IASPM 2017

I presented at my first International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference, the biennial international one, which was held this year in Kassel, Germany at the Kulturbahnhof—the former Hauptbahnhof (main train station) of Kassel, which is now converted into an arts center—a super cool venue. (Full conference program and abstracts available here.)

Photo from http://www.kulturbahnhof-kassel.de


The program for this conference was huge, with something like six parallel sessions running at once. I tended to favor panels that were music-theory-ish, dealt with music technology, or dealt with gender.



I doubt I would have applied had I not been asked to form a lovely panel by a colleague, Nick Braae, whom I met at the Osnabrück popular music summer school that I attended in September 2015.  Here is the full information of the panel:

Shaping Sounds and Sounds as Shapes in Popular Songs—Contemporary Analytical Approaches

Alex Harden (UK): “Oneiric Narrativity and Recorded Popular Song”

Harden analyzed how recording techniques may interact with the lyrics to create an oneiric sound space, focusing on Kate Bush’s “Waking the Witch.”

Megan Lavengood (USA): “Analyzing Sound, Analyzing Timbre”

I presented a trimmed-down version of Chapter 5 of my dissertation, ultimately arguing for more analysis of timbre in popular music studies.

Bláithín Duggan (Ireland): “The Shape of the Voice: Analysing Vocal Gestures in Popular Song”

Duggan took a holistic approach to analysis that takes motives beyond pitch and rhythmic content and attends to more subtle details of dynamics, timing, and pitch, using early Beatles songs as a corpus.

Nick Braae (New Zealand): “Analysing Musical Time in Popular Songs”

Braae discussed cyclic versus directional time created through interactions between song forms, harmonies, and melodies.

We were teamed up with another panel as well, organized by Kai Arne Hansen:

So What? Contemporary Approaches to the Interpretation and Analysis of Disparate Popular Musics

Kai Arne Hansen (Norway): “Darkness on the Edge of Pop: Constructing Masculinity and The Weeknd’s ‘The Hills'”

Hansen gave a preliminary exposition on themes of violence, misogyny and darkness in The Weeknd’s music and music videos.

Steven Gamble (UK): “Empowerment and Embodiment in Rap Music”

Gamble analyzed elements of rhythm in “Backseat Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar, identifying musical elements which contribute to a sense of empowerment through embodiment.

Claire Rebecca Bannister (UK): “Psychopharmacology and the Analysis of Goth Music”

Bannister discussed goth music as a psychedelic genre, and defines psychedelia through the idea of set and setting, terms from psychopharmacology, in determination of what constitutes a psychedelic genre.

Andrei Sora (UK): “To Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces that You Meet: The Persona in Instrumental Music”

Sora used analysis of a persona in the unusual genre of instrumental popular music. While persona analysis is frequently applied to instrumental art music, it is rare to see this approach in instrumental popular music, where the notion of an analytical persona interacts with a perhaps more robust public persona.

The goal of both panels together was essentially to showcase new work by young scholars in the field of popular music analysis, and to show what we can do that is sort of “outside the box,” although maybe there is no such “box” anymore!


Recording technology and the music industry

Steffan Lepa (Germany): “The Diffusion of Music Streaming Services in Germany”

Lepa reported on data collected with his project, Survey Musik und Medien, from a 2012 survey and a follow-up 2015 survey of German music listeners. The data was used to develop hypotheses on the change in audio media that people use to listen to their music. Lepa said the data is different than many other sources, because it is derived from a survey of listeners, whereas most data comes from sales figures. They divided up listeners into classes based on the ways their listening habits changed between the two surveys: versatile audiophiles, digital mobilists, selective traditionalists, selective adopters, versatile traditionalists, and radio traditionalists. The last category was made because a large portion of people only listened to music on the radio—the fact I found the most surprising about this presentation. I would love to compare this to a similar study in the US—is radio equally prevalent here?

Chris Anderson (USA): “Contemporary Strategies for Making, Distributing, and Gifting Music”

Anderson featured two case studies of musicians giving away their music for free, relating this to Attali’s utoptian vision of creation for self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain. I am hopeful that in future studies the author might begin to consider the implications of class, and also of devaluing art. One of his subjects was only a hobbyist musician. It would be interesting to see who releases music for free because of “self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain,” versus who releases it for free due to economic pressure to do so to compete.

Franco Fabbri (Italy): “Binaurality, Stereophony, and Popular Music in the 60s and 70s”

Fabbri articulated an important distinction between stereophony and binaurality: if a typical stereo setup is meant to imitate having the best seat in the house, then headphones position the listener actually in the center of the stage. For symphonies, this might be like sitting next to the conductor. Fabbri also highlighted that while classical recording practices typically valorize “realism” in the mixes, in the case of concertos, the mixing typically creates an unreal sound space, as the performer is mixed in both channels.

Pat O’Grady (Australia): “The Politics of Digitizing Analog Technologies”

O’Grady reported on the variety of virtual and digital technologies that are meant to imitate analog recording software. Most fascinating to me and my research were the words that O’Grady reported as being used to describe these plugins. Plugins are typically described as having “warmth”. “Smooth”, “glue”, and “musical” are other words used to describe their plugins. I would love to learn more about these plugins and compare the language used to describe them with the language used to describe the Fender Rhodes and other technologies that are often contrasted with the Yamaha DX7.

Steve Waksman (USA): “Remaking aliveness in American Music, 1900–1930”

Waksman gave an account of the use of the word “live” as an adjective to describe technologies. Advertisements for sheet music would use the word “live”: “live songs for live singers by live authors.” We nowadays think of sheet music as kind of a dead object, maybe, but at this time it was being sold as more “live” than the “canned music” of recordings. The American Federation of Musicians launched a campaign that praised the virtues of live music as movies with sound killed off jobs for musicians as silent movie accompanists and vaudeville musicians.


Gender in popular music

Robin James (USA): “Queered Voices in the Era of Post-Feminist Pop”

James featured two queer artists who do not conform to the post-feminist feminine ideal of resilience and overcoming. In one case, the artist Bottoms talks about emotional damage, and does not overcome this damage, but rather enjoys the damage. The artist-collective Decon/Recon writes music in a deeply collaborative way in order to resist ownership and thus the post-feminist ideal of feminine empowerment. I would love to see more of this kind of scholarship in pop music analysis, which in my view often relies on tropes of empowerment in its narratives. James also gave a keynote at the opening of the IASPM conference, which I unfortunately had to miss.

Sarah Dougher and Diane Pecknold (USA): “Girls Rock! Reverberations and Limitations”

Like Robin James, Dougher and Pecknold draw attention to the post-feminist assumption that femininity is equated to overcoming. They point out that this then places additional burden on girls, in a sense: all girls are feminized, but good girls overcome this. Dougher and Pecknold trace representations of the “Girls rock” theme from Jem through Black Girls Rock!.


Concluding thoughts

The experience of meeting these international voices was incredible.

There were a lot of papers, so they were sometimes hit-or-miss, but I saw many very high-quality papers. And having such a huge program meant that I was almost always seeing something that related to my research in some sense.

IASPM provided lunch and several coffee breaks every day, as well as an opening reception, which made it easy to socialize with conference-goers.

Slots were 30 minutes for the paper and questions, but the organizers did not insist on a 20-minute paper with 10 minutes of questions; rather, they left it up to the presenter how to divide the time. I love 30 minute sessions—45 is way too long (ahem, SMT)—but I think question time ought to be mandated. Questions are usually the best part!

For some reason there was a lot of drama in the three-hour-long general meeting (which then went over time!), but I’m gonna go on the record and say that IASPM 2017 was a great conference for me. I’m grateful to all involved in its organization and success.


AMS/SMT 2016: The One with the Sound Bleed

Now that I’m back from (lovely!!) Vancouver, I’ll reflect on my #amsmt16 experience this year.

Here are the papers I saw, with a quick summary of each and maybe a few personal notes.

  • Thursday
    • Martha Sullivan, “The Siren Topos, Male Anxiety, and Female Agency”—Defined a siren topic: large leap upward, virtuosity being two big parts. Definitely entertained by this paper, especially the parts about male anxiety around the female voice. Hadn’t thought about those topics before.
    • Johanna Frymoyer, “Octatonic and Ombra: The Russian Supernatural as a Musical Topic”—connected the ombra topic with the octatonic scale as a way of evoking the supernatural in a particularly Russian way.

    • John Covach, “A View from Guitar Land: Shifting Positional Listening in Complex Textures”—first paper in the Positional Listening session, defined positional listening as deliberately tuning out other instruments and focusing on any one.
    • Kevin Holm-Hudson, “Stratified Keyboard Harmony in the Music of Todd Rundgren”—talked about conceptions of keyboard harmony as stratified into left and right hands. This resonated with me as a keyboard player. I hardly ever think of chords like E11 as such; instead I think of them as an E in the left hand with a D chord in the right hand.
    • Brad Osborn, “Metric Levels from Behind the Kit (and Elsewhere)”—discussed the impact of different kinds of click tracks on the performance of a Radiohead riff.
    • Greg McCandless, “Attentional Cost and Positional Analysis: A Bassist’s Perspective”—an intense runthrough of a phenomenological gestalt approach to performance and listening. I think basically when a part gets too difficult, the player must necessarily tune out the other parts… I would need to sit down with this paper and read it to get a better grip on it. Defined a complexity scale for bass playing to help evaluate the phenomenology of a bassist’s perspective.
  • Friday
    • Andrew Flory, “‘She Needs Me’: Marvin Gaye, Crooning, and Vocal Agency at Motown”—as one commenter described, this paper was a “public service,” because Flory introduced all of us to several previously-unreleased master tapes of some Gaye demos. The best kind of show-and-tell, like musicological archaeology.
    • Mark Burford, “Mahalia Jackson’s Class Politics of Voice”—a sophisticated analysis of identity creation by Mahalia Jackson, also with a lot of great recordings.
    • Allison McCracken, “The Vocal Politics of NBC’s ‘The Voice’: Exposing Cultural Essentialism, Affirming Social Hierarchy”—revealed how “The Voice” both promotes singers who are Othered but ultimately reinforces white male hegemony.
    • Maureen Mahon, “Not Like a Girl: Tina Turner’s Vocal Sound and Rock and Roll Success”—an account of how Tina Turner’s rock voice set her apart and how it impacted her journey as a musician.
    • Edward Klorman, “Koch and Momigny: Theorists of Agency in Mozart’s Quartets?”—the title says it all—Koch and Momigny suggest how a quartet might be understood as a conversation. But the star of this talk was Klorman playing us a recording he had made of Momigny’s arrangement of that D minor Mozart quartet for voice and string quartet. Listen here.
    • Peter Schubert and Julie Cumming, “‘Maintaining a Point’: Repeated Motives over an Equal-Note Cantus Firmus from Josquin to Monteverdi”—My first early music paper at a dedicated early music session! Elucidated a passage that I did always find confusing in the Lusitano fugato treatise, about repeating a passage and then having a fast scale. Nice demonstrations of improvisation too.
    • Megan Kaes Long, “Tonality’s Missing Link: Text Setting and Metrical Regularity in Italianate Partsong at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century”—connected poetry to metrical settings and suggested that partsong may have given rise to modern conceptions of meter? I think?
    • Paula Harper, “Beyoncé : How Viral Techniques Circulated a Visual Album”—documented the social/cultural/economic implications of distributing an album through viral marketing.
  • Saturday
    • Keynote: Scott Burnham, “Music and Words”—widely recognized as one of the greatest keynotes in recent memory. Discussed ways of writing about music as well as the setting of words to music.
    • Pop Music Interest Group panel on To Pimp a Butterfly by Jim Bungert, Noriko Manabe, John Mattessich, Mitch Ohriner , Robin Attas—great to see a session devoted to rap, even if we had to make it up. Bungert gave a rundown of rap analysis with “King Kunta,” Manabe talked about the use of “Momma” as a protest song, Mattessich discussed the idea of generative/derivative flow and related this to “For Free?”, Ohriner talked about issues of quantizing in rap analysis, and Attas suggested ways of teaching the album in core theory classes.

And now, a Twitter roundup!

Pacific time was hard for us.

God bless @amsafterdark.

Soundbleedgate (are we calling it that yet?):

(sorry, I guess it’s Loudgate.)

Actual thought-provoking tweets:

(will need to get a copy of that paper…)

Great SMT, as usual. I think I went to more papers than ever (despite not really going to any on Saturday… shhhhh). There wasn’t as much work on timbre this year as in previous years, but still—being around all that productivity, seeing people’s new books, all of it is so inspiring to get back to work! As always, I left feeling energized, optimistic, and excited for the future.


GSIM 2016: Music and Radicalism, Radicalism in Music

The 19th Annual Graduate Students in Music conference (GSIM), for which I was a co-chair with Tom Johnson, was held this past weekend (April 22–23). The conference is entirely organized by graduate students within the department of music at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

“Music and Radicalism, Radicalism in Music” was the theme of the conference, and our keynote speaker was Jonathan Pieslak of City College of New York. (View the full schedule here.)

I live-tweeted the conference in an effort to publicize the event and the presentations via social media (#GSIM2016). It was my first attempt at live-tweeting a conference and it was quite the learning experience! The 140-character limit means that you have to distill each talk to its most essential points, which are only sometimes laid out clearly by the presenter. I tried to @ people whenever I could to include them in the digital conversation, but a surprisingly small minority of people have Twitter handles.

Here’s a best-of from #GSIM2016.

About Abimbola Cole Kai-Lewis, “The Hard Cashless Society: Radical Economics and the Music of Hip-Hop Collective Cashless Society”:

Oksana Nesterenko, presenting on the works for feral choir by Phil Minton:

From a lecture-recital, “Suffering Serene Waves: Radical Ecology of the Interior in Nono’s Late Period” by pianist Jade Conlee:

Composer Alec Hall presents on the state of composition of “new music”:

Unsurprisingly, a talk on Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer  by Allison Smith provoked lively discussion:

Here is a taste of Jonathan Pieslak’s keynote talk, “The Sonic World of the Islamic State”:

And finally, the GC’s own Elise Steenburgh presented on the relationship of Khmer-Rouge-era Cambodian song with present day Cambodia:

And finally….


Overall I think it was an excellent and successful conference, made possible through the collaboration of dozens of students. The topic managed to embrace composition, musicology, ethnomusicology, music theory, and performance, thus representing all the subdisciplines of music within the Graduate Center’s music department—this is no small task!

MTSNYS 2016 reflections

Another energizing and inspiring conference is past: Music Theory Society of New York State’s annual meeting. This year it was held at Mannes’s new campus–beautiful space. And a lot of really wonderful papers! I actually found the conference short, I think because I only saw two full sessions, and the other was a “lightning round” of short papers.

Yesterday I presented my paper, “Following Schenker’s Lead in Analysis of Stravinsky” (handout here). It was actually one of two papers in the conference about understanding Stravinsky’s neoclassicism using tools for tonal analysis–the other presenter, Sarah Iker, approached it from schema theory! I had great discussion with her afterward.
As I expected the discussion after my paper was quite lively–maybe that’s why my paper was at the end of the conference! This post is probably mostly for myself: I want to reflect on the feedback I received so that, after taking a break from this paper, I can revise it and address some of these concerns.

One piece of feedback I had, amazingly, never received before was that this was perhaps normalizing out some octatonicism, a well-established contributor to Stravinsky’s harmonic language. I hadn’t even noticed octatonicism in the excerpts I analyzed, truly, because one can also understand them as polytonal diatonic fragments, and that’s how I was experiencing them. I find this happens a lot: I hear things and think immediately “polytonal,” and others hear the same music and think, just as immediately, “octatonic.” At any rate, I’ll have to revise my paper to explicitly address and possibly theorize octatonicism a bit.

Another expected comment was about over-normalizing Stravinsky more generally. My approach proceeded from writing a recomposition of Stravinsky’s work that normalizes it to fit within the norms of tonality (what is “tonality” anyway? Another issue that needs more theorizing…) so that Schenkerian theory could deal with it fully. Does this erase what makes Stravinsky Stravinsky?

I tend to think that it does not. I chose a piece (Symphony in Three Movements) which really seemed to invoke tonality rhetorically. It seems fair, then, to relate it to tonality in analyzing it. The final product of my methodology is not the normalized Schenkerian sketch, but the overlay of the sketch back onto the original score. This actually highlights the differences between Stravinsky and typical tonality. I was approaching it in a Hepokoski/Darcy light. Here are the norms; now how have they been manipulated? It’s never supposed to be perjorative to say that Stravinsky is not doing the normal thing. I adore Stravinsky’s neoclassicism because of his peculiar way of twisting the norms.

Is it even fair to proceed from the idea of “norms”? I think so. And one thing that Sarah Iker discussed at length in her own presentation about Stravinsky was how the culture of modernism was very much interested in the traditions of the 18th century more generally, and also that Stravinsky had learned about things like tonal schemata (obviously not using that terminology).

Probably the most popular sentiment, though, was that more time should be devoted to discussing the differences between the surface and the recomposition. What are possible motivations for the shifts Stravinsky has made? What’s the effect?

I think for a 30 minute paper I discussed all I could. But I intend to expand this paper into an article! So these are all directions to expand in, to get it to article length. Any other feedback from any readers would be appreciated via Twitter or via email!