Kristin Wendland: Tango expert takes the lead in University Senate

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 2, 2016

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Senior lecturer Kristin Wendland has spent her career blending music and academia, traveling to Argentina to study the intricacies of the tango. Now she steps into the spotlight as president of the University Senate. Emory Photo/Video

From her earliest memories, music was an ever-present current in the life of Kristin Wendland, a senior lecturer in Emory’s music department.

Growing up, it seems there was always a piano in the home, with her mother playing for pleasure or leading family sing-alongs. By the time she was 4 years old, Wendland was asking for lessons herself.

But it was while taking a ballroom dance class “just for fun” during her doctoral studies that her focus would hone in on the distinctive, percussive rhythms of Argentine tango.

A grant from Emory would help Wendland travel to Argentina to explore the intersection between tango music and the dance — an awakening, she says, that has led her back to South America nearly every year to enrich her scholarship. She also founded the Emory Tango Ensemble, part of the Emory Chamber Music Program, which continues under her direction.

In 2005, Wendland received a Fulbright Lecture and Research grant to teach music analysis in Buenos Aires while working on compiling an anthology of original orchestral arrangements from tango’s Golden Age (1932-1955). This spring, she co-published “Tracing Tangueros: Argentine Tango Instrumental Music” (Oxford University Press).

This fall, she steps into a new leadership role as University Senate president and Faculty Council chair.

Emory Report caught up with Wendland to talk about her scholarship, how she became involved in faculty governance and her vision for the coming academic year.

How did music become a foundational part of your life?

It’s been there from the beginning — my mother played the piano and my father had a beautiful tenor voice. Growing up, music was a way that people entertained themselves, gathering around the piano, singing songs. When I was about four, my mother enrolled me in a forward-looking music program for pre-school children and I began piano lessons when I was five.

Through my school years I always took piano lessons and accompanied the chorus in high school. I honestly thought I wanted to be a writer, but over time music became more and more important to me.

How did you decide to pursue music and academia?

I didn’t quite have the personality to be a solo piano performer. A piano professor once told me, “You could make a mediocre piano major or a really strong piano principal.” As an undergraduate, I earned my bachelor’s degree in music theory from Florida State University, which drew me into the academic side of music.

I knew that I would have to go to graduate school if I wanted an academic career. So I attended the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati for my master’s degree and pursued a PhD in composition.

How did tango enter the picture?

When I was a doctoral student at the City University of New York, I had just finished my coursework and was starting on my dissertation and wanted a life outside the classroom and studio. So I started taking ballroom dance and loved it. It was at a dance studio in Manhattan’s East Village that I first saw authentic Argentine tango. I was immediately captivated by the sphere of intimacy between the dancers and wanted to learn more about it.

In 1998, I discovered a small Argentine tango community in Atlanta and started studying the dance. Two years later, at Emory, I received a grant to go to the source of tango. That was an awakening, and I’ve been back just about every year.

What intrigued you about studying the music of the tango?

The music has such depth of expression and so much soul — for a popular music genre, it’s right up there with jazz. Also, as a composer and theorist, the artistry and composition drew me in. It is music with such a rich history that is constantly being reinvented and has been elevated to an international level. It was born in Buenos Aires and is now performed all over the world.

Beyond your teaching and scholarship, you’ve also participated in faculty governance at Emory. How were you drawn to that?

I first served on a lecture-track faculty executive committee, where I began to see how important it was to give voice to this track of the full-time faculty. I really saw it as a chance to serve the faculty. Then someone forwarded my name to be the non-tenure track representative on the University Senate in 2012.

That was where I became really interested in shared governance — how it works, how changes are made, how faculty can feel empowered and make a difference at Emory. We are ultimately an advisory body, but you can be a strong advisory body. I’ve always felt support and encouragement from central administration to come to the table.

What compelled you to step into a leadership role with the University Senate and Faculty Council?

The opportunity to learn more and be involved in this level of governance at the University — how the board of trustees works, how the central administration works, how ideas emerge, how changes get made. I’ve learned a lot through my involvement, and I’d like to continue that.

Do you have priorities for the coming academic year?

The big one for me is communication between elected members and their constituents. How do they bring information back to their schools and units and from their constituents to the elected body? To me, that is important to making this a visible governing body. I also want to see agenda items that rise up from the membership and to work closely with committee chairs and elected members.

What’s been gratifying about serving in University governance?

Seeing ideas come to fruition, seeing communication channels open. Seeing that people have a voice and to know that it is being heard.

What engages you outside of the classroom?

I like to work in my garden, spend time with friends and family. And yoga is a cornerstone of my life.