Behind the Scenes: Writing about Alexander Rehding’s interstellar reach
Staff Writer/Editor Jacob Sweet reflects on his article “One Small Step for Music.”
When I first arrived at Harvard Magazine, the other editors provided me with a packet of story ideas. They hoped to spare me from wandering confusedly around Harvard Yard begging freshmen and tourists for suggestions. Fortunately, the list was excellent.
One colleague suggested an article on Peabody professor of music Alex Rehding, former chair of the Harvard music department, and a man with a universal reputation for friendliness. I agreed to write a brief “Harvard Portrait” on Rehding, and he agreed to an interview.
As I prepared, I became acquainted with the unique benefits of working for the magazine. My assignment was quite short—about 300 words—but no one in the office suggested it should be treated any differently than a feature story running a few thousand words longer. So in getting ready for an interview, I had the opportunity to read the entirety of Rehding’s most recent book, on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s hard to find a publication that allows for that kind of prep work.
I felt I knew what I was getting into with Rehding’s book. I’ve played clarinet since fifth grade and studied music theory and history along the way, getting used to a certain manner of musical analysis. And I’d learned to appreciate music theory, though the appreciation took about a decade to build. (For most subjects, I wouldn’t have endured such a long trial period.) I was expecting a harmonic and structural analysis of Beethoven’s Ninth with some historical context thrown in.
But Rehding’s book blew me away. He asked, and sought to answer, all sorts of questions about Beethoven’s final symphony. Why did Leonard Bernstein ’39, D. Mus. ’67, decide to conduct this piece, which premiered in 1824, to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 150 years later? How did it become the standard selection for twenty-first-century musical flash mobs? And what happens if you take the world’s most recognizable symphony and electronically stretch it across 24 hours? The questions were unusual, but getting to the answers was fascinating.
I spoke to Rehding in his office for an hour and a half and wrote 300 words. I got feedback from one editor, responded to the edits, and then sent it to every other editor, who made suggestions as needed. After a couple rounds of copyediting, a quick photo shoot of Rehding, and some layout and design work, the piece was ready for print and online. It’s a lot of work for a little piece, but it’s the Harvard Magazine norm—something made possible by our generous supporters.
Of course, the 300 words weren’t enough to capture Rehding’s approach, and I thought readers might want to see more: about how extraterrestrial life might experience music (his latest interest), for example. After deciding to write a feature, I read the manuscript of Rehding and Daniel Chua’s Music from Earth: Alien Listening and NASA’s Golden Record (and many more publications); interviewed an array of musicologists, music theorists, media theorists, and physicists, including friends and advisers of Rehding; and interviewed Rehding himself about a half-dozen more times in person and then on Zoom, trying to get a solid grasp of how he thought about music and what made it unique.
The process changed how I view music. I had never thought much about how the features of human perception shape the way we experience sound, and how every other species hears it differently. I never thought much about music in terms of vibrations, and never considered its unique potential to help us describe our world temporally instead of spatially. And though I became familiar with a new, broader approach to the study of music, I didn’t leave my more traditional theory background behind. Rehding’s skill in expanding a field without diluting it stuck with me.
Without our readers’ support, this kind of work would not be possible. Very few publications offer the kinds of resources that Harvard Magazine does, and in a world of breaking news and stories that are barely digested before they’re shared globally, I’m thankful we can create a thoughtful, polished product. Your support is appreciated every day!
Read “One Small
Step for Music.”