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Wed, 16 June 2021 | 17:00 – 18:30 GMT+1 | Lecture

Brian Kane: Listening and Technique


Scholars in music, philosophy, and sound studies often consider listening to be a technique—one that is shaped by both the individual capacities of listeners as well as entrained social norms. Starting from that premise, this paper will attempt to pose some foundational questions about the specific kind of technique that listening might be, and the ways that we might theorize it. In particular, I will explore two themes: 1) What is the best framework for theorizing listening technique? I will suggest that the framework of “body techniques,” introduced by Marcel Mauss and taken up widely in the humanities, might be inadequate for conceptualizing the specificity of listening as a technique. 2) How similar or different are techniques and technologies? Rather than lump techniques and technologies under the broad heading of techné, I will sketch a more granular model of the relationship between listening techniques and audio technologies, one that sits at the intersection of cultural entrainment and media archaeology. 

Brian Kane holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. in Philosophy, 1996; Ph.D. in Music, 2006). Prior to joining the faculty at Yale, he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Music at Columbia University (2006-2008).

His scholarly work is interdisciplinary, located in the intersection of music theory, composition and philosophy. Working primarily with 20th century music, Kane’s emphasis is on questions of sound and signification. Central themes in his research are: music and sound art, histories and theories of listening, phenomenology, improvisation, music and subjectivity, technology, conceptualizations of sound and music in literature and philosophy, and theories of the voice.

Wed, 7 July 2021 | 17:00 – 19:30 GMT+1 | Panel

What is Openness? Institutions in Dialogue

Panel Abstract

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: Dialogue, Openness, and Indeterminacy in Performance Philosophy

Art’s capacity for intervention – therapeutic encounters, political negotiations, mediated consumption of events – is grounded in assumptions about the value of openness. In parallel, the transformative potential of academic institutions is grounded in assumptions that openness enhances their soft power. This paper explores the role of openness in Performance Philosophy, a young discipline with complex relations to artistic practice and academic institutions. Varieties of openness coexist in its name: disciplinary hybrids of performance and philosophy and their methods, plus ideologies from indeterminacy to negotiated praxis to dialogue at all costs. Given the dynamic institutional space occupied by Performance Philosophy and the pressure upon academic institutions for equality of representation and sustainability, this paper asks: how meaningful is openness?

Cage – archetypal performance philosopher – might have responded, “That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.” (Cage, 1961, 126) Today, though, we need provisional answers. To wit: triangulating between openness, institutional positioning, and artistic imperatives requires performance philosophers to prioritise equality and engage the material world (Cull Ó Maoilearca & Lagaay, 2020, 129 & 286), these modes of openness being the basis for working in and with institutions with integrity. Performance Philosophy’s potential to reinvigorate its practitioner’s institutional situation can be performative and philosophical – if certain varieties of openness constitute its core.

Leona Jones: Working with sonic materials: an intervention

Leona is an independent creative practitioner based in Cardiff, Wales. She gained her MA in Performance Writing from Dartington/Falmouth, an experience which allowed her to explore the unheard, overlooked and hidden spaces of language, before expanding it into the examination and joy of sound. Sound is being studied as never before, beginning to be recognised as a vast assemblage, multisensory, embodied, and a structuring aspect of societies. Using examples of her work, she’ll wonder and wander around the relationships between institutions and arts, particularly with experiences of negotiating (or not) the various gatekeeping involved with all formal bodies. She’ll question how it’s possible for an artist to survive within an institution given the institution’s seeming need for form and adherence to politics, funding and tradition, and an artist’s seeming need to work outside the box and respond fleetfootedly to opportunities as and when they are identified. What can both learn from each other, and can each support the other when an emphasis is placed on ‘happening’?

Caroline Wilkins: Opening up institutions in relation to music performance

My aim is to address the current situation of institutionalized forms of music performance within the context of our contemporary climate, given the precipitated crisis that has forced their limitation. I argue that current hierarchical structures have an effect on limiting the possibilities of supporting emerging creative work by musicians that often requires new reception forms for contemporary performance in our digital age.

I address the need to think in terms of providing more open frameworks for the future of our new creative artists and indeed for the future of music performance, focusing in particular on higher educational institutions as the place where such changes could begin. My contribution offers a plea for a radical opening, in the form of an active dialogue between pliable structures that would allow for their wider cross-fertilization within the practice of music performance. Such a solution would encourage the creation of cross-disciplinary networks that work together to promote new performance forms. Drawing on examples I cite the existence of some institutions that engage in the exchange of cognate art disciplines together with technology. This emphasis offers a possible process of transition in current artistic practices, whereby a healthy ‘interference’ between institutional specialists can take place.

Alexander Douglas: Openness in Music and Theology: An Intervention

At conventional levels of epistemic processing, words remain the primary mechanism for the disbursement of theological ideas. As such, the question of what an argument for the prospect of non-linguistic theology might look like raises questions of knowledge, interpretation and power. The ‘othering’ of African-diasporic sacred musicking within Western Christian musicking is a parabolic means by which we understand better the way/s in which music itself – characterised by Steven Pinker as ‘auditory cheesecake’ and nothing more than a domesticated adaptation of language – is still understood as an aesthetic makeweight incapable of the theological heavy lifting that only language can bear.

Herein lies the paradox: theologians of music would be the first to argue that musicking can constitute genuine theological praxis but as a subdiscipline, music theology as currently practised is the antithesis of openness – which fundamentally undermines its claims with direct regard to the ‘evangelion’ that ipso facto does not allow for anything other than full anthropological parity across peoples. The question of what a more ‘open’ approach to the practice of music theology might look like necessitates an antiracist re-evaluation of not only method/s but also hermeneutics – a task that an antiracist philosophy of music manifestly committed to avoiding epistemic injustice would be uniquely equipped to undertake.

Wed, 14 July 2021 | 17:00 – 19:30 GMT+1 | Panel

Exhibiting Music

Panel Abstract

‘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: ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: the musicalisation of art museums

Franz Liszt’s plea that ‘all musicians of art and of social progress’ should be treated with the same ceremony as were the great artists of the time, with a quinquennial exhibition of religious, dramatic and symphonic music at the Louvre, has been met with a more sympathetic reception in the twenty-first century, particularly with the advent of superstar-status art museums.

Challenging the fixed boundaries between concert hall and art museum, the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 celebrated with the site-specific ‘Seventeen Tate Riffs’ by Birtwhistle, sounding the Turbine Hall, a space surely Wagnerian in its ambitions and affect. Music, dance and indefinable genres of performance have been deliberately introduced into mainstream art museums and public galleries, an irresistible compulsion to play with spectator: audience experiences which deny the white cube its ritualised act of looking. Composers have responded to paintings and works of art, to create the over-freely used ‘immersive experience’, thus eliding the duration of music with the spatial concerns of the artwork. Can visitors be encouraged to ‘hear’ the paintings, and ‘see’ the sound, as The National Gallery claimed for their 2015 ‘Soundscapes’ Exhibition? In this ongoing exploration of the affective impact of music-in-museums, I question how these interventions might endorse curator Laurence Alloway’s assertion that ‘an exhibit is a way of overcoming the limited conditions of an exhibition to make a drama of space’. Does Rancière’s ‘emancipated spectator’ emerge, transformed, from passive to active? Where does affect and its subjectivities come into all this? 

Gina Buenfeld-Murley: The Visible and The Invisible: The Emergence of Form in Art, Music and Nature

The collaborative work of theosophists Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater was a meditation on subtle matter and the invisible world. In Thought-Forms, 1901, they explored the reciprocity between music and visual image; the emergence of form and colour from the perception of sound. From the acoustic experiments of German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni to contemporary Cymascope technologies, or Margaret Watts Hughes’ eidophone pictures made with her own voice, the correlation between sound and image has fascinated artists, scientists and philosophers since antiquity and probably long before. The intrinsic connection between mathematics, geometry and music reveals an implicit harmony in the natural world that Pythagoras described as a ‘Music of the Spheres’. This paradigm has prevailed and been renewed by modern physics – the perplexing discoveries in the quantum realm described by A. Sommerfeld as “a real music of the spheres of the atom” … “It is the mysterious organ on which Nature plays the music of the spectra and according to whose rhythm it controls the structure of the atom and the nucleus.”

Camden Art Centre has a history of platforming innovative work by artists whose practices embrace music and visual art synchronously. I will focus on three recent examples: Japanese artist Yuko Mohri whose exhibition involved live performances by experimental musicians Akio Suzuki and Ryuichi Sakamoto; Athens-born and conservatoire-trained Athanasios Argianas whose interdisciplinary practice explores the translation between aural and material experiences; and The Botanical Mind, a group exhibition featuring Jordan Belson’s visual music, Channa Horwitz’s numerological scores, Yves Laloy’s musical paintings and traditional weavings by indigenous Amazonian artists.

Robert Barry: Separation of the senses, new objects of vision: the silencing and re-sounding of museums

Though it has frequently been observed that the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries gave birth to new regimes of looking and new practices of observation, what is less often remarked upon is the concurrent development of novel ways of listening – and of silencing. Museums like the Louvre, the Prado and the British Museum became crucial sites for the development of these new disciplinary procedures. Habits that for much of the twentieth century were largely second nature to most gallery-goers – don’t touch! and, crucially, don’t talk! – had to be carefully instilled in the burgeoning publics for spectatorship in the age of reason. Such then-new national museums combined the exotic thrills of a coffeehouse cabinet of curiosity with the more monastic air of an aristocratic private collection. Inevitably audiences more used to the former had to be inculcated with the more rarefied attitudes previously reserved for the latter. If today, museums are once again growing noisy, they nonetheless continue to struggle with the sonic arts – a genre that remains comparatively underrepresented in most major collections. Though contemporary exhibition practices are as likely to enjoin their audiences to interact (sometimes noisily) as keep shtum, we can still recognise some of the contours of the disciplinary regimes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as we await the emergence of a more polyphonic, multisensory spectatorship.

Wed, 21 July 2021 | 17:00 – 18:30 GMT+1 | Lecture

Nina Power: Music as Philosophy


What critical force does music possess today? With the collapse and attacks on tradition, music and sound are no longer separable forces, nor does music as a cultural form, despite its seeming ineffability, escape the worst excesses of commodification. Music is frequently used to pacify populations, to deliver messages regarding how love and life should be understood, or simply plays the role of aural wallpaper. Yet sound and music are also the source of social conflict in the form of ‘noise’, and the subject of legal complaint. Cities have been quietened in some respects during lockdown – less movement, enforced domesticity, restrictions on sociability – but music as an ‘invisible friend’ as been a comfort to many. Music can make us feel less ‘alone’ as we carry on, and in that sense it has a real and material emotional and conceptual force. But how can we understand music as a conceptual force in its own right? What philosophical – that is to say thoughtful – meaning does music today have? This paper will suggest that we can think of music (in relation to sound and noise) as Philosophy. It will examine the role of music within Philosophy before making the case for music as a mode of philosophising in its own right – a mode of expression that is far more powerful in its own right than we often give it credit for. Music’s ubiquity does not ultimately undermine its force.

Nina Power is a writer and philosopher. She is currently teaching at the Mary Ward Centre and is the author of many articles on culture, politics and thought. Her next book What Do Men Want? will be out this year from Penguin.

Wed, 29 September 2021 | 5:00 – 6:30 pm GMT+1 | Lecture

Aaron Ridley: Song as a Whole

Like many recent aestheticians, I find the view that song is a simple conjunction of words and music insufficiently holistic.  Here, I defend a strong version of holism against several of the weaker varieties to be found in the literature, and argue that only the strong version is able to do justice to the character and value of song as a whole.

6 October 2021 | 12 – 2pm GMT+1 | Panel

Sounding Out Musical Ethics


Session abstract

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 includes submissions that engage with broad questions of music and ethics in the contemporary world as well as focused studies of particular repertoires, events, or ethical questions.

Victoria Aschheim: What Hate Can Do to a Choir
What Hate Can Do to a Choir: Vocal Ethics and Ted Hearne’s Animals

In May 2018, President Trump attended a California sanctuary policy roundtable.  There he said, about undocumented immigrants, “These aren’t people.  These are animals.”  Moved by these sentences, the Los Angeles-based composer Ted Hearne wrote Animals, a piece for SATB choir, commissioned by The Crossing and premiered in September 2018.  Donald Nally, conductor of The Crossing, explained his motivation for cultivating socially committed, technically ruthless music such as Animals: “I hate pretty.  I can’t stand listening to pretty.”  Animals, then, was born of hate twice over—hate of very different stripes: xenophobic speech, aesthetic revulsion.  My presentation (joining recent studies of vocal materiality) takes Animals as an occasion to raise a question of musical micropolitics and aesthetic judgment: what is the ethical potential of antipathy to vocal beauty? 
In Animals, comprehension of racism transmutes the voice, which volleys Trump’s words back to listeners for scrutiny.  Performance directions demand the affect of “grotesque, a hellscape.”  Hearne prescribes “frantic breathing” through “closed teeth,” and “constrict[ing] the laryngeal cavity” for “extreme squeal[s].”  Bodies morph; the choir seethes.  Thinking with philosophies of affect and injustice (Srinivasan) and timbre (Nancy), as well as the video recording and score, I argue that these changes reveal the aptness—the fitting nature—of vocal distortion as a musical response to prejudice.  Animals shows how bending the voice beyond convention is a just artistic ethic.  Such plasticity (bearing avant-garde genealogies, including Steve Reich’s rejection of bel canto) gives language new sensory shape, and clarifies the power of music as resistance.

Uri Agnon: Between Critique and Judgment
Between Critique and Judgment – Reviewing New Music

This paper investigates the discussion of ethics in the reception of political New Music. I examine what philosophical frameworks are being employed (implicitly and explicitly) in reviews of such work and to what ends. Through studying the reception of pieces such as Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit (2009), Chaya Czernowin’s Adama (2006) and Elaine Mitchener’s SWEET TOOTH (2017), the paper explores the strengths and limitations of critiquing and analysing New Music from viewpoints such as ‘utilitarianism’, ‘deontology’, ‘value’ and ‘virtue’ ethics.
Following Adorno’s argument in favour of “responsibility” rather than “conviction”, and Foucault’s call for critique not based on judgment but rather on bringing ideas to life, the paper suggests a different approach to reviewing the political and ethical in New Music. To these ends, I engage with the writings of Levinas, Butler and Gilligan, exploring their “relational ethics” as an alternative way of discussing political New Music. Rather than attempting to define the ethical value of a composer or a piece, I argue for a critique which strives to articulate the diverse readings of musical works and the political possibilities they harbour.

Leia Devadason: Is the Limit of Performance...Performativity?
Is the Limit of Performance…Performativity? Musical Ethics in ‘Unprecedented Times’

While ‘performativity’ is both a property of music and an orientation linking music studies to ethical practice (the performative turn), it has become a pejorative term within 21st century social justice discourse, representing the ‘talk’ and not the ‘walk’. Thus far, there has not been a scholarly investigation of how the connotative disjunctures of ‘performativity’ across domains may impact prevailing ideas of music’s ethical content and functions.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I question whether musical performances can be or only symbolise genuine ethical acts. I refer to news, footage, and social media commentaries addressing musicking with purported ethical content – from singing rituals for frontline workers to concerts for plants – during March to September 2020 when international mediascapes were saturated with performances of ethics.

From a philosophical standpoint, much of musical performance’s ambivalent place within contemporary ethics springs from uncertainty about whether it is reducible to a linguistic utterance that can function as a performative statement equivalent to action (Austin), or it must stand outside traditional formulations of ethics which trade in language altogether. To this end, I suggest Gilligan and Nodding’s ‘ethics of care’ as a possible model for the idiomatic integration of music into ethical philosophy without reification.

Sam McAuliffe: Improvisation as Original Ethics
Improvisation as Original Ethics: Exploring the Ethical in Heidegger and Gadamer from a Musical Perspective

Martin Heidegger was often criticised for his lack of explicit engagement with ethics. On occasion, however, he alluded to the need for ethics to become ‘original’ again; for ethics to emerge from out of factical existence. Unfortunately, Heidegger himself did not offer any detailed insight into what an ‘original ethics’ may be. Several commentators, however, find evidence of such an original ethics in the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger’s student, Hans-Georg Gadamer. In this paper I argue that an original ethics, as alluded to by Heidegger and taken up by Gadamer, depends upon a certain improvisational comportment, such that acting ethically in the world involves spontaneously attending and responding to that which one encounters in factical existence. To substantiate this claim, I draw upon improvised musical performance as an exemplar, highlighting how the responsiveness at issue in musical improvisation is equally present in an original ethics, which is itself demonstrative of a practical, performative, and spontaneous engagement with the world. Not only does this account elucidate the improvisational character of original ethics, it equally illuminates the nature of the ethical at issue in improvised musical performance. Improvisation, for example, calls for an encounter with the other (that which is beyond oneself) such that players take seriously and engage with the other, strengthening the position of the other – engendering a civility of difference – to bring forth a work.

Luis Velasco-Pufleau: ‘Only fear grew inside my body’
‘Only fear grew inside my body’: Ethics, femicide and compositional strategies in Hilda Paredes’ La tierra de la miel

How can music composition engage with femicide? What are the political implications and ethical concerns of sounding out systematic violence against women? This paper explores these questions through the analysis of the chamber opera La tierra de la miel (2013) by the Mexican composer Hilda Paredes (b. 1957). In this work, Paredes tells the story of indigenous Mexican women victims of a human trafficking network between Mexico and the United States. In particular, she explores the representation of the rape and murder of one of these women through the destruction of language in music performance. As with the body of the woman, the language is destroyed and fragments are distributed among the singer and members of the music ensemble. Looking for a dramatic expression of abuse and human exploitation with the inability to voice their trauma, Paredes explores the capacity of sound to tackle death and violence endured by these women. Based on several interviews with Hilda Paredes and music analyses of La tierra de la miel, this paper examines Paredes’ compositional strategies and ethical concerns when she started to compose this work. I study the ethical implications of 1) composing music on such an extreme topic; 2) giving voice to often invisible victims of violence, and 3) listening to these voices. Finally, I conclude with a reflection on how composing and discussing music can enable critical thought and raise awareness about current violations of human rights.


Wed, 13 October 2021 | 17:00 – 19:00 GMT+1 | Panel

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

Chair: Alex Douglas

Session abstract

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?

Isaac Alexandre Jean-Francois & Jessie Cox: Aesthetics of (Black) Breathing
Aesthetics of (Black) Breathing

A meditation on (Black) breathing, this essay reflects on blackness and breathing as motile (un)representable practices. Black subjects are able to resist by breathing in spite of modernity’s impulse to cut off black motion at the throat. Though deeply interested in the sounds and inner motions cohered at the head and neck, this essay understands breathing to affect matter beyond the upper case of the body and explores how breathing disarticulates wholeness as a practice of radically dissolving sovereign sound and form. The parenthesis attends to that which is founded upon the erasure of black liveness alongside such erasure, while also listening to those composers and aesthetes that are erased when we do not listen for their breathing. An iterative play with punctuation and grammar intensifies the act and experience of writing alongside a chorus of voices silenced and sounded. The entanglement of breathing, from past into future spaces and its inverse smooth operations, is what shifts a musical opening to a place of altered destiny. With Black life cornered into visible places of anti-Black state violence, in this piece we attempt to listen for, and breathe, another articulation of the world. (Black) breathing is channeled into/through instruments, making it musical and through these sonic transmutations of states of matter, possible futures are opened.

Charissa Granger: The Politics of Pleasure in Steelband’s Decolonial Aesthetic
The Politics of Pleasure in Steelband’s Decolonial Aesthetic

Steelband music, specifically the practice of performing Western art-music on the instrument, is considered by Shannon Dudley as both an accommodation of colonial hegemony, thereby illustrating sophistication, and as resistance, for its practice of resignifying. Additionally, he argues for understanding and critically exploring aesthetic pleasure as an interpretive stance in relation to steelband (Dudley 2008, 119-29).
Engaged in colonial undoing, steelband music redefines the social, political, and economic status quo through its arrangements and performances by creating a counter-narrative. Mignolo, together with other decolonial scholars asked what the place of aesthetics was in the colonial matrix. According to Rolando Vásquez:
“Decolonial Aesthetics/Aesthesis seeks to bring to the fore those other forms of sensing and inhabiting the world that have been subsumed under the long history of this Western-centered world, of the modern/colonial order […] decolonial artists are not seeking innovation and abstraction for the sake of it, they are not seeking the recognition of the contemporary art world; rather, they are bringing to light through their practices, through their bodies and communities the histories that have been denied, the forms of sensing and inhabiting the world that have been disdained or erased” (Lockward, 2017, 105-6.)
This paper explores musical arrangement in steelband performance through a discussion of a decolonial aesthetics and pleasure.

AJ Kluth: Decolonizing Ontological and Epistemological Assumptions of Institutional Music Study
Decolonizing Ontological and Epistemological Assumptions of Institutional Music Study

As a concept, admonition, and mandate, decolonization is finally finding itself a topic of discussion in the halls of institutional music study. The boundaries and demands of whatever decolonization might mean, however, are unclear. In the marketplace of musical production and distribution, issues that beg a decolonizing intervention are relatively easier to spot; i.e. access and exposure, performance, and “consumption.” But, as manifest in institutional music study, effective responses to calls for decolonization may be trickier. It has been argued that the university is an artifact of colonial logic engaged in authorizing and reifying heteropatriarchy and white supremacy. Scandals like Schenkergate of summer 2020 and accusations of white supremacy in the Society for Ethnomusicology call this out and demand moves toward the decolonization of institutional music study. “Decolonizing” syllabi is important, as is the decentering of whiteness in terms of the privilege heretofore enjoyed by the canon of Euro-American art music and its attendant theoretical models. But I suggest these incremental moves do little to address the assumptions upon which the white racial frame of institutional music study was built and is reproduced. This paper asks what it might mean to decolonize music study by considering the framings that presuppose our “object” of study, specifically with regard to ontological and epistemological conceits. These include: the work concept, being vs. becoming, undecidability, the limits of notation to frame the communication of musical experience, etc. By interrogating previous assumptions, we are led to ask not only what music might be, but also what the university and music degrees are for; to interrogate the type of knowledge and value production in which we are engaged.

We thank the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Cambridge, for the use of their Zoom account to host this series.

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