Saturday midday, November 14, 1–2:15 CST

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Who Is Allowed to Be a Genius?

Judith Lochhead (Stonybrook University), Chair
Laura Emmery (Emory University), Moderator

View an archived recording of the session using the passcode: 168339

Genius and the Canon: The Effects of Exclusion

Cora Palfy (Elon University)

The Work of a Novice: Genius, Professionalism, and Contemporary American Women Monastic Composers

Charity Lofthouse (Hobart and William Smith Colleges)

Charity Lofthouse is Associate Professor of Music at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She has published articles on Sonata Theory in Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies and the film scores of Clint Eastwood, and presented papers and lectures on Shostakovich, Russian music, film music, and women monastic composers at Society for Music Theory, Music Theory Midwest, Music Theory Society of New York State, Feminist Theories in Music, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Eastman School of Music, Louisiana State University, Rutgers University, and at international conferences in Austria, Estonia, and Russia. She has previously taught at Baruch and Hunter Colleges and at Oberlin Conservatory.


This paper explores questions of genius through the works of contemporary nun composers, examining characterizations of their music as “professional” or “amateur.” I contend nuns’ religious profession and depictions of their music making as divinely inspired positions their contemporary compositions as amateur and lacking divine inspiration.

Though highly feminized in media depictions of chanting and “hum-and-strum” folk singing, nuns represent a cultural outgroup that occupies non-binary spaces while simultaneously subjugated by religious institutions. Nuns are presented as Platonic geniuses—vessels of divine musical inspiration—as far back as Hildegard’s visitations, while chapel designs obliged nuns to perform unseen until 1960 and excluded them from professional musical exchanges until 1965.

Three interlocking factors buttress perceptions of contemporary nun composers as unsophisticated and uninspired, despite their education and stylistic diversity: First, Vatican II reforms made professional (male) composers Beethovenian guardians of traditional forms, just as nuns gained access to advanced degrees and public performances. Second, media commodification and feminization of American religious life in the 1960s placed nuns’ music into a gendered “amateur” category. Third, nuns’ religiosity and traditionalism strongly contrasted with second-wave feminism, excluding them from definitions of genius encompassing modernist female composers.

Sr. Theophane Hytrek, Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, and Elise, CHS serve as case studies, spanning genres from chant to feminist songs to symphonies. Analyzing these works not only acquaints us with this repertoire, but also shows how attitudes about compositional genius continue to affect nuns’ musical reception, much to the detriment of both feminist and music scholarship.

A Nun or Avant-gardist? Heterogenous Creative Aspects in Byzantine Concerto by Serbian Composer Ljubica Marić as a Reaction on Socio-Esthetical Limitations of Former Yugoslav Milieu

Nikola Komatović (Independent Scholar)


The Second World War and the subsequent change in the socio-political structure of Yugoslavia profoundly impacted the cultural policy of the region. The new communist government imposed the aesthetics of socialist realism per USSR’s 1930s doctrine. However, following Yugoslavia’s break from the Eastern Block in 1948, certain avant-garde elements were somewhat tolerated. Ljubica Marić (1909–2003), the first Serbian formally-trained woman composer in the country, was one of the key figures in this post-war Serbian avant-garde music scene, navigating through a complex political and patriarchal system.

Unable to find a steady position, she completely withdrew from the publicity, commenced experimenting with religious mysticism and studied Byzantine music theory, especially the Ochtoechos—a medieval Christian Orthodox Church scalar system. These discoveries of music structures led her to develop new aesthetics and compositional techniques, resulting to the creation of some of the most important compositions in the Serbian modernism.

In this study, I will try to answer this question—how did Marić obtain a comparative advantage against her male colleagues, and why is she today considered to be one of the most successful Serbian composers of all the time?

Through my analysis of her key avant-garde compositions, I will explain how Marić’s combination of archaic and avant-garde music expression not only created a new modernist aesthetic, but also paved the way for new generations of composers, and especially women, who today remarkably make the majority of composers in Serbia.

Romantic Geniuses, Idiot Savants, and Autistic People Who Are Good at Music

Joseph Straus (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

Joseph Straus is Distinguished Professor of Music Theory at the CUNY Graduate Center.  He has written numerous articles and scholarly monographs on a variety of topics in modernist music. He has also written a series of articles and books that engage disability as a cultural practice, most recently Broken Beauty: Musical Modernism and the Representation of Disability (published by Oxford University Press in 2018).   He was President of SMT in the late 90’s.


People identified as “idiot savants” are generally considered “mentally deficient,” while simultaneously demonstrating impressive skill in some area (often music). The savant skill is often understood as a mark of genius, within the familiar trope that likens the Romantic genius to a mere vessel through whom divine inspiration passes. The ascription of genius enfreaks these musicians as simultaneously more and less than human: their superhuman gifts deepen, by contrast, the abjectness of their subhuman mental capacities.

The coveted, valorizing label “genius” has been often been denied to groups of people on the basis of race, gender, and other systems of oppression. For the musicians discussed in this paper, however, the label has been foisted upon them, and not to their benefit. Rather, it has removed them from the human community (as superhuman) and deepened the stigma of their intellectual disability (as subhuman). By disenchanting the idea of genius and stripping away the savant label, we will be able to see these musicians for what they are: autistic people whose autism enables their distinctive ways of making music. I will pursue my argument by sympathetic evaluation of the musical careers of three musicians who have been widely identified as idiot savants, and whose savant skills have been understood as marks of musical genius: Thomas Wiggins (“Blind Tom”), Leslie Lemke, and Derek Paravicini.

Artificial Creativity, Artificial Genius: Improvising Computers and the Listening Subject

Jessica Shand (Harvard University, New England Conservatory)

Jessica Shand is a performer-composer pursuing an A.B. in Mathematics and Music (Harvard University ’22) and an M.M. in flute performance (New England Conservatory ’23). She has put her studies on pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, working as a Research Analyst with the Advisory Board for the Arts to tackle the new challenges faced by arts and education organizations at this time.

Committed to innovation, integrity, and the possibility of a more just & equitable future, Shand’s current artistic work revolves around fostering, developing, and supporting practices that build kinships to dismantle systemic inequities in arts and culture, to amplify underrepresented voices in the music industry, to experiment radically and shamelessly, to strengthen the social fabric of local communities, to elicit productive empathy, and to envision social, political, and technological change. She has championed and premiered upwards of thirty brand-new musical works over the course of the last three years, not including her own compositions.

Most recently, Shand received Harvard’s 2020 Hugh F. MacColl Prize in Composition and worked on the staffs of the International Contemporary Ensemble (Development & Marketing Assistant), New Amsterdam Records (Financial Assistant), and Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra (Director of Community Engagement). She is currently the President of the Harvard College Opera Society.

Jessica grew up along Colorado’s Front Range and has been a Wm. S. Haynes Co. International Young Artist since 2016. Her mentors and influences include flutists Paula Robison, Claire Chase, and Brook Ferguson, and academics Lauren Williams, Barry Mazur, Vijay Iyer, and Alexander Rehding.

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In this research, I turn toward musically improvising computers to unpack notions of creativity within 21st-century contemporary art music using American composer Pauline Oliveros’s Expanded Instrument System (EIS) as a case study. I allow for a creativity that is co-determined by a non-human, machinic agency, temporarily setting aside Lovelace’s famous assumption that machines cannot be creative. In order to do this, I rely on the method of actor-network theory (ANT), examining both human and non-human actors in terms of the natural and social networks of relations in which they exist and thereby assigns agency to all such actors. Through a close reading of the role of computer-improvisers in the music of Pauline Oliveros as performed by her close friend and collaborator, the flutist Claire Chase, I ask: how is creativity constructed in Oliveros’s context? How has software and hardware shaped and been shaped by that construction? As in this case study the notion of creativity is strictly tied to that of improvisation, I also question the relationship between the two. To conclude, I directly respond to recent developments in the theorization of the listening subject as put forth by musicologist Nina Eidsheim—namely, her proposal for a vibrational practice of listening in which “music is predominantly understood…as material and intermaterial vibration.” I argue that Eidsheim’s model breaks down in the face of computer temporalities that operate outside of, even beyond, the material here-and-now: indeed, any contemporary practice of listening must be pliable enough to capture the agency, however immaterial, of the listening machine.

Contextualizing Musical Genius: Perspectives from Queer Theory

Vivian Luong (University of Virginia)

Vivian Luong is a lecturer in music theory at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research interests include the ethics of music analysis, feminist and queer theory, Schenkerian analysis, and affective autoethnography. Vivian is currently developing a project that brings together the queer animacies of the nonhuman and theories of musical agency. Her work on analytical ethics has been published in Music Theory Online. Vivian has previously taught at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, where she received her PhD in music theory.

Taylor Myers (Rutgers University)