Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Dissertation Digest: The Spanish Lamento: Discourses of Love, Power, and Gender in the Musical Theatre (1696–1718) by Maria Virginia Acuña

[Ed. Note: This "Dissertation Digest" is the first in an ongoing series aimed at drawing wider attention to in-progress and recently completed dissertations in musicology. Drafts of posts as well as inquiries are welcome at musicology-now@ams-net.org.]

Francisco Herrera el Mozo. Hall of Plays, Royal Alcázar of Madrid. c. 1670.
[Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 13217 Han.]

I was born in Toronto to Argentine immigrants. My mother, a trained performer of flamenco and Spanish classical dances, exposed me to Spanish music at a very early age. During our years in Toronto, and while my father was a graduate student at York University, I watched my mother perform on countless occasions and became enamoured with the sound of Spain. At the age of eight, I moved to Buenos Aires where I lived for nearly two decades. In Buenos Aires I started a degree in voice performance at the Conservatory of Music “Manuel de Falla,” where I learned a great amount of operatic repertoire, including Argentine and Spanish music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In my late twenties, I returned to Canada to complete an undergraduate degree in music at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Here I sang my first Spanish tonadas with the UBC Early Music Ensemble and became increasingly interested in Spanish early music. In our music library, I found Louise Stein’s book on seventeenth-century Spanish theatre music together with a handful of other writings on the subject. I became fascinated with seventeenth-century Spain, a period that, to my surprise, had received very little attention in Anglo-American scholarship. At UBC I completed a master’s thesis that explored the intersection of politics and music in early modern Spain as well as the reception of Spanish music of this period both within and outside Spain. But in my first year of doctoral studies at the University of Toronto, my traditional interest in audiences expanded to embrace what was happening on the stage.

My dissertation, “The Spanish Lamento: Discourses of Love, Power, and Gender in the Musical Theatre (1696–1718),” examines a little-studied period in the history of Spain through the lens of the lament, a climactic musical scene that peaked in popularity in the mythological zarzuela—Madrid’s leading court musico-theatrical genre of the period. This study asks why so many male characters sing laments in zarzuelas from the turn of the eighteenth century, and how the local theatrical practice of cross-dressing—namely, women en travesti—affected representations of masculinity in this genre, specifically in its lamenting scenes. (During this period, men, including castrati, were not allowed to sing serious roles in Spanish theatre.) I employ an interdisciplinary approach that addresses a full range of issues informing the Spanish lament. These include philosophical, medical, literary, and gender discourses on suffering love as well as local theatre practices. My analysis of both music and poetry further reflects this interdisciplinary approach. As a result, I bring into dialogue the fields of musicology and Spanish literature within a wider context of Spanish culture, while focusing specifically on Madrid’s musico-literary expression at the turn of the eighteenth century.

I examine sixteen laments appearing in nine extant zarzuelas from the period 1696–1718: Salir el amor del mundo (1696), Selva encantada de amor (ca. 1698), Apolo y Dafne (between 1701–04), Hasta lo insensible adora (1704), El imposible mayor en amor le vence amor (ca. 1705; rev. 1710), Las nuevas armas de amor (ca. 1705; rev. 1711), Veneno es de amor la envidia (ca. 1705; rev. 1711), Acis y Galatea (1708), and Jupiter y Semele (1718). Thirteen out of sixteen are male laments, while only three are for female characters. Among the numerous laments occurring in this repertory, I identify three types: first, Cupid’s laments as an allegorical representation of the Spanish monarch and of his struggle for power, second, male amorous complaints as a manifestation of contemporary philosophical perceptions about love and medical discourses about lovesickness and, finally, female laments carrying implicit pedagogical values meant to strengthen notions of female virtue and conduct.

To begin, I contextualize these zarzuelas and their laments within a broader socio-political and historical context. I suggest that the pre-existing literary tradition of the suffering male spanning from the 11th century courtly love lyrical performance through Renaissance Petrarchism and its 16th and 17th century imitations, re-surfaced in the genre of the zarzuela as a reflection of Spain’s socio-political turmoil, beginning with the decline of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty and followed by the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). I also suggest that, during the tumultuous years surrounding the war, the recurring lamenting male characters in this allegorical genre reflected the concerns and anxieties of Madrid’s male ruling classes. Indeed, according to my findings, most male laments seem to appear in zarzuelas dedicated to, and performed for, the monarch or for a male of the high nobility; in other words, they are intended for an aristocratic or royal male recipient and for his predominantly male entourage. Female laments, in contrast, are not only fewer in number but they also generally appear in zarzuelas dedicated to the Spanish Queen. Thus, the large number of male laments in the genre—especially, in comparison to female laments—also suggests that the zarzuela is heir to the same dominant literary tradition in which male suffering is privileged over female sorrow.

In this study, I suggest that the Spanish theatre practice of cross-dressing determined to a great extent the transformation of the lament into a highly climactic and well-anticipated musical scene within the zarzuela. At a time when issues regarding effeminacy were systematically brought up in Spanish writings of the period including medical texts and treatises on music and Spanish theatre (such as those by Tomás Murillo y Velarde, Pedro de Cerone, and Ignacio de Camargo), the representation of male weakness and sorrow only became widely accepted because it was circumscribed and controlled. Aside from pleasing the audience with their costumes and the sound of their voices, women performing the roles of weeping male characters helped mitigate the overtones of effeminacy conveyed in the male lament. Indeed, these overtones implied in the character’s loss of power or in his excess of emotion and irrationality frequently appear in conjunction with musical gestures and devices traditionally associated with effeminacy, such as the “effeminate minor second” described in Cerone’s music treatise. Using both primary and secondary sources, I trace the female performers that were at the height of their careers during this period, including Teresa de Robles, Paula María, and Manuela de la Cueva, and I explore the possibility that their vocal skills and their fame may have contributed to the cultivation of the lament.

Ultimately, the goal of my dissertation is to open the door to an exciting field of study that requires further investigation, while making available to the modern reader some of the most beautiful and moving Spanish theatrical songs that I have encountered during my years of researching the music of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Spain.


Maria Virginia Acuña received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in June 2016. The main focus of her research is music of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, and her interests include Spanish literature and theatre, philosophy, religion, as well as issues of gender and sexuality. Virginia has presented papers at conferences in North America and Spain, including national and regional meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Spanish Musicological Society, and her research has appeared in Sebasián Durón (1660-1716) y la música de su época (Vigo, Galicia: Editorial Academia del Hispanismo, 2013) and Musicología global, musicología local (Madrid: Sociedad Española de Musicología, 2013). She is the past recipient of several awards and prizes including the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship for doctoral research awarded by the Social Sciences and Research Council of Canada, the Eugene K. Wolf Grant awarded by the American Musicological Society, the Pilar Sáenz Annual Student Essay Prize awarded by the Ibero-American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, and the SOCAN Foundation/George Proctor Prize awarded by the Canadian University Music Society. Virginia is currently a part-time instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Preview: Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music

by David Brackett

[Author note: This excerpt contains excerpts from chapters one and nine.]


Like many readers of this blog, after I tell people that I’m a musicologist I’m frequently asked about what type of music I study. I usually answer something like “mostly popular music and jazz,” which is then followed by a question asking what type of popular music I write about. Despite having been asked this question many times, I have to brace myself at this point and respond that I don’t really write about a type of popular music; rather I write about the process of grouping music into “types.” After the initial grimace of bewilderment flits across my interrogator’s face, I apologize for what may seem like a very abstract preoccupation. Following a bit more explanation, however, the mood tends to lighten, and the person I’m talking to often reveals that this is something that they too have contemplated.

The book I am previewing here, Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music, is the result of many years of studying how musical utterances come to be grouped together and why. My fascination derives in part from how musical categories (or genres) of popular music exist in an odd kind of limbo in public and scholarly discourse. On the one hand, musicians and consumers often resist requests to categorize themselves, insisting that their tastes are unclassifiable. It is common to hear discussions that have invoked the idea of genre end with the declaration that musical genres do not really exist, that they are mere fabrications of the music industry. Yet despite these disavowals, the use of genre labels to describe taste continues to return in a wide variety of contexts. For example, on an episode of the television series, Glee, the character Mercedes (who is African American) explains to the character Puck (who is white) that a romance is simply not in the cards: “It’s never going to work. You’re Top 40 and I’m Rhythm and Blues.” Even songs confirm the quotidian value of genre: Lonnie Mack proclaimed in 1988 that he was “too rock for country, too country for rock ‘n’ roll” in a recording with the same title. And no listing of “musicians wanted” ads (i.e., musicians looking for other musicians to play with) could function without an extensive listing of genre labels in order to indicate the musicians’ interests to one another. These anecdotes illustrate that the issue of genre is complex, possibly contentious, and difficult to escape. The exchange from Glee, Lonnie Mack’s song, musicians wanted ads, and many other texts suggest that the question of genre in popular music is often inextricably tied to how people identify with different types of music. Such genre designations indicate or imply the assumed audience for a particular type of music, and frequently raise questions about who produces and consumes the music.

Categorizing Sound asks how relationships between categories of music and people are formed. How do they become naturalized to the point where they are taken-for-granted, to the point where it becomes difficult to imagine that a particular label, a set of musical practices, routines, and gestures, a group of people, visual images, and social and political connotations, were ever not joined together? The book begins by tracing the emergence of “homological identifications” (how categories of music are associated with an extant demographic group) in popular music in the early years of the twentieth century. These were formed first in the now-almost-forgotten category of “foreign music” marketed mainly to European immigrants, and then quickly applied to the formation of “race” (connoting African-Americans) and “old-time” (connoting white, rural Southerners) music. Several chapters are devoted to the 1920s, when such processes first crystallized, and are followed by chapters that focus on the 1940s, the mid-1960s, and the early 1980s, all periods during which popular music categories in the U. S. underwent a controversy or crisis. These chapters dealing with the post-1920s are largely concerned with the relationships between popular music associated with African Americans and that associated with rural, white Americans in relation to the rather more amorphous assemblage that I refer to as the “mainstream.” The argument is that particular articulations of music and people are not natural or inevitable; and that categories respond to emerging concepts about sounds and social groups, and generate effects that enter into musical practice and the role of music in other types of social interactions, thus creating a feedback loop, a circular process that blurs the lines between the ideas of power imposed from above and the grassroots creation of musical meaning.

The idea for the book can be traced back to debates in the early 1990s in the humanities and social sciences around the notions of essentialism and anti-essentialism. From the attribution of stereotypical characteristics and putative biological differences thought to map directly onto a demographic group (“essentialism”), some academics moved to the disavowal that any link existed between cultural and practical activities and a demographic grouping (“anti-essentialism”). As sympathetic as I was to the basic tenets of anti-essentialism, such a move seemed over-simple. Alternatives to the stark binary of essentialism/anti-essentialism were proposed by scholars such as Paul Gilroy, who coined the term “anti-anti-essentialism” in his book, The Black Atlantic (1993). Music was particularly important to Gilroy’s notion of a Black diasporic identity due to its ability “to create a model whereby identity can be understood neither as a fixed essence nor as a vague and utterly contingent construction.” And even though Black identity “is often felt to be natural and spontaneous, it remains the outcome of practical activity: language, gesture, bodily significations, desires” (p. 102). Kyra Gaunt expanded upon Gilroy’s insights in her ethnographic study, The Games Black Girls Play (2006), in which she studied how a sense of black musicality becomes embodied and enculturated through repetition at a young age among African American girls via rhyming games. The continued pertinence of this debate over race and identity can be seen in social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, which counterposes the lived experience of systemic racialized violence by African Americans with proclamations that we have entered a post-racial society where “color-blindness” should be the order of the day. In my studies of popular music, I found examples of anti-anti-essentialism in genres such as rhythm and blues, soul music, funk, and hip-hop—which had strong connotations of African-American-ness—and country music—which connoted rural, white people from the U. S. South—even if such designations did not cover everyone involved in producing or consuming these musics.

I turned to the history of popular music categories, with its sudden ruptures and its enduring continuities, because of the power these categories hold in the daily texture of contemporary musical life. Categorizing Sound is a history of how this pervasive power took root, and of the many sites through which it makes itself felt. Perhaps there is a hint here, however, not only of ideas about how to understand popular music categories from the 1920s to the present, but of a utopian gesture towards the future. For if popular music categories are made without the conscious imposition of an agent’s will (a point that I elaborate in the first chapter of the book), then these categories may be unmade as well. And if this is true for categories of popular music, then what of the larger social categories in which the musical categories participate, with those larger categories’ asymmetrical apportioning of resources and opportunities? Even if we cannot will a change to occur, we may live to recognize when we reflect back to earlier times that we do, in fact, know that we are living within a new, unforeseen arrangement of genre. Although we do not know what form this will take, we do know that a transformation of the arrangement of musical categories will be related to a reclassification of social categories. And that might not be so bad.


David Brackett is Professor of Music History and Musicology in the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. His publications include Interpreting Popular Music (Cambridge, 1995; repr. University of California, 2000), The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates, 4th ed. (Oxford, 2014), and Categorizing Sound: Genre in Twentieth-Century Popular Music (University of California, 2016). Prior to being categorized as a musicologist, Professor Brackett was active as a composer and a freelance guitarist.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dissertation Digest: The Flute in Musical Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland by Elizabeth Ford

[Ed. Note: This "Dissertation Digest" is the first in an ongoing series aimed at drawing wider attention to in-progress and recently completed dissertations in musicology.  Drafts of posts as well as inquiries are welcome at musicology-now@ams-net.org.]


I became interested in the history of the flute in Scotland as a masters student and beginning traverso player at the Peabody Conservatory.  While looking for eighteenth-century flute music that didn’t make me cry when I tried to play it as I got used to a very different and very difficult instrument, I discovered a modern edition of something called The Airs for the Seasons by James Oswald, edited by Jeremy Barlow.  Not only was the music very satisfyingly playable, it helped keep me from giving on baroque flute entirely.  I began using Oswald as a warm-up for practicing Hotteterre and Philidor in flat keys in French violin clef, and he really was good for morale.  I didn’t cry nearly as much.

Several years later, during a break from academia while still deciding what to do with my life, I rediscovered Oswald.  I was reminded of the effortless quality of the and how it manages to combine an Italianate structure with characteristic Scottish sounds.  At the time I was listening to a great deal of Scottish and Irish music, as well as Appalachian old-time music, and Oswald seemed to fit right in with that overall aesthetic.

While there seemed to have been many collections of music for the flute from eighteenth-century Scotland, all the literature on the flute in Scotland said the same thing: the flute was unknown prior to 1725.  This struck me as improbable; the flute was one of the most popular, flashiest instruments in eighteenth century Europe and Scotland, while geographically remote, produced some of best-known writers and thinkers of the time.  Why would the Scots lag behind in flute playing?  It also struck me as odd that while most Irish bands have flute players and there are hundreds of books of Irish tunes for flute, Scottish bands (usually) lack flutes and there are practically no modern books of Scottish tunes for flute.

I decided to pursue this mystery by contacting David McGuinness and John Butt at the University of Glasgow.  And in the spirit of candor, I was a bit of a fangirl of both their recordings and I was afraid to write them, but I’m glad I did.  Both agreed that it was a Ph.D.-worthy inquiry and made suggestions for my initial application abstract. A few months later I moved to Scotland.

As I began my research, I found much that I expected: most research on Scottish music was centered on the fiddle, the bagpipes, Robert Burns, or Gaelic song, with the flute more or less relegated to a footnote saying that it was unknown prior to 1725.  I tracked the 1725 date to an essay by the antiquarian William Tytler that was written in 1792 about a St Cecilia’s Day concert in the late seventeenth century.  There was no other basis for the claim, and yet historians clung to it.  I decided one of my major tasks was to verify or disprove it.

As I worked, in archives, attics, basements, libraries and country houses, I realized my task was larger than disproving a date.  As much as Tytler’s claim annoyed me, it wasn’t just him and his date.  It was the whole notion that the flute wasn’t/isn’t a Scottish instrument that I was rapidly discovering was part of the cultural ethos of Scottish music, as rapidly as I was discovering that historically the flute was very much a part of music in Scotland.

I had already recognized that the idea of Scottishness in music took very particular forms, and that the flute just didn’t fit, perhaps because of the association with Irish music, or an association with gentility.  Although I do not play in a traditional idiom, many Scottish flute players I met told me that they have to play Irish music because there is no flute music from Scotland because the flute “isn’t Scottish enough.” I wanted to scream, but it is!  It is Scottish!  Scotland has a rich and varied history of flute playing.  There are hundreds of books from the early eighteenth-century onwards of Scottish tunes for violin or flute with specific flute versions!  Sonatas!  Difficult, challenging, flute sonatas!  Manuscripts!  Lots of repertoire, and history, and evidence, and no one aware of it but me and maybe six other people.  I began to evangelize.

So, here is everything, in no particular order, that you need to know about the flute in eighteenth-century Scotland and why it might be important to your non-Scottish music oriented lives: The flute was a major status symbol among amateur musicians, mostly men, but also ladies.  At least three gentlewomen played flute, and one of them received a flute with a rather racy love poem hidden inside it.  Scotland was not a cultural backwater, even considering the implications of the Act of Union (1707) and the last Jacobite rebellion (1745).  There is, however, evidence for a sense of nostalgia post-1745 with an increase in publication of Scottish tunes.  The flute, called the German flute, may have had political associations with the English (Hanoverian) court.  General John Reid was the best-known Scottish flute player, and when he wasn’t fighting Jacobites or defending Fort Duquesne from the French, he was composing sonatas and giving recitals that sent the ladies for their smelling salts.  James Oswald wrote flute sonatas too!  William McGibbon wrote the first sonatas for flute in Scotland.  One of them, 1729 number 6, is a reworking of a violin concerto set for German flute and violin.  There is little evidence for the flute in the Highlands, but then, I’m hampered by poor Gaelic.  There is, however, a great deal of evidence for overlap between flute playing and bagpipe playing in the Lowlands in terms of instruments and repertoire.  The earliest eighteenth-century mention of a flute from a Scottish source is a friend of the Marquis of Montrose in 1703.  The first English translation of Hotteterre was by a Scot, Mr. Urquhart, in 1726.  He was also a flute maker.  The earliest manuscript evidence of the flute in Scotland is Alexander Bruce’s manuscript, in the collection of Lord Balfour of Burleigh, from 1717.  It contains the second part to flute duets by Valentine, and much more interestingly, a fingering chart for German flute going to the B-flat five ledger lines above the staff.  The highest note on the one-keyed flute is the A just below that.  Hotteterre said it was best not to play above the E three lines above because it was in bad taste.  Tytler’s 1725 date is, as they say here, utter bollocks…but he did play flute.  Also, knowing the flute’s role in musical life in eighteenth-century Scotland gives us a better understanding of the history of the flute and the history of music in Scotland.

Elizabeth Ford has a Ph.D. in music from the University of Glasgow (2016) and her dissertation won the National Flute Association Graduate Research Competition.  Her work looks at the history of the flute in Scotland, Scottishness, performance practice, and pedagogical history.  Her edition of William McGibbon’s complete sonatas has been accepted for publication by A-R Editions.  She is the English language editor for Schott Music’s online texts, and co-research assistant on the Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded Eighteenth-century Arts Education Research Network (EAERN).  She was recently awarded a fellowship from the Handel Institute to work on an edition of the flute compositions of James Oswald. The picture shows her in a pub with a reproduction of the unique bell-ended flute from the ceiling of Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire, c. 1599.  She likes to call it The Blunderbus.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Book Preview: Audible States: Socialist Politics and Popular Music in Albania

by Nicholas Tochka



There are shorthand ways for talking about popular music under repressive state orders, and we’re getting a refresher on them right now.

After November 8, we began hearing that Donald Trump’s election might (at least? hopefully!?) generate some good art. My well-left-of-center social media feeds, for instance, filled with gallows humor posts suggesting Trump’s election would, riffing on his campaign slogan, “make punk great again.” “If the political climate keeps getting uglier,” songwriter and performance artist Amanda Palmer later said, “the art will have to answer.” Cue the think-pieces, which came fast and furious, envisioning (or not) a golden age for dissent through popular music. “Remember, governments don’t cut arts funding to save money,” another friend recently posted. “They do it when they are afraid of what artists do and say.”

Music scholars write and do research in the same world that has produced these larger narratives about popular music, politics, and dissent [1]. Many of us believe deeply in the transformative potentials of music in general, and popular music in particular; we invest ourselves in seeking out instances where musicians talk back to power or challenge authority. But we also recognize that the situation on the ground inevitably reveals itself to be more complex. My recently published book, Audible States: Socialist Politics and Popular Music in Albania, explores the complexities of music-making under what was once widely referred to as “the most repressive regime in Europe.” I chose to focus not on musicians who in some sense resisted or challenged “the State,” but on those people who worked within actual political-economic structures, crafting and implementing policy, and creating, rehearsing, and broadcasting popular song. The book thus engages the larger, ongoing trend to understand the often messy, negotiated politics of making music during and after the Cold War.

The book’s narrative tracks a state-sponsored popular music genre, muzikë e lehtë (literally “light music”), from the 1940s until today. Its chapters examine how light music first emerged as a coherent domain for state administration, before then following the music’s subsequent stylistic evolution, institutionalization, and (with the end of socialism in the early 1990s) privatization. At the book’s core are the professional, salaried composers who directed the state-socialist economy, worked at the national conservatory and state-run media, and created the songs.

When I crafted my first proposal for the research that became this book, I struggled with how to express my approach. The narrative frame of “resistance” seemed ill-fitted to my case; Albania did not have an “underground” or an “unofficial” scene under socialism. And state officials did not seem to primarily silence musicians or to deny them funding or access to the media. In fact, investment in the media and kulturë dhe arte, or “culture and the arts,” rose sharply after 1945 before plummeting with the anticommunist political transition in 1992. I ended up suggesting something relatively anodyne: “The study will explore how musicians sought to position themselves vis-à-vis one another and the State.” And I settled on a handful of research questions. How was state policy about popular song created? How did intellectuals perceive policy? And how did musicians in particular navigate and implement policy?

One of my first interviewees gamely answered my prepared questions about the nitty-gritty, day-to-day activities of making and broadcasting song during the socialist period. But when I turned off my recorder, his tone shifted, and he began to question the need for the project itself. (I address this episode in a bit more depth in the book’s epilogue.) “This will be the first full-length, English-language treatment of a state-subsidized popular song genre!” I told him. “Albania represents an extreme case study! English-speaking readers know so little about your country! This will all be new to them!” He was unconvinced.  “They have read this story before,” he shrugged. “It is the story of Stalin’s Russia.”

I understood him to be suggesting that the story of popular music-making under a repressive order could be told either as the story of musicians resisting the State—or the State repressing musicians. That is to say, my interviewee was pushing back onto me and my project the narrative arc I had been trying to avoid. I carried on with my project, and the usual messiness of ethnographic research ensued. Later interviewees contradicted this person, of course, while some expressed qualified agreement. But everyone presented me with their own viewpoints.

~

In Audible States, I read these different stories against one another to situate the storytellers within the larger cultural field of production under state socialism. My approach came to integrate archival research with ethnographic interviewing in order to move back and forth between the top-down, birds-eye view of state policy and the bottom-up, quotidian perspectives of bureaucrats and musicians. (There’s also a smattering of poststructuralist jargon, which I use to parse the relationship between the cultural field, social structures, and individual agents.)

I submitted the manuscript for Audible States in late September 2015, just over a year before the 2016 election. And I would not suggest that there is an equivalency between contemporary America and communist Albania, or that it is futile for musicians to challenge political orders.

One of the book’s main takeaways, however, is that making-music under any modern political-economic order is complicated—and that holds for state-socialist and postsocialist orders, as well as liberal (and now, perhaps, postliberal) ones. And complexity arises because what we often call “the State” is, in reality, composed of overlapping institutions and projects, discourses and practices. Individual agents, including musicians, shape these social structures and norms—yet they can do so only while simultaneously being shaped by them.

The “Queen of Light Music,” Vaçe Zela, performing at the 15th Festival of Song on Radio-Television Albania (1976).  Screen cap from here.

***

Gaqo Çako, “Udhët e Atdheut Na Thërrasin” (1981)
Composed by Limoz Dizdari, on a text by Xhevahir Spahiu

Nicholas Tochka is Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne. His research focuses on the politics and economics of making music in Europe and the Americas. He is presently working on a monograph that examines rock 'n' roll in Cold War America.


[1] In musicology, see especially recent publications by Danielle Fosler-Lussier and Lisa Jakelski, and in history, by David Tompkins and Dean Vuletic. For anthropological perspectives on the politics of culture more generally, see work by Laura Adams, Katherine Verdery, and Alexei Yurchak.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rethinking Music Theory, With Syrian Aid

By Gavin Lee

There was a standing ovation when Kofi Agawu finished his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Music Theory, “Rethinking Music Theory, With African Aid.” The premise of the speech was that music theory could do worse than to rethink its fundamental precepts from the outside, by using African musics as a reference point to think about tonality, rhythm, timbre and myriad other theoretical areas. While this was a move in the right direction, I remember wondering whether the audience was applauding because they were thoroughly convinced by the speech, because this was a long-awaited call for music theory to expand its horizon, because Agawu’s speech ignited a strong moral feeling of rightness grounded in liberalism—or whether because it was Agawu who gave the speech. Could an unknown scholar based in the non-West have been asked to give the keynote, and would she have received a standing ovation?

Two decades after New Musicology emerged, the slew of agendas ranging from postcolonial and critical race studies to gender and sexuality that it ushered in has had a mixed impact. We might attribute music theory’s turn to non-Western music, not least in Agawu’s keynote speech, to the impact of New Musicology, which, in heralding the deployment of literary theory, led to the rise of orientalist studies, with Jonathan Bellman’s 1998 edited volume The Exotic in Western Music being an early focal point. Since then, there has been a push to reach beyond Western music to address the music and discourse of actual others, and the recent establishment of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) interest group of SMT marks a decisive turning point.

Has music theory become more socially liberal (in the American sense) than musicology? AMS, the spiritual home of New Musicology, is not without members who work on music from other parts of the world, and we have seen some promising developments in terms of lessening the divide between hoary binaries such as West and non-West, in part by adopting concepts such as postcolonialism, cultural transfer, cosmopolitanism, and globalization. Yet the divisions run deep across academic institutions, journals, and university departments. Given that AMS does not yet have such as a group as “Musicological Approaches to World Music” (not that ethnomusicologists would approve, in all likelihood), it would seem that AAWM in its embrace of music around the globe represents a wing of SMT that is more progressive than its sister society. Yet on other items in the agenda of the 90s, music theory has proved to be far more resistant. I’m constantly reminded that whereas Queer Musicology is now a thing, queer issues in music theory circles are regularly consigned precisely to musicology, leaving music theory untouched—and believe me, I have heard that argument many many times as chair of the SMT Queer Resource Group.

This is not the place for an extended philosophical discussion on the convoluted relation between musicology and music theory, but I shall offer two commonly circulated logics, without intending them as anything near a comprehensive analysis of that relation.

1) “I’m not racist because I have black friends!” On 2 Feb 2017, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology released statements opposing the ban on travel to the United States imposed on citizens of 7 countries in the Middle East. “We the Board of Directors of the American Musicological Society urgently request that the Trump administration withdraw its Executive Order of 27 January 2017…” “The Board of the Society for Ethnomusicology joins other constituents of the American Council of Learned Societies in calling for the immediate retraction of the U.S. Executive Order of January 27, 2017…” SMT, in contrast, released a statement of “values” on Feb 3: “The Executive Board of the Society for Music Theory reaffirms the society’s values of inclusivity and diversity, open and respectful dialogue, academic freedom, and scholarly integrity.” SMT Executive Board’s statement, coming hot on the heels of statements from its sister societies, is clearly inspired by the same Executive Order, yet board members seem to feel that it was necessary to main plausible deniability. If SMT were a person, we could imagine it saying, “I’m not racist because I’m friends with African music!” Just as it is in a sense easier to just analyze world music rather than to do the work of understanding cultural others, it is easier to analyze world music than to make a stand for people of the world. Could it be that music theory has arrived at a formalistic response to New Musicology’s liberal agenda—by focusing on the musical form rather than cultural content of others? Perhaps if queer were a country, queer music theory would be a thing by now.

2) “‘Where are you from?’ is a racist question.” What if in an alternate universe, Agawu’s SMT keynote address is to be given instead by a noted music theorist of Syrian birth, who in addition to having authored key texts in North American music theory, is also a noted scholar of Syrian music, and is now banned from traveling to the US to give a keynote address at an SMT conference? The fact that this scenario has to be set in an alternate universe is telling, highlighting the near-total invisibility of Middle Eastern music theorists, and of scholarship on Middle Eastern music within both SMT and AMS. It used to be the case that “Where are you from?” was understood within the context of privilege, where an American-born Syrian, for instance, might resist the implication of radical otherness in that question. For those of us trying to gain entry to the US under a Trump administration, however, “Where are you from?” is no longer a discursive act but carries the full police force of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, witnessed horrifically recently.

Might music theorists wish to focus more attention on political readings that arise out of music theory, as well as politics per se, as we move forward under a Trump administration which has promised itself to be the negation of the spirit of a whole host of SMT standing committees and interest groups: Committee on Diversity, Committee on the Status of Women, Music and Disability Interest Group, Queer Resource Group, Scholars for Social Responsibility, just to name the more obvious ones?

Gavin Lee (PhD, Duke 2014) is Assistant Professor at Soochow University, China. He has chaired AMS, SMT, and SEM conference sessions, and resists forces that seek to re-inscribe disciplinary divisions.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Value of Collaboration

By Olivia Bloechl, Katherine Butler Schofield, and Gabriel Solis

This is a jointly authored post, and we’ve opted to sign our contributions, because we’re speaking from our different disciplinary and individual experiences. We’re thinking through collaborative ways of working aloud with you, as much as with each other, and we hope this transparent format will show both individual contribution, as well as how dialogue helps to build ideas that are genuinely collective.

Olivia Bloechl (OB): As a music historian, I’m used to working alone. Like many other musicologists, I came to our field as a classical musician, trained into solitary work early on through hours spent at the piano. My doctoral program reinforced this habit of solitude by rewarding me for my work as an individual researcher. After graduating I was hired at a prominent research university, given tenure there and full professorship at another great university, based largely on my single-author work.

So here’s why I’m rethinking how I do historical research going forward. Lately I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with two ethnomusicologists, Katherine Butler Schofield and Gabriel Solis, who’ve agreed to dialogue with me here. We’re working together to develop a body of critical theory for research on global music history and, especially, to foster work in this area by emerging scholars. From what we’ve seen, doing good music history on a larger geocultural scale is becoming truly viable, perhaps for the first time, and that’s really exciting.

Trying to theorize, let alone carry out large-scale research like this on one’s own doesn’t make much sense, though. (A reality that is tacitly acknowledged with recent collaborative projects in this area led by Philip Bohlman, Reinhard Strohm, and Katherine Schofield.) Of course, as global music history gains traction, scholars will want to contribute individually, and those in early career stages may not have much choice. (A former university of mine routinely asks faculty to submit a memo specifying their “unique and essential contribution” to any collaborative publications.) Still, it’s hard to imagine how the solo mode of intellectual labor that is so normalized is actually best for creating knowledge, especially on this scale.

Katherine Butler Schofield (KBS): The absolute preference for single authorship in music studies remains an issue to be resolved in the UK too, where big collaborative projects in the arts and humanities funded by external grants have become much more normal in the past ten years, and early-career researchers are pushed hard to apply for them. They may be regarded as prestigious, and institutions certainly like the substantial money attached, but promotions panels still prize the single-authored monograph, even over single-Principal-Investigator grants in seven figures. (My advice to early-career scholars is to get your book out first!)

Gabriel Solis (GS): Ethnomusicology has a complicated history where research collaboration is concerned. I, like many of us, cut my teeth on collaborative practice making music in pop, R&B, and jazz bands. I came to view making music as a process of dialogue and mutual editing (if not always without a measure of conflict). At its best, the primary method of ethnomusicology—musical ethnography—involves a similar ethos of collaboration. Our work grows in dialogue with our interlocutors. The topic of my current project, for instance, on the history of African American and West Indian musical styles in Indigenous communities of the Southwestern Pacific, was not one I developed myself. Rather, it emerged out of conversations with Aboriginal dancers in Sydney (at NAISDA) that were part of an entirely different project.

Many of us become the students of master musicians and dancers in our field sites, and continue to defer to the expertise of our teachers in many instances. This relationship has led to work that is legitimately collaborative, even if it has not always had co-credited authorship (I think here, for instance, of Bruno Nettl's work on the Radif of Persian music with Nour-Ali Boroumand). And yet, most of us are well aware of the power differences that typically inflect ethnographic encounters, the substantial differences in interests between ourselves and the communities and artists we work with, and how powerful the old model of the heroic anthropologist is. We have lots of ways of more fully representing the dialogic quality of our work, but a truly collaborative model is still as much ideal as accomplishment.

OB: I agree. I also think though that, whether we work in the field or the archive, we need other thinkers and practitioners more than we musicologists tend to believe. That may be reason enough to risk collaboration, even if it falls short of our ideals. This is especially obvious in the case of global music history. The prospect of trying on my own to acquire, say, a working knowledge of Hindi, Persian, Tok Piksin, or Urdu; facility with Indian notations; or an encyclopedic jazz knowledge—to name a few of my collaborators’ skills—is a clear argument for the advantages of working together. Yet there’s also a strong case for collaboration as a best practice in other kinds of historical research too. Just because we can work with documentary or material sources on our own doesn’t mean we always should. Often, putting our heads together can produce better results. More importantly, perhaps, good collaboration can make the process of creating knowledge better. 

KBS: Absolutely. Think of peer review, of literature review, of teachers and mentors. Scholarship is a polyphonic dialogue, not a solo improv, into which our own voice only ever enters part-way through. And yet, overt collaboration doesn’t come naturally in our disciplines. Scientists create and write together (often using apps like Overleaf) as a matter of course—but we are never taught how to write with other people, and more often than not we have been dissuaded from it. Thinking together before putting fingers to keyboard is in many ways even harder, and requires us to revisit our normative ways of working from scratch. What helps is having models of how to work and write collaboratively in the arts and humanities. I have been very lucky to have two of the best mentors a woman could ask for: the Hindi literature scholar Francesca Orsini; and the historian Margrit Pernau. Both of them still write single-authored works of great accomplishment. But they have for decades spent much of their time drawing together groups of people to answer bigger and more complicated questions than are possible to answer alone.

They start from the premise that collaboration is the best way to answer big questions, and think first about what kinds of work, people, and skills are needed in order to arrive at a set of possible answers. And then they ask those people to join them. The most important lesson I have learned is that even scholars who hate each other can work productively together if the big question is kept paramount and the organizer refuses to allow egos and politics to dominate. Generally people are brought together to discuss through workshops and conferences, at which important threads are drawn together through full-group discussion, leading to a collaborative volume. This can take the form of standard edited volumes; or it can be genuinely co-written, such as the series of volumes that the Max Planck Institute has published with Oxford University Press.

As for my own project, working closely as a team with eleven other researchers on a joint venture has been the most richly rewarding research experience of my career. The insights you gain from bringing several brains together, all with different skills and backgrounds, are genuinely phenomenal. To give you one example, several members of my team (Julia Byl, David Lunn, Raja Iskandar bin Raja Halid, and Jenny McCallum) are working together on the translation of a Malay narrative poem from the mid nineteenth century that describes processions full of singing, music, dance, and performative competition. David found the manuscript on one of many trips to the Netherlands. Raja translated the basic poem, which is in the Malay version of the Arabic script; but it took Julia (ethnomusicologist: Malay, Batak, local Sumatran dialect), David (literary scholar: Hindi, Urdu) and me (historian: Persian, Urdu) to decode and interpret several important terms that are no longer used, but which testify to the extraordinary trans-oceanic travels of this performance rite and many of its participants around the colonial Indian Ocean.

I won’t scoop my team! But the translation and the article that accompanies it will change the way historians understand a major political turning point in the Straits Settlements, and a key transformation in the way local peoples were viewed and treated by their British overlords. Without the collaboration of a team of scholars from three distinct disciplines working in nine Asian and European languages – and funding from the European Research Council that took the risk that what I proposed to do with a team was worthwhile – none of this would have happened.

OB: Katherine’s experience with European-style collaboration is really valuable, and it suggests that we in North America could take the larger perspective of the “global” as an opportunity to do music history differently. “Differently” may mean making music historical research more routinely critical, inclusively framed, responsive to living communities of stakeholders (especially in decolonial or reparative research, and able to narrate musical pasts in ways that are both “globally concerned” and “locally sensitive.” The multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual nature of this work also suggests transnational collaboration as a best practice, with a concerted effort to move beyond English-language (and, ideally, European-language) dominance.

GS: I couldn’t agree more! Even in the face of funding structures that prioritize solo work this kind of collaboration is important because it allows us to move beyond a model where we—scholars—all share a similar background and training, making our collaboration a matter of pooling subject knowledge within a uniform theoretical framework. This might mean collaborating not only across (sub)disciplines such as ethnomusicology and music history, but also across other divides. Especially collaboration between scholars working in the Global North and the Global South. For me it means working on a collaborative film and co-authored article with one of my ethnographic interlocutors, as well as on a singly-authored monograph.

It is worth acknowledging, too, that even with training and experience, collaborative work is hard. It can be a hassle accommodating yourself to co-authors who may have different commitments, timelines, and expectations than you. The organizational requirements, especially where funding agencies are involved, can be time-consuming and onerous. But it is also difficult in a more important way: it requires relinquishing some measure of our claims to endless expertise, or at least clearly acknowledging their limits – and acknowledging that we have never worked alone.

Olivia Bloechl is Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is the author of Native American Song at the Frontiers of Early Modern Music (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) and Opera and the Political Imaginary in Old Regime France (Univ. of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2017), and co-editor (with Melanie Lowe and Jeffrey Kallberg) of Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015). In addition to ongoing work on European opera before 1800, current projects include a feminist philosophical study of music and vulnerability and a long-term collaboration developing theory and protocols for global music history.  [Photo Credit: Elisa Ferrari]

Katherine Butler Schofield is a historian of music and listening in the Mughal Empire and the colonial Indian Ocean, and Senior Lecturer (=Associate Professor) in the Music Department at King’s College London. Working largely with Persian sources for Hindustani music c.1570-1860, in recent research she has established music as central to Mughal technologies of sovereignty and selfhood, identified classicisation processes at work in early-modern Indian arts, examined the role of connoisseurship in nourishing male friendships, told tales about ill-fated courtesans and overweening ustads, and traced the lineage of the chief musicians to the Mughal emperors from Akbar to Bahadur Shah Zafar. She has recently finished a €1.2M European Research Council grant, “Musical Transitions to European Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean” (2011-15), which investigates the ways in which music and dance were transformed c.1750-1900 in the transition from pre-colonial to colonial regimes in India and the Malay world. Her first book, an edited volume with Francesca Orsini, Tellings and Texts: Music, Literature, and Performance in North India, has just been published in a pioneering open-access format by Open Book Press (link here).

Gabriel Solis is Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of books on jazz, including Monk's Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making (University of California Press, 2008) and Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Oxford University Press, 2014), and co-editor with Bruno Nettl of Musical Improvisation: Art, Education, and Society (University of Illinois Press, 2009). His articles on jazz, pop music, the voice, and Indigenous modernity have appeared, among other places, in Ethnomusicology, Musical Quarterly, Popular Music and Society, MusiCultures, and Critical Sociology. He is currently working on a book project titled The Black Pacific, dealing with the history of alliances and affiliations between African Diasporic Musicians and Indigenous musicians in Australia and Melanesia, in part with the support of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Can We Sound Good? (Or, What is Musicology’s Purpose while Teaching under Trump?)

By Kelly Hiser

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students face police while protesting a Donald Trump campaign rally.
Photo credit: Joe Brusky
As I read the contributions to Musicology Now’s “Teaching Under Trump” I kept coming back to a story that Lydia Hamessley told about an American Musicological Society annual meeting in 1988:
“At a Committee on the Status of Women meeting, Rosemary Killam rose in anger when a male audience member … suggested that it wasn’t his problem if his female students couldn’t work late in the library because they feared walking across campus late at night. ‘Oh yes, it is, sir; yes, it is!’ she shouted.”[1]
Under Trump, students and teachers are fearful; fearful for their families, their status, their health care, their lives. Only a single author, James Deaville (who centered the lives of people with disabilities in the series’ final post), addressed the fears of the most marginalized members of our communities. None of the authors discussed the fears of women, LGBTQ people, or people of color. The silence on these issues made me want to shout, like Killam, “this is your problem; yes, it is!”

When campuses are the sites of hate crimes and racist imagery, it is our problem. When students fear deportation for themselves and their families, it is our problem. When international colleagues can no longer safely travel to our country, it is our problem. When students with disabilities struggle to participate in class because of ableist language and structures, it is, as Deaville pointed out, our problem. These are our problems not only because students cannot learn effectively when their basic needs are not met, but also, and more importantly, because we are decent human beings.

In his 2016 book, Just Vibrations, William Cheng quotes Hamessley’s story about that 1988 AMS meeting and challenges readers to hear Killam’s yes, it is, as a “disciplinary rallying cry,” one that allows us to “envision musicology as all the activities, care, and caregiving of people who identify as members of the musicology community.”[2] Cheng asks musicologists—a discipline of scholars intent on both exploring sound and “sounding good” themselves—”what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good?”

Introducing the “Teaching Under Trump” series, Louis Epstein identified a central question that inspired the series: “what (if any) musicological response was appropriate given the poisonous political discourse and pressing policy challenges of the post-election environment?” [emphasis mine] What if, instead, we asked ourselves what response was good? What if we, as musicologists, took doing good as our purpose? We might graffiti over those swastikas instead of walking past them. We might petition administrations to offer strong statements of support to our marginalized community members and to back those statements up with action—something Deaville did along with students in his seminar on music and disability. We might make strong statements of support in our own classrooms. We might offer assistance (tracking down legal help, providing connections to campus health resources, locating potential places of sanctuary) to students who seek it.

If we wish to do good as musicologists, we must also recognize our discipline’s historic and ongoing complicity in white supremacist structures that enabled a Trump Presidency. According to a 2007 demographic survey, at least 86% of AMS members are white, while as little as 1% are black and 3% “Hispanic/Latino.” In the 2010 US census, those numbers were 72%, 13%, and 16% respectively. Demographic numbers like these are the result of white supremacist power structures; they are not accidental, not for musicology, and not for other academic disciplines with similar demographics (of which there are many). Nor is it accidental that the “Teaching Under Trump” series exclusively featured the writing of tenure-track white professors working at prestigious institutions and included only one woman. Those professors knew one another well enough to participate in “Facebook-facilitated conversations among musicologists.” As an anonymous commenter to MN noted: “Research shows that our personal social media communities tend to be fairly homogenous and algorithms determine what people see in their feeds.” Power structures tend to instantiate themselves; musicologists and the AMS are not immune.

When we uncritically participate in those power structures, we insulate musicology’s concerns with our own limited worldviews. If we wish to do good, we must do better than this. We could start by turning to the work of our colleagues of color who have been showing us how to live, work, and teach under oppressive regimes for a long time. We don’t have to figure this out from scratch, nor should we: we lack the wisdom, tradition, and experience. Let’s instead turn to W.E.B. DuBois, to bell hooks, to Ashon Crawley, to Tricia Rose, to Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., to Tammy Kernodle, and to many others in and outside of musicology. By looking and listening to their words, we can, perhaps, let go of our desire to be appropriate and instead start learning how to sound—and do—good.

Kelly Hiser holds a PhD in Historical Musicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; her research focuses on performance, technology, gender, and race in the US. She has taught in classrooms and at pianos for many years and currently directs Rabble, a startup that builds digital local music collections with public libraries.


[1] Lydia Hamessley, “How Did This All Start? Toward a History of the Feminist Theory and Music Phenomenon,” 2009, 2015, http://www.femtheorymusic.org/ftm-history.
[2] William Cheng, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016).

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New “Work in Progress” Series


The editorial team at Musicology Now is excited to launch a new interactive feature, which we're calling Work in Progress. Given the long gestation time of academic writing, and the deliberate rhythms of scholarly publishing, interesting musicological work is almost always "in progress"—and unless one happens to run into the right person at the right place at the right time, not easily accessible to inquiring minds inside and outside the field.

Musicology Now would like to provide a reader-driven forum for the exchange of information about in-progress research.

So here's the question for our readership:  who would you like to hear from? We'll take our orders from you, and armed with the knowledge that inquiring minds want to know, solicit informal updates from scholars and writers in all areas and at all levels and stages of the profession, and adorn them with links and other information to keep you informed and entertained.

To set the process in motion, please send your suggestions to http://musicology-now@ams-net.org. We will filter and anonymize the queries, so don't be shy!

And, to whet your appetite, here’s the first such report, from Joe Auner, who is currently Professor of Music and Academic Dean for the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University. Auner, a former Vice-President of the AMS, is well-known for his work on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and for a continuing interest in larger questions raised by the interaction of music and technology. He will be familiar to many readers of this blog as one of the editors of a much-cited 2001 essay collection, Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought. He recently was instrumental in organizing 2016’s Utopian Listening, a three-day international conference on the late electroacoustic music of Luigi Nono.

We asked him to tell us what he was up to right about now.

***

Work in Progress:  Joe Auner

A lot of my writing and teaching has been exploring what happens when you put questions of the relationship of music and technology at the center of an inquiry. Of course, all music is deeply bound up with technology; while it is easy to think of technology as something modern and electronic, all music instruments are technologies, just as is musical notation, and according to some definitions of “technology,” even the whole notion of music itself. But I would argue that our involvements with music technologies, and technologies in general, are taking on a different character in recent decades as we remake our sense of self, our bodies, and how we experience the world around us through our interactions with ever more elaborate and rapidly evolving global information networks.

These technological interests relate in part to my early obsessions with synthesizers and the ambition to be a recording engineer that dominated my college years. But they became more central through the gradual realization that many of the musicological tools I had acquired in graduate school could illuminate—and in turn be illuminated by—their application to sound technologies and the music that they enabled.  Along the way, my work on such topics as “technostalgia,” vocal samples and artificial voices, electronic music and historical performance practice, and the relationship of sound technology to new conceptions of harmony, have led me to a range of other theoretical models and approaches--and luckily also a way to justify acquiring quite a bit of gear!

Now that I have taken on an administrative role for a few years, it has helped keep me going with my writing—though always more slowly than I would like!—to have a few projects in the works that build upon a set of core ideas. And of course my many fantastic students and colleagues, along with the explosion of new scholarship in the area of music and technology, are continually opening up new angles for investigation.

These days, I am particularly interested in music that seems to splice the composer, performer, and listener into a network that becomes part of the meaning, emotional impact, and material of the piece.  My article “Reich on Tape: the Performance of Violin Phase,” coming out in a special “tape” issue of Twentieth Century Music, starts with the performance diagram in the score which puts the tape recorder and an engineer right on stage with the violinist. Tape and tape loops were obviously important to Reich’s early development, but drawing on archival materials at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, I argue that long after he stopped working with tape and moved into the digital realm and sampling, the materiality of tape still shapes his creative practice. And as we recognize how central devices like the tape machine (and headphones, microphones. etc.) were to the creative process and performance, it opens up questions of how the work is performed today, now that the elaborate process of creating the basic tape loop as described in the score is typically replaced by the use of a looping pedal or software.

Related issues of performance practice were the focus of a festival I helped organize this year exploring the extraordinary body of music that Luigi Nono produced during the last decade of his life in the 1980s as the availability of digital processing suddenly dramatically expanded the possibilities of real-time manipulation of sound. For Nono this was far more than just a new compositional resource; rather, live electronics opened up a whole new way of composing, notating, performing, and experiencing music that involved intensive interaction with engineers, devices, specific spaces, and performers willing to radically reconceive their instruments. The focus of the festival was how we should respond to the considerable challenges of performing this music today in the face of increasingly rapid technological change.

Most recently, I have been exploring live looping performance in several areas of popular music in the context of a broader study of music and/as feedback loops. The notion of a feedback loop is arguably the central metaphor of our time, as evidenced by the way it can be taken up in so many different contexts and theoretical frameworks.  But what I find interesting about live looping performances is how they stage networks of feedback loops in very visible and audible ways with music that is itself made entirely of loops. In the case of live looping performance, looping pedals function as the central node in manifold networks of feedback loops connecting humans and machines, live and recorded sound, professional and amateur musicians, the design and marketing of music technologies, and the interpenetration of private and public spaces through social media.

The musicality of live looping performances also depends in a peculiar way on the almost instantaneous feedback loop between what the musician is doing live and their recorded selves. Whether on stage or alone in their studios, musicians are required to perform a passage as if it were already a recording, and with the knowledge that it will in fact be a recording almost immediately. Feedback loops can of course have both positive and negative attributes, in terms of self-regulating interactive systems or loops closing in on themselves or spinning dangerously out of control. Similarly, while the interaction with music technologies can be a pathway to becoming more fully ourselves and more fully human, there is also a long history of the fears and attractions of becoming more like a machine. For Reich, who characterizes his early loop based music as “realizations of an idea that was indigenous to machines,” or for composers and musicians trying to play like player pianos or drum machines, such feedback loops can serve as microcosms for helping us understand the broader ramifications and implications of all our interactions with our beloved devices.