Open Doors and Open Minds


Diversity of Thinking – a conversation with Dr. Iain Quinn

The nationally distinguished Florida State University College of Music is a hub of activity, probably because of the more than 1,000 students who have made their musical homes in the hallways and classrooms of the college, honing their skills with peers and studying an array of musical styles that range from jazz to opera. Dr. Iain Quinn, Assistant Professor of Organ, Coordinator of Sacred Music and former Fulbright Scholar, has performed in many of the major musical venues around the world. The door to his office is thin and sound seeps in from outside as students tune their instruments and rehearse choral works nearby. The first question I ask Dr. Quinn, who is originally from the Welsh capital city of Cardiff, is if he has enjoyed living in Tallahassee.

“I like it very much. It has proved to be a wonderful city for children. We have three small children in our house and one has to balance everything for a healthy work and home life. The College of Music is also particularly collegial and I’m fortunate to work with tremendous people on a daily basis.”

Before receiving his PhD in musicology in 2012 from the University of Durham, located in north-east England, Dr. Quinn studied at The Juilliard School, The Hartt School, the University of Hartford, (BM, summa cum laude), and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University (MM). He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University and a Visiting Composer in Chapel at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge. As an organist, musicologist and composer, Dr. Quinn presents his students with the opportunity to understand the role of music in worship through a nuanced, worldly and expressive lens. He believes that his love for music grew out of his childhood experiences in the local cathedral choir.

“I grew up singing in a cathedral choir, so I was immersed in high quality music very early on and absolutely loved that. I wanted to take up the organ, but the route to that was always via piano study in the first instance. I began with the piano around age seven and then added trumpet lessons before starting organ lessons at thirteen.

One of the BBC orchestras is based in Cardiff, my hometown. It was possible for us to hear a major orchestra perform significant repertoire all the time. You saw people that were your parents age or older engaged in this glorious pursuit as a living profession yet with an extraordinary reach into history.

A thread that keeps coming up when I teach non-music majors – especially during the summer as part of an International Programs course in London – is the role of living composers that are writing new works, because many people assume that everything is a part of the museum culture and somehow antique. That’s simply not the case. There are tremendous opportunities for people to experience new music and our own campus has an especially strong commitment to new music.”

Sacred polyphony, Gregorian chants and hymns in Christian liturgy have a wealth of history, and Dr. Quinn structures his courses around the historical context of different pieces. Many Americans recognize hymns as they attend a Sunday Mass, but may not know the intricate details that go into the creation and performance of sacred music.

“We have a sacred music undergraduate degree, that includes courses that I teach, not the least of which is Hymnology. We have two tracks, organ and voice, and part of the coursework is undertaken at the Department of Religion. We also have a practicum, which studies the contemporary aspects of working in the church from an academic perspective and how this work evolves from one generation to another and historically. Critically, students see how the role of music in the larger Western canon has developed in relation to sacred music and vice versa.”

Sacred music is such a narrow branch of musicology, so what differentiates religious music from secular classical music? What makes sacred music specifically sacred?

“Firstly, because it is intended for use in worship. But, beyond that, there are various prescripts and protocols that composers have to abide by. In terms of musical style, composers continually test how far the envelope can be pushed in terms of artistic ideas and yet still be fitting within the context of a liturgy. The music should not draw attention to itself; it should fit as part of the whole, as much as the stained glass does, as much as the altar frontal does. You want it to be all as one. There are composers who, throughout history, have had a certain gift that could both elevate the experience of a worshipping environment while also contributing to the larger musical art form. Of course there are also many composers that have only written for the church and done so extremely well. It is a particular gift to be able to do both because the demands are extremely different.”

As a top producer of Fulbright recipients, Florida State University professors have seen their fair share of the world, and for the well-traveled Assistant Professor Dr. Quinn, his time in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2017 was filled with performing, lecturing and learning about local life.

“I was a Fulbright scholar in Russia last Spring, and it is slightly eerie now because my Facebook photos are coming up with the one year anniversary, and here I am in the Florida heat! I taught at the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory, which is one of the leading conservatories in the country and indeed the world. I was teaching organ students in lessons and lectures, and also playing some recitals. I chose Russia in part because I had been twice before, but also because it was a completely different culture. I spent a lot of time in advance of the trip reading Russian literature, both nineteenth and twentieth century fiction, to see whether there really was a connection between the way people were discussed and the people I would then encounter, and found that it was incredibly close in many instances. Several Russians commented on this while I was there often noting the impressive accuracy of one author over another who managed to capture the spirit of the people or a moment in history. I also wanted to be somewhere where it wasn’t simply a different language amidst different architecture and music, but where clearly there was a different way of seeing the world. None of us have any choice where we are born, and there are fortunes and misfortunes that come with that. In the grand landscape, Russia is still one of the affluent countries by comparison to most of the rest of the world. However, Russian thinking is completely different in terms of the professions, how artists are viewed, the balance of what is expected of politicians, and many other areas. Experiencing even a small part of this culture for four months inevitably broadens one’s thinking and like all educational experiences challenges the individual to open their eyes still further.”

Dr. Quinn noticed stark differences between students in Russia and those in the United Kingdom and United States in terms of the discussions around history and the extent of the role it plays in contemporary everyday lives.

“Everything is a matter of context and the context for Russians is quite simply different because it centers on a remembrance of the Second World War and in turn a very long view of history. You wouldn’t expect someone in your generation [a college student], in the course of meeting for coffee, to be discussing the last world war and yet this topic came up in numerous conversations with adults of all ages because as a Fulbright administrator put it to me during our Washington orientation “when you’ve lost more than twenty-five million people and had a city (St. Petersburg) under siege for almost nine hundred days you have a different view of life.

The current system was exactly as it had been explained during our orientation. It is understood that you do not criticize the Russian government, you never mention corruption and under no circumstances do you criticize the Russian president. If you follow the rules, it’s highly unlikely you’d have any issues at all and in St. Petersburg you’re experiencing one of the very great cities of the world. For me it would be second only to London. However, stories of researchers who showed up at one library without advance permission while failing to cancel the appointment at another and consequently found their visa revoked for five years are not unheard of.

It is understood that you are a foreigner and there’s an inherent respect for that because it’s expected in return. Although I’ve lived in the US almost continuously since 1994, I suppose I still sound very British and that has an amusing response in Russia. “So, we’ve both [the UK and Russia] seen better days!” was a common rejoinder and there is far more in common than one might at first think not least in a similar appreciation for dry humour.

Russians are very deep thinkers, and there is the expectation that you can ask as many questions as you like, but you will never really understand the soul of the country. You see that in the literature where there is layer upon layer upon layer of character development and yet it’s all important. Dostoevsky springs to mind but frankly the length of Tolstoy’s novels makes perfect sense on so many levels as does the bluntness of Vladimir Sorokin’s writing or the relative melancholy of Olga Grushin’s books on a quite different level. Each provides something of a glimpse into a different and elaborate world.

The character of much that I encountered was summed up in the last week of four months when an administrator said, ‘Well, it is because we don’t understand it [our country fully] ourselves. We don’t understand why certain things happen, we don’t understand why injustices happen, but we live with it, because we are a great country, and we have a rich history, and we’ve seen off far worse in the past.’ Despite a history that has never been easy for the average person, one is left with a sense that you’re amongst some of the kindest people around, well aware of where they stand, where their country stands, and what is going on elsewhere. Stephen Kotkin’s book Armageddon Averted is the perfect complement to the (semi-)fictional landscapes portrayed in the literature although frankly you also realize how close to the mark John le Carré is.”

Dr. Quinn believes that it is vital to encourage a wide range of discussion between students of different backgrounds in his classroom. With over 2,000 international students from over 130 countries, FSU supports a diversity of opinion and a culture of internationalism. This is reinforced by the work of International Programs which provides opportunities for FSU students to spend time studying abroad.

“Diversity, whether on campuses or in communities at large, encourages a continuing dialogue that when sustained allows people to understand the importance of subtlety and nuance in our conversations and actions. When I’ve spoken to diplomats, this view is reinforced over and over again. To cooperate with people in other countries you really must have a sense that subtle differences really do matter.

The more we can spend time thinking outside our own area of experience, the closer we are to making meaningful contributions to society. As President Kennedy remarked “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” We are fortunate to have a diverse campus that can channel multiple points of view, encourage stimulating intellectual debate and nurture students who are critical thinkers that constantly ask questions. When you have a classroom with someone from Alabama sitting next to someone from Brazil who is next to someone from Washington state next to somebody from Tallahassee you’re inevitably going to encourage a diversity of opinion and that must always be warmly welcomed because that’s the real world. With an often easily polarized media, the campus conversation and research culture has taken on an especially critical role because it is important that we all think about the world we are to some extent shaping for ourselves as well as future generations.”

Dr. Quinn is an Assistant Professor of Organ and the Coordinator of Sacred Music at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida.

To learn more about his work, please click here.

-Zoe Zirlin, FSU Class of 2020

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