Into the arts

We begin with the origins of the Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste, Bloomington Bach Cantata Project, and Weird Studies podcast, each of which builds community in a distinctive way. We then dive into how and why community forms around these artistic projects and learn more about Javier, Phil, and Daniel — including what they’re listening to and reading. Some responses are edited for length and clarity. 

(To Javier) As you’ve worked with Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste, how have you seen it grow and change? 

Javier F. León: The opportunity to create Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste came out of a number of happy coincidences. Back in 2018, there was a group of students who had been trying to start a group on their own, but they lacked the resources (instruments, rehearsal space, etc.) to so do effectively. With the help of the La Casa Latino Cultural Center and the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, our center was able help the students form their own group.

Photo, top of page: Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste opened for Grammy-nominated Flor de Toloache at the Buskirk Chumley Theater in April 2019.

After a few semesters, the student who had run the mariachi, Jonathan de la Cruz, graduated from IU. At that point, I decided to volunteer my time on weekends to continue running the group (I had performed with a mariachi while I was a graduate student at the University of Texas). Since then, the group has continued to grow and prosper. They have now become one of the "go to" groups in the area, and in addition to performing regularly around Bloomington and the IU campus, the group continues to receive invitations to play in Latino Festivals throughout southern Indiana, and we even have an upcoming performance in Chicago in April. 

The group is in many ways unique, because it brings together students who have grown up playing mariachi but who are here at IU pursuing other career paths (Kelly School of Business, Maurer School of Law, Physics, etc.), with Jacobs School of Music students who are accomplished performers, but have little or no experience with this music, to faculty members (we currently have people from Sociology and Public Health), and Bloomington community members. Many of these musicians bring very different sets of musical skills to the group, and one of my biggest challenges, but also one of the most rewarding experiences, has been learning how to get all of them to work together, making them more well-rounded performers. 

(To Daniel) Being the director of the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project, how have you seen it flourish over the years?  

Daniel R. Melamed: The BBCP grew out of a graduate course I taught many years ago. I had been regularly offering a class on the history and analysis of Bach cantatas, and decided to follow it with one in which we explored problems of the performance of these works as they were first heard under his direction. We studied the sources and tried out various solutions in in-class performances. This worked so well, including in a culminating performance to which we invited an audience, that my colleague Wendy Gillespie (then head of the Early Music Department) suggested we try establishing a regular concert series devoted to Bach cantatas.

Thus, the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project was born, and we are now completing our fourteenth season presenting Bach cantatas in performances modeled on his own. We use forces the size and disposition of his ensembles, and carefully consider various versions and other textual matters. Our singers and instrumentalists are specialists in early eighteenth-century music and its performance. And we have a unique format: a performance of a cantata, a short talk about it, and then a second performance that offers the opportunity of hearing new and different things. 

Not only has the musical level of our performances climbed very high, but we have trained several generations of students to sing, play, and direct this difficult music in a particularly demanding way. Our monthly audiences have grown steadily. And when the pandemic forced us to present cantatas on video, we realized we had an opportunity to reach broader audiences, so all of our concerts continue to be made available on our YouTube channel, including both performances and the lecture. 

(To Phil) Tell us how your podcast has changed since episode one. What have you learned along the way, and what do you hope to explore more?  

PF: We have learned a lot! When I rehear early shows I am annoyed at how bad they sound — at the beginning, co-host JF and I had a lot to learn about how to record ourselves. Some of that was technical, but some of it concerned how to have a conversation for the microphone. For the purposes of recording our podcast, a conversation has to have a certain rhythm, a certain shape, a certain kind of direction, that works within a 60- to 90-minute frame. When I hear our first shows, it’s obvious to me that those things aren’t quite there. 

But that’s small beer. The bigger discoveries have been on the level of ideas. For a humanities scholar such as myself, podcasting represents a whole new way of developing and expressing ideas. The podcast is a new medium for thought that works in a way completely different from books and journal articles. I write about this subject in an essay in the Journal of Musicological Research, and you can hear some of the ideas I develop in that piece in our episode 106, “The Wanderer.”  

Actually, the relationship between this episode and the JMR piece is an illustration of what makes podcasting distinctive. In episode 106, we considered what makes podcasting a new medium for thought and suggested that in a series of recorded conversations one has an opportunity to introduce and develop ideas as jazz improvisers do, with a logic of repetition with variation. Improvisers are constrained to express their ideas in the moment, without the writer’s prerogatives of planning and revising — the writer can step outside the moment to shape ideas, while the improviser can only stay in the moment. So, in a podcast, ideas come back in different conversations, wearing different hats and playing different roles every time. In writing, they attain a more fixed and ideal form. In podcasting, you can enjoy the movement and activity of ideas, the idea as a performance or event; in writing, you can enjoy the substance and durable form of an idea, the idea as an object. To put it in musical terms, it’s the difference between improvisation and composition, and that difference is exemplified by the contrast between our “Wanderer” episode and my “Wanderer” essay. 

To return to your question of what we have learned from doing the podcast — we have learned our own ideas from doing the podcast. The ideas exist because of the podcast; early on, we stopped treating the medium as a means of recording the thoughts we already had and starting using it as the means by which we think. And of course, it is not only the podcasting medium that allows us to do that; friendship, and friendly conversation, is really the beating heart of our intellectual project. It is what makes everything possible. 

(To Javier and Daniel) In your experience, what are the benefits of enjoying and learning about music with others? 

JFL: Beyond improving one's skill and becoming a better musician, I think that performance has a very important role in creating and sustaining a sense of community and belonging. Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste is a great example of this, as it provides a space for students, faculty, and staff — many of them from very different backgrounds — to share something in common. In many regards, the group feels like a family. I think much of our center's other programming also helps create a similar sense of community. Many of our concerts and recitals are put together by recruiting volunteer performers, many of whom continue to work with us because of the nature of many of our projects, despite all the extra hours that they have to put in. 

For instance, a couple of years ago, the Latin American Music Center had the privilege of working with the National Musical Archive of Costa Rica to bring to life the music of noted composer Rocio Sanz Quiros.  Although an important figure in Costa Rican music, much of her music was only performed a handful of times when the composer was alive. The National Music Archive was in the process of publishing her music through its journal, but at the time, they lacked the resource to have her music performed and recorded, which was a key step in promoting her work.  Thanks to a great deal of hard work and many late nights, our center was able to recruit a chamber string orchestra to perform Sanz's music for one of our chamber music series, a performance that was live streamed in Costa Rica and that offered to many people the opportunity to hear this music for the first time. It is those types of experiences, that way of participating in projects, that help to give back to a community, even if that community is not in our own backyard. I'm grateful that there are so many people in the IU community who are so generously willing to work with us in these kinds of projects. 

DRM: This music means a great deal to me both as a scholar and as a musician, so hearing it performed so beautifully is a continually great experience. I enjoy working with the young musicians who bring such focus and dedication along with their skills and talent. It is great to see so many of them take these skills out into the professional world. 

I am proud that Bloomington supports the performance of Bach cantatas in a way that reflects his own music-making. There are many great cantata performances around the world, but almost none that consistently apply what we have come to know about Bach’s way of presenting them. That’s not the only way to perform or listen to them, but it is surely one worth hearing. I am also proud of the diversity we have cultivated, particularly in the role that women musicians have taken in leading performances — not a given, alas, in today’s musical world. 

And I appreciate the community that has grown around the BBCP: our current musicians, alumni, renowned guest artists, staff, donors, and loyal listeners. Our performances are put together in a very brief and intense few days; I think the in-person audiences can sense the focus and dedication in each of the concerts. That’s the nature of good live music, but somehow it comes across especially clearly in our work. 

Left: Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste poses at the Monroe Convention Center, where they performed for the 29th Annual Soup Bowl Benefit. Right: Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste plays for a wedding in October 2022.

(To Daniel) What about the community in this area makes this project possible?  

DRM: There are very few places in the world where a project like this could happen. We have the faculty and students in the IU Jacobs School of Music's Historical Performance Department and Institute, alumni of the program who still live in Bloomington, other early music specialists who have gravitated to the town, and resident scholarly expertise in Bach's music and its performance. 

And we have audiences and donors who value the high level of our performances, the chance to hear rarely performed repertory, and the opportunity of learning about it. When you add the welcome we have been shown by St. Thomas Lutheran Church, our performing home, and the administrative support of Bloomington Early Music, you have the ingredients for a lasting series.

Left: The Bloomington Bach Cantata Project ensemble performs "Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn" BWV 23 in February 2013. Right: Bach Cantata musicians snap a photo in October 2023, at their performance of "Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben!" BWV 109.

(To Phil) What is your favorite episode of your podcast? What makes it so special to you?  

PF: Ludwig van Beethoven’s favorite among his own piano sonatas was the one in F sharp major, op. 78, but hardly anyone has ever shared his opinion. If Beethoven can be so fallible in the evaluation of his own work, what hope is there for me! I do have a favorite episode, though I don’t know if it is anyone else’s favorite — episode 80, “The Pit and the Pyramid.” It was about something I call “the philosopher’s blues,” a kind of existential despair to which intellectuals are prone. Professional thinkers are apt to mistake their ideas about the world for the world itself, and then to find themselves trapped in the confines of the little world they have made for themself — the story of Daedalus creating the Labyrinth and then getting lost in it is a good emblem for this sort of thing. My father, a philosophy professor, was just such a person, and later so was I. It was spiritual practice (the practice of zazen meditation) that woke me up to the fact that I had been creating hells for myself to inhabit, just as my father had done for himself years earlier. Our episode 80 gave me a chance to talk about the hopeless sadness that so often afflicts thinkers, and to suggest that there is always a way out. We don’t always feel hope, but there is always hope for hope, if that makes any sense.  

I like this episode because I got a chance to talk about one of the loveliest songs I know, Tommy Wolfe and Fran Landesman’s “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” and also because I got a chance to talk about my father, who died a long time ago and whose memory is always with me, for all he was a difficult and complicated man. So, this is an episode for which I have strong personal feelings.  

Also, as an improvisation, it came off miraculously. JF and I each chose a song to discuss without telling one another what we had chosen — his was Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” — and they ended up being very different, pretty much unrelated songs. Yet in the course of our conversation, we arrived at ideas that gathered these songs together, such that, when we got to the end, they seemed always to have belonged together. It was as if we had discovered a secret affinity they had been patiently waiting to disclose. The conversation developed as if we had planned everything out in advance, and yet the ideas, bright and shiny and new, emerged all at once, in the moment, like a magic trick. I used to be a pianist, and it felt exactly like the best musical performances, the ones where you say things like “it’s not me that’s playing the music, the music is playing me.” That’s what it felt like. Whether that feeling is conveyed to listeners, though, I couldn’t tell you. 

(To Javier) What moved you to pursue the study and performance of music to the degree that you have? 

JFL: Actually, I don't have a performance degree. I have a Bachelor's degree in Astrophysics (University of California, Berkeley) and a Master's and PhD. in Ethnomusicology (University of Texas at Austin). I was always very actively involved in music, which was odd since there are no other musicians in my family, but being the oldest son of a single mother recently arrived in the U.S., pursuing music as an undergraduate degree was not really an option for me. I was good at math and science, so I went that route (with my relatives probably wondering why I didn't pick something more applied like engineering), but at the same time I was a very active performer (trumpet mostly) and ended up playing professionally for a bit. In the end, though, the academic music track seemed more interesting, because it offered me an opportunity to conduct research in Latin America, which at the time was an under-researched area. I also had a fair amount of experience working on the operations side of a few arts presenting venues. 

Now, as director of the Latin American Music Center, I have managed to combine many of those life experiences into a single job. From the academic side, I get to manage one of the largest archives devoted to the study, promotion, and performance of Latin American music in the world. We host scholars interested in working with our collections, offer research consultation services to individuals and arts organizations throughout the U.S., and cultivate working relationships with other archives in Latin America. Our center also has a public face, and we do a fair amount of presenting. Over the years, I've been very lucky to have been able to count on the help of talented students and colleagues at the Jacobs School of Music and at IU more broadly, to bring to the stage many important works by Latin American composers. We've also sponsored visits by talented artists and scholars working on various types of Latin American music, organized festivals, and created a number of opportunities for students to get involved with the center, including performance ensembles and minor degree programs in Latin American and Caribbean music. 


(To Phil) How does your podcast relate to your research and teaching at the Jacobs School?   

PF: Weird Studies is at the center of everything I do these days. I mean, I try not to bring it up all the time, as that can get tiresome and sounds rather conceited in any event. But for me the show is an engine for the generation of ideas, and those ideas permeate all my writing and teaching. A case in point: I am teaching an undergraduate course on music, play, and games (the formal term for this branch of thought is “ludomusicology”), and one of the issues that inevitably comes up in thinking about video games is that of immersion in virtual world. Video games create imaginary worlds nested within the “real” world — but in doing so, they raise the question, what is reality, anyway? So, in our class yesterday, we tried to work our way through that question, and one of the things I wove into the discussion was a foreword that JF wrote for Jobe Bittman’s The Book of Antitheses, in which JF defines reality as “what matters.” Not only this particular idea but the very fact that I was teaching such a class at all is directly due to my collaboration with JF, who among other things is a designer of and deep thinker on role-playing games.  

I could multiply such examples indefinitely. There is not a word of professional writing I have done in the past six years that has not been shaped by my work on Weird Studies. The show has opened doors to new professional associations, new friendships, new projects, new venues for publication, that I could never have imagined when we started this project in early 2018. In 2024 alone, there is the aforementioned JRM essay, “The Wanderer,” which theorizes the category of “content” within the field of public scholarship; I have a piece on UFOs appearing in the North American Review later this year; in collaboration with JF and Jacob Foster, I am writing an essay on the care of the dead for a special issue of Daedalus on the social science of caregiving; later this year, we are doing live shows at the IU Cinema and at Shannon Taggart’s amazing annual symposium at Lily Dale; and I have Weird Studies to thank for all of these projects.  

I don’t say that everyone should do public and para-academic work as I do. You have to have the temperament for it, for one thing, and there are certainly risks to doing this kind of work. I have made myself look foolish many times — maybe I am doing that right now! But for those who are willing to try, it can open up so many possibilities in your thinking, collaboration, teaching, and writing. I am so grateful for what Weird Studies has allowed me to do as a professor at Indiana University.

Phil Ford and J.F. Martel speak in public for the first time during a 2015 launch event for Martel’s book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice. “Little did we know then that we would end up having so many more conversations in the future!” Phil said. “Though after this event JF did come up to me and say ‘hey, we should do a podcast.’ A couple of years later it happened.”

(To Phil) Your bio says that your current work concerns magical and contemplative styles of thought, feeling, and experience. Can you say more about this?  

PF: I am a longtime meditator and Zen Buddhist — I am now training as a teacher in a branch of the White Plum Sangha — and these commitments completely reframed my intellectual work long before I even met JF. There is a whole branch of scholarship that is growing up around contemplative practice; just google “contemplative studies” and see what you find. It is especially prominent in pedagogy, and I do find that contemplative approaches can work very well in the classroom. Contemplation can reframe your entire worldview. If you imagine your mind as a house, ideas are pieces of furniture — they can be moved in an out, swapped at will, never really affecting the structure of the building that contains them. But contemplation pertains to that structure. Which means that it also pertains to all the furniture, too.  

I like to say that there is no informed consent to spiritual practice. When you start meditating, you are probably not expecting anything much to happen — maybe you’re just hoping to reduce your stress. But weird things might start to happen, and you might start to become aware of intelligences beyond your own in strange imaginal zones. You find yourself visiting places you never imagined might really exist (in whatever sense an imaginal zone might be said to “exist”). Interested readers can consult the ninth chapter of Jack Kornfield’s excellent book A Path With Heart to learn more about such exotic phenomena. I have had some really bizarre experiences, both on and off the cushion, that are really hard to explain rationally, unless you just say that I’m making them all up. Skeptics might laugh at my stories, but I invite them to confirm the plausibility of what I say by engaging in insight meditation whole-heartedly — say, for about an hour — every day without exception for a year. Of course, hardly anyone will take me up on that, but that’s on them, not me.  

Years ago, I had an incredibly vivid, meaningful dream that ended at a very particular place in Toronto, and when I awoke, my attention was pulled to a drawer in which was hidden an object that came from that exact place. Something from the immaterial, imaginal world washed up on the shores of material reality, and this is impossible within the materialist metaphysics I had until that moment believed unquestioningly. This one event — and there were many more to come — shattered my metaphysical assumptions like a stone shied through a plate-glass window. There was no putting it back together again; I needed to find a new philosophy within which such occurrences can find a place. Weird Studies is my ongoing project of doing just that.  

(To Javier) What have you been listening to lately? 

JFL: That's a complicated question, given my job. This past week, I've been listening to a great deal of the music of Mexican microtonal composer Julián Carillo. We are covering his music in my graduate seminar. I've also been preparing our mariachi and a chamber ensemble to go perform in Chicago next month, so I've been also listening to a fair amount of Mariachi Vargas, Lila Downs, and Chilean nueva cancion music. 

At home, my oldest daughter has discovered CDs and got a CD player for Christmas, so we are constantly hearing a mix of Taylor Swift, Joan Jett, and the Indigo Girls. I also used to live in New Orleans, and my wife often has a local radio station, WWOZ, playing, so I've also been getting a good dose of New Orleans brass band music and local jazz.  

Next week, I will be in Berlin and Austria with my colleague Olga Rodriguez Ulloa to give a series of talks about Afro-Peruvian music (my original area of research specialty) in collaboration with some local artists, so I'm looking forward to listening to some electronica remixes of Afro-Peruvian classics, some punk music, and while in Vienna, also to listen to the Wagner Society Orchestra. 

Left: Daniel R. Melamed introduces the fifth performance of the Bloomington Bach Cantata Project’s 14th season: "Jesu, der du meine Seele" BWV 78. Right: Daniel R. Melamed and Swarthmore colleague Michael Marissen share a dialogue exploring salvation, blood, and leprosy in cantata 78.

(To Daniel and Phil) Has anything you’ve read recently really resonated with you? Does it relate with how you approach and make your art? 

DRM: I can strongly recommend a collection of essays called Rethinking Bach edited by Bettina Varwig of Cambridge University and published by Oxford University Press in 2021. In it, Bach scholars from around the world take stock of a couple hundred years of Bach cultivation and research and ask what new perspectives we ought to consider. (I have an essay there about the stubborn persistence of fanciful theories about supposed coded meanings and messages in Bach’s music.) Many of the contributions deal with aspects of Bach studies that lie outside my own, and I have really enjoyed following along as the authors confront them. I recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking about Bach. 

PF: I’ll choose just one book, Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, which we discussed on the show in fall 2023. It has become a classic novel, much loved by Gen-Zers and the locus classicus of the “dark academia” aesthetic, but I hadn’t read it until the summer. My god, what a novel it is. I call The Secret History a “fate machine,” a fiendish device for the destruction of its characters, and the spectacle of their fate is as stirring to me as anything from the ancient world. 

Upcoming Events

Bach Cantata performance “Gott ist mein König, BWV 71” 

Sunday, April 14, 2024

2:30 p.m.

St. Thomas Lutheran Church,
3800 E 3rd St, Bloomington, IN

Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste & Ballet Folklórico de IU 

Friday, March 29, 2024

8:00 p.m.

Global and International Studies Building 

Weird Studies podcast release 

Every other Wednesday

Learn where you can find the show