Sunday morning, November 15, 10–11:15 CST

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Provincializing Music Theory: Epistemic Frameworks for the New Comparativism

Gavin Lee (Soochow University), Chair
C. Catherine Losada (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music), Respondent

Pre-Colonial Rhythm and Meter in Africa

Martin Scherzinger (New York University)

Martin Scherzinger is a composer and associate professor of media studies at New York University. He works on sound, music, media, and politics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Primary areas include the musical and choreographic traditions of Europe, Africa, and America as well as global biographies of sound and other ephemera circulating in geographically-remote regions. Scherzinger’s research includes the examination of links between political economy and digital sound technologies, copyright law in diverse sociotechnical environments, relations between aesthetics and censorship, sensory limits of mass-mediated music, mathematical geometries of musical time, histories of sound in philosophy, and the politics of biotechnification. (Personal website:


How do we frame musical thought in the historical period of settler colonialism? Some key ideas have begun to emerge. The concept of Newtonian absolute time, for example, gained ascendancy (following prolonged intellectual efforts to locate the correct measure of time in seventeenth-century astronomy) and was efficiently and militaristically leveraged in service of colonial governance. Matrices for framing musical time were theorized along similar lines; and, along with pitch spaces, instruments, devices, electrical currents, political nation-states, legal policy guiding intellectual property—instrumentality itself—were standardized and scaled. This analysis reckons with the limits of music’s standardized representation schemes by analyzing musical techniques and technologies that did not survive the colonial assault. With reference to mid-century matepe music from the Korekore region in northern Zimbabwe and amadinda music from the Kampala region in southern Uganda from the era before the destruction of the Lubiri Court, I show how these African cases, in a significant sense, actually invert the abstract relation of rhythm and meter altogether. In both matepe and amadinda music, there is no single fixed meter against which flexible rhythmic activity unfolds. First, the interlocking parts of amadinda, for example (okunaga and okwawula)—both perceived by the performers to be on the beat—elaborate different basic meters. Second, an additional meter emerges within a third part (okukonera) played in the upper register of the instrument. Third, four additional inherent patterns form within the middle registers of the total configuration, each implying a distinct metric scheme.

Genealogy of the Pentatonic Scale

Gavin Lee (Soochow University)


This paper proposes a new method of comparativism called “global sonic genealogy” that actively disrupts the outdated notion of discrete cultures embodied in musics, a notion premised on a colonial-capitalist musical ontology that emerged in the 16th century (Sykes 2019). Rather than simply applying old methods to new repertoire in the theory and analysis of “traditional” world music, we should refurbish our discipline’s Eurocentric conceptual foundation, in which self and other are bifurcated into the traditional and the modern. I proceed by taking a page from the emerging field of global music history (Strohm 2019), refocusing that view of the longue durée on music theory’s traditional emphasis on sonic objects. Four historical conceptions of the pentatonic scale are articulated by (1) scholars in the ancient China court before 221 BC, (2) the missionary Father Jean Joseph Marie Amiot in China in the 18th-century, (3) 19th century composers in the US, and, (4) the Texas-born composer John Sharpley who migrated to Singapore in 1986. A global sonic genealogy (GSG) of pentatonicism fundamentally disrupts the hoary (16th-century European), common-sense conception of discrete cultures. Tracing pentatonicism across the 4 cases, GSG embodies a new paradigm of normative circulation across time and place, displacing monocultural siloes which mandate the language of “inter-” in the first place. GSG embodies a fundamentally different, global ontology and epistemology that axiomatically refute containment in cultural boxes.

Comparative Musical Modernism: Jia Guoping’s Whispers of a Gentle Wind and Helmut Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto

John Roeder (University of British Columbia)

John Roeder is Professor of Music at the University of British Columbia School of Music.  His areas of expertise include rhythm, mathematical and computational models of music, contemporary art music, and the analysis of traditional music from across the world.

His most recently published work includes essays on cyclic duets and free rhythm in world music, analyses of compositions by Chen Yi and Thomas Adès (forthcoming), and an article applying logic programming to Rahn’s model of level analysis. With Michael Tenzer he edited Analytical and Cross-Cultural Studies in World Music (Oxford, 2011).

He has served on the editorial boards of Perspectives of New Music, Music Theory Spectrum, the Journal of Music Theory, and Analytical Approaches to World Music Journal, and on the Publications, Networking, Publication Awards, Dissertation Fellowship, and conference program committees of SMT.

His research has been honored with a UBC Killam Research Prize, a lectureship at the Mannes Institute for Advanced Studies in Music Theory, and an SMT Outstanding Publication Award.

Currently he is principal investigator in a multi-year theoretical and analytical inquiry into cyclicity in traditional music across the world, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


According to Lewin (1969), music theory describes how “composers and listeners appear to have accepted sound as conceptually structured.” He advised that for unfamiliar music—including music from “other cultures”—analysts need to foreground and explicate appropriate theories. I consider what concepts are relevant to Whispers of a Gentle Wind by Jia Guoping, a Beijing composer who exemplifies global modernism. The traditional Chinese instruments in this work do not seem to act as independent agents. Rather, it seems that an unseen energy elicits sounds from them, as a wind draws sonorities out of a natural environment. I consider how the Taoist concept of could characterize this energy flux. A spectrogram shows how energy in different frequency bands changes over time, how it mediates transitions between pitch and noise, and how segments are shaped and articulated, consistent with conceptions of balance.

I then demonstrate that such an approach has a global, comparative application: to Helmut Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto. Jia studied with Lachenmann, so this similarity is anchored in a concrete historical context. A spectrogram shows that the first section features a varying flow of energy very similar to Jia’s. Thus, although the two works’ pitch structures stake out distinctive music-cultural identities, I argue that a concept resonant with Chinese culture permits analytically productive connections to both of them. The comparison thus resists the tendency—both in anglophone theory and in China itself—to analyze Chinese modernist music in Western terms.

Ultra-Modernism and the Cosmopolitan Ideal in the Late Music of Carlos Chávez

Amy Bauer (University of California – Irvine)


Widespread recognition of global modernism in music has yet to affect the ontology of “new music” as category, or to challenge the distinctions between musical center and periphery. The appropriation of folk or non-Western material within an art music context may be marked as “exotic” even as it is lauded as an intercultural contribution to modernism as ideal. Yet the non-European composer who chooses to forgo ethnic signifiers may face censure for ignoring the unspoken rules that shape the cosmopolitan imaginary of our time. As a case study I reflect on the neglected late music of Carlos Chávez as it reflects the fraught historiography of musical modernism writ large.

The abstract language and denial of repetition in Chávez’s latter works share in a spirit of “eternal development” that foreshadows that of European New Complexity; they prove as resistant to traditional methods of post-tonal analysis as to the folkloric semiosis that characterized analyses of the composer’s earlier works. I position these late works as Chavez’s bid to finally be accepted as a cosmopolitan modernist, with all the paradoxical connotations that label implies. Their composition and reception history took place within a cultural framework shaped by the binary opposition of social imaginaries: a continental tradition informed by social theory and Frankfurt school aesthetics versus an Anglo-American positivist ideal. Such competing imaginaries mark the critical, dialectical and self-reflexive character of late modernity broadly, especially in music, where structural abstractions combine with local materialities to reflect the “character of the universal” (Oesch 1981).


C. Catherine Losada (University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music)