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Associate Professor James Blasina

Associate Professor James Blasina (pictured far right) and students during their embedded study program in England

Musicologist and Program Coordinator of Medieval Studies, Professor James Blasina, recently received tenure and was promoted to the position of Associate Professor in the Department of Music. His research explores the dynamics of music and gender in the European Middle Ages. Blasina is also a member of the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the College.

Blasina attended Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he first studied history. Towards the end of his undergraduate program, he became friends with a group of music students, and it changed the trajectory of his career. 

“I realized at that time that although I had played [music] since I was a kid I had sort of put that aside at university and I was inspired by these music students that I was coming to know, to get back into it,” he says. 

After finishing his history degree requirements, Blasina decided to stick around for a “victory lap” and take a few music courses to reintroduce himself to that part of his life. A semester turned into a year, which turned into three and Blasina left Dalhousie with both a Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in History and a Bachelor of Music. This melding of history and music during his undergraduate, and the support of two professors in particular — Professors Jennifer Bain and Jacqueline Warwick at Dalhousie — led Blasina to pursue graduate work in historical musicology.

“I don’t come from a particularly musical family . . . both of my parents are immigrants to Canada and they were happy for me to study music but always saw it as something that was like icing on the cake. There’s a saying in Italian, ‘Impara l’arte e mettila da parte,’ which expresses the idea that all learning and knowledge is valuable, even if it turns out not to be a main focus. I don't think they ever envisioned that I would pursue music as the ‘meat and potatoes’ of my career . . . So it was sort of a surprise for them when I switched my degree . . . that ultimately shaped the course of my future studies and career,” Blasina laughed. 

He completed his Ph.D. in Musicology at Harvard University in 2015 with advisor Professor Thomas Forrest Kelly, who Blasina describes as a “really important mentor and friend.” His dissertation is titled “Music and Gender in the Medieval Cult of St. Katherine of Alexandria, 1050-1300” — it examines the early composition and transmission of liturgical chant for St. Katherine of Alexandria in the Middle Ages.

Blasina was introduced to Swarthmore when Anne Searcy, a Swarthmore history and music alum, joined his Ph.D. program. “Anne showed up in my second year and she was so well informed and well prepared for graduate school . . . So I came to know of Swarthmore College and the members of the music faculty through an alum who has since gone on to become a respected musicologist at the University of Washington.” 

When Blasina saw a job opening at Swarthmore, he jumped at the opportunity. “The idea of the liberal arts originated in the Middle Ages, so as a medievalist, I was naturally drawn to an institution that takes a medieval approach to its curriculum as a foundational principle,” he says, “and music has always been a core component of the liberal arts.”

Blasina’s teaching and research interests include chant and liturgy, popular music, gender studies, and the Middle Ages, amongst many others. Some of the courses he has taught since he arrived at Swarthmore are ‘Popular Music & Masculinities,’ ‘Sound, Salvation and Statecraft in Tudor England’ and ‘Hildegard of Bingen in Context and Revival.’ He also enjoys coaching Swarthmore’s medieval/Renaissance vocal ensemble, Critical Mass.

This past summer, Blasina led an embedded study trip to England and France for his course, ‘Contesting Darkness: Music, Sound and Place in Gothic Europe.’ As a strong believer in real-life experiences in music education, Blasina applied multiple times for the competitive opportunity. 

“For so many of our students, they’re encountering a diverse range of music and repertoires that we teach in our department . . . through recordings or a simulated performance in a concert hall,” explains Blasina.  “It’s always great to hear music — recorded or live — but even live music in a concert hall requires taking that music out of its original context and the acoustic spaces it was meant to be sung and performed in.” He was determined for his students to have the opportunity to hear, understand and appreciate music from the “social, historical and physical spaces it came from.”

A standout moment from the trip occurred during a visit to the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great. During a private tour of the oldest extant church in London, students from the group began to sing a piece they’d worked on in Garnet Singers.

“So here we are in this church that had just celebrated its 900th anniversary. We’re the only ones in this building and just as the sun was setting and the space began to darken, the students are singing this amazing polyphony . . . the way the voices reverberated through all of the arches and filled the space . . . it was just so spontaneous, it literally brought tears to my eyes,” he expresses. 

What Blasina loves most about Swarthmore is the enthusiasm and curiosity of its students. “I am constantly in awe of the conversations that I get to hear in class; I hope that students learn something from me, but it’s so exciting to see how they learn from each other. ” 

He also has high praise for his “wonderful colleagues and students in the music program.”

Building on the work he began in his Ph.D. dissertation, Blasina is writing a book, St Katherine of Alexandria in Music and Liturgy: The Rise of a Cult Across Medieval Europe. Although there is no historical evidence for her existence, St. Katherine was a transcontinental cultural figure during the Middle ages, inspiring vast repertories of music across genres.

“I love [this topic] because I find it amazing how human beings have this will and capacity to write amazing music for something that is completely fabricated,” he says. “To my mind, the music for St. Katherine itself is a commentary on the human condition.” 

Blasina’s book investigates the origins for Katherine’s later status as a global “superhero” in the earliest music composed about her, tracking its journey from Normandy to England and then across the globe. 

“It’s a tricky project because it requires travel to archives to see original manuscripts. It's really slow and tedious work, and you never quite know what you’re going to find when you open a 900 year old book.” Blasina says. As a historian, he recognizes that there is a lot of crossover with other related fields like art history, religion and gender studies, which requires care and effort. 

In the meantime, Blasina’s tenure promotion has come as a “huge relief” after a stressful process. “I like research but to be perfectly honest, teaching has always been what motivates me . . . Since getting tenure I’ve found that I’ve been able to give [the students] and my teaching more of myself and I’ve found it really rewarding.”