Interview with Ashley Fure

We talk about academia as a refuge for artists, curtailed basketball careers, and escaping Michigan’s “shire” with the multifaceted music composer

June 29, 2017
Ashley Fure

Ashley Fure is an acoustic and electro-acoustic concert music composer, and assistant professor of music at Dartmouth College. In April, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a finalist in the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her composition Bound to the Bow. Recently, the American Academy in Rome announced her as the winner of the Rome Prize in music composition – a residency programme through which US artists and scholars live and work for a year in the Italian capital.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in the small town of Escanaba, Michigan, on 13 August 1982. When I was 4, my family moved an hour’s drive north to a town called Marquette, where I lived until age 16.

How has this shaped you?
Marquette is a place of phenomenal natural beauty. It’s on the shores of Lake Superior, in the very northernmost part of Michigan. The nearest big city is about seven hours’ drive away, which gives the place a hidden-gem, edge-of-the-earth quality. We jokingly call Marquette “The Shire” – it’s so secretive and lush that voyaging beyond it always feels like a bit of an odyssey. Perhaps particularly so in my case: the path that I’ve taken is uncommon among the folks I grew up with, and where I’ve landed is a far cry from where I started. Every time I return to Marquette, I’m able to reflect on all the twists and turns that led me so far afield. It makes me simultaneously feel deep gratitude for having grown up in such a stunning place and thankful that I was able to find my escape from it.

What was your reaction to all your recent accolades?
I don’t do very well with compliments, so all the attention has been a bit tricky. That said, I am deeply honoured to have had such esteemed and diverse panellists probe and acknowledge my work. At their best, prizes such as these empower risk-taking, boundary stretching and boldness – for that I am truly grateful. That’s what this stuff is about – not the ego but the making. I want to make my work. 

Did anything divide your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Basketball was my first love – I was a diehard point guard. I trained with a crew of girls from a very young age and we were deep into it. I’d felt intellectually stunted at my public school for quite some time; but never would have left because of those girls and that game. Early in high school, I got hurt and never recovered. It broke my heart, but in retrospect, that injury opened [everything else]. Once basketball was off the table, I marched into my counsellor’s office and asked, “How do I get out of here?” She suggested that I apply to the Interlochen [Center for the Arts] in Michigan. It was the first time that I looked at my music and the composing that I’d been doing since I was 4, as an actual potential life path, or at least a way out. It turned out to be both.

What is the position of music as a scholarly field in higher education?
In the US, where state funding for the arts has always been dismal, academia became a refuge for composers wanting to create experimental work in an environment less tainted by commercial pressures. These days, as more and more pressure is heaped on educators to monetise intellectual growth, the arts play an immensely important role in cultivating and caring for the creative life of students. As student debt rises, the right of students to pursue passions valued by meaning more than money is constantly under threat. 

What has changed most in global higher education in the past 10 years?
I’ve only just finished my second year of teaching, but it seems to me that there is a heaviness and a darkness that creeps ever more into even the most elite of colleges in the US. Students here are worried about their future, their country, the climate, their debt, and their parents ageing through a social security crisis. Our job as teachers is to catalyse that worry into a genuine hunger for personal growth and a sense of responsibility to the local and global culture at large. 

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
During senior week, my close friends and I developed a habit of waking each other up for 4am basketball scrimmages on a lit night court. Something about the heat and the darkness and the impending freedom makes that a vivid memory in my mind.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I didn’t realise until I started teaching just how palpable that light bulb thing is – those moments when something really hits a student, when you watch a bit of their worldview dissolve and take a new shape. Those are deeply satisfying experiences. Aside from the mundane aggravations of any gig, the toughest part of teaching for me is time and location. I travel a ton for my compositional work and it’s hard to balance that with my academic duties. 

What saddens you?
Feeling isolated and exhausted. I tend to bounce between extremes – either drowning in deadlines or high on a very sweet post-project release. I struggle to resist those manic work modes [and] somehow always seem to get lured back into the dark depths of a deadline, which these days are more constant than ever. I’m not yet sure if that swinging [between extremes] is a necessary part of my creative process or a bad habit that I need to break. 

If you were higher education minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
I’d wave my magic wand and eradicate student debt.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Melissa Terras has been appointed to the new chair of digital cultural heritage at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Terras, currently director of the Centre for Digital Humanities at University College London, takes up her position in October. Along with her directorship, which she has held for the past six years, she holds the professorship of digital humanities at UCL, alongside her role as vice-dean of research in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Professor Terras has multidisciplinary experience with a background in classical art history, English literature, computer science and engineering. “There are many opportunities to build on world-leading collections and expertise, and to harness, and help drive, technological change,” she said.

Brian Walker has been made pro vice-chancellor for research strategy and resources at Newcastle University. Joining from the University of Edinburgh, where he is currently dean of research in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, Professor Walker will move to Newcastle in September. Professor Walker is a globally recognised endocrinologist, whose research has led to better understanding and treatment of conditions including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and dementia. “I am excited to be joining a dynamic and ambitious team at Newcastle, where the excellence and scale of research and training are very well placed to respond to the UK’s demand for multidisciplinarity and impact in this country and internationally,” he said.

Jane Broadbent, professor emeritus of accounting at Royal Holloway, University of London, has taken up her role as deputy chair of council for the Academy of Social Sciences.

The University of Sussex has appointed Tim Westlake as chief operating officer.

Silvana Tenreyro, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, has been appointed an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.

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