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Studio B • Friday evening, 7:30–9:00

Irony and Topics

Byron Almén (University of Texas at Austin), Chair

Timothy Koozin (University of Houston) 

Musical Topic and Ironic Gesture in the Songs of Steely Dan

Cara Stroud (Michigan State University)

Insidious Irony in the “Tarantella” from John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1

Abstracts

Musical Topic and Ironic Gesture in the Songs of Steely Dan

Timothy Koozin (University of Houston)

Steely Dan is widely recognized as a leading American jazz-rock band with sales of over 40 million albums worldwide. This study examines the distinctive approach to stylistic borrowing and juxtaposition evident in the band’s performances and integral to the songwriting of core band members Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. With examples selected from the band’s many hit songs in the 1970s as well as their meticulous studio compositions from 2000–2003, the paper explores how Steely Dan’s music is broadly ironic it its approach to musical genre, strategically positioning gestures laden with cultural meaning to create oppositions of expression and syntax that result in the projection of musical irony.

Building upon previous investigations of melodic/harmonic conflict that have been called “the melodic-harmonic divorce in rock,” this study examines Steely Dan’s strategic juxtaposition of material projecting different and even conflicting gestural, topical, and structural implications. The music of Steely Dan has received previous analytical attention that has focused on its jazz-influenced harmonic complexity and sophistication. This study shows through a close examination of musical gesture how Becker and Fagen juxtapose stylistically divergent elements that resonate with jazz traditions and support an ironic edge in their music, while steadfastly maintaining an authentic grounding in pentatonic-based rock. The analysis further explores how musical and social meanings are mediated through a topical discourse that enacts a comedic narrative, projecting juxtapositions and figural incongruities that are comparable to topical relationships that have been examined in eighteenth-century opera buffa.

Insidious Irony in the “Tarantella” from John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1

Cara Stroud (Michigan State University)

The finale to Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances, a boisterous tarantella, at first seems an unlikely choice for a symphonic theme in a movement that depicts the tragic loss of a friend to AIDS. The tarantella quotation in the second movement of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, with its bouncy leaps, rambunctious dance rhythms, and its tonal emphasis on C major, contrasts sharply with the somber and expressive mood established in the first movement of the symphony. Ultimately, the tarantella theme is torn apart—destroyed by musical disruptions that gradually distort and remove original features of the theme. In an ironic narrative archetype, features can retrospectively take on the role of incipient, or emergent, transgressions, especially if they act in a way to tear apart the order established at the beginning of the work. I explore how multiple layers of irony enact an ironic narrative in the “Tarantella” movement, which, in turn, points to tragic cultural ironies in society’s response to AIDS.

In this ironic landscape, the pastoral becomes the grotesque, a dance spins out of control, and the solid foundation of a diatonic pitch center crumbles in the face of atonal uncertainty. The ironic narrative archetype is one layer to be uncovered in a story that draws together ironies at different interpretive levels, from the structural archetype to the work’s biographical and cultural context.