Name: Michael O’Brien
Hometown: Oregon (the town), Wisconsin (the state)
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in English and music education from Lawrence University. Master’s and Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin.
Job title: Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and (brand new) Chair of the Department of Music. I’m also an affiliate faculty member in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Women and Gender Studies programs.
How long have you worked at the College? 7 years
What are your job responsibilities? As a professor, I teach ethnomusicology courses, mainly focused on non-Western and especially Latin American music cultures. My current research is on Carnival music and cultural politics in Argentina, which means I travel to conduct ethnographic field work in Buenos Aires whenever I can manage it (summers, mainly) and I write about it when I get back. As a department chair … I’ve been on the job for less than two days [at the time this was written in January 2021], so I might have to get back to you on all that this entails, as I’m still learning! I oversee the department’s budget, schedule, curriculum and other details, trying to make sure everything is in place so that our faculty and students can do their very best work as teachers, artists and scholars.
What do you like most about your job? I love the energy of the classroom and the excitement of students tangling with complicated ideas for the first time. I also love doing field research, where I get to meet fascinating people and ask (what I hope are) deep questions about the hows and whys of their rich and complicated musical lives.
What question do you get asked most in your job and what’s your typical answer? “What instrument do you play?” I don’t really have a simple answer to this. I started my musical life as a classical cellist, but on the way to becoming an ethnomusicologist I became a jack-of-all-trades–master-of-none dabbler in many other things, like Latin American percussion and the bandoneón (an instrument related to the accordion, but better).
What’s your favorite location on campus and why? Faculty House! I’ve enjoyed and learned so much from my conversations there with colleagues in other departments, many of whom I don’t ever see in any other professional context. It’s one of the greatest ways to make interdisciplinary connections on campus. Also the coffee is free and plentiful.
What are your hobbies? I really like cooking messy, spicy and complicated food. I brew my own beer, enjoy running and (when there’s not a global pandemic on) travel. We adopted an energetic, sweet, stinky hound dog named Zoe earlier this year, so she takes a lot of my time but would likely take great offense at being categorized as anything so trivial as a hobby.
What personal and/or professional accomplishment are you most proud of? Personally, I’m proud of being the dad of Aurelia (10), who is kind and creative and loves all the important stuff, like smart books, dumb jokes and her family.
Professionally, I feel a lot prouder – and more grateful – about the messages I’ve received over the years from former students telling me about how my classes have been meaningful in their lives than I do about anything on my CV.
Name a creative work (book, movie, performance, etc.) you enjoyed recently and why. I just finished Susanna Clark’s novel Piranesi, which I really enjoyed despite being the only curmudgeon I know who was not charmed by her earlier book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Piranesi has just as imaginative and fascinating a fictional world, without all the precious Anglophile foppery.
Also, I was so glad to discover that Hrishikesh Hirway’s excellent podcast Song Exploder is now also a Netflix series. He’s fantastic in both formats, truly a model for how to get musicians to talk meaningfully about their own creative processes.
What was your favorite TV show growing up? I didn’t watch a lot of TV, but there was one summer in high school in which I got deeply into Star Trek TNG.
What’s next on your bucket list? After nine months [now 12] of quarantine and social distancing, honestly the next time I can just safely have a house full of friends sounds like the most compelling far-off, ambitious and thrilling adventure I can imagine.
What is something your campus colleagues would be surprised to know about you? In college I was hired to play the mascot (the Viking) for a homecoming football game. I was fired by halftime. I’ll tell you the story, but only in person.
What was your first job? Picking strawberries at Carandale Farms for 33 cents a quart.
What’s your favorite Lowcountry restaurant? Kwei Fei
Describe your perfect day. These days what I’d most like is one great day back in Buenos Aires. Breakfast of café con leche and media lunas de grasa. A morning browsing the books and record stores on Avenida Corrientes. Early afternoon, I’d organize an asado with all kinds of grilled meats, red wine and most importantly shared music and conversation with some of my dear friends whom I haven’t seen in far too long. An evening date night with my wife at Café Vinilo, listening to a concert by a new tango or folk artist whom I haven’t discovered yet. Like all good days in Argentina, it wouldn’t be over until at least 2 or 3 a.m.
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