This past spring, Ph.D. student Alexis Tuttle sat down with Dr. Anabel Maler to learn more about her and her work as a music theorist. After the spring term became significantly more complicated (COVID), we decided to save releasing their discussion until now: an introductory encounter as we all begin a new academic year. Here are Lexy’s highlights from that conversation.
Dr. Maler grew up in a small, rural community in Ontario; Ottawa was the closest large city. Her father was a professor of neuroscience and loved jazz. In addition to hearing her father’s jazz collection at home, she played the flute in school. In 10th grade, Dr. Maler was accepted to an arts high school in Ottawa, which she described as very immersive. There she continued to take flute lessons in addition to honing skills in piano and music theory. She began studying at McGill University at age 16, where her enthusiasm for performance was tempered from being doubted because of her young age. As her education continued, she fell in love with academia. For Dr. Maler, learning Renaissance counterpoint delivered a satisfaction similar to solving a puzzle. As she pursued more advanced music theory classes and techniques, her fascination continued to grow. After McGill University, Dr. Maler went on to study at the University of Chicago, which she described as her dream school. She was particularly fond of the architecture and the beautiful walks through campus.
I wanted to know more about her work with deaf culture and musical interpretation. She told me that she had a lifelong fascination with languages. She learned ASL during her Master’s degree, and watching YouTube videos of music being interpreted into ASL fueled her curiosity. Working with Nicole Biamonte, a professor of music theory at McGill (and former faculty member at UI), the project of translating rock and pop music into ASL led to a “lightbulb” moment: that gestures themselves can be musical. As her academic work continued, she continued to learn more about deaf culture and disability studies. It was a hugely understudied area, and she feels it is an important task to bring the deaf cultural perspective into more wide-reaching academic study. A new project of hers that’s currently in the works involves Dip-Hop (signed rap music), the rhythmic techniques used by deaf rappers, and the relationships between signs, English, and background music. Not knowing ASL myself, I found that this opened my eyes to an entirely different world of music from what I’ve encountered before. She is also working on a book project that explores deaf and signing voices, asking, “what does it mean to sing in ASL?” The goal of this project is to create a framework for the signing voice. Dr. Maler sees her work as an important step toward epistemic inclusion and fighting injustice where deaf people have been too often excluded in the production of musical knowledge. Dr. Maler is also the chair of the Society of Music Theory Accessibility Committee.
Before moving on to more personal topics, I asked about her preferred teaching topics. Dr. Maler told me that her favorite topic was disability in music. She found it to be extremely rewarding because she can see students’ perspectives change over the course of the class as they confront questions and issues they had perhaps not encountered before. She also enjoys teaching twentieth-century music theory classes, where she can see her students make sense of the music as the material becomes more accessible.
In her free time, Dr. Maler enjoys taking care of her many plants and her two cats. She also likes to make things: knitting, crocheting, and baking, in particular. She told me about her “side gig” during her PhD program making custom cakes—she even made her own wedding cake. Her husband, Dr. Robert Komaniecki, is also a music theorist and just joined the UI theory faculty as a visiting assistant professor. Dr. Komaniecki is a collaborator on the in-progress Dip-Hop project. In addition, they are both vegetarians who enjoy trying out new dishes and restaurants. Dr. Maler recommended the Havelli Indian restaurant here in Iowa City as well as Trumpet Blossom Café. She also likes to visit the frozen yogurt shop in the pedestrian mall and walk through the parks in Iowa City when the weather is nice.
I had a wonderful experience learning more about Dr. Maler, and I hope you all will join me in welcoming her to the University of Iowa.