Monday, July 17, 2017

Six Easy Ways to Immediately Address Racial and Gender Diversity in Your Music History Classroom

By Kira Thurman and Kristen Turner

Many of us have probably had “the talk.” No, not the birds and the bees, the talk on how to bring women and people of color into the overwhelmingly white, male world of the art music history survey class that is the bedrock of so many music curriculums in the United States.* During breaks between sessions at conferences, lunches with colleagues, departmental meetings, and over social media, what to do about survey has become a hot topic of conversation at least for the authors of this essay.

Some departments have chosen to revamp their curriculums to displace the primacy of the art music history survey, while others have found ways to undermine a strictly chronological approach that includes spaces for the study of other repertoires, or traditionally underserved areas of study. Many people who teach music history courses, however, do not have the option to completely overhaul the musicology curriculum or even an individual course. Graduate students, contingent, or pre-tenured faculty often have little power to make wholesale changes to courses, and even people with tenure have to build coalitions within their departments to support meaningful curricular alterations which is not always possible. The lack of readily accessible information on (or even research about) women and people of color in art music from the medieval period forward, as well as an already content-heavy curriculum are additional barriers to change. Clearly there are substantial challenges to making even the smallest modification to the syllabus or lectures that are generally within the purview of even the most junior instructors.

But we were surprised to learn that, until recently, there has been very little scholarly secondary literature that considers ways to diversify the western art music curriculum. Many of the sources that we found generally address genre diversity and defend adding new repertoires such as jazz or popular music to music history survey courses. While this approach might lead to the introduction of more people of color and women into the course, it does nothing to introduce these underrepresented communities into the art music survey. Instead, this approach merely confirms the narrative that art music is for white men only. People of color, the assumption remains, create “ethnic music,” not western art music, and are outsiders to the world of classical music.

Leontyne Price Sings Mozart (RCA Records, 1969).
Many musicologists of course understand that this is not true, and that there is a long history of people of color in classical music and of women assuming atypical gendered roles in music (conducting, composing, etc.). But how should we present this information in the classroom? How do we overcome the difficulties that stand in the way of diversifying our music history pedagogy? One challenge facing the music history teacher, for example, concerns our archival records: there are gaps in our knowledge about the activities of people of color and women in many areas of music history that make it hard to consistently integrate them into the curriculum. And there is also the question of priorities in making our musical selections: time spent on one topic necessarily means another area must be trimmed. In a course already packed with content, it is daunting to consider adding anything else. Perhaps most vexingly, how can instructors avoid tokenism when making small changes to the curriculum?

Yet there are considerable rewards if we can overcome these challenges. The suggestions we propose are worth employing if they make our students play their part in making our world more beautiful, equitable, and just. Our classes can become places where we can effectively expose classism, racism, and sexism even when issues of identity are not the primary topic of conversation. We can support the students of color and women in our institutions who are looking for role models as they embark on the journey to understand, compose, and perform art music. For art music to grow into a richer, more inclusive space, we must start in our classrooms by showing ourselves, our colleagues, and our students that classical music has never been the preserve of white cisgender men only, and it does not have to continue to be the place of privilege and whiteness that it too often is.

Drawing from our own conversations with colleagues and students, we have devised a list of practices that we have implemented in our courses that immediately address the topic of racial and gender diversity in the classroom. The tips that we provide below are designed to be easy fixes that can be incorporated into any curriculum, to take advantage of widely available resources, and that do not to require a significant disruption or re-conceptualization of the traditional chronological approach to teaching art music.

Our six tips for quickly making music history courses more diverse, equitable, and inclusive are:

1. Be transparent.
At the beginning of your class, state the obvious: the canon of western art music is dominated by European male composers. By acknowledging it, you also show your students that you plan to explore moments of the canon’s construction. One way to offer transparency is to point out to your students that you will be using the pronoun, “he,” frequently in class because systemic conditions favored men as composers and performers of western art music. Women were frequently denied access to musical training and elite cultural networks. Similarly, when teaching about the history of classical music in America, make sure to specify if the people in the audience or the people involved in the production of music were white or black Americans. In being explicit about this, you make students aware of the ways in which racism functioned in histories of classical music in America. By offering these explanations to students, we make transparent that assumed racial or gender norms were actually historical processes. In making these social and cultural conditions of the past explicit to students, you encourage them to reflect on their own contemporary moment. Many often come to the realization on their own that their presences in the classroom are not serendipitous, either. Social factors determine our current academic makeup. In short: honesty is the best policy. And studies show that openly addressing the topic of race and gender diversity is better for students’ development than ignoring these issues or pretending they don’t exist.

2. Consider the concept vs. the composer. When considering the course units you plan to teach, figure out if the topic of the day is absolutely about a composer and his musical contributions, or if the theme for that unit is about a concept -- sonata form, da capo arias, nineteenth-century art song, ostinato bass, impressionism, etc. If it’s the latter, you might be simply using a composer as a vehicle to explain that idea. If the concept is actually the important topic, then consider if a musical work by a woman or a person of color would be an equally good choice as an example. In the past, Kristen used to assign several compositions by Monteverdi to show the development of the Italian repertoire, but now she includes a madrigal by Barbara Strozzi. More focused survey courses, such as classes that cover one period or one country, could provide many opportunities to switch out canonic composers for music from a marginalized community. For instance, in an American music course, you could use one of Florence Price’s pieces to explore mid-century nationalism rather than (or in addition to) music by Aaron Copland. The website Music Theory Examples by Women provides scores, music, and recordings by women composers for all the basic musical forms and other fundamental music theory concepts. Anthologies of music by women or people of color are immensely helpful in providing illustrations that you could easily incorporate into your classes.

Chineke! Orchestra Plays Dvorak and Sibelius (Signum Classics, 2017).
3. Play canonical composers - but use a recording featuring a musician of color or a woman musician. You should of course feel free to keep playing clips of canonical composers. But you can empower your students of color and women students by using recordings that showcase minority talent. In addition to being a wonderful singer of Verdi, Leontyne Price loved singing Mozart. Do you plan to play Handel’s “Piangero le sorte mia” in class? Consider using Kiri Te Kanawa, a Maori singer from New Zealand. When teaching Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” Kira likes to play African American contralto Marian Anderson’s iconic rendition of the lied, which made her a celebrity in 1930s Austria. By showing a clip featuring a musician of color, you can suggest to students that people of many different backgrounds have historically been a part of classical music in spite of the discrimination they faced for performing western art music. Similarly, show women in atypical gender professions in music - women conducting orchestras or women on instruments that we often assume to be “masculine” (cello, percussion, trumpet, etc.). Normalize, in other words, the presence of women and people of color in classical music through your own choice of musical excerpts.

4. Let diverse voices speak.
Use primary source readings where performers, composers, or critics address the issue of race and/or gender in classical music (Dvorak, Amy Beach, etc.). How did Clara Schumann understand the changing world of virtuosic piano performance in the mid-nineteenth century? How did composer Nadia Boulanger see her role in shaping young composers’ musical visions in the twentieth century? What do contemporary musicians such as Afro-Latina composer Tania León or Pulitzer-prize winner Caroline Shaw say defines their own musical aesthetics today? Another approach to including more diverse voices into your assigned readings is to frame the study of a canonical composer from the point of view of an underrepresented minority. For instance, when discussing Dvorak’s call for American composers to create music that incorporated African American and Native American traditions, include documents that reflect the point of view of late nineteenth-century black critics.

5. Think local. If you teach at a conservatory or large school of music, email your school archivist or librarian and ask questions, such as the following: who were some of the first students of color to attend your institution? Who was the first woman to graduate with a degree in music? What happened to them? Integrate these biographies into a unit on the rise of classical music in America or your geographic area. For those of you teaching in a small or relatively new program or with students who won’t be pursuing music professionally, think about highlighting a local musical institution that is trying to diversify its repertoire or showcasing a local composer or performer who is from an underrepresented group. Offer extra credit for attending concerts that include repertoire or performers from marginalized communities. Speaking openly and honestly about your own area’s history and the ways that local musicians are (or are not) thinking about diversity will encourage your students to see the larger structures at work that have determined different people’s involvement in classical music.

6. Think of the present. Build specific structures into your curriculum that will yearly remind you to include contemporary conversations on diversity in classical music. Follow along with an annual musical competition or award ceremony every year, such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Van Cliburn Competition, the Sphinx Competition for black and latinx instrumentalists, or the International Alliance for Women in Music’s annual Search for New Music by Women Composers. Who participates in these events and how are they portrayed in the media? For a homework assignment one evening, ask students to find five album covers of different contemporary artists (both women and men, both white and non-white). How are these musicians being marketed? Might there be racial or gendered biases in their marketing?

Each of these suggestions on teaching diversity within the western canon are tried and true methods from our own courses or from colleagues and peers who have shared them with us. They help to cultivate classroom conversations about the long-standing social and historical processes that have created our world of classical music today, and they correct assumptions (even well-meaning ones) that students might have about classical music’s composers, performers, and listeners. In our experience teaching at a variety of institutions, students have been warmly receptive to expanding the narratives of music history. Many are excited to learn that art music is not as much the repertoire of privilege as they thought it was, and are surprised to discover that the humanistic issues they feel passionately about are applicable to music courses.

Although the terrain of classical music’s past for many marginalized peoples may have been uneven, the promising message that we wish to share is that it is not too late to change things as they are right now. It is not too late to try to create a more rich and inclusive future, one that is empowering to the many, and not just the few.

* We acknowledge that one short blog post cannot do justice to every form of exclusion. Instead we will focus this essay on methods we’ve used to bring cisgender women and people of color into our own courses on classical music because those are our areas of research. We believe that many of our suggestions can also be re-directed to address disability, class, sexuality, and other forms of marginalization.


Kira Thurman is an assistant professor of History and Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Her research, which has appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS), Opera Quarterly, German Studies Review, and the Journal of World History, examines the history of African American classical musicians in Europe. She is currently writing her first book, which is called Singing like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.


Kristen M. Turner has taught music history courses at a variety of institutions in the Raleigh, North Carolina area for the last twenty-five years. She is currently a lecturer in the music department at North Carolina State University. Her research centers on issues of race, class, and gender in opera and popular musical theater in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Her work has appeared in the Journal of the Society for American Music and the Journal of Musicological Research.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dissertation Digest — Timbeando en Nueva York: Cuban Dance Culture in Havana and New York City

By Sarah Town

New York's casineros come together in Central Park on a recent Saturday afternoon, their dance circle mirroring those of the Bethesda Fountain, which rises behind them.
June 30, 2014. Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain. New York City. 
Tonight’s cantante, Fernando, is particularly playful in that role, regularly inventing new moves and combinations based on commonly held cultural vocabularies. His calls often elicit a combination of laughter and confusion, as dancers are forced to step out of the molds and movements they have learned [in class] in order to inhabit the communal dance moment. Now the sun is setting quickly, and the outdoor session is nearing its end. The rueda swells in size as the event’s organizers call for the last song of the evening. Midway through the song, Fernando calls “enchufla con vampiro” (“enchufla with vampire”) – it’s clearly a new move for people, yet comprised of parts that all recognize.[1] Some leads watch Fernando as he executes the move, attempting to imitate his vampiric strut. Others ad-lib their own version of the move, extending both arms as they teeter toward their new partners or fake-biting one or the other partner’s neck in time with the music. Many of the follows also extemporize, screaming or throwing their hands in the air in mock dismay. As night falls in the park, for a moment the rueda becomes a milling ring of zombies, vampires, and lost souls, peppered with screams and laughter, before righting itself again into a circle of pairs locked in guapea rhythm.[2]
This excerpt of an entry in my field notes written three years ago evokes many other similar moments from my fieldwork in New York City’s Cuban dance community. A diverse, everyday group of New Yorkers in Central Park on a summer evening, locked in vampiric step to the rhythm of contemporary Cuban dance music, using the structures and vocabularies of a popular dance style born on the eve of the Cuban revolution… how did we get here? And what does it mean? This is the core query that drives and shapes my dissertation and related research. Every step of the way, this seed interrogatory engenders new research questions and directions, resulting in a project that embraces and intertwines ethnography, archival and oral historical research, and music and dance analysis, focusing on two main sites of popular dance culture production and exchange: Havana and New York City. The historic intellectual, cultural, and affective relationship between these two international cities is well-known and lives on today through the work and diversion of local musicians and dancers, who both preserve and innovate the music and dance elements – timba and casino – of what I call “Cuban dance culture.”

Casino – short for rueda de casino – is a social dance style that encompasses solo, partner, and group modalities. Often called “Cuban salsa” by dancers off the island, its circular pathways on the dance floor and angular accents in dancers’ bodies distinguish it from the globally more widespread in-line styles of salsa. Timba is a musical genre and a music culture that blends elements of Cuban son and rumba with those of jazz, funk, and international pop. During the genre’s heyday, its lyrics often expressed the realities of Cuba’s Special Period, and the dance associated with it developed particular forms of personal sensual expression. Together, musicians and dancing audience sought to produce moments of communally-experienced sensual enjoyment, la gozadera.

Pursuing a deeply interdisciplinary approach, I rely in my research on an array of archives and media including articles and advertisements from periodicals, album art, documentary film, and live performance footage; interactive oral historical and analytical interviews with musicians and dancers; and my own embodied and transcribed observations and experiences in the field. Beyond its methodological contributions, my project augments and critiques the existing literature on Cuban revolutionary history and New York’s Latinx cultures, as well as on the history and analysis of casino and timba in particular. Analyzing the complex and evolving relationship between a popular dance culture and its diverse environments, I propose a focus on form, practice, and culture that destabilizes national identities in favor of diasporic cosmopolitanisms.

In three large sections, I address first casino, then timba, and finally their present-day practice in New York City. I argue that despite its scant historical record, social dance, and casino in particular, became an important aspect of the Cuban revolutionary project. Enacting social cohesion and affective resilience in the midst of stress and shortage, casino performed productive labor for the revolution. Emerging decades later, Cuban timba is a musical hybrid that manipulates rhythm, timbre, and form to produce tension, release, and gozadera. Although casino was originally developed to the music of the late 1950s, new generations of dancers adapted its basic steps and structures to the island’s latest dance music, forcing the dance to evolve over time. Cuba’s economic crisis of the early 1990s led the revolutionary island to reopen its economy to international markets, and as in pre-revolutionary years, culturally oriented tourism and exports soon became key elements of that strategy. In this process, the relationship between timba and casino became cemented, particularly for non-Cuban dancers.

Operating within a context very different from the one in which the dance originally emerged, New Yorkers today adapt casino to their own needs, producing an itinerant practice through which they celebrate community and diversity, while laying claim to the city. Meanwhile, New York’s timba musicians exploit the genre’s hybridity and flexibility, expanding the use of improvisation and dialogue, yet maintaining a dance prerogative, producing a unique sonic-kinetic space. The Afro-diasporic aesthetics and practices that imbue Cuban dance culture and the contestation and transformation of gendered aesthetics and dance roles over time are further narrative threads that are developed over the length of the work. These become important lenses through which to consider social change, musical evolution, and Cuban artists’ interactions with broader markets.

Fernando calls a playful "silent rueda," in which hand gestures instead of verbal cues are used to signal group moves.

What does a musicologist gain by studying popular dance culture? One might ask conversely what the discipline of musicology has to offer to the study of popular dance cultures. Certainly my desire to treat both the aesthetic elements and the evolving socio-economic contexts of a popular music-dance culture with seriousness and depth has forced me to adopt an interdisciplinary approach. Yet as a musician and musicologist, the music – its sounds and structures, their logics and meanings – is the touchstone from which I began and to which I repeatedly return. Even the “simplest” folk music has layers of meaning to unpack, once we pay close attention to its basic sonic elements - rhythm, timbre, form, and pitch, for example - and consider the ways in which these produce meaning within their “home” context. In the case of popular dance cultures, scholars of African, Cuban, and even North American dance genres have shown that the intimate relationship between music and dance requires a detailed examination of the dance within the context of a rigorous musical analysis.[3]

Cuba’s conservatory-trained post-revolutionary musicians produce particularly spectacular performances of popular music, with intricate yet digestible rhythmic and melodic elements, and flexible forms and practices that allow for spontaneity in performance. And Cuba’s popular music is dance music. Long focused on a limited corpus, the discipline of musicology does not always have adequate tools to address non-canonical musical examples such as the ones with which my research engages. Yet I would argue that as “the” discipline dedicated to the study of musical objects, it is the place from which to begin such an inquiry, and that non-canonical musical cultures are precisely the direction in which the discipline needs to move. New kinds of musical questions and examples force us as a community of scholars to refine existing tools and develop new ones, an ongoing process that ultimately serves the study of all music.

The crisis of the 1990s had subsided by the time I made my first trip to Cuba in 2000, and the island’s market-oriented transformations were underway. On those first trips, made under the auspices of the existing general license, I used U.S. dollars freely on the street, alongside the Cuban peso (CUP). I defended my dissertation proposal more than a decade later, in the spring of 2014, and that summer returned to Havana for the first time in some years. The Cuban economy still ran on the CUP, but relied more than ever on the recently created “convertible” peso or CUC, pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. That December, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a much-anticipated rapprochement between the two nations – one that in turn has been undercut by the current U.S. president.

In many ways, change and uncertainty are more palpable than ever at this writing, both on the island and off. Yet official postures and policies aside, musicians and dancers in Havana, New York, and elsewhere yearn to reenact the cultural connections that keep Cuban dance culture alive, and continue to do so through new projects and partnerships. Forms like timba and casino exist precisely because of those resistant acts. They are proof of and inspiration for further acts of mingling and sharing, reminding us of our humanity, resilience, and need for communal moments of pleasure and release. Understanding these deep-rooted connections – between musical sound, embodied listener, and socio-economic space – is the goal of my project and the work of today’s musicologist.

Sarah Town defended her dissertation, entitled “Timbeando en Nueva York: Cuban Dance Culture in Havana and New York City,” in March of 2017, thus completing her Ph.D. Musicology at Princeton University. Her research examines the histories, aesthetics, and circulation of Cuban timba and casino specifically, and Cuban dance cultures more generally. Sarah has presented papers before the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Congress on Research in Dance and Society for Dance History Scholars, and the Latin American Studies Association, among other bodies. She has received awards from the Latin American and Caribbean Studies section of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Díaz Ayala Collection at Florida International University, Princeton University, and City College of New York. Sarah has an article forthcoming on the role of social dance in the Cuban revolution as depicted through the lens of Cuban documentary film, and two others in the works: one on the rhythmic and compositional experimentations of New York-based timba musicians, and a second exploring Afro-Cuban aesthetics, affect, and the music-dance relationship in Cuban dance culture through the lens of the fundamental muelleo motion.

[1] In the lingo of the Cuban social dance called rueda de casino, “enchufla” is a basic inside turn, usually followed by a partner exchange. By adding “con vampiro” or “with vampire,” the caller asks dancers to mime vampiric actions, such as neck biting and blood sucking. Interpretations tend to be loose.
[2] Guapea is one of two basic steps and partnering relationships in Cuban casino, in which lead and follow move apart and together over a single eight-count.
[3] See respectively, e.g. John Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibilities: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) and Kofi Agawu, African Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Yvonne Daniel, Rumba: Dance and Social Change in Contemporary Cuba, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) and Vincenzo Perna, Timba: The Sound of the Cuban Crisis, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Mark Butler, Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).

Monday, July 10, 2017

Earth Music

By Alexander Rehding and Daniel KL Chua

Carl Sagan proudly exhibits the Golden Record.
Exactly forty years ago, in 1977, the two spacecraft of the Voyager mission left Planet Earth to start their trajectories into the unknown. Among the objects launched into outer space was the famous Golden Record, a specially pressed LP containing several hours of music collected from various traditions of the world from Chinese guqin music to Louis Armstrong, greetings in more than fifty languages, a range of environmental noises, such as volcanoes rumbling and waves crashing, as well as carefully encoded non-verbal instructions on how to play the record that, one hopes, extraterrestrials will be able to follow.

Currently Voyager 2 is somewhere near the edges of the solar magnetic field whereas Voyager 1 has left the solar system for galaxies far, far away. In its uncertain fate, the Golden Record has been referred to as a “message in a bottle.” Even calling it that is wildly optimistic: its conception makes several leaps of faith—above all, that extraterrestrials have auditory perception. Carl Sagan, who chaired the committee in charge of this project, and his team were apparently aware of the symbolic nature of the Golden Record, when they etched in English—in breach of the guideline not to rely on written texts—“To the makers of music, all worlds, all times” onto the center of the record.

The Golden Record presents a canon of world music. To be sure, it’s a reified canon, and far from a perfect one, reflecting the context of its inception (and Sagan’s favorites). Especially the inclusion of music popular in the American charts in the mid-70s has been the butt of jokes. (Steve Martin quipped that a message from outer space would be decoded as “Send more Chuck Berry!”) Nonetheless, it is an honest attempt to represent a diverse sampling of musical cultures from across the world. What is more, when the earth will inevitably be destroyed, hit by an asteroid or swallowed by the expanding sun, the Golden Record will likely still continue its journey into the unknown. As Evander Price points out, this piece of space trash is destined to be the longest-lasting testimony of human culture on earth—a future monument.

The Golden Record presents some exciting challenges for music scholars, which impels us to boldly go where no musicologist has gone before. What would extraterrestrials (with ears) make of the Golden Record? How would they approach the music devoid of any cultural background? What does a non-human music theory look like?

Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which extraterrestrials find the Golden Record and try to make sense of the music they perceive. Stefan Helmreich has offered some useful pointers. There is no historical or cultural context; the only information available is the recording itself. In this thought experiment we cannot take much for granted: no historical frameworks, no generic expectations, no scores or notation. We can’t even rely on sound – at least, not as we know it – since the music has been delivered by NASA as an object, a thing, a kind of dis-located frequency machine. The golden testament to humanity is strangely (and one day will literally be) post-human. The challenge of such an alien musicology is to grapple with this radical estrangement. Any context, any analytical methodology needs to be built from scratch. As soon as we break through the confines of our planet’s atmosphere, the culturally differentiated parameters of world music turn into an a-contextual “Earth Music.” A Pygmy girl’s initiation song from Zaire will be presented in exactly the same way as the Cavatina from Beethoven’s op. 130 and Javanese court gamelan—everything becomes absolute music, writ large.

What remains are mere vibrations. By sending a frequency machine, NASA has inadvertently divined the one constant that would connect our music across galaxies: frequency. Everything in time vibrates, from the looping membranes of quantum string theory to the massive shudder of gravitational waves; the universe repeats itself endlessly which is why music—the quintessential art of repetition—is embedded in the space-time fabric that ripples out from the Big Bang. In one sense, this returns music to the first “string theory” of the universe formulated by Pythagoras some 2500 years ago. Although this was a timeless cosmology of harmonic ratios that is no longer in tune with a universe ordered by the laws of general relativity and quantum mechanics, there is still something about this ancient theory that resonates with the ear-opening vision of the Voyager project. Such intergalactic projects puncture the constricted world of musicology with a potential to venture beyond our current epistemological horizons and embrace … possibly everything! Of course, the idea is not to conflate music and the cosmos into some reductive totality that we can master. In fact, quite the opposite.

The surface of the Golden Record.
We—that is, earth-dwelling musicologists—would do well to remember that the limitations of human hearing, located between 20Hz and 20kHz, are somewhat arbitrary, a function of our anatomical makeup. We don’t know anything about alien physiology but, following the advice of philosopher of mind Peter Godfrey Smith a propos of the radically different organization of octopus brains, we do well to start by examining alternative perceptual models found here on planet earth. The auditory apparatus of other species on earth provide us with great variety that serves as a starting point: famously, bats’ ears reach into the range of 100kHz and beyond; and non-human primates may not have tonotopic maps to process sounds, which raises the possibility that their hearing does not fuse complex waveforms into unified pitches, like humans do. We need not stop here. Following a thought experiment by nineteenth-century entomologist Karl Ernst von Baer, we could speculate that the human rate of perceptions per second might not be universal. It is imaginable that non-human audition “hears” the same vibrations much lower or much higher than humans, depending on their rate of perception. Edda Moser’s flexible gorge as Queen of the Night might come across like a basso profundo in outer space. All these inferences on the basis of existing science are, of course, entirely speculative—we don’t know how, if at all, they relate to extra-terrestrial hearing. But if we follow SETI’s hope that there will be some creatures in space capable of hearing, somehow, then the Golden Record is as good a starting point as any. (Some researchers have cast doubt on the entire project by pointing out that we don’t even manage to communicate with other intelligent species on earth, such as dolphins. But as others counter, humanity has only had the capability of communicating into space for the last fifty years or so, which is merely a speck on the timeline, so the jury is still out.) Whatever else this speculation does, it cleans out our ears for the diverse possibilities of “creaturely” kinds of hearing.

What would a closer kind of listening look like? Even though the possibilities of hearing seem virtually endless, the mechanisms of analyzing music in outer space are relatively limited, at least to begin with. As NASA astrophysicists point out, the most likely means of communication will be based on mathematics, as the fundamental laws of physics must apply even in outer space. Any closer consideration of the music will start, by necessity, with very basic concepts: sameness and difference, repetition and contrast or, using more mathematical terms, = and ≠. It seems that the tools of classic Saussurian structuralism will serve to build up a rudimentary analytical language that will allow us to compare and contrasts the vibrations emanating from the Golden Record. Given that the only context we have is created by the canon presented on the record, the connections drawn will be radically cross-cultural—though, of course, this category becomes meaningless in this context. In outer space, Japanese shakuhachi music may reveal a surreptitious kinship to Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, and Azerbaijani mugam to Blind Willy Johnson.

This is not to suggest that all Earth Music sounds the same, but rather that from a sufficiently remote perspective new kinds of similarities and differences may arise. (The growing analytical literature on world music is of central importance here.) Whether this Earth Music constitutes a flattening of musical features or a liberation is a matter of perspective. Either way, thinking through the Golden Record challenges us to refashion what we, as musicologists, do. Ultimately, the chief point of this interstellar exploration is firmly focused on the question of communication, starting with our communication here on Planet Earth. This musical anniversary affords us a great opportunity to raise some important questions about the reach of musicology. It asks us to consider our work in its capacity to communicate across the barriers of languages, cultures—indeed across whole worlds and planets—and to examine the very basis and purpose of our work. If we set the most ambitious goals, communicating across species, across exoplanetary systems, and renegotiate the very foundational terms with which we operate, perhaps the rest of our work will seem less daunting as a consequence. Space, it turns out, really is the final frontier.

Voyager 2, in a galaxy far, far away.
Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University. Rehding’s work ranges from ancient Egyptian music to the Eurovision song contest. His books include Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (2003), Music and Monumentality (2009), and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (November 2017). A former editor of Acta Musicologica and convener of the John E. Sawyer Seminar in the Comparative Study of Culture on the topic of “Hearing Modernity” (2013-14), he is now Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Handbooks Music Online series. His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association.

Daniel KL Chua earned his PhD in musicology from Cambridge University and is currently professor of music at the University of Hong Kong. Before joining Hong Kong University to head the School of Humanities, he was a fellow and the Director of Studies at St John’s College, Cambridge, and later Professor of Music Theory and Analysis at King’s College London. He was a Visiting Senior Research fellow at Yale (2014-15), a Henry Fellow at Harvard (1992-3), and a Research Fellow at Cambridge (1993-7). He is the recipient of the 2004 Royal Musical Association’s Dent Medal. He is the President of the International Musicological Society (2017-2022). He has written widely on music, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky; his publications include The ‘Galitzin’ Quartets of Beethoven (Princeton, 1994), Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning (Cambridge, 1999), and Beethoven and Freedom (Oxford, 2017).