April 11, 2012

Making music at auction

When one thinks of auctioneering, one does not typically think of the practice as performance art, and is even less likely to think of music. However, having recently finished her dissertation on auctioneering, Instructor of Music and Director of the Jazz Program Nikki Malley knows that auctioneering is just that.
Malley initially noticed something peculiar about auctioneering when she was driving to class at the University of Iowa for graduate school and heard an audio clip of an auctioneer on NPR.
“What I immediately thought was, ‘this guy is doing exactly the same thing that a jazz artist does … just with a different tool kit,’” Malley said.
Inspired by the correlation, Malley scoured the university music library for research on auctioneering and music. To her surprise, she found that there was little to no academic work to be found on the topic.
“In the end, I found literally only two things that had ever been written,” she said.
Seeing the scarcity of research in the area, and having “tunnel vision” about the idea, Malley felt that she could do nothing else but delve into the project.
And delve she did. Malley started by joining the World Wide College of Auctioneering in Mason City, Iowa to become an auctioneer. After attending the college, she was able to use her connections to conduct field research, traveling to auctions all across the country.
“Most of the auctioneers that I worked with as interview informants or as research assistants … were people that I met at auction school,” she said.
Through her fieldwork, Malley researched exactly how auctioneers use methods of improvisation in their performances, and the subtle musical characteristics of the practice, such as pitch collections, rhythmic practices, phrasing structures and style itself.
Malley’s findings suggest that what may sound like gibberish to the common ear in auctioneering is actually an improvisatory performance, an intentional conversation between the auctioneer and the audience — very important when auctions go on for seven or eight hours at a time. Auctioneers even go as far as memorizing important people’s names and their place in the crowd as they come in, then addressing them when their favorite items are being sold.
“To [auctioneers], it’s super important that even if it’s unintelligible, that the original or fundamental meaning is actually grammatically and syntactically correct … those unintelligible bits also serve an aesthetic purpose.”
Malley describes auctioneering as a crucial part of American culture, calling it the “ultimate capitalist moment.”
“Literally, the item will sell for exactly what it’s worth; it will sell for what people will pay for it, and there’s something really intense and magical about that moment,” she said
Malley sees her dissertation as only the beginning of many more in-depth projects on the culture and sub-cultures of auctioneering. As for now, she hopes her research will bring something new to the field of musicology; shedding light on a practice that she feels is largely underappreciated.
“It’s this extremely pervasive and important aspect of American culture that we haven’t thought about in a musical context. … I’m excited that it may turn our gaze on something that is actually right in front of us and has been for a long time but that hasn’t really received appropriate scholarly attention.”
Malley is presenting her research on Friday, April 27 as part of Fridays at Four.

Sam Brownson
Sam Brownson ’12 majored in philosophy and minored in anthropology and sociology. This is his second year copy editing for TKS; he is also currently a post-baccalaureate fellow in music and theater and will be composing the music for two productions as part of Knox’s Repertory Theatre Term. A self-described grammar Nazi, Sam worked as a TKS reporter and as a writer and editor for his high school newspaper before joining the TKS editorial staff. He also manages social media for Brownson Properties in Holland, Mich.

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