Daphne Carr - American music writer and scholar teaching at Charles University

Daphne Carr, photo: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia

Daphne Carr is an American music expert and writer. The focus of her research is not classical but popular music, a field that only recently has garnered attention from academics. Carr’s passion for writing started within what is commonly referred to as the zine culture, zines being small and often underground publications that became popular in America in the 1980s and 1990s. She has stayed true to the underground and found a new favorite in the Czech Republic: the Plastic People of the Universe, who she learned about when she first came to Prague in 2000 to take summer courses. Carr now teaches a class on popular music at Charles University’s Institute of Musicology. Daphne talks about her course, the unique Czech genre of tramp music and what first piqued her interest in music.

Daphne Carr, photo: Joe Mabel, Wikipedia
“I think the first alternative record that made an impression on me was Radiohead’s Creep. I guess it was the music video, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. Because I grew up in a small town, where everyone was listening to funk music, and classic rock and things like that.

“I saw Radiohead on late-night MTV and I thought: There is a band that is cool, they are doing something different and the sound is strange. And I really identified with the lyrics, because they were so outsider, so I was drawn to that immediately. And so I kind of just picked up anything that sounded like that. So that was my descent into the underground, or rather, the alternative, and from there I moved on to the underground.

So when did the writing come in? When did you first think that music wasn’t just something you enjoyed but wanted to write about, and also write about from an academic angle?

“Before academic writing, my first writing was zine writing. I was really active in the riot grrrl zine community in the 1990s, and I really loved it. And in fact, my undergraduate degree, I did an independent study on zine culture and researched the history behind it.

“I’ve always been really inspired by and continued to participate in the underground publishing scene, and from there, I became a journalist. And at some point, I crossed the threshold where I wanted to think more critically, and think beyond 2000 words at a time."

“My Czech research I’ve been doing off and on for the last ten years, which is luxury, in a way, to be able to get to think about the same thing for so long, it’s great.”

I hear you are also the editor of the Best Music Writing series. Can you tell a bit about that?

“It’s an anthology of English-language writing about music. Not just popular music, also classical and world music and all kinds of different things. It started in 2000, and I inherited the series in 2006.

“It’s a labor of love in some ways, I read something like a 100 publications regularly, and then I read some 2500 to 3000 submissions at the end of the year, and from that I pick about a hundred of them. And those I then I pass on to a guest editor, who is usually a noted music or fiction writer, and that person chooses the final entries, and then that book is published every fall.

“There are a number of books like Best Sports Writing, Best Fiction or Best Non-Fiction and this is part of that whole set of series that come out in the fall, just to sort of commemorate the year’s preceding writing. It’s very old-fashioned, especially in the era of online instant connections, it’s sort of a strange anomaly, but I love it and it’s really a center point for the community every fall.”

You came to Prague for summer courses in 2000. What was your first impression of the Czech music scene and what fascinated you?

“My first impressions, well, I thought it was really romantic. I was really charmed by the stories that I heard and the incredible dedication of people I met at shows. It was much different from my experience in New York City, because it’s so inter-generational and welcoming of new members, in a way.

“So it’s very different from New York, where everyone is kind of giving you a look, like: Who the hell are you, with arms crossed standing in the corner. SO I was really thrilled by that and felt welcomed, so that was my first step.”

I understand you were also quite taken by the Plastic People of the Universe?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s hard not to. That’s the most romantic story that is told about Czech music and in fact, the Plastic People of the Universe are really the only Czech rock or 20th century musicians, beside maybe Janáček, who are known to us.

“I loved their music, I really identified with their poetic vulgarity and their kind of great, rough sounds, and the fact that they always sound like they are having so much fun on their records and putting so much passion into it.

“So I was glad to find that band as a sort of anchor to a sort of intellectual and aesthetic world that still has waves coming into the present.”

So what brought you back? I understand that you are involved with a project with the Charles University’s Institute of Musicology?

“Well, I was teaching her for one year, an undergraduate and a graduate course on popular music study. The first or second semester was independent research for the students, doing their own field work on Czech popular music, so my students were working on projects on tramp music and the sort of emergence of a post-rock scene here in the last decade. And about the relationship between VJs and DJs and live bands in live music settings.

“I think that there have been people who have taught popular music in various parts of Charles University, in the social science faculty, and did part of their work in the Institute of Musicology, but I think, and I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think this may be the first time that there’s just been courses dedicated specifically to the scholarly enquiry of popular music.

“Which I am really excited about that this is happening. And I think we’ll be editing a special issue of the music journal here, dedicated to popular music, in Czech. With my students’ work and some other peoples’ work as well.”

Do you think in this country, there's still a focus on our classical music rather than pop and rock music, especially when it comes to the scholarly exploration thereof?

“Yeah, I mean it’s true anywhere in the world. Classical music has been studied for a 150 years, and there are so many different ways to study it. I mean, music theory exists to deal with scores, and popular music doesn’t have a score, the score is a recording or maybe even a life show.

“So it’s not as fixed and so it’s kind of harder to know how to approach it. The first person here, Aleš Opekar, who got a degree, a PhD in popular music, did it from a literary perspective, so looking at the actual texts of underground songs.

“And that’s definitely a good place to start, and moving there you can talk about the social processes and the performance and so on.

“And I think it’s an emerging field in a lot of places, and I definitely think it’s only an emerging field here. And you have such a rich tradition of classical performance and composition here, and it’s so much part of the national character, that I think it makes sense in some ways to have that focus, but I would like to see it expanded.”

And what’s your take on tramp music?

“What’s my take on tramp music? I would really love to be able to play it. I think it’s one of the unique facets of Czech culture. Chatas and tramping and the whole culture of the outdoors and free spirit and obsession with the romantic narrative of the frontier, it’s very special and unique to this country.

“There’s a woman, her first name is Veronika [Zapletalová], I can’t remember her last name, she did a book a couple of years ago with photographs of chatas, and now she’s making a documentary about them, and it’s going to be awesome.

“The name of the book is chatařství. She said in her introduction that she didn’t know that chatas were strange until she left the Czech Republic. The first time she travelled outside, she thought: Wait, other people don’t have chatas?

“And I sort of feel that people feel the same way about tramp music, they kind of roll their eyes at it and go: You know, they’re just strumming on the guitar and it’s not even in tune and everybody is singing out of tune. But it’s not until you go away that you realize, people don’t do this anywhere else in the world, it’s really unique. So I really appreciate it for that.”