8th Conference of the Royal Musical Association Music & Philosophy Study Group  

Thursday and Friday, 1–2 July 2021 | King’s College London

Keynote Speakers

Aaron Ridley, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton
Brian Kane, Professor of Music at Yale University
Nina Power, cultural critic, social theorist, philosopher and translator

#MPSG21 Themed sessions

The following focused sessions are convened and organised by individuals who had produced their own CFPs. 

Music, ‘Art’ and the White Racial Frame: Aesthetics and Critical Race Theory

Music, ‘Art’ and the White Racial Frame: Aesthetics and Critical Race Theory

Convener: Alexander Douglas, University of Wolverhampton

Since the firestorm we know as #Schenkergate erupted, academic music studies have been forced to reckon with the way Philip Ewell has appropriated Joe Feagin’s concept of the ‘white racial frame’. The starting point for this session is the understanding that the field of music philosophy can legitimately be charged with operating through such a frame. A major role is played here by the concept of music – or that music which is considered worthy of (philosophical-aesthetic) theorization – as ‘art’, to whose ‘dignity’, claimed the musicologist and white supremacist François-Joseph Fétis in 1869, ‘no music has been elevated…apart from among peoples of the white race’. As such, ‘art music’ co-exists alongside the concept of a ‘musical work’, and therefore music as ‘property’, existing within what critical race theorist Cheryl Harris has called an ‘entangled relationship’ with the history of whiteness; but also concepts of music as ‘symbol’, differently articulated by, say, Susanne Langer and Nelson Goodman – a symbol needing to be interpreted or ‘understood’ (not least by those in positions of epistemic authority); as well as persistent interpretations of art as ‘technique’ subject to historicist teleological imperatives of technical ‘progress’.

In sum, what is the concept of ‘art’ when considered against the background of racial ideologies, structures and histories, and what is its usefulness to our understanding of music as both ontological entity and lived experience, inside and outside the West? Contributions are sought from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives – from aesthetics to ethnomusicology, music psychology, creative practice and beyond – that will explore these and other potential dimensions of an encounter between music aesthetics and critical race theory, enabling BAME researchers to question (without totalizing or foreclosing the issues) just what place certain concepts surrounding ‘art’ music might have in a critically informed, antiracist aesthetic discourse.

Popular Music and Philosophy

Popular Music and Philosophy

Convener: José Gálvez, University of Bonn, Department of Musicology/Sound Studies

Conceptual reflection on music has an eminent tradition in western philosophy that can be traced back to Pythagoras. Yet, what emerged as popular music at the end of the nineteenth century has long been ignored, whether in debates regarding musical hermeneutics and phenomenology in the continental tradition or in debates over musical ontology and understanding in analytical philosophy. At best, popular music was a subject of (Adornian) socio-philosophical critique, attacking the standardization, pseudo-individualization and alienation it represented. In recent years, though, an interesting shift has been taking place: popular music is becoming more and more a subject of philosophical theory in its own right. The increasing debates on musical improvisation in jazz and electronic dance music, several critical re-readings of Adorno’s philosophy of music, theories on the disruptive biopolitical implications of popular music in neoliberalism, and approaches to the sonic affective affordances of popular music in the context of new materialism are some important vectors of an emerging awareness of popular music in philosophy.

Taking into account core themes in popular music studies such as technology, industrialization, embodiment and performance, this session aims to present approaches to a crystallizing philosophy of popular music. While these themes have been researched from historical, sociological and media-theoretical perspectives, they have more rarely received attention from a conceptual and systematic, i.e. philosophical standpoint (Theodore Gracyk is a remarkable exception). In addition, this session explores the extent to which philosophical concepts and theories of subjectivity, technology, experience, modernity, affect etc. can be nuanced and even reconfigured in dealing with specific sonic, technical, corporeal and industrialized elements integral to popular music. Thus, a philosophy of popular music could also be a philosophy through popular music.

Music and Deconstruction
Music and Deconstruction

Convener: Clare Lesser, Music Program, Division of Arts and Humanities, New York University Abu Dhabi

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to make drastic changes to the ways in which we conduct and disseminate both our music practice and research. From fractured audiences and virtual ensembles, to webinars, online practice sessions and conferences, suddenly, we find ourselves simultaneously alone and yet together in a paradox of the virtual. Tele-technology, modes of distribution and Derridean ‘hauntology’ have been thrust into the foreground of nearly everything that we do as musicians. But in what other ways might Jacques Derrida’s (1930-2004) philosophy inform our understanding of music, indeed, should deconstruction even be applied to fields outside of writing? Derrida thought that it should, linking the ‘supports’ of writing with their performative sonic counterparts and saying : ‘the idea that deconstruction should confine itself to the analysis of the discursive text—I know that the idea is widespread—is really either a gross misunderstanding or a political strategy designed to limit deconstruction to matters of language.’ (Deconstruction and the Visual Arts).

The following questions arise: can we perform, analyse or compose deconstructively? Can we experience deconstruction actively as both performers and listeners/users? Does deconstruction in other fields play into this discourse? How does deconstruction inform contemporary practices, such as multi-disciplinary performances, interactive and experiential modes of music making that challenge notions of authorship and agency, ‘real-time’ composition and use of unorthodox event spaces? Is deconstruction equally meaningful to the study and performance of older models; the Romantic ‘moment,’ 19th century repertoire’s unreliable narrators, questions of authenticity and reconstruction?

Global Imperatives for Music and Philosophy
Global Imperatives for Music and Philosophy

Convener: Edwin Li, Harvard University      

‘Philosophy must go global’, said philosopher Jonardon Ganeri in 2016, writing against the background of an increasingly polycentric philosophical industry, the internationalization of students and institutions, and diversity in philosophical articulations and epistemic stances. This statement should not strike music scholars as surprising: in Anglo-American music departments, too, discussing the global has become a social and ethical imperative that encompasses defamiliarizing the Western musical canon, provincializing European perspectives, and tracing transnational musical flows. Yet ‘global imperatives’ for music and philosophy seem to be under-discussed. Such imperatives might be interpreted in three ways: 1) working towards a global, universalizing philosophy of music that stands above particular traditions, as in Mark Hijleh’s (2012) recent work on a global music theory; 2) creating what Jesse Fleming (2003) has called a ‘philosophy of comparison’ that stimulates dialogue and reciprocity between global philosophies of music, as other scholars in the field of Comparative Philosophy have also been doing (Bo Mou (2010), Michael Levin (2016), Chakrabarti and Weber (2016)); or 3) delving into the history of philosophies of music and global exchanges between them, as explored for global music history in Lester Hu’s (2019) and Daniel Walden’s (2019) dissertations. As well as approaching such broad methodological questions, this session aims to examine the range of experiences and ideological assumptions involved in responding to global music-philosophical imperatives. When and how might these carry neo-imperialist connotations, sliding towards a pan-assimilationism by which the West expands its intellectual governance? Can and must we talk about our own experience in pursuing this endeavor as (post-)colonial subjects, and how do we negotiate global power imbalances as we do so? If ‘music’ is not even a consistent object across global cultures, how can we construe it for the purposes of a global music philosophy?

Sounding Out Musical Ethics
Sounding Out Musical Ethics

Convener: Ariana Phillips-Hutton, University of Cambridge  

Contemporary musical life is saturated with ethically significant issues, from evaluating Spotify’s business practices to the function of copyright and intellectual property law, from distinguishing cultural appropriation to confronting structural inequality in music, and from choosing to perform Wagner in Israel to choosing to perform in Israel at all. Despite this interweaving, working out the relationship between music and ethics has historically been fraught with questions: does music carry ethical content? If so, how and in what ways could it be said to be ethical? Alternatively, how might the structures and relations of music influence conceptions of ethics?

The challenge of bringing ethics and music together has been addressed with increasing frequency in recent years by authors such as Marcel Cobussen and Nanette Nielsen (Music and Ethics, 2012), Michael Gallope (Deep Refrains, 2017), and Jeff Warren (Musical and Ethical Responsibility, 2014). A recent essay by Kathleen Higgins (‘Connecting Music to Ethics’, 2018) suggests strategies for applying music to ethically positive ends, yet questions over the viability and desirability of such a project remain unexplored. This seminar-style session welcomes submissions from both philosophy and music studies that engage with broad questions of music and ethics in the contemporary world, including how ethics and music might be brought more fully into conversation with each other, as well as focused studies of particular repertoires, events, or ethical questions.


Associates Sessions

Nietzsche and Music: Affects and Emotions in his Compositions and Philosophy
Nietzsche and Music: Affects and Emotions in his Compositions and Philosophy

Organised by Stevens Institute of Technology/College of Arts and Letters

This panel is dedicated to the exploration of the relationship between Nietzsche and music. Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers who have an intimate connection to music. This connection has much to do with his early music education and influences by great composers such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Wagner. His contemporaries testify that he was a good pianist with musical ambition, with a musical ‘daimon’, that urged him to compose music in his early life. His compositions were gathered together and published by Curt Paul Janz in Friedrich Nietzsche, “”Der musikalische Nachlass.”” However, Nietzsche did not follow a musical path, but decided to become a philologist and dedicated his life to writing and philosophy. Nietzsche’s background in music, on the other hand, influenced his way of thinking, his ideas on many subjects such as arts and culture, and his writings in general. In “”The Birth of Tragedy,”” Nietzsche famously claims that his way of thinking is similar, both in style and content, to the experience of music. For Nietzsche, music is not only an object of his philosophical thought but rather a source or even a mode of thinking itself, that is, a Dionysian ecstatic experience of the unity of nature and life. In this panel we intend to explore different dimensions focusing on the affects and emotions unique to Nietzsche’s musical experience and ideas on music. Our panel will address subjects such as: Nietzsche’s background in music; Nietzsche’s relationship with musicians and composers; Nietzsche’s musical experiments and compositions; music by other German writers and philosophers (read by Nietzsche); music and other arts and ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’; and Nietzsche’s ideas on music in his written works.


Aysegul Durakoglu
Michael Steinmann
Yunus Tuncel

What is openness? Institutions in dialogue
What is openness? Institutions in dialogue

Organised by Performance Philosophy

This session raises questions against the background of the world’s recent turmoil. How does openness get inflected, displaced, and silenced by institutional structures (financial as much as aesthetic and political)? How might a critique of institutions and institutional dialogue help to square the relationship between disciplinary politics, funding agendas, and issues of gender and ethnicity on the one hand with the current evolution of Artistic Research, Performance Philosophy, Performance Studies, and Sound Art on the other hand? Can dialogue with and within institutions move from a state of indeterminacy towards a radical opening of their structural forms, thus reflecting and enhancing a genuine desire for social and artistic change?

Furthermore, what is openness in sonic artistic practice? What ethical and aesthetic potential does sonic practice have when it is so intimately enmeshed in the physical world, when the world is re-born, re-placed and re-made by each ethical and aesthetic action? What attitudes towards open dialogue and towards more open institutions might be fostered by, and within, sonic practice? How do the pragmatic lived positions of sonic artists square with institutional activity? What becomes of the openness of a sonic prerogative when its artist is working within an institution?

Performance philosophy relishes unexpected events that twist artists in new directions, and that keep artistic practices open. In a twisted time such as the present, they are a welcome impetus to sonic practice, and a means of maintaining the open engagement with the world championed by performance philosophy.


Anthony Gritten
Alexander Douglas
Leona Jones
Caroline Wilkins

Exhibiting music
Exhibiting music

Organised by RMA Music and Visual Arts Study Group

To exhibit means to fix, to present, to hang on the wall, to mount. An exhibition lets the viewer take in the works in their immobile position, returning as many times as they wish. Music is transient, unfolding in time, in the moment just past – thus speaks to us from our memory. Yet to preserve this separation – exhibited art in one place, transient music in another is to ignore a multitude of diverse historical requirements and developments.’ (Darmstadt, 2012)

It is forty years since curator Germano Celant exhibited vinyl recordings by Jean Dubuffet, longer still since the first exhibitions of Robert Morris’s ‘Box with the Sound of its Own Making’. Yet, music and music’s sounds were often distanced from the main attractions. Distancing has however turned into proximity. Notably in the last twenty years, music and musical performances in many forms have been deliberately introduced into art museums and exhibitions. These have included cross- and inter-disciplinary collaborations as well as ‘immersive and site-specific’ installations where music and other musical soundings have been integral to the work. Could visitors be encouraged to ‘hear’ the paintings, and ‘see’ the sound, as The National Gallery claimed for their 2015 ‘Soundscapes’ Exhibition, thus continuing to promote a late-Romantic obsession with synaesthesia?

This panel will critically evaluate the affective experiences of such interventions, reaching back to Walter Pater’s assertion that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’, and forward to 21st century as we experience the affect and sensation of a polyphonic, multisensory, downright noisy kind of spectatorship. We will interrogate the ways music, sound and performance might fulfil curator Laurence Alloway’s assertion that ‘an Exhibit is a way of accepting the limited conditions of an exhibition and overcoming them to make a drama of space that involves the spectators.


Diane V. Silverthorne
Robert Barry
Gina Buenfeld

Unheard Of: Theorising Emergent Urban Listenings<br />
Unheard Of: Theorising Emergent Urban Listenings

What forms and theories of listening does the current historical juncture augur? This session attends to new and neglected forms of listening at stake in contemporary cities. We explore emergent modes of audition, reception and consumption that are only beginning to gain recognition, yet signal major ongoing societal transformations, including those associated with new political and cultural movements, the redesign of urban spaces, new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, and the troubling of musical intimacy in the wake of Covid-19. At the same time, we examine issues that have long proved resistant to investigation, including the affective dynamics of crowds and publics, and the ephemeral and ambient impressions of urban life. Working from ethnographic foundations, we trace theories of listening as they emerge from the circulations and faultlines between worldly practice, scholarly inquiry, and a range of technocratic, institutional, commercial, governmental and artistic formations. Theory, then, as sense-making within and beyond the academy, prompting varied frameworks for understanding and mobilising urban listening. Cities as sounding boards of solidarity and emergent forms of citizenship. Cities as assemblages of dormant musical publics and suspended physical proximities. Cities reheard as home to hidden and threatened ecologies. By thinking across these varied perspectives, we aim to develop an account of what Georgina Born has called ‘late liberal listening’, its conditions, its dominance and its discontents.

Joseph Browning, City, University of London
Christabel Stirling, University of Westminster
Tom Western, UCL




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