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ASU School of Music graduate uses multilingual skills to explore historical music interpretation

December 6, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Alexandra Birch, violinist.

Alexandra Birch is a violinist. This Dec. 11, she earns her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Arizona State University. She is also a musician who understands the importance of historically informed music performances.

Birch spent the summer of 2017 learning to speak and write Armenian to further her research on music surrounding mass atrocities in the former Soviet Union.

She was awarded a language grant from the U.S. State Department's Program for Research and Training on Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union to study less commonly taught languages. The program was offered through ASU, with the primary focus on language acquisition, and included a six-week course in Tempe and five weeks of language immersion in Yerevan, Armenia.

“I think that language acquisition is vital for the (Doctor of Musical Arts) student,” said Birch. “I was fortunate to come into both the masters and doctoral programs at ASU with academic language proficiency in French, German and Russian.”

Her research broadly focused on comparative cultural commemoration of genocide in the former Soviet Union and included study of the Armenian Genocide, Holodomor and the Holocaust in Soviet Territories. She looked at how commemoration affects statehood post-1991 and the types and effect of commemoration.

Birch was particularly interested in the Soviet commemorative response to the Armenian genocide and in the commemorative works — pieces composed in camps and ghettos, music from gulags, music from persecuted people — and reconstruction of narratives using music prior to the genocide.

Birch conducted her research at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian national genocide museum and archive. She utilized her German, Russian and Armenian language skills to conduct research she incorporated into her doctoral paper on historically informed performances. Birch’s D.M.A. project focused specifically on Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina and a specific work for violin, "Dancer on a Tightrope.”

Birch said she hopes to see more interdisciplinary work between humanities and music at ASU. She said that ASU has a fantastic music program and that she felt tremendously supported by her advisor, her committee and faculty in both her musical and academic pursuits.

“I would also love to see even more of an emphasis on the importance of language, in addition to musicology and theory in the performance realm at ASU,” said Birch. “I think that these skills in the humanities only serve to enrich our performances and musical interpretation.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I attended a performance of Nadja Salerno Sonnenberg playing a Shostakovich violin concerto with the Tucson Symphony when I was about 10 years old. I had been studying violin for a while and her playing had always inspired me on recordings, but seeing her perform live was what inspired me to pursue a career in performance. I also was extremely drawn to the piece and have dedicated most of my performance career to Soviet music. To pursue a career in performance, I have been very blessed with a very supportive family, particularly my mother and husband. While at ASU, I also have had fantastic guidance from my professor, Katherine McLin, who has continually inspired me to continue in the career beyond just a childhood dream.

Q. What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A. I would say that Professor Sabine Feisst's classes during my graduate studies have been a major influence on my current career track. Her courses really emphasize different tracks that are possible in performance, both with 20th- and 21st-century music, and also with research. I have been able to add a strong research component to a performance degree, and she has been a wonderful mentor in that regard.

Q. Why did you choose ASU to pursue a bachelor's degree, master's degree and doctorate?

A. I chose ASU for all three of my music degrees because of my outstanding studio, mentorship with Dr. McLin and the ability to continue academic research while studying performance. ASU has a fantastic combination of strong academic, collaborative and performance faculty.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A. My advice to those still in school is to expand your set of skills! Any secondary skill you can add to your academic portfolio will serve you well. This is true for any major and in any job market. I particularly think that foreign language skills are a fantastic way to open new opportunities in the U.S. and abroad, but any strong secondary interest to your major will open new possibilities in your field. 

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