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Transforming Tunes/Appropriating Styles

Mark Spicer (Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY), Chair

“Albinoni’s” Adagio: Baroque Forgeries and the Test of Time

Frederick Reece (University of Washington)


The Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Albinoni is one of the most enduringly popular baroque compositions in the repertory. It appears regularly on anthology discs with titles like Baroque Masterpieces and Essential Baroque, and has become so ubiquitous in cinema that critic Anthony Lane recently suggested that the piece be “banned onscreen.” Yet, culturally omnipresent though it remains, this most famous of Albinoni’s compositions is not, in fact, by Albinoni at all. As the Saxon State Library clarified decades ago, the piece is a twentieth-century “forgery”—i.e., a newly composed work deliberately misattributed to a figure from the historical past.

Music theory has no established vocabulary for addressing such pieces on their own terms. In a pioneering study of Albinoni, Michael Talbot (1990) understandably adopts the usual approach, dismissing the Adagio in G minor as a composition whose style is “so totally unlike Albinoni’s that it invites us to explore his music under false premises.” This paper takes the opposite tack, asking what can be learned about postmodern classical-music culture by subjecting an exposed fake to in-depth analysis. Philosophical and art-historical writing on forgery suggests that works such as this often succeed, in Max Friedländer’s words (1942), because “the forger has understood, and misunderstood, the old master in the same way as ourselves.” It is in this vein, I argue, that the Adagio’s montage of archaic descending tetrachord patterns and abrupt chromatic modulations has rich meaning as a document not of the eighteenth century, but of the twentieth. 

Listener Interactions with Musical Hybridity in the Piano Puzzler Podcast

Bruno Alcalde (University of South Carolina)

bio for Bruno Alcalde

Bruno Alcalde is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of South Carolina. He earned his PhD in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (2017) and a Masters in Music Theory from Indiana University (2012). His research focuses on musical hybridity, the concepts of style and genre, and music cognition, with a special interest on communicational issues of post-1950s musical experiences. Alcalde has published in Engaging Students, has a forthcoming article about his interpretive framework for musical hybridity in polytylistic repertory at MTO, and a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Public Music Theory on the Piano Puzzler podcast.


Hybrid music, including the polystylistic repertory, mashups, and sample-based music, prioritizes the combinations of styles, genres, and other identity markers. Do listeners identify the presence of multiple styles and genres, and how? I approach this question by exploring a corpus of fifty episodes from the Piano Puzzler podcast. Piano Puzzler is a public radio game show that focuses on piano pieces composed by Bruce Adolphe in which the melody of a popular tune is camouflaged within the style of a composer from the concert tradition. The episodes offer a valuable record of structured interactions with musical hybridity, in which participants verbalize and act upon informed ideas about musical categories and their mixture. 

Most participants (74%) either guessed the style of the composer first or only guessed the style, highlighting the importance of recognizing the style in order to parse the camouflaged melody. To investigate this further, I analyzed the dialogues for the participants’ conceptualization of musical categories, the hidden melody, and hybridity. I then propose a model in which both expectation and attention influence the responses of listeners. While listeners need to integrate auditory streams to recognize the style, the identification of the melody requires separation of the streams at surface level. These processes are affected by several compositional features such as tempo, the rate of the melody, and the metrical alignment between elements. I conclude by discussing how the idea of “solving” a hybridity puzzle can be used to understand more about listener interaction with hybrid music in general. 

Irony and Improvisation in Jazz Covers by The Bad Plus

Ben Baker (Eastman School of Music)


While The Bad Plus (TBP) is hardly the only jazz piano trio to perform covers of modern popular songs, their approach is more consistently heard as ironic by fans and critics alike. The band has rejected this facile interpretation, asserting that their covers are earnest attempts to “make rock, pop, and electronica songs vehicles for contemporary improvisation” (TBP 2007). Nevertheless, the trio maintains a reputation “for being irony-steeped hipsters who play irreverent pop covers, and who like nothing better than to thumb their noses at the jazz tradition” (Argue 2006).

In this paper, I argue that these two dimensions of TBP’s covering practices are often interdependent. I build on Janet Bourne’s (2016) framework for analyzing musical irony in order to posit three musical transformations—side-slipping, overextension, and parameter shift—that recur across TBP’s cover catalog and court ironic hearings by flouting various combinations of the so-called Gricean maxims. Using these transformations to frame potential links between musical structure and expression, I explore how the transformations signify a novel approach to a source song as a compositional and improvisational referent—often yielding imaginative or divergent solo spaces—while also underpinning the vertiginous contrasts, knowing misinterpretations, and rhetorical panache for which the trio is famous. By examining how this balance manifests in several of the band’s performances, I suggest that TBP’s cover transformations regularly yield both compelling developmental processes and dynamic improvisational environments, even when—or perhaps, especially when—these transformations are catalyzed by ironic subversion.