SRI recently interviewed Dr Christopher Wiley who is Senior Lecturer and Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Arts. His interview provides a fascinating insight into his broad areas of research – with mentions of Michael Jackson, Les Miserables and Frozen. Read more of Dr Wiley’s work on the SRI open access repository http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/view/creators/Wiley,_C.html or follow him on Twitter @Chris_Wiley
In your chapter ‘Putting the Music Back into Michael Jackson Studies’, you discuss the implications of an audience’s knowledge of an artist’s biography altering their perception of the artist’s work. Could you explain how and why this occurs?
My work on Michael Jackson was borne of my wider interest in musical biography (the subject of my doctoral dissertation), which examines how biographies can reveal much information about the values and preoccupations of the authors who wrote them and the reading communities for which they were produced. In much the same way, it is inevitable that a reader – or listener, or viewer – will bring their pre-existing knowledge of an artist’s biography to bear on their interpretation of that artist’s output. How can we not think of the controversies surrounding Jackson’s fading skin pigmentation when we hear him sing ‘it don’t matter if you’re black or white’, or of those serious allegations (never proven) of child sex crimes when we see children prominent in his music videos? One facet of my research on musical biography investigates the relationship between a subject’s life and their works, and that’s the reason I was drawn to studying Jackson in the first place: it would be difficult to name an artist whose output is more widely consumed, and whose biography (including its highly controversial aspects) is more widely known.
As an academic who researches and teaches music, do you feel a responsibility to bring the focus back to the musical output of artists who may have had a controversial past or led an unconventional lifestyle?
Without wishing to overlook or obfuscate the seriousness of some of the controversies with which artists have been associated, I do believe that researchers have a responsibility to contribute to public discourses according to their disciplinary specialisms – for instance, in my case, shedding some uniquely musicological light on Jackson’s musical output where little previously existed. Given the research-led nature of much university teaching, mine was a study that benefited from being cultivated in the crucible of the classroom; and one of the most thought-provoking challenges I have ever received came from a student who remarked that claims about academia’s social responsibility may be well-meaning, but they are compromised by the extent to which views set forth in scholarly monographs reach widespread public audiences in reality. It was truly heartening to be able to respond that in the new era of open access, academic research is more widely disseminated than ever before – and that my article on Jackson was freely available online. It is even more reassuring to be able to track downloads and confirm that others are indeed engaging with my work!
Your range of research is very broad, covering Music for Television, Musical Theatre, Historical Musicology, and many other subjects. Could you tell us about a particularly innovative or interesting way you have seen music used either by a director or performer during your research?
I’m teaching a class on Musical Theatre at the moment, and several recent examples of innovative or interesting uses of music spring immediately to mind. In the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, director Tom Hooper opted to record the cast’s singing live during filming wherever possible. While this was by no means the first time ever that live vocals on film had been attempted, the sheer scope of activity of the film’s sound department, coupled to the use of live piano accompaniment on set, meant that Les Misérables broke much new ground. I remember seeing the film at the cinema on the day of the première and thinking that the sense it gave of the actors’ physicality – that the characters onscreen were genuinely singing – could be extraordinarily persuasive. Let’s hope that others will follow Hooper’s lead in future film productions of musical theatre works.
The world of musical film has also recently been taken by storm by Disney’s Frozen, and particularly by the ubiquitous song ‘Let It Go’ – a subject on which I contributed expert comment to an article published last December in The Telegraph. Disney seemed to dominate the arena of film song in the early 1990s and it would be great to think that Frozen might herald a return to the era that saw Disney receive five Academy Awards for Best Original Song in the space of seven years between The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas. Finally, I might mention Andrew Lloyd Webber’s revolutionary adoption of the television talent discovery show format as a means of casting principals for revivals of shows including The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Oliver!, The Wizard of Oz, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of my thoughts on that fascinating phenomenon are already available on Surrey Research Insight.
Would you be able to tell us what you are currently researching?
You’ve already mentioned the broad-ranging nature of my research activity, so it may not altogether come as a surprise when I say that I’m currently working on two projects in completely different areas! One is an essay on eighteenth-century literature, focussing on aspects of the role played by music the early novels of Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney, together with a glimpse forward to Jane Austen’s works of fiction. The other is a journal article on student evaluation of teaching, which seeks to establish students’ perspectives on the standardised module evaluation surveys that have become prevalent at many UK universities in recent years. In the medium term I’m also preparing a monograph on musical biography, focussing on the original incarnation of the renowned Master Musicians biographical series, so I remain very much active within my primary area of research specialism as well.