Selected Presentations

“Drumbeats: Race, Disability, and the Music of Voodoo Film”

  • Society for American Music Annual Meeting (New Orleans, 2019)

In 1934, three voodoo horror films were released in the United States: Black Moon; Chloe, Love is Calling You; and Drums o Voodoo (Louisiana). The films share an intriguing similarity: all make extensive use of offscreen drumbeats, which act as a kind of sonic weapon, threatening the safety, privilege, and bodily autonomy of its onscreen victims. Also intriguing are the films' differences, especially in their approach to race: in Black Moon and Chloe, voodoo is defeated as a means to reassert white supremacy, but in Louisiana (originally a play produced by the Negro Theatre Guild) the drums of voodoo protect the pious and blind their enemy. 

“Enabling Disabling Music”

  • Seminar guest, University of California, San Diego (2019)
  • Keynote address at the ELTE Workshop for Arts Education (Budapest, 2018)

A central contention of the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies is that disability, despite whatever biological basis it might have, is also socially and culturally determined. For example, wheelchair users are disabled by stairways, but enabled by ramps and sloped curbs. One environment produces disability, creating division and stigma, whereas the other, more inclusive environment accommodates bodily differences. Like stairways and curbs, musical practices create standards, expectations, and norms that enable some bodies while excluding others. In this paper, I discuss some of the ways that musical traditions have excluded and stigmatized disabled bodies, as well as some of the disabled musicians who have fought to change these practices in order to foster a more inclusive way of making music.

“Against Abridgment”

  • “Rethinking Primary Sources for the Music History Classroom, a special session at the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (Rochester, 2017)

Primary sources can be messy pedagogical tools, intermingling anecdote with fact, extraneous detail with germane content. Students accustomed to gleaning information from textbooks—which present organized histories—may struggle with sources written for purposes other than the straightforward presentation of knowledge, sources that conceal their relevance with archaic phrases, off-topic asides, and misleading, biased, or inaccurate statements. Hence, the textbook tendency toward abridgment: through cropping and ellipsing, a messy primary source can be pared down to its most relevant information. But abridging is an essential skill for the study of music history and various professions. Presenting snippets from primary sources not only absolves students of the difficult but important task of abridging texts themselves, but also prevents them from indulging in the mundane details of historical life that can make the past seem less distant. Assigning readings from digitized historical texts can help achieve these goals.

[related publication]

“Enforcing and Recasting Disability through Music: Two ‘Morals in a Ruin’”

  • “Recasting Music: Mind, Body, Ability,” a special session of the Music & Disability Study and Interest Groups at the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (Milwaukee, 2014)

While touring the ruins of the Château d'Arques, the Irish writer Thomas Colley Grattan heard beautiful music in the valley below. Tracing its source, Grattan was surprised to find M. le Chevalier Rebsomen, a one-armed man, making music on a specially designed flute (the flûte solimane, as he called it). Grattan’s remarkably perceptive narrative, implicitly linking architectural and corporeal “ruins,” raises two significant issues that are relevant to the politics of disabled musical performance today: first, musical practices often construct elaborate sets of norms, creating barriers to access that are a tremendous source of pain for outliers like Rebsomen; and second, music has the capacity to recast disability as a fluid mode of identity, one that signifies its uniqueness in different ways across different sensory domains—especially sight and sound.

"Who Composed 'Je ne demande de vous' (Bologna Q16)?"

  • Southern Chapter Meeting of the American Musicological Society (University of South Florida, 2014)

The first layer of Bologna Q16, completed in Naples in 1487, contains a peculiar mystery. Of its diverse 107 pieces, only one chanson—Je ne demande de vous (corrupted as Je ne demano de vos)—bears an ascription. A frustratingly imprecise ascription it is, with but two letters: “J. P.” The unicum status of the chanson suggests that it originated within or passed through Neapolitan musical circles, and also that the manuscript’s single scribe, Marsilius, was acquainted with its author. Several musicologists have suggested composers whose names fit these initials: Sarah Fuller has offered Jehan Pullois and Johannes Prioris as possibilities, while Allan Atlas has proposed Josquin des Prez (as Jodocus Pratensis) and Jean Japart (as Ja-Part). Yet none of these answers is satisfying. Pullois had left Rome for Antwerp about twenty years before Bologna Q16 was compiled, and Theodor Dumitrescu has recently argued that the Johannes Prioris spotted by scholars in Rome is a "chimera." The editors of the New Josquin Edition have resisted assigning the chanson to Josquin des Prez on stylistic grounds, citing its “ineffective,” “uninteresting,” and “occasionally awkward” counterpoint. There is another possibility, hitherto unconsidered: J––––– S––––––, whose recently discovered alias (J–––––– P––––––) fits the required initials. J––––– S–––– is convincing on both stylistic and biographical grounds, and his apparent death in 1487 (the very year that Marsilius completed and dated his layer of the manuscript) suggests that the mysterious ascription may have also served as a modest memorial.

[handout]  [audio: a performance by BREVE (Lucas Jameson, Mallory Simien, Andrew Owen, and William Plummer, director)]

"Paul Wittgenstein's Performance Practice: Reflections on His One-Hand Arrangements"

  • Symposium on Music and Disability Studies (CUNY Graduate Center, 2013), with pianist Inessa Bazayev
  • "Performing Music, Performing Disability," a special session at the American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (New Orleans, 2012), with pianist Jamie Gurt
  • Music Forum (Louisiana State University, 2012), with pianist Jamie Gurt

This lecture–recital is based on conversations about one-hand piano technique with Jamie Gurt, a master's student in piano performance at LSU.

In addition to commissioning a substantial repertoire of left-hand-only piano music, Paul Wittgenstein prepared numerous arrangements, many unpublished. Wittgenstein conducted these arrangements in pencil on sheet music of the original two-hand compositions, and his notational system (with markings that delete, move, refinger, and tie notes) is rigorous and consistent enough to permit the preparation of performance editions. These arrangements provide remarkable evidence for Paul Wittgenstein’s sophisticated performance technique, his creativity as a problem solver, and his musical expressivity; further, they exemplify essential features of one-handed performance—including how piano music for one hand can "defamiliarize" the instrument, offering technical insight to its performers, and how the repertoire might use its negotiation of disability as an additional dimension in musical expression.

"Helen van Dongen and the 'Noise Music' of Oil Drilling in Louisiana Story (1948)"

  • Society for American Music Annual Meeting (Charlotte, 2012)
  • Music Forum (Louisiana State University, 2012)

The film Louisiana Story (1948), widely celebrated by film scholars for its technical brilliance, is a culturally significant work depicting oil exploration in the Cajun bayou (Orbanz 1998). The plot's central contrasts—tradition vs. progress, nature vs. machine—are most strikingly developed in the film's sound design, as represented by the contributions of Virgil Thomson (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning score depicts the bayou and its Cajun inhabitants) and Helen van Dongen, the film's editor, who "composed" (with field recordings) a virtuosic nine-minute sequence on an oil derrick, later nicknamed the "Ballet of the Roughnecks." Scholars of film music have recently argued that, in some circumstances, a film's edited sound effects may constitute a musical composition of sorts (Wierzbicki 2008). Van Dongen's collage of industrial sounds for Louisiana Story certainly warrants such consideration: the noises of the oil derrick sequence are organized in a variation form, for instance, and the careful layering of high- and low-pitched sounds betray its designer's sensitive musicality. Virgil Thomson wrote admiringly of Van Dongen's "noise-music," praising it as a "composition more interesting to follow than almost any of the industrial evocations … composed with tonal materials" (Thomson 1966). And in her personal editing notes (now at the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library), Van Dongen frequently described her mechanical noises as "instruments" requiring "orchestration." ("Leopold Stokowski, that's me," she jokingly added.) Acknowledging Van Dongen's musical expressivity is important, for her sequence provides the film with an important counterbalance to Thomson's more traditional score—thus enhancing the position of the oil industry within the film's environmental politics.

[handout]  [the "Ballet of the Roughnecks" sequence on YouTube]

"Schubert at the 'Final Barrier'"

"Schubert, Seidl, and the Threat of Finitude"

  • Music Finished and Unfinished: A Symposium in Honor of Richard Kramer (CUNY Graduate Center, 2012)
  • Thanatos as Muse? Schubert and Concepts of Late Style (National University of Ireland, Maynooth, 2011)
  • First Biennial Music Colloquium (Louisiana State University, 2011)
  • American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (Philadelphia, 2009)

Schubert’s “Nachthelle,” composed in September of 1826 for tenor soloist, male chorus, and piano, features many characteristics commonly associated with “late style.” The poem, by Johann Gabriel Seidl, describes the poet’s body as a full and overflowing container of light. With two curt phrases—“es will hinaus, es muss hinaus”—that container ruptures, the “last barrier breaks” (“die letzte Schranke bricht”). The subject–object divide bridged, internal light and the external moonlight are allowed to freely fuse. Schubert makes explicit Seidl’s narrative of emergence by constructing a musical space that serves as an analogue to physical space: woven throughout the song is a recurring musical gesture that gradually expands outward past pre-defined pitch boundaries, accumulating great tension in the process. At the gesture’s pressured peak, the music seems to “burst open” or “rupture,” explosively releasing the newly rejuvenated tonic. The principal characteristic of these “wedge gestures” is chromatic contrary motion, often generated with the aid of an augmented sixth that pries itself open into an octave, or with chromatic-mediant transformations, in which the outward-expanding voices are placed in the outer registers. In one of the most remarkable of these sequences—the first statement of Seidl’s final line (“die letzte Schranke bricht”)—Schubert seems to have struggled over how to sufficiently prolong the gesture: he revised this passage extensively, recomposing its beginning by introducing musical Schranken (in the form of pitch barriers) that are subsequently surpassed at the rapturous climax. Artistic lateness is, in part, a meditation on death, terminus, and finitude—themes that recur in Schubert’s other late choral settings of Seidl (notably “Widerspruch” and “Grab und Mond”). Each responds differently to the imagery of finitude, alternatively expressing trepidation, comfort, and—in the case of “Nachthelle”—an almost reckless fearlessness in the confrontation with finality.

[handout]  [related publication]

"Music and the Agents of Obsession"

  • Society for Music Theory Annual Meeting (Minneapolis, 2011)
  • Symposium on Music and Disability Studies (CUNY Graduate Center, 2010)
  • Music Forum (Louisiana State University, 2010)

Formed in the late eighteenth century and popularized during the development of psychiatry in the nineteenth, medical theories of obsession divide the mind into two conflicting agents: a rational, mobile agent, and a stubborn, fixed agent. Contemporaneous with the emergence of this medical model of mental pathology, an evocative musical topos—in which a note or group of notes is stuck, repeating itself within a shifting harmonic context—has been used by composers to depict these obsessional spaces in musical terms. The resultant conflict between the mobile and fixed agents of obsession creates stories that are familiar from other expressive trajectories used to accommodate disability (Straus 2006). Three model analyses, each positioned at different moments within the history of obsession, will demonstrate the most common scenarios: the obsessive agent may be rehabilitated (as in Gaetano Brunetti’s programmatic symphony Il maniático [1780], from an era before psychiatry's radical reconceptualization of the mind), the rational agent may accommodate the obsessive agent (as in Peter Cornelius's "Ein Ton" [1854], a reflection of the nineteenth century's "democratization of madness" [Davis 2009]), or the obsessive agent may assume total control of the musical discourse (as in Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb [1943], a tale of madness for a Freudian age).

[handout]  [related publication]

"Lecherous Men, a Silent Soprano, and Porpora in Gaspare Traversi's Music Lesson"

  • Feminist Theory & Music 10 (UNC Greensboro, 2010)
  • Greater New York Chapter Meeting of the American Musicological Society (New York, 2008)
    • winner of the award for Best Graduate Student Paper
  • POP! Musical Excess and Artifice (Columbia University, 2007)

Over the past decade, the long-neglected Neapolitan artist Gaspare Traversi (ca. 1722–1770) has begun to receive much-needed critical treatment in the art world, with recent major exhibitions of his work in Stuttgart (2003) and Naples (2005). Despite the newfound attention, a central mystery to an important painting in Traversi’s oeuvre has hitherto remained unsolved: the identification of the score that sits on the harpsichord in his Music Lesson. The title of the composition (“Cantata a Voce Sola”), the first words of its text (“Sorge la bella aurora i vaghi prendi indora, e rende—”), and its music are clearly legible—and with this information I have been able to solve the puzzle: the music is a solo cantata by Traversi’s fellow Neapolitan, the composer Nicola Porpora. Only armed with this new information can a full interpretation of this baffling painting be undertaken. Traversi is highly regarded as a skilled satirist, who took the traditions of Italian domestic genre paintings and recast them as witty (occasionally savage) social critiques. Here, Traversi sets his sights on “music lesson” genre painting, which usually contains a female musician who receives “instruction” by a male teacher doubling as her suitor. (Music, invariably, serves as a prelude to sex.) Porpora’s cantata calls for a soprano with continuo accompaniment, but Traversi has mischievously rescored this composition: a flutist now plays Porpora’s virtuosic melodies, while the lone woman stares into space with her mouth resolutely shut. Though most women in “music lesson” genre painting are depicted singing, Traversi has rendered his soprano silent. The female, impeded from expressing the bittersweet sentimentality of the cantata’s text, is literally encircled by a threatening (if still buffoonish) horde of male lasciviousness.

[handout]  [Traversi's Music Lesson at the Nelson-Atkins Museum]

"'On mine herte is mad a wounde': Britten and the Signs of Death"

  • "Old Texts/New Music," Lyrica Society for Word–Music Relations, special session at the Modern Language Association Annual Meeting (Philadelphia, 2009)

Toward the end of his life, Benjamin Britten composed the choral cycle Sacred and Profane (1975), setting a diverse collection of medieval lyrics. Notably, the last of these songs chronicles the medieval Signs of Death, which graphically describe symptoms associated with the aging body. More than any other Sign, the symptom of a "trembling heart" (herte griset) receives extended treatment. Britten wrote these songs for a quintet of his close colleagues and friends (including Peter Pears, who sang the tenor line); and given the widespread speculation and gossip on the state of Britten’s heart (especially after the failed aortic homograft of 1973), one suspects that the medieval lyric was Britten's way of musically entering the discourse himself.

"Single-Handedly: Paul Wittgenstein and the Disability of Inability"

"How to 'Fix' One Hand Piano Music: Three Cautionary Tales from the Life of Paul Wittgenstein"

  • Music Forum (Louisiana State University, 2010)
  • Society for Disability Studies Annual Meeting (Tucson, 2009)

Paul Wittgenstein's one-handedness has typically been framed as a physical limitation at odds with an able-bodied ideology driving musical performance. Contemporary reviews, for instance, frame the pianist's disability as a tragedy heroically transcended during the course of virtuosic performance; others suggest that Wittgenstein successfully "passed" as two-handed. A study of Wittgenstein's numerous one-hand arrangements reveals similar narratives: the pianist often attempted to imitate the sound of two-handed piano music, and many of his own keyboard exercises train his one hand to assume the load of two. The "deficiency" model can be seen most dramatically in three attempts to arrange Wittgenstein's commissions for left-hand piano into a more "normal" performance medium: Sergei Prokofiev's expressed (but abandoned) interest in arranging his left-hand piano concerto for piano two-hands, Alfred Cortot's completed draft of a two-hand arrangement of Ravel's Concerto pour la main gauche, and, most significantly, Friedrich Wührer's highly successful two-hand arrangements of Franz Schmidt's left-hand pieces for Wittgenstein, which explicitly adopt a program of "strengthening" and "filling in" the supposed weaknesses of a disabled performance medium. Yet, despite the stigma it may have accrued, one-handed pianism is but a more prominent, more public example of the "bodily limits" all performers must confront; similar discourse surrounds the deficiencies of small hands or stiff fingers, for example. For the performer's body must negotiate its corporeal finitude with the complex demands of the musical score. As seen here in the career of Wittgenstein, an aesthetics of disabled performance presents this dialectic in heightened microcosm.

[related publication]

"On Annihilation and Transcendence: Schubert's Final Mayrhofer Settings"

  • Society for Music Analysis Conference (Cardiff, Wales, 2008)

Composed in the early days of March 1824, Schubert's final four settings of the poetry of his friend Johann Mayrhofer (“Der Sieg,” “Abendstern,” “Auflösung,” and “Gondelfahrer,” D. 805–08) revolve around a shared narrative: corporeal limitation, when ruptured by outward-seeking forces, yields a desirable state of spiritual transcendence. This narrative, common in the philosophical, theological, scientific, and medical texts of several major contemporary writers, treats the body as a disabled limitation which must in turn be “heroically overcome.” In Schubert's settings, energized musical gestures are “released” at poetic moments of corporeal death, and chromatic mediants—particularly the flatted submediant—are used as centrifugal harmonies that breach diatonic limitation. “Auflösung,” though positioned third within the set of four songs by O. E. Deutsch in his chronological catalogue of Schubert's music, was probably composed last. This adjustment has significant ramifications for a cyclical or collective consideration of the four final Mayrhofer settings, because in many ways this virtuosic song acts as a reservoir of the gestural and aesthetic ideas developed in the previous three.

[related publication]

"Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop: A Musical–Iconographical Riddle"

  • American Musicological Society Annual Meeting (Québec City, 2007)
  • Music and Image, GAMMA-UT Conference (University of Texas, Austin, 2007)
  • Music of the Americas, GAMuT Conference (University of North Texas, Denton, 2007)

Norman Rockwell's painting Shuffleton's Barbershop (which first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on 29 April 1950) depicts a clarinet, violin, and cello trio rehearsing in the town of Arlington, Vermont. Only three compositions for such an ensemble had been published before 1950; one of these is Adolf Busch's Deutsche Tänze, op. 26, no. 3. Since 1945, Busch spent his summers near Brattleboro, Vermont (50 miles from Arlington), and both he and Rockwell shared a common close friend in author Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Imagining Busch's Germanic trio in the New England landscape of Shuffleton's Barbershop introduces an ironic twist into a reading of the painting; the intrusion of the worldly or foreign into the secluded regions of small-town New England was not an unpolitical act in 1950. Around this time, there was much interest in the musical development in southern Vermont, perhaps best exemplified by Busch's creation of the Marlboro School of Music in 1950.

[handout]  [related publication]

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