Meet the Guitar Playing Scholars Making their Mark at the School of Music
This story originally published in BU Today, November 21, 2023, by Joel Brown.
Call it a six-string harmonic convergence. The guitar has raised its profile at the College of Fine Arts School of Music lately, not via performance or theory classes, but thanks to five recent arrivals in the musicology and ethnomusicology department.
PhD students Nathaniel Braddock (CFA’25), Lance Morrison (CFA’25), Kumera Zekarias (CFA’26), and Brian Barone (CFA’24) arrived separately during the last few years. They all play guitar professionally, and the instrument is woven into their research. With the arrival in September of Erik Broess, a visiting assistant professor of musicology, they reached what feels like a quorum.
“They’re uniquely well-rounded. They don’t put up any barriers,” says Victor Coelho, a CFA professor of music, director of the Center for Early Music Studies, and chair of the department of historical performance. “That’s what I like about this whole group—how open they are about musical styles, about cultures. They’re always curious.
“The guitar doesn’t figure as a main line of development in music history books, which is unfortunate, because it has a very, very deep history,” adds Coelho, an expert lute player who also rocks out on his Fender Telecaster in the class he teaches on the Rolling Stones. “These young scholars are now studying the instrument as the main actor of a much larger global music history.”
The quintet’s research interests range from guitar in the African diaspora to the inner workings of the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation to the Boston hardcore punk scene in the 1980s.
“As a musicology and ethnomusicology department, we’re very much invested in tearing down the walls between the study of popular music, non-Western music, and Western classical music,” says Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a CFA associate professor of music and department chair. “The guitar is an instrument that sits at the intersection point of all of those things. Popular music obviously has a guitar, but so does classical music. And so does plenty of music outside the West.
“The ubiquitousness of the guitar, that chameleonic aspect of the guitar mirrors the possibilities available when you start, like in our department, breaking down some of those walls,” says Birenbaum Quintero, who also plays, although he is primarily a percussionist.
The ubiquitousness of the guitar, that chameleonic aspect of the guitar mirrors the possibilities available when you start, like in our department, breaking down some of those walls.
The five “are all brilliant, too,” he says. “You take a guy like Brian, who reads all the obscure guitar tablatures from the 17th century, but also is perfectly familiar with the inside of a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria.”
“What’s interesting about the guitar is that it’s become such a globalized instrument, and that there are millions of different ways of playing it,” Barone says. “It’s involved now in so many different kinds of music around the world. And I think that’s actually what you see in our department, because we all work on really different kinds of music. What we have in common is the guitar. But that’s a commonality that embraces a lot of difference, a lot of diversity.”
“Anytime we see each other,” Broess says, “it’s nice to talk guitar, see what they’re up to, see what they’re playing, see what they’re listening to.”
“And of course,” Coelho says, “you can just sit there and talk about gear for five hours.”