Syracuse University Magazine

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Jenny Doctor

Sound Decision

It had to be an exceptional job opportunity to lure Jenny Doctor away from the University of York, where she served on the music faculty and as a Research Fellow, responsible for the university’s sound archives. A noted musicologist and specialist in 20th-century British composers, the Chicago native had lived and worked in England since the 1980s, when she arrived there as a Fulbright Scholar doing doctoral research at King’s College London. She then became affiliated with St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she organized the archives of renowned British composer Elizabeth Maconchy. With her research focused on mid-century British composers, it seemed likely she would remain in the United Kingdom for the rest of her career. 

What convinced Doctor and her husband, composer Stephen Ferre, to endure the rigors of a transatlantic move back to the United States was an offer for her to become director of Syracuse University Library’s Belfer Audio Archive, and a faculty member of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Ferre is an adjunct professor at the Setnor School of Music. “I was ready for a change, and this is an amazing chance to do new research,” says Doctor, who began her position in January. “I can’t imagine a better opportunity to bring us home to the States. We’re very pleased to be here.” 

With more than half a million recordings in a wide variety of formats—from the earliest experimental recordings on tinfoil to today’s digital CDs—the Belfer archive is one of the nation’s foremost repositories of audio history. Many of the materials are fragile, making preservation one of the archive’s highest priorities, according to Doctor, whose position is initially funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “I’ve always had an interest in American culture, and the Belfer archive contains so much history—not just music, but many other types of recordings, such as interviews and radio broadcasts,” she says. “My job is to bring it to life, and to help others use it in their research.”

Doctor earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Oberlin College and one in piano performance from Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She studied viola with the Vermeer Quartet, then earned a master’s degree and doctorate in music history from Northwestern University. Author of The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music 1922-36; Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge University Press, 1999), she previously worked as an editor at Macmillan Publishers, contributing to various New Grove music dictionaries. “I love editing, especially the attention to detail required,” she says. “Some of my new projects will be editing anthologies.” She is presently in the final stages of co-editing with Sophie Fuller, a book about Maconchy’s correspondence with her colleague, Welsh composer Grace Williams.

Although Doctor is still finalizing the courses she will teach at the Newhouse School, she will draw subject matter from the Belfer collection to use in her classes. “People use their eyes to learn about the world around them, but I would like them to use their ears as well,” Doctor says. “The saying is ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ To me, a recording can do the same thing—it’s evocative in the same way.” —Paula Meseroll

Photo by Susan Kahn