Thursday 2:30-4:30 ET

Add this to your calendar

The Expanding History Of Theory I

Thomas Christensen (University of Chicago), Chair

From Monophony to Melo-Harmony: How Harry Partch Influenced Manfred Stahnke

Navid Bargrizan (Valparaiso University)


Harry Partch’s theory of microtonality has affected American microtonalists such as Lou Harrison and Ben Johnston, as well as European microtonal composers including Georg Friedrich Haas and Wolfgang von Schweiniz. Yet no other European figure has absorbed Partch’s ideas more than German composer Manfred Stahnke. This paper approaches Partch’s theories not as an isolated paradigm, but in relation to Stahnke’s aesthetic and music—who has also sought to expand the intonational and tuning paradigms of Western art music. As Partch did, Stahnke has rejected the dominance of twelve-tone equal temperament, grappling with just intonation, as well as non-Western and ancient tuning systems. I demonstrate that Partch’s theory of microtonality—especially his concepts of tonality diamond, otonality, and utonality, as well as his microtonal scale—has influenced the melo-harmonic structures in Stahnke’s operas Der Untergang des Hauses Usher (1981) and Heinrich IV (1986), and his instrumental pieces Diamantenpracht (2005) and Partch Zither (2007). For instance, Stahnke’s innovative harp tuning, which rests upon the intervals of just major-thirds and just minor-sevenths, stands at the center of his microtonal construction in his opera Der Untergang des Hauses Usher. Stahnke’s harp tuning conceives just intervals in otonality and utonality that, in the opera, depict beauty and terror respectively, and metaphorically relate these acoustical concepts to the elements in the storyline. Such otonality and utonality constructions demonstrate how Stahnke synthesizes Partch’s theories in his vocal and instrumental works.

Marsilio Ficino’s Letter on Music Theory: Just Intonation, the Ovoid Scale, and the Neoplatonic One

David E. Cohen (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt)


Northern Italy between 1482 and 1558 witnessed a music-theoretical revolution reflective of contemporaneous practices in composition and performance: the ancient “Pythagorean” tuning system, in which imperfect consonances sound quite harsh, gave way to what we call “just intonation,” in which those same concords sound “sweet” and harmonious. 

Directly relevant to these developments are ideas expressed by the great Florentine Neoplatonist philosopher and translator of Plato, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99). Ficino’s discussions of music theory have heretofore been studied principally in connection with his commentary on the Timaeus, where it is chiefly the Pythagorean system that is in view. But in a letter of 1484 offering a “rational explanation of music” (De rationibus musicae), the theoretical interest of which has thus far been insufficiently appreciated, Ficino—possibly influenced by Ramos de Pareia—effectively anticipates the advent of just intonation. 

Ficino there also introduces several other innovative music-theoretical ideas, including an image of the scale with its steps plotted against the curve of an ovoid figure as a representation of intra-scalar relations; the latter are conceived in an unprecedented manner that strikingly anticipates theoretical concepts otherwise known only from much later sources. 

This paper examines the innovative theoretical ideas expressed in this letter of Ficino, placing them in the context of contemporaneous theory and compositional practice, and considering, via their indebtedness to Neopythagorean metaphysics, their possible relation to a crucial aspect of Ficino’s philosophical thought, the theme of the soul’s “reversion” (conversio) to itself and (thereby) to its divine source, the Neoplatonic One.

Ut pictura, musica: Zarlino and Galilei on the Nature of Mimesis

Daniel Villegas Vélez (Montréal, QC)


The concept of imitatio, and, in broader terms, mimesis, has long been recognized as a characteristic element of Zarlino’s musical thought. Haar (1971) and Feldman (1995) examine classical notions of imitatio in discussions about fugue and soggeto as part of Zarlino’s embrace of Petrarchean and Ciceronian ideals. Moreno (2004), on the other hand, emphasizes the centrality of the Neoplatonic language of similitude in the theorist’s writings, making mimesis a central epistemological component of Zarlino’s musica scientia. Examining Zarlino’s description of the Senario as “imitator of virtue” and his adaptation of Aristotelian and Thomistic theses on the imitation of nature in his quarrels with Fogliano and Galilei in the Istitutioni harmoniche (1558) and the Sopplimenti musicali (1588), I show how Zarlino mobilizes Neoplatonic, Pythagorean, Aristotelian, and Scholastic interpretations of mimesis—or mimetologies—glossing over their incompatibilities to claim terrain for his theory. In this respect, Zarlino is exemplary of the way early modern thinkers approached the ancient concept of mimesis, namely as a polysemic notion that enabled claims to authenticity, originality, and natural perfection. This paper contributes to growing interest on the relation between music and mimesis (Cox 2016, Grant 2020) and the notions of nature and organicism (Watkins 2018, Grant 2020), reframing teleological narratives of absolute music as an “emancipation” from mimesis, their metaphysical implications (Tomlinson 1999, Till 2013), and the Eurocentric character of the “nature” at stake (Ochoa Gautier 2014). 

Confronting Ma: Self-Orientalism and the Legacy of Tōru Takemitsu in Japanese Music Theory Discourse

Garrett Groesbeck (Wesleyan University)


As one of the first Japanese composers to gain widespread global recognition, Tōru Takemitsu has had an outsize influence on discourse surrounding traditional Japanese music, both in his home country and overseas. Takemitsu’s concept of ma (間 “negative space; silence”) has been particularly influential, and is still widely cited in Anglophone writing. Takemitsu rejected traditional Japanese music for the first several decades of his life, and his eventual embrace of Japanese instruments was largely prompted by European and American scholars, in particular John Cage. However, as detailed by Kōichi Iwabuchi, complicity with Euro-American Orientalist narratives has often been one of the major pathways for Japanese artists to succeed overseas. Furthermore, an essentialist and particularist understanding of Japanese culture may provide Japanese artists themselves with easy answers to the complex problems of globalization, described by Iwabuchi as “self-Orientalism.” Drawing from my experience as a koto performer, I consider how the analytical perspectives inherent in Takemitsu’s ma both align with and diverge from with the values and skills emphasized by my own teachers, referring also to the work of Japanese music theorists such as Fumio Koizumi and Kenji Hirano. By proposing alternatives to ma, I hope to center the center the work of Japanese musicians and scholars deeply engaged with analysis of traditional genres, and point to a more diverse, plurivocal Japanese traditional music theory.