Tonal and Narrative Teleologies in Chris Thile's Music
Eastman School of Music
Dwelling at the confluence of classical, bluegrass, pop, rock, and jazz, Chris Thile’s original compositions are marked by a virtuosic hybridity that has earned him numerous accolades. But the scant scholarship on his music has focused only on genre (Stacks 2014) and rhythm and meter (Console 2022; Palmer 2017); none has examined recurring features of Thile’s compositional approach, contextualized them against his myriad musical influences, or traced them across his varied output as a headlining artist, collaborator, and ensemble member.
In this paper, I demonstrate how many of Thile’s recent songs across these formats combine formal templates and harmonic language from popular music with approaches to varied repetition and tonal design more familiar from classical contexts, producing tonal trajectories that interact conspicuously with a song’s lyrical content. Drawing on scholarship about expressive modulation (Doll 2011), modal ambiguity in popular music (Nobile 2020, de Clercq 2021), stylistic hybridity (Alcalde 2017), and lyric analysis (BaileyShea 2021), I demonstrate how these designs typically rely on the functional multivalence of short, repeated harmonic ideas whose contrasting affordances serve as linchpins for the song’s tonal and narrative arcs. Using examples that span nearly two decades, I argue that Thile’s approach to tonal and narrative construction is notably consistent across his output and comparatively rare in the popular music contexts with which he is often associated. But I also suggest that these specific features of Thile's music are tokens of a sophisticated musical syncretism that bonds a seemingly disparate cadre of modern improvising musicians.
"What's Up Danger?" and the Assimilative Implications of its Musical Hybridity in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
Cristina "Trinity" Vélez-Justo
The Ohio State University
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) features Miles Morales, an African American Puerto Rican (Afro-Rican) teenager who becomes Spider-Man. Uniquely among American superheroes, he immerses himself in hip-hop culture wearing his hoodie and designer sneakers, enjoying his graffiti pastime. The original soundtrack album portrays Miles’ musical preferences and embodies his cultural and ethnic roots through hip-hop, R&B, and Latin Pop. Blackway and Black Caviar’s hip-hop-EDM hit “What’s Up Danger?” was intended to play during the film’s pivotal scene - Miles’ actualization into Spider-Man. However, Daniel Pemberton’s conventional “superhero” score took center stage, combining traditional orchestral layers with hip-hop and EDM elements extracted from the song. This scene could be interpreted as a form of what Alcalde (2022) may call coexistent hybridity, where two or more styles of music occur simultaneously in a “smooth, cooperative relationship.” Instead, I suggest it is an example of sonic assimilation. Orchestral and EDM layers override the hip-hop elements as the scene progresses, sonically suggesting a hierarchy – that in order for Miles Morales to become Spider-Man, he must leave behind his ethnic and cultural roots to reach a place of Whiteness.
Generally, the American superhero film relies on traditional film score conventions to musically represent its heroes and their journeys, using primarily orchestral textures that Slobin (2008) illustrates are markers of Whiteness. In addition, EDM has evolved to become an emblem of Whiteness in mainstream music scenes (Park 2015, Garcia 2018). Hip-hop, on the other hand, is used as a marker for urban culture and Black-/Brownness (Bradley 2017). Throughout this scene, we are caught in Miles’ “in-between-ness” as he navigates this realm of superhero-hood (Molina-Guzmán 2021). Though the filmmakers intended to express enthusiasm towards diversity and inclusion in American superhero cinema, Miles’ soundscape suggests yet another example of implicit bias and stereotyping.
Hearing the Sonata Through Hensel's Sonata o Capriccio
Catrina S. Kim
University of Massachusetts Amherst
What does it mean for a single composition to be a sonata or something else? And how might one hear such a piece of music? This paper considers how Hensel’s Sonata o Capriccio (1824), scored for solo piano, navigates its dual generic identity. Todd (2010) suggests that Hensel “evidently viewed [the work] as a hybrid of the weighty traditions of the piano sonata and lighter diversions of the capriccio” (80). However, this hybridity is far from straightforward, and Hensel’s use of the conjunction “or” suggests several possibilities. Perhaps it is definitively a sonata or a capriccio, as two mutually exclusive options; it may be both genres at once, capable of being heard as either sonata or capriccio, depending upon which parameters are emphasized; or the composition alternately dialogues with the sonata and the capriccio. As neither sonata nor capriccio is easily apparent, I build a processual analysis—listening with the audience—that considers how each genre pertains to the movement, at times simultaneously, and at times alternately. I extend existing processual approaches (Schmalfeldt 2011, Martin and Vande Moortele 2014, and Osborne 2022) from the level of theme to larger formal sections and genre.
The sonata’s prototypical norms of themes, keys, and rhetoric are barely present in the Sonata o Capriccio. Capriccios tend to feature tempo fluctuation, virtuosity, and an improvisatory character, a far cry from the initial slow tempo and low, churning eighth-note accompaniment. In a series of six examples, I ultimately arrive at a synoptic reading of the movement after having heard the whole composition. While the final diagram may seem to revise the earlier examples, I argue that these conflicting readings are essential to the work’s generic identity. Each interpretation adds to the earlier ones rather than replacing them; in other words, I favor generic multiplicity over transformation. Ultimately, I argue Hensel’s unique treatments of the sonata are an integral part of her compositional style, and I further speculate that the application of processual form on higher levels pertains to any work that features generic hybridity, including her later Sonata o Fantasia and String Quartet (Kim 2023).