Saturday midday, November 7, 12–12:50 CST

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Gesture and Transformation in Instrumental Performance

Edward Klorman (McGill University), Chair

Sound Structures and Naked Fire Gestures in Cecil Taylor’s Solo Piano Music

Mark Micchelli (University of Pittsburgh)


Despite being a prolific composer, Cecil Taylor was notoriously averse to notation. In his essay, “Sound Structure of Subculture Becoming Major Breath/Naked Fire Gesture,” Taylor insists that “Western notation blocks total absorption in the ‘action’ playing.” This notion of “‘action’ playing” is key to understanding Taylor’s music: for Taylor, sound does not precede movement; rather, movement precedes sound. This paper analyzes Taylor’s work on his own terms, using contour theory as a bridge from notation-based to embodiment-centric approaches to analysis. I will use my own transcriptions of Taylor’s solo piano music to show how his compositions and improvisations are easily divisible into cells of notes, which obey a strict set of invented rules concerning repetition, transposition, and right-to-left-hand mapping. I will then show how these cells may be taxonomized using a surprisingly limited set of contour segments (CSEGs). Finally, I will demonstrate how these cells reveal the mechanisms through which Taylor’s highly kinetic performances are made possible: CSEGs translate directly into piano fingerings, and the shapes and variations of his cells conform effortlessly to the physiology of the hand. Understanding Taylor’s music less as notation, but more as the organization of physical gestures, not only suggests a new approach to analyzing free jazz, but also provides insight into how the complex intertwining of sound and movement affects the process of improvisation as a whole.

Performing Te: Gesture, Form, and Interculturality in Dai Fujikura’s neo for Solo Shamisen

Toru Momii (Columbia University)

Toru Momii (he/him/his) is a Ph.D. candidate in music theory at Columbia University. Toru holds an M.A. in music theory from the Schulich School of Music, McGill University and a B.A. in music and economics from Vassar College. His current research interests include interculturality in twenty-first century Japanese music, performance analysis, intersections of race and music theory, and popular music in North America and Japan. Toru currently serves on the committee of Project Spectrum, a coalition of graduate students of color committed to advancing issues of diversity and equity in music academia.


This paper proposes a performer-oriented methodology for analyzing contemporary music for the shamisen, a Japanese three-stringed lute-like instrument. While a number of studies on shamisen music focus on pitch- and rhythm-based similarities to categorize idiomatic melodic patterns (Machida 1983; Tokita 2000), others de-emphasize pitch to argue that performers are more concerned with timbre and performance technique (Ōtsuka 1989; Schmuckal 2016). I build upon the two threads by analyzing neo (2014)—a piece for solo shamisen by Dai Fujikura—through the concept of te, a term used by shamisen players to refer to recurring melodic patterns and their characteristic fingerings, hand positions, and performance techniques. Through aural and visual analysis of performances by Hidejiro Honjoh—the shamisen player for whom neo was written—I demonstrate how the form of neo unfolds through changes in the performer’s use of te. By adopting a te-based approach, I expand the scope of pitch- and rhythm-based analysis to highlight the interactions between form, gesture, and timbre in contemporary shamisen performance.

My analysis of te challenges the universalizing reach of Western music theoretical methods in non-Western music analysis. I argue that te represents an “invisible” music theory (Tokumaru 2008) that is not explicitly theorized in writing but forms the foundation of performers’ understanding of shamisen music. Weaving together the music theoretical work of performers and scholars on shamisen music as well as North American theories of fretboard topography, this paper presents a case study of an intercultural methodology for analyzing contemporary shamisen music.