5 questions with…SAGES fellow, music historian Lisa Nielson

The SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University is known for offering creative, unusual courses. But the program got even more unique with the addition of Lisa Nielson. An accomplished cellist, music historian and recording artist, Nielson joined the faculty in the fall as the first-ever SAGES teaching fellow appointed with support from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

In this role, Nielson helps expand the reach of the awards program’s mission—highlighting complexities of race and diversity—through courses such as “Gender, Visibility and Performance: The Courtesan” and “Concubines, Soldiers & Field Hands: World Slavery Past to Present.”

Why the focus on such historic studies? For starters, Nielson’s PhD from University of Maine is in historical musicology, with a concentration in women’s studies from the University of Maine. Additionally, her teaching and research interests in Maine ranged from women and gender in the ancient Near East to Islamic history and literature to performance practices in medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music.

Plus, she thinks it’s important to look at history to understand race and diversity today. “The common themes we address in class are gender, social class, religious differences and race, and look at them within several cultural contexts as a means to find the impact of historical perceptions of the same on our culture today,” she explained. “Though these conversations can be uncomfortable—and I try to establish a safe space for the students—they are still necessary in order to confront the racism, gender biases, religious intolerance and class inequalities that still impact our society.”

Learn more about the “harmless eccentric” in this week’s Q&A.

1. What’s on your iPod?
I don’t have an iPod (I don’t even have a television!), but I do keep music on my ancient laptop. Most recently, I have been shifting between Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations (1955 and 1981), Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and a selection of Chinese operas one of my students was kind enough to lend me. I adore Chinese opera and know very little about it, so it has been a real treat.

2. What’s your favorite spot in Cleveland and why?
I’m a complete newcomer, so I don’t know Cleveland very well yet. So far, I like a lot of different places! My favorite this week is East Boulevard. The architectural contrasts of the art museum, Severance Hall and the Peter B. Lewis building are especially wonderful, especially in the late afternoon. I walk down East several times a week and always look forward to it.

3. If you could only take three books with you to a deserted island, what would you take?
That’s a really tough question! I love books (occupational hazard) so the answer depends on the day. Today, I would definitely take the complete works of William Shakespeare, as he has a little something for every mood. Since I love mysteries, I’d have to take Conan Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes. Lastly, I’d love to have the entire Kitab al-Aghani of Abu’l faraj al-Isbahani, but since it runs to more than 20 volumes depending on the edition, I’d probably take one of the first 10 volumes. The bigger books can also be used to hold down my tent and smash coconuts.

4. What one word would you use to describe yourself, and what one word would your friends use to describe you?
I consider myself boring but with a well-developed sense of humor. So far, I haven’t yet put my friends to sleep and continue to make them laugh. My suspicion is they would describe me as a harmless eccentric, though am afraid to ask.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve University?
I am enjoying everything about Case Western Reserve, but especially the students. They are fun, engaged and have a lot of intellectual curiosity. I’ve enjoyed many great conversations with students in class and one on one, and I am looking forward to many more.


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