An Intertwining of Music, Culture, and Language Propels Jonathan Withers Forward

Issue Date: 
May 2, 2010
Jonathan WithersJonathan Withers

Jonathan Withers has an eye—and ear—for the minute components that form life’s invisible monoliths: the words that make a language, the musical tones that produce a song, and the invisible particles that give the universe structure. Withers graduates today with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in music from Pitt’s University Honors College as well as a Bachelor of Science in physics from the School of Arts and Sciences and a certificate in Russian and Eastern European Studies (for Turkish) from the University Center for International Studies. As he sees it, these seemingly unrelated fields are connected by the significant and everyday influence their abstract parts wield—whether or not people are aware of it.

“Music and language convey whole worlds of meaning that people might not think about, but humans define and express themselves by what they listen to and the ideas they communicate,” Withers said. “As for physics, it’s almost meaningless to discuss how fundamental it is because it’s so much a part of everything.”

Withers will pursue his interest in music, language, and culture (in the end, physics isn’t that related) as a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Harvard University, where he will focus on the music of Turkey and its influence on Turkish culture. To prepare, he will spend this summer in Turkey studying under a 2010 U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS). Withers was one of 575 American students selected for the scholarship out of 5,300 applicants; he also received a CLS in 2009 to study in Turkey.

Withers’ academic career stems from a relentless curiosity about the function and effect of life’s intangibles, such as language and atoms. Withers admits that as a child growing up in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood, he peppered any available adult with questions about why the world worked a certain way, vague and sprawling queries that “drove everyone crazy,” he said.

“I asked and still ask myself questions that perhaps don’t get asked a lot. I suppose there is some aspect of having an analytical mind, but really it’s just that someone knows this stuff, and I want to know, too,” he said, laughing.

Physics is a feast of abstract yet relevant occurrences, and that is what Withers entered Pitt in 2005 to study. (He started out in engineering physics.) The smallest particles—some that have never actually been observed—have a determinable hand in the universe.

“Even the most complex phenomena are real and based on physical laws that actually happen, not just ideas on a chalkboard,” Withers said. “Physics is not a science of generalization where we say, ‘This is kind of what’s going on here.’ There’s a process and formula, and the ability to analyze these details is important to understanding an event.”

Withers was inducted into the physics honors society, Sigma Pi Sigma, and won the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s inaugural Thomas-Lain Fund essay contest in 2007, which included a $5,000 prize. The contest is open to undergraduate or graduate students in the department, and the winners are chosen by a committee. Withers wrote about research being conducted in the laboratory of his advisor, Pitt physics and astronomy professor David Snoke.

Withers liked physics, and he was good at it. But starting with a Pitt music class during his sophomore year, Withers began to see the same invisible intertwinement he loved about physics, this time involving music, culture, and language.

Although a fancier of music (guitar hobbyist, high school band member), Withers initially thought that the academic pursuit of music would be of limited educational and practical value.

Snoke recalled Withers’ growing interest in music and eventually helped Withers as he grappled with choosing music over physics for his graduate study. Despite Withers’ promise as a young physicist and his reservations about pursuing music, Snoke sensed that it was what he really wanted.

“Jonathan is a deep thinker with diverse interests. I remember talking with him when he was thinking about switching from engineering physics to physics, and he was interested in many larger questions,” Snoke said. “I have no doubt he also could have done well in grad school in physics if he had set his mind to it. But he fell in love with musicology, and I encouraged him to do what he loves, even if he is not sure what job it will lead to.”

Withers added music as a second major and became involved in Pitt’s African Music and Dance Ensemble playing drums. He also joined the Carpathian Ensemble and played the guitar-like bouzouki, not only studying the music but also the culture associated with it. He became fascinated by the role of music in forging and reinforcing a community’s cultural identity—and the study of that role, which is ethnomusicology.

“When I found out that that field exists, it pushed me toward studying music more,” Withers said. “Pitt’s various music ensembles let me know there’s a world beyond orchestra, jazz, and studying old European staples. At first, I was guilty of having the attitude that science is more legitimate, and that made it difficult to admit to myself that I wanted to go to the other side—to study music. And I worried whether I would be as adept at music as I was at physics.

“But I knew it would be hard to find something that combined music and physics after I graduated, so I had to choose. I still love physics, but gradually I started to focus more on music.”

Language made an unexpected entrance into Withers’ extensive repertoire of interests when he studied abroad in Turkey in 2008 to satisfy a nascent curiosity about the country’s culture and history. Withers happened into the middle of a nationwide struggle over head scarves that pitted Turkey’s longstanding secular ethos against a burgeoning religious conservatism. There, he witnessed an important difference between speaking Turkish and being Turkish. A constitutional amendment to overturn an 80-year-old ban on women wearing head scarves in public universities was making its way through Turkish Parliament, but to Withers, it yielded little more than an uninspired American-Libertarian reflex against government edicts. To the people around him, however, the issue was their nation’s identity and future, the cultural influence of Islam versus the secularist legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk.

“I had this one-dimensional opinion, but to the people I knew in Turkey, it wasn’t that simple,” Withers recalled. “It interested me that although I spoke the language, I could not express or identify with their ideas. I started thinking about how people use language not just to talk, but to communicate the things that have meaning for them.”

Withers finally decided on ethnomusicology after studying in Turkey in 2009 under his first CLS.

This year, he combined language, culture, and music for his Bachelor of Philosophy thesis, wherein he analyzed the online video-sharing Web site YouTube as a global forum for discussing Turkish nationalism. In particular, he reviewed the user-comment sections for videos of the folk song “Kalenin Bedenleri” (“The Walls of the Castle”). Withers characterized YouTube as particularly politicized in Turkey, as evidenced by its being blocked by the government following the posting of videos considered demeaning of Atatürk (though it can still be accessed by the computer savvy). Videos of “Kalenin Bendeleri” were no exception. He found that videos of the song frequently doubled as forums for people both espousing and criticizing Turkish nationalist sentiment.

Withers excitedly discusses that interconnectedness of culture, music, and identity, these untouchable yet, to many, sacred elements.

“I have always been interested in culture and all it encompasses, and I got more interested when I realized how intertwined all these things are,” he said. “I am interested in a lot of things, and it’s been difficult for me to pick one thing to study. But I’m not going to starve because I focused on music … at least not for the next couple of years.”