John Mac Master delivers Guest Lecture

What does an international Opera Star have to teach an eclectic cohort of academics? Quite a lot, as it turns out. During the orientation week of Building 21’s summer BLUE Fellowship Program, world-renowned singer of opera and Mcgill Professor John Mac Master spoke across disciplines and vocations to impart some of his wisdom to the young Fellows. Mac Master has a lifetime of experience performing opera (he’s portrayed such classic characters as Tristan, Florestan, Canio and Calaf- to name a few- all over the world) but actually began his musical explorations in Rock. Mac Master highlighted how focusing on one’s strengths (Mac Master has always had faith in his quality as a Tenor) can carry one through the twists and turns of an inevitably all-but-linear career: detailing how he navigated from singing in a Church Choir in NY to eventually landing roles with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Perhaps most importantly, Mac Master commented on the differences between what he likes to refer to as the “intellectual and aesthete” proclivities. These categories refer to vocational personalities that speak to inquiry and performativity, the mind and the body, the diagrammatic and artistic expressions, delineation and form: all those aspects which might differentiate a performer of arts & culture from the academic researcher. While some might contest this distinction, it speaks to the heart of some of the BLUE projects at play this summer - Laura Gallo’s project, for example, examines the concept of Voice and Listening, which plays into the bodily and expressive nature of communication.

The performative vocations also have an essential reminder to the weary academic- a singer’s instrument of expression is her voice and thus her body, requiring a necessary focus on health (and yes, sleep!). Much like the athlete, Mac Master’s portrayal of the aesthete is one of holistic focus; while many times the ‘intellectual’ sacrifices his bodily demands -he will forget to eat, he will forget to sleep, he will even take pride in such sacrifices- in the name of pushing towards the production of knowledge, the aesthete sidesteps this trap. While the aesthete’s expression only exists in the moment it is expressed by the aesthete herself, the intellectual’s expression lives apart from him in the domain of academic canon. In other words, the ‘Death of the Author’ (something alien to the aesthete) permits a certain degree of disembodiment; ultimately to the detriment of both the creation and the creator of the work. ‘Live like an artist’ could be the sentiment: a much more beautiful way of advising ‘take care of yourself’.

In a space like B21 where multidisciplinary and playful inquiry is encouraged, it is unclear whether many of this year’s projects are ‘aesthetic or intellectual’, but some seem to be investigating the very concept of such a distinction. Chris’ project aims to uncover the genealogy of such categorical oppositions -among them nature and culture, the mind and the body- tracing them from Descartes onward to their various manifestations in our contemporary culture. Chris hopes to offer alternatives to such binaries- combining or superseding them through conceptual play. As the Fellowship progresses, the emphasis on the process of academic life, not just on its methodology but on one’s habitus- extends the program into new and interesting dimensions.    

damian arteca