Ritchey poses with a skull as part of the photo session for her book, Composing Capital: Classical Music in the Neoliberal Era (UChicago Press, 2019).
Marianna Ritchey (she/her)
Class Year: 1999
Hometown: Telluride, Colorado
Major: Music history
Extracurriculars: Playing in bands, writing the movie column in the Pio Log, breaking into Council Chamber to watch Twin Peaks in the middle of the night.
What three words would you use to describe L&C?
Close-knit, creative, fun
What made you want to come to Lewis & Clark?
I was 17 when I made this decision. I made it based solely on the fact that I wanted to go to a small school, with no sororities, and I wanted to go somewhere it rained a lot. Those were my entire criteria. Then, I came on a college tour with my mom and L&C just felt right for me. It was the only college I applied to!
How do you describe the liberal arts?
The liberal arts implies a well rounded education that doesn’t encourage hyperspecialization. It’s a pedagogical model that is swiftly becoming antiquated in our neoliberal era, where everyone is supposed to see college as training for a specific job. When you are educated in a liberal arts context, it means you learn about lots of things, and learn to draw connections across fields. I think that, although math and the sciences are also part of the liberal arts education, “liberal arts” in general implies a heightened interest in culture, society, the things that people create and the cultural contexts those creations emerge from.
Why did you major in music?
I came to college without a thought in my head, really. I was privileged in so many ways—my parents were able to pay my tuition, which I took totally for granted, and also college was so much cheaper back then than it is now. I was also privileged because my parents were very clear with me that college was a time for exploring, for finding myself, for following my interests. They did not lay any heavy expectations on me about future careers or money or anything like that. All of this makes me incredibly lucky in ways I didn’t realize at that time. So I just kind of toddled off to see what would happen. I dimly assumed I would major in English because I liked reading and writing. But then freshman year, simply because I needed 4 more credits fall semester, I enrolled somewhat at random in the History of Western Music, with Professor Nora Beck. It changed my life forever. I had never really been interested in music before, although I’d played the piano my whole life. In that class, I suddenly “got it.” Something clicked for me about how the things people make and do are interesting to think about, and music specifically is very interesting. Nora played all this wild music I had never heard and had no context for understanding. Meredith Monk in particular made a huge impression on me. What was it? Why did someone make this? Why do people like it? Wanting to understand music on this level became really compelling to me. Becoming interested in music caused me to become interested in history itself, for the first time. I remember learning about medieval plainchant and Hildegard of Bingen and feeling like my mind was totally blown. People have been around for so long! And there are so many different kinds of people! And they all make music! Why do they? I just had a very basic epiphany in that class that changed the course of my life forever.
“What I learned best at L&C was how to have an experimental approach to things. There was a sense of play in everything we did –even in class and with our professors.”
What was your favorite class (title and professor)? How did it expand your knowledge?
Nora Beck’s History of Western Music class changed my life! Not only did it set off an explosion in my mind after which nothing was the same ever again, it also changed my major, and set me on the course to my future career. I literally sat there in that class in 1995 and looked at Nora and thought “I want that job, I want to be like Nora.” And then it took15 years but finally I did get that job, and I love it.
Who was your mentor on campus? Why do you consider this person your mentor?
Although I had great relationships with lots of my professors, Nora Beck was my mentor. She was my advisor, but much more than that. She could tell I really wanted to enter the field (her field, musicology), and she encouraged me so much. She prepared me for all the steps it would take to get there. I took 5 years off between college and grad school but when I was ready to apply to PhD programs, I went right back to Nora, and she helped me with my application, writing samples, and general advice. She’s been there throughout my entire career, checking in with me, following my progress. When my book came out she sent me a picture of the whole music faculty holding it and cheering. She’s been my mentor for 24 years! She also got me my first job.
What have you been doing since graduation?
After graduation, I spent several years in Portland, working weird part time jobs. I drove an ice cream truck for a while, did data entry, and played in various bands. It was the 1990s and there was a great indie rock scene in Portland. A bunch of my friends from college and I played in all these bands with rotating members, and we slowly built up our own little scene, booking tours and slowly expanding them. I played mainly in a band called Dear Nora, with my best friend Katy Davidson (we met because we randomly roomed together freshman year). That band was named after Nora Beck, who Katy also admired. We went on a tour in Japan, and toured Australia later with a different band. It was a fun adventure time, before I went back to grad school. Then, in 2005, I started my PhD at UCLA, and finished it in 2011. Then, Nora got me hired as her replacement when she had to go on leave! So, my first job was literally Nora’s job – just like I had dreamed about all those years ago. It was so fun and wonderful to teach at L&C. I taught there for 3 years and then got a tenure-track job at UMass, Amherst. And I just got tenure, a few weeks ago! So that’s my life story.
How did Lewis & Clark prepare you for your job/grad school/volunteer work/whatever you’re up to?
I think it had an unusually direct impact on my career, compared to other people’s experiences with liberal arts colleges in the 1990s. I never intended this to happen, but I truly did discover my vocation freshman year, and then I did everything I needed to do to answer that calling. So, basically, everything I did at L&C prepared me for what I’m up to now, at least in terms of a career. But it’s also shaped me in more subtle ways. I know I’m a certain kind of professor now largely because of the ways I was educated at L&C, the ways my professors approached their classes. Now I teach at a big public state school, teaching a very different student population, and it’s the 2020s, and things are very different in all kinds of ways, students have very different pressures and goals and the university has been really brought to heel under technocratic rule. But I still approach my classes with a fundamentally “liberal arts” perspective.
I should also mention another professor who made a huge impact on my future career but in a less concrete way, and that was Herschel Snodgrass, who taught my Astronomy class. I have always had a real mental block about math. It really is like a part of my brain is missing or something. I just can’t do it. I signed up for Astronomy for my required math class because I thought at least it would be about outer space and maybe interesting in that way. But it wasn’t—it was just math, and it was just as hard as math had always been for me. So, I really just threw myself on Professor Snodgrass’s mercy—I knew nothing about him, but I went to his office hours every single week and basically just begged him for help. I took him all my homework and he walked me through everything. He was so patient, and so encouraging. And now that I’m a professor I look back and I see how much of his time I took up, how much extra work he had to do for me, literally reteaching me every single class and basically tutoring me through doing all my homework. It’s totally appalling! I was so rude! But he never made me feel like a burden; he always seemed glad to see me. And I’d make some incredibly tiny little progress and he’d be so proud of me. But I still kept failing and failing and getting Fs on everything, even though I genuinely was trying so hard, and it was so upsetting. Finally near the end of the semester, he told me, “I’ve never seen a student work so hard and make such little progress.” Which I found weirdly validating. He told me everyone’s brain is different and we all have different things we’re drawn to and interested in and that this is what makes the world a cool place to live. He told me math just wasn’t my thing and it didn’t mean I wasn’t smart, he could tell I was indeed smart and had many interests. And he told me he was giving me a B in the class even though I had never gotten above a D on any assignment. I’ve never, never forgotten this, how he made me feel, and I can definitely say that this experience hugely shaped the way I try to approach my own students, now that I’m a teacher. I think about him all the time, whenever I have struggling students. Something like that, you never forget it. Someone seeing you and being kind, and honoring your effort and commitment regardless of the result. There are more ways to “learn” in a class than simply learning the material—this is a major lesson I took away from my time at L&C, and I apply it to my own teaching now.
Now that you’ve been out of college for a while, what would you say is the most important thing you learned at Lewis & Clark?
What I learned best at L&C was how to have an experimental approach to things. There was a sense of play in everything we did –even in class and with our professors. I remember all these outlets for weird, creative ideas and activities. I did things in college I would never have imagined doing before. I learned an openness to the world and going on adventures into it. Also, this is so hokey, but I don’t think I really understood the value of friendship until I came to college and met all these people who are still my best friends. I was kind of a weird kid growing up and, while I definitely had friends, I never had that feeling of being shaped by them and deeply supported and encouraged by them–being fully “seen”. I’m sure much of that is just a product of how aging works—in your 20s you start growing up and becoming your real self and it makes sense that the friends you meet then have a different impact than your childhood friends—but part of it was also the environment we were in, the encouragement we were able to count on from the people teaching us, and the total safety of the little bubble we lived in, up on Palatine Hill. We were so privileged to have access to an experience like that.
What are your career goals?
I don’t know anymore. I am having a midlife crisis! For years, I’ve been studying and thinking about radical political movements like anarchism, and thinking about how to apply these ideas to what I do, which is study and teach music. And then COVID-19 threw everything into uncertainty, and then the BLM revolution started, and now I’m seeing that all the radical theory I’ve been reading exists in reality, as practice, and I am slowly finding ways of getting involved in those practices. I joined a mutual aid group in my town, and it has nothing to do with my job. I’m also asking questions about the very bedrock basics of what we do in the classroom, how and why we teach music, and how that teaching could become more politically or socially useful. I don’t know what “academic work” looks like, after these two epochal moments of historical disruption. I don’t know how or whether my work will continue. But I am happy!