Sunday morning, November 15, 10–10:50 CST

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New Directions in Topic Theory

Robert S. Hatten (The University of Texas at Austin), Chair

Musical Topics as Products and Tools of Historically Informed Performance

Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska  (University of Chicago)


The theory of musical topics aims to recuperate expressive associations elicited by musical styles in their original contexts but lost over time. This desire to approximate modern listening experiences to those of historical audiences is shared by topic-driven analysis and historically informed performance (HIP). In this paper I discuss how performance decisions influence whether topics can be easily identified as such, and argue that facilitating recognition of a topic contributes to the historical informed-ness of a performance.

A series of vignettes illustrate the potential for a productive, bi-directional influence between topic theory and HIP, drawing on performance analysis, topical analysis, and reception study. For example, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, K. 304, Steven Rumph hears a hymn topic suggesting a “spiritual retreat.” But whether the passage sounds hymn-like depends largely on phrasing and articulation. Such performance choices need not be informed by performers’ identification of a topic but they nonetheless communicate the expressive associations related to the topic. In other cases, topical analysis can offer novel, historically-informed suggestions for performance. The aria “Odio, furor, dispetto, dolor” from Haydn’s Armida deploys the common signifiers of rage. Less obvious is the presence of the alla turca topic, a stylistic allusion that tends to be lost in performance because the accompaniment remains too far in the background. Highlighting the topical elements would accentuate Armida’s sonic Turkishness, and in so doing engage with Haydn’s musical commentary on how ideas on race, gender, and emotion were intertwined in eighteenth-century culture.

Beyond the Fusion Principle: Pop Topics in the Music of the Miles Davis Quintet, 1964-1972

Jesse Gardner (The Graduate Center, CUNY)


Trumpet player Miles Davis’s 1970 album Bitches Brew is taken by many to be the first entry in the genre sometimes called fusion or jazz-rock. However, upon further consideration of the music of Davis and other closely associated musicians in the years preceding and following 1970, it becomes clear that the “fusion” label is too tidy a description of the actual ways in which popular styles are invoked and incorporated in this music. A better way to understand the function of popular-music elements is in terms of topic theory.

One theoretical issue that arises in attempting to apply topic theory to this music is that of what I call the “host genre”: the generic background onto which topics are added as external references. A working theory of generic and topical signification is constructed in which the host genre is a potentially unstable theoretical object, rather than an a priori designation. A few styles of popular music which serve as important topics and potential host genres are discussed: (1) Latin jazz, (2) soul jazz, (3) hard rock, (4) jam rock, (5) psychedelia, (6) slow “groove funk,” and (7) fast funk in the style of James Brown.

Finally, analyses of three Davis-led recordings from this period are presented, with an emphasis on the way in which specific musical moments throw into question the stable identity of the host genre. What emerges is a new understanding of how a sense of genre as in contradiction or even absent contributes to musical meaning.

Transforming the Post-Tonal Topic in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto

James Donaldson (McGill University)

James Donaldson is a PhD candidate at McGill University. He has presented at conferences across Europe and North America on adapting topic theory for post-tonal music, surrealism, and spectralism. His article 'Reading the Musical Surreal through Poulenc's Fifth Relations' recently appeared in Twentieth-Century Music and a further article on spectral music is forthcoming in Music Theory Online


This paper proposes an analytical method of post-tonal Topical Networks. Through mapping Lewinian-inspired transformational networks onto hierarchies of topical characteristics, I demonstrate how topics freed from tonal syntax can relate more dynamically. Accordingly, this paper expands post-tonal topical interaction beyond oppositions, specifically adapting Hatten’s more co-operative troping categories of topical interaction to interpret topical relations (Hatten 2004, 2014).

I apply this method to Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. First, I identify four central topics: Fiddle, Chorale, Lament, and Fanfare. Second, I introduce my hierarchy of topical realization (after Griemas (1984 [1966])): Elementary (necessary characteristics which a topic comprises, though are insufficient to suggest a topic), Intermediate (additional characteristics or nuances lead the listener to suspect a topic), and Actant (specific characteristics which establish a topic). I then network these hierarchies, showing the oppositions between the Lament’s and Fanfare’s characteristics at Elementary and Intermediate levels and a larger opposition between fifths and tritones across the four topics. I adopt Callender 2007’s Sl transformation to map significant, topically-related harmonies across the work.

Such a decentralized model reflects broader aims of semiotic theories such as Eco’s (1984) “virtually infinite” network of interpretants and Barthes’s (1974) analysis through networks of “codes.” Through the lens of Topical Networks, the semiotic relationships of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto suggest a new method of understanding form in post-tonal music.