure what he would do. A turning point for him came when he took a course on folk and "primitive" music taught by George Herzog, a professor in the ethnomusicology and anthropology departments who had brought from Europe to the U.S. the area of study called ethnomusicology.

"This course opened up a new field to me and I got interested and stuck with it and in the end stayed at Indiana for seven years," Nettl said.

It was there that he also met his future wife, Wanda White, from Columbus, Ind., when she was a freshman.

On the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary eight years ago, he wrote a verse about how their marriage endured, and how they met:

In 1949 in Bloomington, I spied this art student in front of the Music Building, pretty, blond, petite,

And right away I knew that this was a lady I just had to meet.

But when I did: Was she named for Dvorak’s opera Vanda, or for an ancient queen the Slavs adored?

I may have thought she was a dish,

But was she named for a fish?

Surely not! But — maybe for that little Polish lady who brought the back the harpsichord?


After college

They married three years later, in 1952, and after Bruno obtained his doctorate, they moved to Detroit. There he taught music history and theory and ethnomusicology at Wayne State University.

After that job ended, the Nettls lived in Germany for two years in the mid-1950s, with Bruno as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Kiel in Germany.

They returned to Detroit, where he began working in the Wayne State library and commuting to the University of Michigan to work on a degree in library science.

He worked as a full-time librarian at Wayne State for four years, all the while researching, writing and publishing in the field of ethnomusicology.

In 1964 the UI recruited him to establish an ethnomusicology program here.

As an academic field, it was just getting under way, helped along by Americans’ growing interest in international affairs and their studies abroad and exposure to other cultures.

Another impetus, Nettl said, had taken place in the 1930s as composers became increasingly interested in non-Western music and began to incorporate it in their own compositions.

"It’s not that ethnomusicology is about non-Western music, but that’s one of the major components," said Nettl, who explores in "Nettl’s Elephant" the various histories and narratives of the field.

Another factor leading to the development of ethnomusicology, Nettl said, was the notion that popped up in the ’50s that Americans and Europeans could actually learn to perform non-Western music, in addition to asking questions and recording music during field research.


Areas of focus

Nettl grew up learning violin and piano but never liked to practice. As a result, he claims, he never became very good on the instruments.

But don’t underestimate him, said Karl Kramer, head of the UI School of Music.

"He’s a complete all-around musician," Kramer said. "He thinks about music, writes about music, listens critically to music, is open to all kinds of music, and in his day was a performer."

Kramer also called Nettl the most unique individual he’s ever encountered.

"He is brilliant, funny and quick-witted, self assured, and the best all-around musician I can think of. I’m quite sure, and not afraid to say, that he’s forgotten more about music than I’ll ever hope to know."

While living and studying in Iran during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Nettl learned to play the setar, which is like the Indian sitar in the sense that it’s a lute-like string instrument with a long neck.

Besides studying the music of Iran — last year one of his books was published in Farsi — Nettl has studied the music of native Americans, particularly the Blackfoot people in Montana; the music of southern India; and European folk music traditions.

Now a UI professor emeritus of music and anthropology, he has written more than 15 books and numerous articles. At least one of his books is considered a standard for graduate students.

He also helped create the Society for Ethnomusicology and served as its president and editor of its journal.

"It’s a small field, and everyone gets to be president," said Nettl, who is among the few surviving charter members.


Many honors

For his contributions to his field, Nettl has received honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Kenyon College and Carleton College.

And in 1997 he was inducted as a fellow into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"I have no idea how these happen. One day I get a call ...," he said as he walked past the framed degrees hanging on his "braggin’ wall" in the hallway of his home.

In addition to his more bookish pursuits, Nettl and his wife often attend arts events here, particularly those of the UI Department of Dance; their firstborn daughter, Becky Nettl-Fiol, is a professor of dance in the department.

The couple also take in the gigs of G. Lee and Jet Blonde; their other child, Gloria Roubal, is the band’s lead singer. She’s also a massage therapist at Bodyworks.

As he’s grown older, Nettl has started to take in and appreciate Western-music concerts. He admitted he took Herzog’s course in ethnomusicology at Indiana in a "certain sense of rebellion against the sort of family tradition of Western art music.

"I had no idea where it was going to lead me," he said. "I was exposed to it when I needed some kind of inspiration. I can’t imagine what else I would have done."

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