New professor Kevin Clifton crosses bridges with new music

Jonathon Roberts

(Julien Poncet)

Kevin Clifton now teaches music theory at the Lawrence Conservatory as an Assistant Professor. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Austin College and a Master of Music and Doctorate of Philosophy in Music Theory from the University of Texas at Austin. While the long list of letters after his name brings him high academic praise, it is his aspirations to make contemporary music and theory accessible to all people that make him a distinct and exciting new part of the Lawrence community. Professor Clifton’s unique road to music allows him to be very open-minded about a variety of musical styles and cultural influences. Growing up on a farm in North Texas, his earliest memories include sitting on a combine listening to Dolly Parton with his Dad. From that charming introduction to music, a lifelong interest was born.

“I started taking piano lessons when I was about five years old. I was always musical, but when I went off to college I had to get away from music so I could come back to it. So I kidded myself and went the pre-med route. [Laughs] So I did biology for about three years.”

After realizing that was not the path for him, Clifton came back to music, got a piano performance degree, and moved to Austin, Texas, the “live music capital of the world. There I really got excited about music–pop music and culture–and decided to do a masters in theory.”

Clifton’s pop music interest became a catalyst for a broader look at contemporary music. “That was when pop music was really infiltrating the academy. So I got really into cultural studies, ideas of gender, and other extra curricular academic pursuits and how that might come into music.” This research led him to his Ph.D. and a brief teaching position at Colby College in Maine. “I just defended my dissertation in July, so I’m fresh.”

His research has includes a wide variety of topics from musical semiotics and narrative to analysis of popular music. Whatever the subject may be, it always has undertones of crossing bridges in musical styles and communicating new ideas on music to all people.

For his doctoral dissertation, Clifton found a kindred spirit in the life of French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a visionary who also crossed musical boundaries and broke cultural barriers. “Poulenc was a composer who wrote for the people. He bridged the world between higher and lower culture. To me, that’s what is exciting. It’s not an “either or,” but a “both.” Also, I’m a pianist and I love playing his music, and loving to play is what it’s all about.”

Clifton also approaches music analysis with that same joy. “I start with notes and I analyze the music, but then I step back and look at what’s really going on in the piece. I either look at cultural issues or look at the biography of the composer to see why he is using this particular sound.”

A music theory scholar with this kind of outlook is a great commodity to other academic circles on campus. He has already been contacted by two faculty members in the gender studies program to give a talk in one of their classes. “I’m also going to touch with the English department and may be doing some talks on music and queer theory or on feminism. I’m all about trying to get over there [to the college side of campus] and bridge what we do through music studies with the liberal arts college. It’s fun to open up the dialog.”

Having such unique approach to popular music and culture I thought perhaps Clifton might be able to shed some light on the cultural phenomena that is “American Idol.” “The talent was impressive, but it was just as much fun watching the banter between Paula Abdul and Simon. And the fact that Kelly Clarkson won, you know, she’s a Texan.” Clifton’s enthusiasm of course begs the question of getting Clarkson to come to Lawrence, perhaps to do a convocation address. “Dude, that would be cool. Well, if we had the funding, I’m sure I would try.”

There you have it; whether it be tracking down Kelly Clarkson, explaining Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, playing music in Gender Studies 100, or forming an “experimental band to play in the clubs in town” (one of his ideas), Kevin Clifton is your man.