NUNC! 4 Musicology Roundtable: Experimental Bodies, (Anti-)Political Lives
Part of the Northwestern University New Music Conference
Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 2:00pm
More information about the Northwestern University New Music Conference
A roundtable discussion between Bienen Associate Professor of Musicology Ryan Dohoney, musicologist and percussionist Kerry O’Brien (University of Washington School of Music), and musicologist and musician Ted Gordon (Columbia University Department of Music). This event will be presented via Zoom. Registration is free and open to the public.
Jill Johnston’s Closet Criticism
No Ideas But In (Doing) Things: The Politics and Materialities of Alvin Lucier’s Early Works
Abstract - “Jill Johnston’s Closet Criticism”
“This is your local reporter always ‘looking elsewhere’—for the nonthing of the thing—for whatever isn’t settled, labeled, canned, caulked, cherished, claimed, and consumed,” wrote Jill Johnston in December 1967. As a dance and music critic, Johnston had become known for an idiosyncratic writing style, where her attention veered away from formal concerts and toward the details of artists’ everyday lives. She wrote from inside composer La Monte Young’s living room, describing the nonstop sine waves coursing through his home and through her body; she recounted eating mushrooms with John Cage; and she narrated the cliffside lesbian wedding ceremony of Pauline Oliveros—all in weekly installments in the Village Voice.
Johnston rejected the notion that criticism was a secondary artform, subservient to an artist or an artwork. Instead, she aimed to write “closet criticism,” a type of writing that acknowledged her own subject position and drew attention to the quotidian or closeted parts of experience, typically off limits in journalism. Johnston herself was not closeted. By the early 1970s, she was best known as a lesbian separatist and author of Lesbian Nation (1973). For Johnston, the personal was not just political. Personal experience had aesthetic significance that she deemed newsworthy.
Abstract - “No Ideas But In (Doing) Things: The Politics and Materialities of Alvin Lucier’s Early Works”
Alvin Lucier has been widely celebrated as a composer whose works, in the words of one of his students, reveal “the nature of sound itself.” Working with a wide variety of instruments—acoustic, electronic, musical, scientific—Lucier has, since the mid-1960s, composed dozens of scores that instruct performers to engage in various forms of disciplined actions, producing vibratory energies with extreme ranges of frequency and amplitude, creatively transduced between electromagnetic radiation, air, water, and other media. Contemporary performances of Lucier’s early works, such as Music for Solo Performer (1965), often stage this apparent revelation of “sound itself:” electrodes attached to a human performer’s head transduce their brain’s electrical activity into sound, through an electronic “black box” and a set of resonators placed on percussion instruments. In the words of Cristoph Cox, Lucier’s work, following in the tradition of John Cage, “is never about the signifier but always about the sonic real, sonic materiality itself.”
In this talk, I show how this understanding of Lucier’s early works not only avoids addressing the social and political consequences of how this work was developed, financed, and performed (namely, through Lucier’s connections with the cold war military-industrial complex); it also ignores these works’ development of ascetic, self-disciplined practices that valorize a performative co-production of sound between humans and instruments, a natural-cultural process that Lucier imagined as theatrical, playful, and incomplete. Looking carefully at early works and sketches that have been withdrawn or forgotten, I show how Lucier developed practices of performative self-discipline that expanded human capacities for sensing and producing sound—sharing research goals, technologies, methodologies, and materials with the military-adjacent institutions that supplied him with novel technologies. I argue that historically situating Lucier’s work can lead to more ethical performances that foreground social and political, rather than metaphysically transcendent, dimensions of sound.
Director of Graduate Music Studies. I am a scholar of U.S. and European modernism and experimentalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My research documents the relationships produced by musical performance and artistic collaboration within interdisciplinary artistic communities. I draw upon insights from ethnomusicology, microhistory, affect theory, religious studies, and phenomenology and combine these interdisciplinary methods with rigorous archival research.
My work has explored matters of music, collectivity, and friendship through the artistic world of Morton Feldman (1926–1987), a central figure of postwar musical modernism. My first monograph, Saving Abstraction: Morton Feldman, the de Menils, and the Rothko Chapel (Oxford, 2019), takes on the conflicted history of Morton Feldman’s most important collaboration—his work with Dominique and John de Menil on music for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The book is a microhistorical analysis of the premiere of Morton Feldman’s music for the Rothko Chapel in Houston on April 9, 1972. In it, I reconstruct the network of artists, musicians, and patrons who collaborated on the event: composer Feldman, painter Mark Rothko, violist Karen Philips, and the patrons Dominique and John de Menil. These collaborators struggled over fundamental questions about the emotional efficacy of artistic practice and its potential translation into religious feeling. At the center of this study is the question of ecumenism—that is, in what terms can religious encounters be staged for fruitful dialog to take place? This was a dilemma for Feldman, whose music sought to produce sublime “abstract experience,” as well as the de Menils, who envisioned the Rothko Chapel as a space for ritual intervention into late modernity. I develop two central concepts in the book: abstract ecumenism and agonistic universalism. Abstract ecumenism characterizes a broad spiritual orientation within postwar musical modernism and experimentalism that aspired to altered states of ego-loss This offered a renewed religious sensibility achieved through artistic practice. Agonistic universalism describes the particular religious form that Feldman’s music achieves both within Rothko Chapel. It is an ascetic mode of existence that endures with hope the aporia of postwar modernization’s destructiveness and modernism’s failure to effectively counter it.
The research and writing on this book were supported by a number of awards from the Paul Sacher Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and a Faculty Research Grant from the Graduate School at Northwestern.
My second monograph, Morton Feldman: Friendship and Mourning in the New York Avant-Garde, is expected in 2021 from Bloomsbury and will consist of expanded versions of four previously published essays on Feldman’s relationships with John Cage, Merle Marsicano, Frank O’Hara, Earle Brown and Charlotte Moorman. It will feature a new chapter on Feldman’s troubled friendship with painter Philip Guston. I also contribute a wide-ranging methodological introduction on modernism and the historiography of friendship and mourning. Intimate bonds produced more than an “underlying network of awareness” that painter Robert Motherwell intuited as the glue holding together the New York avant-garde; friendship itself is the answer to his question of “what exactly constitutes the basis of our community?” To show this, I position Feldman as a relational center of a social word and advocate for scholarly attention to the affective and epistemological conditions of friendship. I show how poems, films, compositions, and recordings register the tensions and attachments of this community.
Beyond my writing on Feldman and his world, I have written on the life and music of Julius Eastman as well as essays in music and philosophy. I am currently involved in long-term ethnographic work on the experimental music community Wandelweiser. A list of recent publications can be accessed here.
I advise a wide range of PhD students and am particularly interested to work with researchers investigating musical modernism (broadly construed), experimental music, music philosophy, LGBTQ topics, critical race studies, and science/technology studies. I work closely with my students to develop both research and professional skills and am particularly keen to help them develop non-pathological writing habits. My advisees’ current research includes experimental music as interpretive labor, the re-mediation of U.S. musicals from film to radio, the affects and semiotics of Japanese popular music, the soundscapes of spiritualism and early media technology, and transatlantic networks of gay modernists and their intimate publics.
In addition to my work in Bienen’s music studies department, I work closely with the Institute for New Music and am affiliated faculty with the interdisciplinary clusters in Critical Theory, Global Avant-Garde and Modernist Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Kerry O’Brien is a musicologist and a percussionist, specializing in experimental music, minimalism, and countercultural spirituality. She has taught at Yale University, Indiana University (where she earned her PhD in musicology), and also teaches at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She has recently presented her work at national meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Minimalist Music, the New Music Gathering, and the 2018 symposium “After Experimental Music.” Over the past few years, her research has been published as an essay in the volume Rethinking Reich (Oxford University Press, 2019), as well as in the Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung, NewMusicBox, the New York Times, and the New Yorker online. Her research has been supported by a Presser Foundation Music Award, a Paul Sacher Stiftung Research Grant, a Getty Research Library Grant, and an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. She is a percussionist with the contemporary music ensemble Nief-Norf, and directs the research component of the Nief-Norf Summer Festival.
Ted Gordon is a musicologist and musician whose work lies at the nexus of experimental music studies, critical organology, and science and technology studies. He earned a PhD in the History and Theory of Music from the University of Chicago in 2018. His dissertation, “Bay Area Experimentalism: Music & Technology in the Long 1960s,” follows the diffractive power of musical experimentation at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, leading not only to new models for composerly production, but also new cybernetic paradigms for instrument design, new concepts of self and embodiment, and new models for creative communal living.
Ted’s research has been supported by the New York Public Library, and he has written for the Library of Congress, the American Musicological Society’s Musicology Now Blog, and Cultural Anthropology’s “Theorizing the Contemporary” series. His research continues to explore and critique the musical, social, and political consequences of intersections between experimental auditory culture and technoscience.
From 2016 to 2018, Ted taught introductory courses on music at the University of Chicago, and assisted several interdisciplinary courses at UChicago’s Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry. In 2018, his new course, “A History of Electronic Music in Ten Instruments,” won the University of Chicago’s Stuart Tave Teaching Fellowship, and became included in the Media Arts & Design Minor.
As an improviser, Ted performs with the viola and the Buchla Music Easel.