Redefining Music Theory through Translation
The translation of marginalized music-theoretical sources shows much promise for expanding the Western purview of music theory, and decentering music-theoretical sources with which Anglophone scholars work (Hynes-Tawa 2021; Li 2022). The next step forward is to examine the value, labor, and ethics of translation, and how they animate the epistemic frameworks, and subjects and objects of inquiry in music theory. The proposed session aims to further the discussion on the relationship between music theory and translation by demonstrating the disciplinary value that a translation-centered project can bring to the table. It brings together three papers from the upcoming publication, Music Theory in the Plural, that illustrate in different ways how the inclusion of marginalized music-theoretical sources and the process of translation implicate a broadening and a reconceptualizing of the nature of work that music theory does, what counts as music theory beyond the Western context, and what methodologies it adopts.
The proposed session is united by two thematic questions: How do diverse music-theoretical materials require us to rethink the epistemology and methodology of music theory? What intellectual, ideological, linguistic, and ethical labor does music theory, and a music theorist, perform in the process of translation, in reflection of the particularities of the sources’ socio-cultural and political contexts?
In response to the above questions, the first paper translates personal notebooks from the Balinese gamelan musician and thinker Gusti Putu Made Geria, whose work articulates a continuity linking local cosmological beliefs with the sensory attributes of particular musical patterns. The second paper translates the work of Bulgarian folk music researcher and composer Dobri Hristov on meter in order to illuminate how music theory can express and advance a nationalistic worldview. The third paper translates the author’s own scholarly article on Chinese music theory to make the case that music theory, in a Chinese context, should do linguistic work.
Through these papers, the proposed session aims to demonstrate that music theory is a pluralistic discipline in terms of epistemology and methodology, and that translation consists in the articulation of a cultural epistemology in relation to other global modalities of music-theoretical thinking.
Presentations of the Symposium
A Linguistic Approach to Music Analysis in 21st-Century China
This presentation on linguistic approaches to music analysis has four main elements. First, it describes characteristics found across the five major language families in China, including the concept of tonality (melodic tone) that characterizes mainstream languages, the often extreme distinction between local dialects—even when separated by only a few miles—and the interrelatedness of speaking and singing in traditional Chinese music. Second, it briefly describes the germination, growth, and systematic construction of linguistic approaches to music studies in China. Third, it offers a brief report on two of my main projects, “Analysis of Music Sounds of Singing Words” and “‘Yueshuo’ in Chinese Vocal Music,” summarizing their main research content and implications. And fourth, it provides a concrete example by analyzing the specific timbral composition of orinasal sounds across different dialects with the help of anatomical diagrams, clarifying the role of orinasal singing words in constructing regional styles in traditional Chinese vocal categories.
Translator: Yiyi Gao (University of North Texas)
Metric Theory as an Instrument of Nationalism: Dobri Hristov’s “Rhythmic Fundamentals of Bulgarian Folk Music” (1913)
Meters featuring sequences of unequal durations, such as the alternating groupings of two and three eighth notes represented by time signatures of 5/8 and 7/8, occur frequently in Bulgarian folk songs and dance music. The first published theory of such unequal meter in Bulgarian music, “The Rhythmic Fundamentals of Our Folk Music,” was written in 1913 by composer and choral director Dobri Hristov (1875–1941) and became a model for conceptualizing, notating, and cataloguing meters within Bulgarian-language scholarship. Hristov’s theory and those of his successors also influenced authors whose writings about unequal meter are more widely known, including Béla Bartók and Constantin Brăiloiu.
In this presentation, I argue that Hristov’s foundational study demonstrates how music theory can serve a nationalistic agenda. Specifically, Hristov’s belief in the uniqueness of Bulgarian music shapes his theoretical claims, and he makes those claims with the goal of raising Bulgaria’s political status. For example, Hristov repeatedly insists that the Bulgarian meters he identifies do not derive from similar rhythmic patterns in Turkish music, and in a 1925 revision of the text, he adds the assertion that Bulgarian unequal meters also differ categorically from occurrences of 5/4 and 7/4 in Western art music. For Hristov, the distinctiveness of the Bulgarian metric system proves that his country, which at the time had recently gained independence after centuries of Ottoman control, deserves the respect of the international community. Moreover, as Karen Peters (2003) and Svetlana Zaharieva (2000) have noted, Hristov’s polemics about meter against his Serbian counterparts relate directly to the Bulgarian government’s aspiration to annex the region of Macedonia.
Hristov’s theory of unequal meter thus is not separable from his nationalism; rather, the theory is part of a worldview in which cultural, historical, and scientific knowledge cannot fail to support the interests of the nascent Bulgarian nation–state. As such, Hristov’s study illustrates the type of interconnectedness between music theory and worldview that Philip Ewell (2020) identifies in writings by Hristov’s Austrian contemporary, Heinrich Schenker.
Gusti Putu Made Geria’s World of Balinese Music Theory
Writings by Balinese musician Gusti Putu Made Geria (1906-83) will be introduced and assessed in historical perspective. He was in effect the first Balinese musicologist, but his work evokes older anonymous lontar (palm leaf manuscripts) of Balinese scribes, themselves heir to traditions of Hindu-Buddhist thought. Some of his descriptions of instruments and ensembles mimic the discourse of high priests and invoke unseen worlds. To grasp their resonance I will briefly consider their relationship to specific lontar and to Tantrism (Bandem 1986, Becker 1993).
With keen powers of observation, Geria invented a witty cornucopia of terms in Balinese for instrument functions and melodic patterns where none previously existed in oral tradition. His lexicon is a product of his insight into particular linear-intervallic structures and the motile impulses they evoke, which must be understood as music analysis given the cultural context. Geria in effect provides a theory enabling close readings of “classical“ Balinese gamelan repertoires, which teem with these patterns. I will consider a selection of them in detail, amplifying (and, where necessary, culturally decoding) Geria’s classifications and notations with a more granular but, I aver, ethnographically relevant approach. Recordings and notations of each will be discussed. Research and conclusions are based on fieldwork, personal experience, consultation with I Made Bandem, heir to Geria’s personal notebooks, and other Balinese musicians.
Geria’analytical thinking dwells in a network of ideas bridging his precolonial umwelt with an inchoate Indonesian modernity. The last part of the paper sorts Geria’s terms by lexical field: the natural world, emotion or character, action and perception, and the unseen world. Concluding with support from Blum’s (2023) comparative approach to world music theories, his achievements are placed in international context.