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News & Press: In Memoriam

David L. Burrows, 1930-2019

Wednesday, January 15, 2020   (0 Comments)

David L. Burrows (February 5, 1930 - June 9, 2019)

It is with great sadness that we report the death of David Lamont Burrows on 9 June 2019. Emeritus Professor of Musicology at NYU, he was born in Honolulu in 1930 to an anthropologist/ethnomusicologist father, Edwin G. Burrows (1891-1958), one of the first scholars to do field recordings in Western Polynesia and Hawaii. His family background thus predisposed him to the wide-ranging cultural and musical interests and an interest in travel that would characterize his whole trajectory.

David earned a MA in music with a focus on composition at Harvard in 1952 but found it difficult to continue stylistically due to the grip of serialism at the time. He entertained a career as a Gestalt therapist, which demonstrated early on his concern for the healing dimension of the creative arts and for process, which would later be seen in his participation in music therapy retreats and conferences and in his later work on time and cosmology. His Korean War service as a clarinetist in an Army band (an experience that David would recount with more than his usual generous irony and sense of the absurd), he moved on to do a Ph. D. at Brandeis University in the 1950s, focusing on seventeenth-century Italian cantatas, and especially the works of Antonio Cesti, an important composer who had not been studied since Guido Adler’s work in the early twentieth century. He finished this dissertation in 1961, taught at Yale from 1961-1967, and began a long career at the NYU Music Department (FAS). To David we owe the catalogue of Cesti’s cantatas and an early edition of the composer’s duets in the “Recent Researches in Music of the Baroque Era” series, as well as an edition of Francesco Gasparini’s keyboard harmony treatise. His Musical Quarterly (1971) article, “Music and the ‘Nausea delle cose cotidiane’” took up the issue of Italy’s social decline in the seventeenth century as linked to its musical flowering, a kind of probing contradiction that characterized much of his work.

As Department chair at NYU in the late 1970s, he not only balanced a set of widely different scholarly styles, but also took the important step of hiring the Department’s first ethnomusicologist since the retirement of Curt Sachs in 1959.  This move began a tradition of ethnomusicological research as an integral part of the institution.

In the 1980s, his thinking moved towards different issues: first, broader questions regarding the relationship of speech and music (this obviously coming out of his work on Baroque vocal works), evident in his concise but classic book Sound, Speech, and Music (1990); and then increasingly towards music’s role in the construction of temporal perception, culminating in Time and the Warm Body: A Musical Perspective on the Construction of Time (2007), a book whose long intellectual gestation drew on both European and global musical cultures and concepts of time.  He retired from NYU in 2004, but continued his musical reflections and his warm support of former students, whose work ranged from Italy to France, and from Ottocento experimentalism to gender in the seventeenth century.

Throughout his career as a teacher, David’s approach was marked first and foremost by careful listening, followed by suggestions whose wisdom occasionally took time to sink in for a younger generation, and an enormously healthy sense of irony and distance towards the kind of positivism that dominated North American academia and specifically the scholarly study of music.  In an organic way, he linked musicology and ethnomusicology in his teaching and his scholarship. His quiet wit kept his classes and his informal conversations a perpetual source of stimulation.  His work in Italy also resulted in close friendships there, and his activity in time studies kept him in touch with a remarkable number of international scholars, notably the interdisciplinary group of the International Society for the Study of Time, even as failing health began to limit his activities around 2010.  He will be missed terribly by his sister, Nani (Karen Ball), three children Tim, Nina, and Greg, and companion Maryann McCabe (and her son Gabriel), who took loving care of him in his later years, as well as by his former students, his NYU colleagues past and present, and by all who knew him.

Robert L. Kendrick, with contributions from Jesse Rosenberg, Rena C. Mueller, and Maryann McCabe