Interview with Patrick Burke

Grand Foyer of St. Louis Theater (now Powell Hall), from Missouri History Museum Collection

Kierstan Carter, posted on August 14, 2017

Patrick Burke is an Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and the Head of Musicology in the Department of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. His teaching includes courses on jazz, US popular music, and music of the African diaspora. To learn more about his site, Powell Symphony Hall or about Professor Burke, please visit amcs.wustl.edu/MWMS

How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about that particular place?

I chose my site because I am a professor of music so, of course, I wanted to do something having to do with music. There was a widely covered Black Lives Matter protest at Powell Hall in 2014 that drew my attention and got me thinking more about the venue.  When we think about racial segregation in the United States, we often think about those places—neighborhood borders, buses, public restrooms—where civil rights have been overtly denied and contested.    Powell Hall represents a less visible aspect of segregation; it has not been a site of officially sanctioned racial discrimination, but over time it has been understood primarily as a place where white people, often suburbanites who don’t live in the surrounding neighborhood, go to listen to the great works of European music. It isn’t, perhaps, the first example that comes to one’s mind when one thinks about segregation, but it’s an example of how we can find implicit patterns of segregation in many places.

What kinds of questions do you find yourself asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?

At first, I was interested in the general history of the symphony hall as a site. I already knew a little bit about the history of the Grand Center neighborhood, but not when the hall was built, what functions it has served , and how it developed its association with the orchestra.  With those preliminaries out of the way, I began considering the ways in which the hall and the orchestra have been marketed, how that marketing has changed over time, and the kinds of audiences that the hall attracts.

What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?

Most of my work has dealt with jazz and rock in urban spaces so I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about how music intersects with life in cities, and how different places and spaces interact. But I don’t know that much about architecture, about the building as such. A lot of the other researchers in the Material World of Modern Segregation project are doing really interesting work on buildings, but my approach is somewhat more impressionistic. For example, at Powell Hall there is lots of “fancy stuff” on the ceiling, and while I have a sense of what it connotes, I’ve had to rely on my primary sources to find out what to call it.   

What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that has surprised or even shocked you, and forced you to revise those expectations?

I was fascinated to learn that for the first roughly forty years of its history, Powell Hall was not a highbrow place where elite culture was presented. Instead, it was a vaudeville and movie theater. Essentially, it was built to showcase circus acts and Hollywood movies. It was best known during the mid-1960s for screening The Sound of Music over and over and over again. Its opulent interior always looked pretty similar to its current form, but that design wasn’t intended to accompany highbrow entertainment; rather, the “classy” building was meant to elevate middle and lowbrow content.

How has collaboration played a part in your research process?

It has been nice to collaborate. All of the contributors had a workshop about a month ago when we talked about our papers as a group and I found it very useful to have lots of perspectives from colleagues who are working on similar questions with a different focus.  As I revise this summer, it’s with their feedback in mind. Additionally, the format of the symposium and collaboration opportunities will help me point out connections between my work on Powell Hall and the work that others are doing.

How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?

My research and the Modern Segregation project, as a whole, is to some extent an academic project, but I think it will be helpful for people outside academia who are thinking about St. Louis and how segregation has shaped the city.  Beyond St. Louis, the project explores some broadly applicable questions that might inform people thinking about similar patterns in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or New Orleans, for example. 

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