Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Why Listen To Animals?

By Rachel Mundy

Note: This essay appears simultaneously in the blog of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, SLSA New Creations.

Some readers may recognize my question “Why Listen to Animals?” as a play on the title of John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals?” which was printed in 1980 as the first chapter of his book, About Looking. Berger argued that the animals who once looked at us have been replaced in the past two centuries by animals at whom we look: in the zoo, the circus, and the toy store. Just as Berger’s About Looking is not about looking, but about seeing our own glances, I want to advocate in this essay not just that we listen to animals, but that we hear the way we listen. Listening is a practice that has been built with, against, and through cultural beliefs about interiority and human identity that rely on animals—not any animal, but “the” animal, the category of the animal—to persist. In hearing ourselves listen to animals, we can begin to notice foundational notions of difference that inform both how we hear, and how we see, animals and other Others.

I’m addressing this thought to two sets of readers, scholars of music and scholars of animal studies. While music scholars are unlikely to talk about animals, the historians and literary critics who populate animal studies are unlikely to talk about sound. My own disciplinary home base, the American Musicological Society, is made up of highly skilled listeners, but we tend to share a background in classical music that leaves animals far outside our purview. At last year’s conference, only one of the over 300 paper presentations explicitly referenced animality in its title (Michael Puri’s “The Rise of the Humanimal: From Schumann to Ravel, via Barthes”). Members of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts are far more likely to talk about animals than musicologists are. Here it is listening and the other senses that are outliers: with only eight papers devoted to sound in 2017, the majority were about words and images, reflecting members’ grounding in textual and visual analysis. I want to show in this essay why it is so important to take critical approaches like Berger’s into the realm of sound—and to take sound into the study of animals and their representation.

Foucault introduced the notion of the gaze in 1960s France as a power relationship in which looking and being looked at established both dominance and subjection. The concept has been borrowed by scholars in gender studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, and elsewhere, and it has also been adapted by scholars of animal studies. But representations of animals, visual and otherwise, are not quite one among many such adaptations. The category of the animal is easier to compare to “the Other” than to gender, race, class, sexuality, or nationality.

Studies of sound, especially of music and song, bring traditions of interiority and sentience to bear on these questions of representation. Voice, speech, testimony, and music-making have been used as vehicles for beliefs about the rights, worth, and dignity of those who are different. Like Berger, many scholars in animal studies have framed our glances at animals as exertions of power and ownership. Listening reveals the spectacle of the nonhuman as a ground for comparison, an evaluation of ability, and an assessment of rights that extends from the animal to those deemed less than fully human. At stake are issues of power and representation that extend from animals to all the other Others.

We can’t think about animals without contending with the practice of listening; we also, I believe, can’t think about the practice of listening without contending with animals. This seems particularly important to do at a moment when it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism’s categories of nature and culture are tied to the disposability of those who are considered less than fully human. Roy Scranton, Alexander Weheliye, Sylvia Wynter, and Jane Bennet are a few among the many who have mapped the limits of the humanistic tradition around its ethics of human life, often while still praising its strengths. Drawing on their precedents, I recently argued that modern ethics are grounded in notions of life that come from a postindustrial rupture between the animal and a white and Western notion of the human, using the invented phrase “the animanities” to describe the work of historicizing and re-imagining connections between modern ethics and notions of life. In asking my readers to bring together sound and representations of animals, I am inviting new ways to hear past the boundaries that limit both humanism and modern ethics.


In her chapter, “Seeing Animals” in Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? Kari Weil writes about looking at animals as a problem of visual representation. But despite the chapter’s title, her language slips between the voice and the realm of the visual. She begins her thoughts on representation by turning her readers back to the 1970s, when women’s studies scholars began to consciously incorporate the writings of women and minorities into their work. Although her subject is ostensibly visual, Weil begins with an auditory metaphor, describing the “voices” of those women and minorities who had been “silenced” but were nevertheless “authors of their own representations; their voices were speaking loudly and demanded to be heard.” (Weil 2012, 25) Weil then shifts back to both animals and vision to explain that the self-representation of nonhuman species brings a different but related set of challenges. “Even though artwork by chimps or elephants has produced much cash for some dealers lately, we cannot expect to find a chimp authoring his or her own self-representation—at least not in the languages we recognize.” (26) Here, voices are about inclusion, images are about representation, and both together are about authorship. Weil uses these metaphors to outline profound questions about the transference of authorship, authority, representation, and power across species boundaries. And although she identifies her chapter with seeing, Weil’s point is actually much broader, stretching across text, voice, and image. It is a reminder that in Weil’s work—indeed in most reflections on human ways of seeing animals— the question of how we see isn’t just about seeing, but gets at much broader questions about power, inclusion, authority, and representation. If elephants and chimps can’t paint their own portraits, who has the authority to do so? And how can one assess a human’s authority to speak for other species, if we so often use the power of speech to marginalize and disenfranchise “Other” human beings?

Here is a Janus-faced problem of power and alterity. Seen through the visual lens that has been favored within animal studies, looking at animals tells us that we use images of other species to explore the Western “Other” at its most radical. But looking at animals also shows us the limits of our own subjectivity. Both of these notions have been explored at length by Haraway, Derrida, Berger, Weil, and many others. From the first perspective, images of animals don’t just symbolize one kind of difference among many, but represent a radical way of being Other that serves to define and justify what all the other Others are. The corollary to this way of seeing, however, is that in addition to serving as a visual symbol of radical Otherness used for human ends, nonhuman species possess a real alterity that exists outside of the limits of human subjectivity. Other species, with their multiple stomachs and jagged foliage and perpetually growing teeth, have ways of experiencing life that human beings don’t have. And both of these kinds of alterity—the symbolic Western Otherness, and the material difference that emerges in cultural and biological contexts—have been seen, but not often heard, in the lives and bodies of animals.


I first encountered animal studies through its critique of vision. In the early 2000s, I confessed to one of my graduate professors, Jason Stanyek, that instead of listening to Debussy I wanted to record birdsong in my urban Manhattan neighborhood. Rather than chiding me for spending my time unwisely, he handed me an Edirol recorder, sent me down the street to meet the founder of New York University’s animal studies program, Una Chaudhuri, and loaned me Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. Although critical listening still formed the basis of what I was doing, I began discovering a host of remarkable ideas that came from a literature about looking and seeing. For me, the critique of vision in animal studies literature was unexpectedly a one-way street, a point of no return. Once I saw Tom Palmore’s gorilla odalisque Reclining Nude reproduced on page 11 of Haraway’s Primate Visions, once I read Haraway’s and Mieke Bal’s histories of gazing at dioramas and visited the American Museum of Natural History myself, all of the texts about sound and sight which I had so painstakingly read as a graduate student seemed to shift. The male gaze, the white gaze, and the imperial ear felt as if they were permanently realigned by the act of looking at animals. I couldn’t articulate why or how, but I had been convinced by pictures that representations of animals informed not just some of my visual aesthetics, but all of them.

This sense that looking at animals shapes the taxonomy of our world is shared by many scholars in animal studies. Almost thirty years ago, Donna Haraway traced the creation of biological, taxonomic Orders to modern political and social orders. More recently Una Chaudhuri wrote that animal studies scholars still want to “intervene radically in established discourses and their terms of art” (Chaudhuri 2007, 8). Haraway, Chadhuri, Jacques Derrida, Peter Singer, Cary Wolfe and Kari Weil are just a few who have questioned the ways that looking at animals restructures human power, hierarchy, and knowledge. Once we see the way we see animals, we can never see ourselves the same way again.

Perhaps this tendency to radical re-thinking is one reason why animal studies is not always cool. Posthumanism, with its nanotechnology and history of science and critical theory, is definitely cool. But writing about animals suggests that the scholar in question has taken an emotional turn that leaves her mistaking “the animal” as a legitimate category, ignorant of continental philosophy and susceptible to PETA radicalization and the Puppy Channel. Or, worse, to veganism. Science, technology, and philosophy endow their followers with masculine reason; an interest in animals is more often associated with emotion, femininity, and childhood. And while it bothers me when I’m reconfigured from a complex thinker into a “lady who does birdsong,” the uncool is a garden of illicit pleasures. Listening can and should be radical, rational, and emotional all at the same time. Radical re-thinking is a place of both emotional engagement and reason, where sophisticated and erudite music scholars set aside their serious interests in bebop and Beethoven to send me videos of dogs barking, birds singing, and concert performances with animals. Proud and fierce musicologists, I could surprise you with the things your colleagues watch on YouTube.

Take, for example, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s sound art installation from here to ear, in which a flock of zebra finches interact with electric guitars in a bounded enclosure. 

 Visitors walk through this enclosed space and observe the birds as they interact with live guitar strings whose parameters were predetermined by the composer. I’ve been forwarded numerous links to videos of this work posted on YouTube (please keep sending them). The piece was originally premiered in 1999 and has had a number of subsequent performances, the latter being the source of the videos I get sent. From a musician’s perspective, the work raises a number of questions about musicality, authorship, natural-cultural boundaries, intention, and public performance. How, for example, does Boursier-Mougenot’s willingness to share control with birds compare to a traditional composer’s relationship with human performers? Do we think of the birds as “choosing” the sounds they create? How could we decide? What is special about the role of the audience in this piece, as they create their own narrative about what is occurring as they walk through the enclosure?

Eventually such questions about musicality and intention give way to questions about inclusion, sentience, mediation, and control: if the birds have a choice in the sounds they create, do they also have rights? Are they in some sense laborers in Boursier-Mougenot’s piece? Who arbitrates such questions about zebra finchs’s rights and needs, and how? And what is at stake when all of these questions are circulated through digital media on YouTube, sent by friends and colleagues to me, the lady who “does” birdsong?

These are questions where both seeing and hearing become negotiations of power. Foucault’s notion of the gaze has been adapted by scholars of animal studies as it has been adapted elsewhere. But the category of the animal isn’t interchangeable with categories such as gender, race, class, sexuality, or nationality. It includes all members of the kingdom Animalia, the non-plants, the multi-celled, and the singled-celled who pass a certain measure of complexity. Human beings are technically included in the category of the animal, but we are excluded by connotation and tradition. In a work like from here to ear, there is a radical split, a rupture, that leaves listeners hearing “animal” first and individual and collective zebra finches, classified Taeniopygia guttata, second if at all.

Although I don’t have space in this essay to explore this idea fully, I would argue that images of “the animal” as a radical Other tell us something important about the way difference itself operates as a category in relation to identity. The animal and the different are twins, for both operate as a broad swathe within which categories of simians, Asians, women, and other Others seem “different” in inexplicably similar ways. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, which was designed to combat the invisibility of black women within antidiscrimination law, doesn’t serve studies of the animal as well as it serves questions of race and gender. For the scope of the animal is so large, and its potential realm of associations so broad, that to tackle the intersectional references to race, gender, Orientalism, sexuality, and so on in an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude or a zebra finch on a guitar is more like navigating a poorly designed seven-highway exchange with clover leaf on/off ramps than like crossing an “intersection.”

For many of us who work in animal studies, re-thinking the practice of looking at animals has not just added one more way of expressing power through the gaze; discovering the way our eyes are directed at animals has changed the way many of us understand the notion of the gaze itself. The startling breadth of questions and issues that circulate through an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude, or Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear, reflect backwards for me, changing the way I see Manet’s Olympia and hear Varèse’s Poème électronique. Once I’ve seen the animals in one context (and heard them in another), I can’t unknow how pivotal their absence is in all the other places. It is as if representations of animals are not one among many possible intersections, but the place where the intersections come from.


Listening to animals is not the cultural equivalent of seeing them. I want to turn from looking to listening for a moment, and think about what each practice brings to the other’s interpretation. This isn’t a turn to the vibrant and creative literature about animal musicality by authors such as Rothenberg, Doolittle, Krause, Taylor, or even Schafer, but a turn in response to our peculiar gazes. The critique of vision provided by animal studies is a kind of magical creation. It makes visible an invisible world, working backwards in time to reconfigure every masterwork and every glance of modern humanism. That invisible world is the unacknowledged space where identities intersect, in which notions of nature and animality have served to ground measures of otherness and personhood. And studies of listening are well versed in this invisible world. Although visual analysis has made us aware of the category of the animal, it is our habits of listening that have the most to tell about traditions of aural identity, interiority, and personhood that circulate through the invisible world of alterity. I want to end my essay by suggesting that our habits of listening tell us something meaningful about the borders and boundaries that have been formed with, against, and through the category of ultimate difference, the animal.

When I first started recording birds in Manhattan, I began to think differently about sound and visibility. [Audio Clip] Listening to birds taught me to hear spatially, using my ears to locate birds I couldn’t see through walls or foliage. I learned to recognize the songs and calls of various species, and tried to understand those sounds as symbols of a rich invisible world. Eduardo Kohn, Steven Feld, Walter Ong, and others have described such moments of hearing invisible meaning as transcendent. Kohn describes how learning to listen like a hunter during his fieldwork in Ecuador taught him to hear specific meanings in the barks of dogs and the movement of wild pigs; these auditory signs, in turn, forced Kohn to re-think what it means to have a self, to be a person. Like Kohn, and like many other ethnographers and naturalists, I learned to hear sentience, selfhood, and meaning in sound too. Before seeing them, I could hear a deer stamp his foot in the scrub; I’d hear the local hawk’s chicks begging for food; and I’d hear the alarm calls of thrushes warning me that something they considered dangerous, probably another pedestrian, was on the path ahead.

Just as birders learn to recognize species by ear, I learned in graduate school how to identify invisible differences in music: how to recognize French baroque styles by ear, how to hear sung representations of women’s hysteria in 19th-century opera, and how to tell twentieth-century counterfeits of eighteenth-century music from the original. Listening in this way, whether walking in the woods or watching a YouTube video, raises many of the questions that I already wondered about when hearing from here to ear. What kinds of music, or what species of animal, do I hear? How can I identify them? Should I imagine these sounds as machine-like productions, or as intentional? How should authorship be ascribed? How would I know? As soon as these questions engage with intention or meaning, they enter the sphere of invisible meanings created by persons, selves, who are outside the limits of human subjectivity.

This leads me back to the zebra finches in Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear. Scientists have documented these birds’ alternate selves as they sing to their unhatched eggs and dream of singing while they sleep. Originally from Australia, zebra finches were imported to Europe during the 1800s after the British colonization of the continent. They have been kept as pets and used in laboratory research for over two hundred years, and the birds used today in Boursier-Mougenot’s work have distinct genetic profiles, cultural behaviors, and physical traits unique to their histories of forced migration. It’s a multi-species tale of colonial history and global economies that forces the listener to rethink the category of nature that grounds traditional questions about selfhood. One might try to salvage that version of nature by comparing the zebra finch to the deer, hawks, and thrushes I encountered in the woods. But those species––wood thrushes, white-tailed deer, and Cooper’s hawks–– are likewise inadvertent migrants whose bodies and habits have deployed transculturation in the aftermath of colonial economies, industrialization, and urbanization.

This terrain has already been trod in studies of human music. Music scholars such as Roshanak Kheshti, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Bennett Zon have shown how colonial and racist agendas are at play in Western representations of music as filters through which selfhood can be heard. For power is also at play here: who determines what sentience sounds like? Who decides what is a song and what is noise? Whose voice can be heard as human, and therefore as a person? What is at stake in contrasting the human voice with animal nature? It is no coincidence that Weil, Spivak, and so many others have needed metaphors of voice and silence to describe both the marginalization and the agency of women and non-white persons. For it is in voice and sound that we have been trained to hear both selfhood and alterity.

It is here that the study of sound spirals outward from the dual gazes of animal studies—the Westernized glance at the Other, and the inward glance at human subjectivity. Listening to animals allows us to confront notions of the invisible self that are built upon the limited foundations of human identity. “Why Listen to Animals?” is, in the end, a question about the relationship between identity, alterity, and the categories of modern humanism. Alterity, badly created, doesn’t even foster good humanism; it just keeps lagomorphs’, macaques’, nits’, or pelicans’ questioned rationality satisfying to unctuous vanity, wherein xenophobia yields zoo-ontology. Listening has much to tell us about the way categorical notions of alterity have set the terms of selfhood, subjectivity, and human identity.

Berger ended his essay by mourning the isolation of human glances in modern capitalism. I would like to end mine by reiterating how much our listening ears still have to teach us about the promise and perils of humanism. This essay isn’t a study or an analysis; it doesn’t even begin to explain the connections that tie together sonic culture, selfhood, and human identity. But understanding those connections means understanding how nature became a disposable resource; how nonhuman lives became invisible and silent; and how human life came to be circumscribed by notions of subjectivity that privilege only some types of selves. We are only beginning to recognize the ways that we measure subjectivity through sound; and that we measure alterity, in so many ways, by comparing ourselves with other species. Music scholars and scholars of animal studies have much to teach one another, and I very much hope this essay encourages interested readers towards new collaborations and interests.



Bal, Mieke. 1992. “Telling, Showing, Showing Off.” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 3: 556-594.

Berger, John. 1980. About Looking. NY: Pantheon.

Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke       

      University Press.

Cavalieri, Paola and Peter Singer. 2008. “The Declaration on Great Apes.”

Chaudhuri, Una. 2007. “(De)Facing the Animals: Zooësis and Performance.” The Drama

      Review 51, no. 1: 8-20.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a
      Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist
      politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum Volume 1989: 139-168.

Derrida, Jacques. 2002 (original version 1997). “The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to
      Follow).” Trans. David Wills, Critical Inquiry 29, no. 2: 369-418.

Doolittle, Emily. 2008. “Crickets in the Concert Hall: A History of Animals in Western Music,”
      Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 12.

Feld, Steven. 1982. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli
. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1989. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of
      Modern Science
. NY: Routledge.

Kheshti, Roshanak. 2015. Modernity’s Ear: Listening to Race and Gender in World
. NY: New York University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the
. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Krause, Bernie. 2012. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in
      the World’s Wild Places
. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.

Mundy, Rachel. 2018. Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening.
      Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Ochoa, Ana María Guatier. 2014. Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in
      Nineteenth-Century Colombia
. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. NY: Routledge.

Rothenberg, David. 2013. Bug Music: How Insects Gave us Rhythm and Noise. NY, NY:
      St. Martin’s Press.

Schafer, R. Murray. [1977] 1994. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the
      Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny.

Scranton, Roy. 2015. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. San Francisco: City Lights.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and
       the Interpretation of Culture
, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. London:
       Macmillan, 271-313.

Taylor, Hollis. 2017. Is Birdsong Music? Outback Encounters with an Australian
. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Weheliye, Alexander. 2014. Habeus Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and
       Black Feminist Theories of the Human
. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Weil, Kari. 2012. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? NY: Columbia
       University Press.

Wolfe, Cary. 2003. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species,
       and Posthumanist Theory
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom:
       Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR
       The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3: 257-337.

Zon, Bennett. 2017. Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rachel Mundy is Assistant Professor of Music in the Arts, Culture, & Media program at Rutgers University in Newark. She specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century music at the juncture of sound studies, the history of science, and animal studies and he work brings music’s history to bear on broad questions about the arts as a vehicle for modern notions of dignity, rights, and privilege in the West. Her book, Animal Musicalities, traces histories of modern sound through comparisons between animal and human musicality, drawing on the history of biology, anthropology, psychology, and comparative musicology. She is currently working on a comic-book inspired visual biography of music ethnographer Laura Boulton, and a second monograph entitled Hearing Beyond Humanism.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Book Preview: Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music: Theory and Politics of Ambiguity

By Gavin Lee

How should music research approach different social formations and musical expressions of gender and sexuality—and the very concept of difference? What are the affordances and pitfalls of difference? What else should we consider when working with marginalized communities? The chapters of Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality and Popular Music <1> offer case studies in response to these questions. Below is a taste of some of the authors’ work.

In the music video for “The Eyes of the Poor” by goth band The Cure, the lyrics circulate around a beloved whose cold-heartedness is a metaphor for the impossibility of being truly united in love. This unbridgeable distance gives rise to a permanent condition of emotional pain that shows how central S/M is to goth aesthetics. In goth aesthetics, pain becomes a central dynamic which replaces gender binarism as evidenced in the replacement of the female beloved of the lyrics with cold statues of males in the music video. But along with gender ambiguity in goth aesthetics and goths’ personal styling comes the fierce denial by many practicing goths of any non-normativity in terms of sexuality, a point made by Carol Siegel in her chapter. Goth presents both difference from and adherence to mainstream gender and sexuality norms, which should make those of us who are prone to narratives of minority heroism pause for a second. If, like me, you’ve seen conference audiences nod in fervent admiration for the protagonist in a given presentation, a hero who against all odds, seemingly breaking free of catastrophic social constraints, expresses their social agency through music—if you’ve felt at all concerned that at these presentations privileged professors get to feel better about themselves by hearing about minorities who seem to live up to nothing but the highest standards of heroism, you might understand my reservations. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t any minority heroes, many of whom do exhibit a level of resilience that I know I can never match. I’m suggesting that we need to be critical of an institution that is in danger of becoming what the character Michael from Arrested Development sardonically calls a “feel-goodery” (referring to a new age high school that facilitates student emotional expression while abolishing grades in Season 3, Episode 9). A “feel-goodery” represents the diametric opposite of Sarah Ahmed’s “feminist killjoy” project.<2> For Ahmed, remaining true to feminism requires us to disrupt heteronormativity, thereby spoiling the enjoyment of others who may resent us for it: Whoever said academia should feel good anyway?

My gut feeling is that Ahmed is right. As a scholar of affect theory, Ahmed is well placed to recognize the affective fields that condition contemporary reality: the “feel-good” mantra resonates throughout the mediatized economy of the twenty-first century. Feel bad? Chicken Soup for the Soul! Soothing sounds from the Spotify “Deep Sleep” playlist! Happy endings in Hollywood movies! Because ambiguity gives rise to the unpleasant feeling of anxiety over uncertainty (I argue), we would much prefer to idealize heroes than to figure out the complexity of their human frailty. My edited volume, Rethinking Difference in Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Music, is a corrective to idealizations of heroes who are portrayed as having forged new paths in gender and sexuality through popular music. In addition to recognizing the incredible spirit of music makers and audiences, contributors to the book provide a comprehensive analysis of ambiguous musical contexts, by embracing both positive and negative forces and effects that are inevitable in any political action, thus complicating feel-good heroic narratives premised on idealized constructions of difference. We examine both difference and similarity from mainstream cultures, as well as the possibility that undefined but emergent forms of gender and sexuality may arise.

Of the many other accounts of ambiguity, Gillian Rodger’s chapter in the book contains a subtle assessment of two female cross-dressing (trouser role) impersonators on the nineteenth-century American variety stage, Ella Wesner and Annie Hindle, who were also life partners. While they subverted gender and sexual norms, their success stemmed from their comic musical performance, which affirmed their working class male audience’s view of middle-class men by portraying stereotypes of the latter. Audiences were generally ignorant of same-sex attracted male impersonators’ personal, sexual lives, and received their cross-dressing as a confirmation of conceptions about masculinity. Looking across the Pacific Ocean to China, Wang Qian also examines theatrical cross-dressing through the career of Li Yugang, who specializes in the nan dan (female impersonator) in Peking opera. At the end of his concerts, Li typically appears in his everyday male attire, drops his voice by an octave, and talks about what Wang calls his “mysterious ex-girlfriend.” Li has inspired over 3,000 online video clips of female impersonation in China, even as the online discourse strictly adheres to heterosexuality. All the above chapters tell us that we are prone to misrecognize multiple musical contexts if we are fixated on idealized hero narratives.

Aside from analyzing the ambiguity of musical politics, authors in the book theorize ambiguity as a condition of existence. Kirsten Zemke and Jared Mackley-Crump’s chapter examines the proliferation of terms—“fierceness,” “bitch,” “cunty”—that map out the evolving gender and sexual field of black gay American rappers such as Cakes da Killa, a field which contextualizes those terms in particular ways that intersects ambiguously with heteronormativity. Ellie Hisama examines the multivalent possibilities of walking through the huge panels that comprise Isaac Julien’s art installations such as True North (about the first successful expedition to the north pole in 1909), theorizing that this ambiguity is aligned with Julien’s disruption of masculine polar exploration through the casting of a black woman, Vanessa Myrie, in the role of Matthew Henson, Commander Robert Peary’s black companion who reached the north pole ahead of the Commander. My own chapter argues that the desire of gays can be queered so that it roams away from male bodies in Andrew Christian underwear music videos towards pleasurably aestheticized surfaces in Britney Spears’s music videos. By gesturing towards the real world and inner world complexity of music makers and listeners, we open a register for recognizing the power of difference while making room for the ambiguities that have perhaps always been a point of departure for queer theory.

<1>Routledge press page for the book:

Gavin Lee is Assistant Professor of Music at Soochow University. His research is anchored in queer, globalization, and Deleuzian theory.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Dissertation Digest: Listening to a Liberated Paris: Pierre Schaeffer Experiments with Radio

By Alexander Stalarow

Dissertation Digest: Listening to a Liberated Paris: Pierre Schaeffer Experiments with Radio
I first became interested in Pierre Schaeffer when I encountered his pair of electroacoustic operas based on the Orpheus myth. Comprising Orphée 51 and Orphée 53, Schaeffer’s Orpheus project offers a very early example of mixing live performance with prerecorded music and sounds; it also mixed new compositional processes with old stories. Alluding to past Orpheus settings by Monteverdi and Gluck, among others, Schaeffer placed his operas in conversation with the rich interpretive history of the myth. He also used its drama to advocate for a new type of composer, one used the burgeoning techniques of musique concrète involving the capture, manipulation, and retransmission of recorded sounds. At its 1953 Donaueschingen premiere, German critics assailed Orphée, some on the grounds that making musique concrète was not an act of original creation worthy of a composer per se. Schaeffer’s own retrospective account suggests that electronic music historians have tended to agree with his German critics: “It was thus we lost the battle of Donaueschingen and that we were plunged for years into international reprobation, while there rose in the sky of Cologne, a dawn favorable to the hereditary and electronic enemy!”<1>

Donaueschingen Festival, program cover, 1953, GRM Archives
Schaeffer himself may have relegated Orphée 53 to a pile of failed experiments. I, however, was drawn to rethinking the project on its own terms by considering its potential to broaden the conceptual role of the composer in light of new methods for music making in midcentury France. Such questions sparked my first entry into Schaeffer’s world, which was enlivened by his own copious writings, his recordings of radiophonic art and musique concrète, and later by archival materials as well—administrative documents, radio program transcripts, correspondence, personal notes—housed outside of Caen at the Institut Mémoires de l’Éditions Contemporaines (IMEC).

Schaeffer’s material and audiovisual archival traces highlight his multifaceted career. He was at once an author, sound engineer, radio artist, administrator, musician, and mentor to interns and junior employees in the studios he directed for French state radio (Radiodiffusion Nationale and its postwar successor Radiodiffusion Française). It was at these radio studios under French state patronage that Schaeffer pursued his multifaceted career, and radio mattered to his creative work in two interrelated ways. First, as an institution, radio facilitated Schaeffer and his team’s access to particular resources, both technological and human. Making the radio programs that Schaeffer wrote, directed, and produced for the Studio d’Essai between 1942 and 1945, for example, required the institution’s machines and network of people comprising bureaucrats, technicians, and artists. When he would in 1948 orient his experiments toward more strictly musical concerns by founding the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC), much of the human and technical infrastructure was already in place. Second, radio mattered as a medium, both as a type of transmission and of creation itself, shaping not only who listened, but also where, why, and how they might do so.

My dissertation, Listening to a Liberated Paris: Pierre Schaeffer Experiments with Radio, starts a conversation about the ways in which radio mattered to the creative labor, collaborative process, creation, and diffusion of Schaeffer’s music. Drawing appropriate attention to radio in Schaeffer’s career provides needed context for both the musique concrète project and for Schaeffer’s theoretical writings on the phenomenology of sound. The recent translation of his Treatise on Musical Objects makes the latter particularly apt. I argue that Schaeffer’s musique concrète compositions and his theories of sound perception are best understood as parts of a broader project with radio at its center. To do this, I analyze the largely overlooked radio programs that Schaeffer’s produced from 1942–1947, revealing the origins of many sources and techniques Schaeffer would use in his musique concrète works, from his Cinq Études de bruits (1948) to Orphée 53, the work that sparked my interest in Schaeffer in the first place. Further, listening to his radiophonic art helps relocate Schaeffer—a figure who is often relegated to the pioneering fringes of postwar music histories—in an intellectual network at the heart of institutionalized French culture.

The first half of my dissertation considers Schaeffer’s work building a model for making radiophonic art. Chapter 1 recounts Schaeffer’s upbringing, schooling, and his formative professional activities from 1936–1942. After exploring his interests in music, literature, and philosophy while pursuing a rigorous engineering degree at the École Polytechnique, Schaeffer’s first job for French state radio involved redeveloping the Paris Opéra’s live radio broadcasting system for its 1936–1937 season. Here Schaeffer used both his musical ear and his training as an engineer to choose which microphones to purchase, where to place them around the stage, and he trained recordists and musicians alike in the art of sound recording. The work, however, frustrated him. Capturing with precision opera singers as moving targets seemed futile next to his work recording in a studio, where he found that moving the microphone by even one centimeter had a profound impact on the sonic result. Schaeffer quickly turned his attention to the development of a proper radiophonic art, one that would study and leverage the inherent abilities of the medium, rather than attempt to retransmit other arts conceived for acoustic consumption.

Chapter 2 focuses on Schaeffer’s founding role in 1942 at the Studio d’Essai, an experimental studio staffed by thespians, musicians, technicians, and poets dedicated to radiophonic production. The studio’s first major production, La Coquille à planets, an eight-episode radio opera, served as an experiment with the technical and artistic aspects of studio production, fostering new collegial relationships between artists and technicians from diverse backgrounds. Schaeffer collaborated closely with Claude Arrieu, who composed a full score for the work, and helped producer Maurice Cazeneuve developed a model for his role of metteur-en-ondes, responsible mainly for the montage of recorded scenes. The Studio d’Essai also served national needs as well, producing the first official French broadcasts after the Liberation of Paris by Allied forces in August 1944. In his Chronique sonore de Paris libéré (1945), Schaeffer sampled footage from these broadcasts, which include speeches by General de Gaulle, cheering crowds, tolling bells, and a recording of La Marseillaise.

Interior front courtyard, Studio d’Essai at 37, rue de l’Université,
photo credit: Alexander Stalarow.

Une Heure du monde (1946), the central focus of my third chapter, took Schaeffer's radio experiments to the world stage. With the war over, Radiodiffusion Française now used its technical and artistic acumen to reach international audiences and to flood the Parisian airways with the sounds of cultural internationalism. Throughout the series, Schaeffer’s audience encountered a global community through a wide sampling of recordings featuring speech, noise, and music from around the world. In the last episode, “Radio Babel,” Schaeffer considers a theoretical model for international radio communication where sounds, noises, musics, and speech interact in confusion. This episode indexes Schaeffer’s theories of acousmatic sound by training audiences to listen without context.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore Schaeffer’s musique concrète project in light of his past experiences in radio production and point to continuities in techniques as well as a shared listener-centered creative approach. In Chapter 4 I analyse each musique concrète piece Schaeffer produced from 1948 through 1951, examining the sound materials used, their significance, and the contributions of Parisian musicians including Pierre Boulez, Gaston Litaize, and Pierre Henry. The chapter ends with a discussion of Schaeffer and Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950), which I use to address two crucial aspects of the musique concrète project: the acousmatic concept (the perceptual implications of hearing sounds without seeing their source) and the studio’s concert culture in Paris and abroad. Both converge in my analysis of a 1952 Boston performance of Symphonie pour un homme seul as a ballet danced by Merce Cunningham, who uncannily reconnected manipulated sound fragments of recorded human gestures with live choreography. Chapter 5 draws on the institutional and aesthetic connections between radio and cinema in Schaeffer’s thought to examine Orphée 51 and Orphée 53. I put Schaeffer’s opera in conservation with Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée (1950) as I argue that the two works present analogous postwar interpretations of the mythic protagonist.

Listening to a Liberated Paris broadens our understanding of Schaeffer, and expands the view of his impact beyond the electronic compositions and theories of sound perception for which he has risen in fame. Working from this expanded perspective, I situate these very aspects of his legacy to show how radio and experimentalism played formational roles in his interdisciplinary artistic and creative aspirations. This re-envisioning connects the previously disconnected spheres of experimental musical practices, and radio as institution and medium, in mid-century France.

<1>Pierre Schaeffer, La Musique concrète (Press Universitaire de Paris, 1973), 23 via Simon Emmerson, Living Electronic Music (Ashgate, 2007), 77.


Alexander Stalarow is a Collegiate Professor of Music History at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His research on Pierre Schaeffer has been supported by a Chateaubriand Fellowship and an Alvin H. Johnson-AMS 50 Dissertation Fellowship. He completed his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of California, Davis in 2017.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Teaching Music & Difference—Let’s Get It On: Pedagogy, Sexuality, and Music

By Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone

Note: This essay is the final installment in Musicology Now's "Teaching Music & Difference" series, which features additional essays by Jesus Ramos-KittrellRebekah Moore, and Angela Glaros

Music scholars do not do well with sex.

Musicology, ethnomusicology, popular music studies, anthropology of music. . . . whatever field or discipline we claim, the truth is that as a field of study we need to do better with sex. And I mean that word in every way: sexuality in terms of sexual behavior, sexual identity, sexual orientation and gender expression, and changing definitions of sex as a biocultural marker.  As scholars, we notice and critique colleagues who ignore race, indigeneity, and/or ethnicity. We might not always get those critiques correct or present them nearly often enough, but we see those faultlines.  We attempt to speak to the inclusion of women, again not well enough or often enough, or with nearly enough force inside our own organizations and institutions, but we are at least aware. About sexuality, however, there is still a broad field of lack. Lack of knowledge, to be sure, but also a lack of engagement, interest, and effort. The ignorance looks ignorant.

Have you ever tried to research “sexuality and music?” What you will find is two things: scholarship about music and gender, and mainstream material about music and sexual behavior. I recently did some research at the Kinsey Institute, focusing on music and its inclusion in the famous archive.  I ended up with files filled with news clippings of LGBTQ+ musicians and performers, two folders of Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and one article titled “Sex Differences in Sexual Imagery Aroused by Musical Stimulation.”  The 1958 article by Beardslee and Fogelsong suggested that women were more likely to have a sexual response to music because the rhythm was pseudosexual, arguing that women “listen more closely to learn” sexual technique from music. I’ve found a similar dearth of resources at archives and repositories all over the world, from the British Library to the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  If the subject is not a famous queer performance, or someone famous for being a queer performer, then it is not in the archives as “sexuality.” Unless the article is about how music makes the brain want to listen to Barry White, it is not archived as “sex.”

I teach an ethnomusicology course that focuses on globalization and popular music. I examine the ways in which music has traveled, been appropriated, been covered and sampled and impersonated, as a way of understanding global flow.  As a lesbian female professor, I am assumed by some of my students to embody their ideas about gender and sexuality- even if they are not sure what the difference really is. For my students who identify as non-normative in terms of gender and/or sexual identity, I’m somewhere between a signal of queerness that they identify with, and they are hoping to see some bit of themselves in what I teach.   That is a constant challenge in a discipline where sexuality is still largely silenced.

This is not to say that there is no literature about the music of the world and sexuality. The problem is that such works are used as add-ins, optional texts, the readings that get assigned for the one day you’re “doing gender.” Garcia’s work on sexuality and club culture, MacLachlan’s essay on GALA choruses, and Taylor’s recent monograph on LGBTQ+ folx in popular music, are all important contributions. There is also a long history of work in this field that we all know: Brett and Wood’s all-important work building a history of gay and lesbian musicology, Munoz’ work on worldmaking, important work in jazz studies by Tucker, my own work on heavy metal, and West’s amazing work on hip-hop.  These are all works, both germinal and current, that seek to describe and explain the complications of gender and sexuality. The problem is that we, as teachers and scholars, are complicit in marginalizing these works by treating them as sidebars to a grander narrative. We miss an opportunity to teach the cultural constructions of gender and sexuality with/in/through music. I propose that not only is the study of music the place to talk about sexuality, it may be the most productive place to do precisely that. To welcome that opportunity, however, scholars must avoid three things: exoticizing, eroticizing, and failing to admit biases.

As scholars of music, we should all be at least familiar with the dangers of exoticism. In ethnomusicology and anthropology, especially, avoiding the exoticization of our interlocutors is paramount.  When it comes to sexuality, however, exoticizing difference happens in classrooms every day. If sexuality and sexual identity are included in our curriculum, how are they represented? As opera divas? Disco queens? How often has sexual identity been reduced to whether Tchaikovsky was gay, or how Billy Strayhorn passed?  Even a cursory examination of common texts will shed further light on this issue.  Sheila Whiteley’s classic Sexing The Groove, an essential collection on gender and popular music, has two essays specifically about sexual identity: “Mannish Girl” about singer k.d. lang, and “Missing Links” about lesbian culture in the 1990s riotgrrl movement. It is simply not enough to include in our pedagogy lesbian folksingers, 1970s disco divas, Aaron Copeland, and the nan dan of Peking opera.  The result is two-fold: making sexual diversity exotic and sensational, and positioning sexual diversity in music is an exception, an exotic rarity that exists only in coffee shops and drag culture.

Another issue is eroticizing sexuality in world music.  You cannot divorce the sex from sexuality, and at its core sexuality is about our attractions. Sometimes, however, an attempt to discuss sexuality quickly becomes an exercise in eroticizing musicians and performers, both historically and today. When this happens, their identity as a performer of music, or as a composer, is eclipsed by their sex lives.  As a queer person I am often guilty of this myself, merging my identity as a fan with my work as a scholar. While we should not ignore the sexuality of our subjects and their work, that same sexuality should not become the story we tell about music.  Non-normative sexuality is only one facet of people who identify as LGBTQ+, and their work should not be reduced to that point. At the same time, there are thousands of stories we could tell about sexuality and music that we avoid, or do not know.  One excellent example is Genesis Breyer P-Orridge:  a founding member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, they are without question among the most important music performers of the 20th and 21st centuries. P-Orridge gave birth to industrial, acid house, and experimental music, pushed the Moog synth to new heights, and brought music to new boundaries of visual and performance art.  P-Orridge identifies as pandrogynous, a term that “is the conscious embracing of gender roles, sexual orientations, or cultural traditions so as to render the person’s original identity completely indecipherable.”  While P-Orridge’s sexuality is undoubtedly part of their work, it is also not the sum total of their work or their lives.  It is one opportunity, among thousands if not millions, for a pedagogical move to talking about sexuality as a factor in the music.

Finally, as teachers and scholars we must acknowledge our ignorance and identify our biases when it comes to gender and sexuality.  We do not get trained in our doctoral programs to teach about either, and unless you identify as something other than heterosexual and cisgendered, knowledge about gender and sexuality may range from confusing to frightening.  We live in a world where knowledge, conceptions, and presentations of different sexualities are changing rapidly for some, while it feels like a long fought battle for recognition to others. Those of you who teach may indeed be in a time and space where your students seem to know more than you do. Those of you in classrooms may feel that your teachers do not have a complete understanding of gender in your time, your culture, and your life. All of these reactions are fair, and honest.  As professionals, however, it is our job to learn. That is why we all joined the ranks of academia hopefully, due to a thirst for knowledge and the search for it. We must refuse to be so confused, or frightened, or disappointed, that we avoid the opportunity to learn. If you do not feel that you understand gender and sexuality in the 21st century, read, ask, seek help. Learn not just your students’ names, but their pronouns. Get trained through your campus safe zone program, and make sure your students and colleagues understand that you support those living through changes in their identity. Find those scholars who have done the heavy lifting to create a study of genders and sexualities in music, and include them in your curriculum regularly. Assign reading by LGBTQ+ writers. Diverse sexuality exists in every species on earth. It is also culturally constructed and mediated, and received through the eyes, ears, desires, and experiences of one’s life. In this way, it is not unlike music. Using sexuality to study music is an opportunity not only to make our students better thinkers, but also to demonstrate that sexual diversity has always been there, that the study of music is not separate from that diversity but woven within it, and that we as music scholars will refuse to embrace the phobias and oppressions that exist around us. It is not just good pedagogy, it is good humanity.

In a recent article, blogger Ace Ratcliff asked why there are no accessible spaces in science fiction. “In a universe this big,” wrote Ratcliff, “sci-fi could show us a reality where we have evolved beyond neglecting or outright ignoring a significant portion of our population.”  We can bring that reality closer only if we are willing to do the work of truly, intentionally, refusing to use music scholarship as a vessel for marginalization, sensationalism, and ignorance.
Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone (PhD American Studies, U Kansas) is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the McClure Archives and Museum at University of Central Missouri. She is also the author of Queerness In Heavy Metal (Routledge, 2015) and Queering Kansas City Jazz (forthcoming, U Nebraska). She can be reached at

Monday, August 27, 2018

Teaching Music & Difference: Thick Listening

By Angela Glaros

Note: This essay is the third installment in Musicology Now's "Teaching Music & Difference" series, which features additional essays by Jesus Ramos-Kittrell, Rebekah Moore, and Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone.

I don’t teach ethnomusicology full-time, or even a single course devoted to music.  I’m an anthropologist who does ethnomusicological research.  I teach in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology at Eastern Illinois University.  Our Introduction to Anthropology course (taught by myself and my other full-time anthropology colleague) counts toward our anthropology minor as well as our sociology major.  It also helps fulfill the university’s general education requirements, specifically Citizenship in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, which includes courses that emphasize civics, ethics, or diversity.  As EIU’s catalog states, “Diversity courses focus on students’ capacity for viewing issues or problems from multiple perspectives…[t]he examination of history, language, and/or traditions of other countries or cultures (anthropological, artistic, literary, philosophical, political, or sociological) aids in using cultural sensitivity when making informed and ethical decisions.”<1>  As a survey course, “Intro to Anthro” covers a wide spectrum of topics: culture, ethnography, economic systems, kinship, religion, gender, and many others.  Moreover, my colleague and I enjoy the freedom in our individual sections to choose our own books and arrange our topics to take advantage of our particular areas of expertise.

Such freedom, however, is tempered by larger institutional factors.  For example, our school of music already offers a “Non-Western Music” course whose description promises that “[t]he music of a variety of world cultures, such as Asian, African, and South American, will be examined in their appropriate contexts.”<2> Given the often territorial nature of academic departments, particularly during challenging economic times, the only opportunity for me to bring my own research into the classroom without appearing to duplicate courses taught elsewhere was to incorporate ethnomusicology, albeit briefly, into my Intro classes.

At first, I simply lectured about music, explaining the relationship of anthropology to ethnomusicology, discussing the ethnomusicological shift from studying music in culture to music as culture, reviewing classes of instruments, and talking about what kinds of things the study of music can show us (relationships to nature, gender relations, etc.).  I also discussed dance, focusing on how bodily motion and the use of space engaged local cosmologies.  After a few semesters, however, that lecture morphed into a combination of in-class exercise and mini-lecture that I called “Thick Listening,” after Geertz’s (1973) discussion of the importance of “thick description” in ethnographic interpretation. <3> While Damon Krukowski uses “thick listening” in his 2017 Paris Review article to refer to the process of listening to noise in analog music, I have been using the term since at least 2014 in the ways described above.  In any case, our respective meanings are not unrelated, since Krukowski describes the process of listening through surface noise back to the original conditions of the recording—that is, to original cultural production—in ways that make ethnographic sense.<4>

This  “Thick Listening” exercise is intended to expose students to some of ethnomusicology’s methods and questions, and also to counter the visual bias prevalent in college classrooms by forcing them to rely on their ears.  I begin by questioning the status of music as a “universal language,” an old chestnut that most students have heard and accepted.  Then I play four samples, allowing ample time for listening and writing down their descriptions as thickly as they can.  Next, we briefly discuss each one to identify common observations.  Finally, I perform a “reveal” where I identify each sample and discuss some of the features of this form of music.  Currently, my samples include a Bosavi recording from Steven Feld’s research in Papua New Guinea, a Byzantine rendering of Psalm 136 by Greek Orthodox monks, Tuvan throat singing, and a Northern Plains pow-wow song.<5>  Three out of four of these tracks involve no instrumentation, which simplifies the listening process and showcases a variety of vocal techniques, allowing me to provide more context, drawn from my own research on vocal aesthetics.  Additionally, the pow-wow song bridges music and dance, incorporating older research of mine on pow-wow dancing in Montana, while the Byzantine chant engages my ongoing research on liturgical chanting.

What do students hear?  
While almost no one recognizes any of the music samples before the “reveal,” I am continually surprised by how much students identify.  They are particularly attentive to the relationship of sound and space.  For example, students point out water sounds in the background of the Bosavi recording (which takes place near a waterfall), and they observe that the Byzantine piece sounds like it’s being played in a large stone building, pointing out the reverberation.  They notice song structure, particularly call-and-response, which also shows up in both of these pieces.  They also notice rhythm, which is hard to miss in the pow-wow song, given the presence of percussion.  And they make reasonable guesses as to the gender of singers, based on pitch and vocal quality.

How do we further “thicken” the listening?  
During the “reveal,” I discuss the related concepts of aesthetics and cosmology, pointing out how music can show us how people construct their worlds through sound.  In the Bosavi example, the cascading voices serve as metaphor not only for the waterfall, but also for the Bosavi style of communicating that they call “making talk together,” as Feld discusses in “Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or ‘Lift-up-over Sounding.’”<6>

For the Byzantine chant, I explain the importance of the drone not only to sound but as a sonic icon of the Church, providing a place for errant souls to return, just as the drone helps wandering lead chanters come back to the tonic.  With the Tuvan example, I discuss the importance of animism, and how the sounds of throat singing may be interpreted as literally otherworldly.  Finally, with pow-wow, I discuss the importance of the circle—the shape of the drum, the circle of dancers, and the cosmological relation of all beings, while they also see the relationship of dance to the song with a video clip of a pow-wow grand entry.  In each case, what makes music sound “right” is married to some extent to how people understand themselves in relation to each other and their world(s).

What don’t students hear when asked to listen thickly?
My classroom sound technology doesn’t lend itself to the “thickest” listening, as individual headphones might.  Some students hear more nuance than others, depending on the particular classroom.  However, the largest challenge I face is simply my students’ lack of exposure to people who live and believe differently from them, which affects the entire semester, not just this lesson plan.  Their responses to unfamiliar sounds are somehow more immediate, visceral, and potentially problematic, since “gut reactions” tend to be difficult to unpack and interpret in limited time frames.  For example, while many students recognize the Byzantine chant as something Christian, because they hear the word “Alleluia” or because it resembles church music they’ve heard, some laugh at the throat singing, commenting that it “sounds like a burp.”  Others describe the high male falsetto of pow-wow singing as “violent,” like “screaming.”  Here is where I interject my story of similar prejudice in white towns that bordered reservations, where people described pow-wow singing as “war whoops.”  For context, I play students the end of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” as another example of a high, strident male falsetto with a definite place in the mainstream American soundscape.<7>

If I could devote more time to music in my Intro class, I would address some of the gaps in students’ music literacy, particularly Western art music and its history, without which additional comparisons to more familiar forms of music prove challenging (though here, the music majors come to class overprepared, if anything).  Without the ability to listen thickly and reflexively to a wider range of Western genres, I worry that this exercise doesn’t do enough to prevent the exoticization of “other” musics, negating the possibility that they, too, incorporate Western identities, values, and contexts, as Jesús Ramos-Kittrell has suggested in his recent post.  To take my students beyond Western and non-Western as categories that constrain their musical understanding, this exercise must emphasize that it isn’t only “Others” who link sound and cosmology in some sort of mystic fashion; rather, all of us make and remake our worlds through sound all the time.


<1>Eastern Illinois University. 2018. Course Catalog, General Education. May 10, 2018.
<2>MUS 3562G,  Accessed May 10, 2018.
<3>Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  The Interpretation of Cultures.  New York: Basic Books.
<4>Krukowski, Damon.  2017.  "Surface Noise."  Paris Review.  April 21, 2017. Accessed May 8, 2018.
<5>“Ulahi and Eyo:bo Sing at a Waterfall.” Bosavi: Rainforest Music from Papua New Guinea. SFW CD 40487.  Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2001; Monks of Simonopetro.  “Exomologiste To [Give Thanks Unto the Lord]."  Agni Parthene: The Monks of Simonopetro are Chanting.  B0002J6EEU.  Fataka Records, 1990; Tuva Ensemble.  “Kargiraa-Style Song.” Tuva: Voices from the Land of the Eagle.  PAN2005CD.  Pan Records, 1993; Northern Cree Singers.  “Singer’s Song.” Nikamo—“Sing!”—Pow-Wow Songs Recorded Live at Samson.  CR-6378.  Canyon Records, 2005.
<6>Feld, Steven. "Aesthetics as Iconicity of Style, or 'Lift-up-over Sounding': Getting into the Kaluli Groove." Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 20 (1988), pp. 74-113.

<7>Led Zeppelin.  "Stairway to Heaven."  Led Zeppelin IV.  ATL 50-008.  Atlantic Records, 1971.


Angela Glaros is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Eastern Illinois University.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Teaching Music & Difference: Critical Awareness for a Global Music Industry

By Rebekah Moore

Note: This essay is the second installment in Musicology Now's "Teaching Music & Difference" series, which features additional essays by Jesus Ramos-Kittrell, Angela Glaros,  and Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone.

If one were to search the phrase “what is world music” and scroll past the list of upcoming local concerts and festivals conjured by search engine optimization, one would quickly come across a 2012 article by Ian Birrell for The Guardian, titled “The Term ‘World Music’ is Outdated and Offensive.” The author condemns this marketing silo for non-Anglo artists on the basis of its valuation of cultural rootedness-as-purity and as a disavowal of the digitized and highly mobile world in which most people now live. His loathing for this designation, however, does not prevent him from exploiting the marketing potential of defining difference according to a geographic otherness: He is co-founder of a London-based concert promotion and production company called Africa Express. To a degree, I empathize: enticing concert-goers thirsty for something other than the mainstream pop fodder of the major labels and live event companies with the promise of a soundscape of exotic elsewheres is a profitable and personally fulfilling strategy for many concert curators and producers—myself included. As director for international yoga, dance, and music festival BaliSpirit, I catered a stage line-up to Californian and Australian yogis and digital nomads island-hopping between Bali and Phuket by booking musicians and dancers from First Nations and the Global South, who would match in performative spectacle the festival’s exotic tropical backdrop. I rebranded the world music concert series as “One World, One Stage,” as a strategy to downplay the tokenistic presentation of difference and convey the cosmopolitan’s vision of one human tribe. But in retrospect, I did little to challenge the festival’s appropriative tendencies or discourage cultural stereotyping.

In subsequent professional roles in the public and private sectors, I generally managed to avoid the ethical problem of world music as genre or creative and professional “ghetto,’ to borrow from Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour’s assessment of the music industry’s handling of “nonwestern” musicians in a 2000 interview.<1> In 2017, I opened a new professional chapter as an academic ethnomusicologist. Now, I must contend with a teaching mandate to design courses that “engage with difference and diversity,”<2> and ethnomusicology’s culpability for the persistence of world music as a core requirement in conservatories and music departments. This new role compels me to question: What are universities really trying to accomplish by insisting on diversity in curricula? “Diversity” to what end? Are academics challenging or reinforcing the white male domination of the classical music canon with such requirements? Can a world music “survey course,” a mainstay in many American college and university curricula and charge of many early-career ethnomusicologists, offer anything more than superficial coverage of music traditions that have been canonized by world music textbooks and bear a resemblance to European colonial expeditions? Or should such courses be exorcised from music curricula, as neocolonial specters?

In my current post as a music industry professor for a program oriented toward professional development rather than theoretical inquiry, I do not necessarily have to answer most of these questions. But I do have to contend with the preparation of students entering a profession carrying global economic and social impact, which will shape both how they interact with professionals who do not share their socioeconomic privilege and also what they envision as sustainable, ethical business practice. So I have been compelled to offer a “Global Music Industries” course as supplement to a curriculum focused largely on U.S. music business opportunities and developments. Thus, like colleagues at other institutions leading world music survey courses, I am doing my best to cover the “rest” of the world’s music, largely ignored by music curricula, and yet still avoid tokenism and the allure of cultural competence.

The course’s practical objective is to help prepare students for international music careers involving activities such as international touring and contract negotiations or the navigation of diverse legislation on licensing and IP protection across national borders. Students encounter modes of music production and consumption through diverse knowledge sources, such as ethnographic studies and industry trade reports, with a focus on grounded practice outside the U.S. music industry and its global conglomerates. Course content is organized topically by professional practices and challenges, such as recording and record labels, live performance, market research, instrument manufacturing, government interventions, and emerging business models. A strong focus on peripheral markets—vis-à-vis mainstream entertainment conglomerates—provides an exercise in “mainstreaming,” to borrow from Anne Rasmussen, diverse modes of music professionalism.<3> The ethnographic studies, in particular, introduce professional activities that are both familiar in practice and culturally distinctive. Students encounter, for example, album sales strategies along the North American powwow trail,<4> payment structures in a New Delhi recording studio,<5> pirates as crucial distributors within Myanmar’s popular music industry,<6> and digital activism as a core professional activity among Indonesian recording artists.<7>

Indonesian rock band Navicula during their tour of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to raise awareness about deforestation and its impacts on indigenous communities, wildlife, and the global climate. Photographed by the author.

Rather than focusing on how students might navigate these diverse markets, the course encourages them to explore the myriad ways in which professionals consolidate music production, distribution, and consumption. The course’s implicit objective is to encourage these students, most of whom will work within the dominant music industries of the United States, Europe, or China to a) dispute the narrow definition of music’s value as consumer good propagated by the highly regulated, centrally controlled, capitalistic recording industries with which they are most familiar and b) recognize their own complicity with unequal access to resources for producing and consuming music.

Unfortunately, in the course’s first iteration, student self-assessments and teacher evaluations suggest that the implicit objective was not achieved. This is due, in large part, to my decision to keep this priority objective close to the vest, based on my concern that students might reject a blatant challenge to modern music business practices. Instead, I might have explicitly insisted on critical engagement with core business values and ethics. An additional problem is that the stated objective’s focus on preparing students for fruitful careers imparts a goal of economic dominance that is at odds with the implicit objective. Thus, the course could be critiqued as providing training grounds for ongoing musical imperialism.

With fine-tuning, however, courses like “Global Music Industries” might offer an interesting alternative to world music survey courses. By focusing on music in practice and profession, rather than as aesthetic tradition, such courses could denaturalize current business models that coalesce power in a corporate oligopoly and accelerate creative homogenization. They could prioritize entrepreneurial thinking about sustainable music practice and stimulate critical engagement on the common ground of professional practice shared by recording and touring artists worldwide.

Key to these outcomes would be an explicit rejection of cultural competence as a course outcome and instead the adoption of the lens of critical awareness. This notion, developed through research on healthcare and social services for diverse populations, provides useful pedagogical frameworks, whereby instructors would support students in working toward the principles of “‘curiosity’ and of ‘informed not knowing,’” to use the words of social work scholars Mark Furlong and James Wight.<8> In such approaches, the aim is not to accumulate a body of knowledge about cultural and professional others; rather, critical awareness “establishes a context for practice that regards ‘the other’ as a mirror upon which the practitioner can see the outline of their own personal, professional, ideological, and cultural profile.”<9> By explicating critical awareness as a course objective, instructors would challenge students to recognize the plurality of music professionalism and their own positionality within it and to undertake global creative exchanges through a lens of informed not-knowing—a lens that prevents them from seeing the world’s musical traditions as territory to acquire.

If one were to take, at face value, university diversity requirements as strategies to foster inclusivity, mutual respect, and collaboration, then one would be compelled to advocate for the continual inclusion of courses introducing diverse musics and musical values, as a means to critically engage with intersectionality, define music as a rightful human experience, and build students’ commitment to equal access to music production and consumption. Such courses would overtly confront the inequities created by regional or cultural differentiation, the canonization of certain traditions over others, and the accumulation of cross-cultural knowledge as the means to succeed in a digitized, mobilized world. Perhaps, then, we could effectively equip students with the global curiosity and cosmopolitan responsibility required to make a world of difference in how we all experience music.

<1>N’Dour, quoted in Taylor, Music and Capitalism, p. 89.
<2>“Engaging Differences and Diversity.”
<3>Rasmussen, “Mainstreaming American Musical Multiculturalism.”
<4>Scales, Recording Culture.
<5>Booth and Shope, More than Bollywood.
<6>MacLachlan, Burma’s Pop Music Industry.
<7>Moore, “My Music, My Freedom(?)”
<8>Furlong and Wight, “Promoting ‘Critical Awareness’ and Critiquing ‘Cultural Competence,’” p. 39


Works Cited

Booth, Gregory D., and Bradley Shope. More than Bollywood: Studies in Indian Popular 

     Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
“Engaging Differences and Diversity.” NUpath: The Core Curriculum at Northeastern 
     University. Accessed May 11, 2018.
Furlong, Mark, and James Wight. “Promoting ‘Critical Awareness’ and Critiquing ‘Cultural 
     Competence’: Towards Disrupting Received Professional Knowledges.” Australian Social 
     Work 64, no. 1 (2011): 38–54.
MacLachlan, Heather. Burma’s Pop Music Industry: Creators, Distributors, Censors
     Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011.
Moore, Rebekah E. “‘My Music, My Freedom(?): The Troubled Pursuit of Musical and 
     Intellectual Independence on the Internet in Indonesia.’” Asian Journal of Communication
     23, no. 4 (2013): 368–385.
Rasmussen, Anne K. “Mainstreaming American Musical Multiculturalism.” American Music 
     22, no. 2 (2004): 296–309.
Scales, Christopher A. Recording Culture: Powwow Music and the Aboriginal Recording 
     Industry on the Northern Plains. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Taylor, Timothy. Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present. Chicago: University of 
     Chicago Press, 2015.


Ethnomusicologist Rebekah E. Moore has returned to the United States and American academe after a decade-long career in Indonesia, where she worked in public programs management, concert and festival production, and band and tour management. Last Fall, she joined the music faculty at Northeastern University, in order to teach undergraduate and graduate music industry courses and coordinate the graduate certificate programs in arts administration and cultural entrepreneurship. Prior to accepting this position, Rebekah was Senior Manager for @america, the world’s largest center for U.S. public diplomacy, located in Jakarta. Rebekah has published articles in the Asian Journal of Communication, Asian Music, Collaborative Anthropologies, and Inside Indonesia. She is co-founder of Bersama Project, an Indonesian nonprofit foundation that supports musicians and artists to stage creative interventions on violence against women and LGBTQ+ young people, an organization to which she continues to contribute as Project Advisor.