Conference Agenda

The Online Program of events for the 2023 AMS & SMT Joint Annual Meeting appears below. This program is subject to change. The final program will be published in early November.

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Session Overview
Specters of Polyphony
Sunday, 12/Nov/2023:
10:45am - 12:15pm

Session Chair: Jonathan De Souza, University of Western Ontario
Location: Governor's Sq. 15

Session Topics:

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What is the Difference Between Polyphony and Heterophony?: Music Theory Classifications as Instruments of Social Class-Making

Anna Yu Wang

Princeton University

This talk unpacks the epistemic politics of the heterophony/polyphony distinction—that is, how do analysts’ sociopolitical entrenchments define the use of these seemingly neutral classifications? Though heterophony was once considered a subcategory of polyphony (Adler 1908; Malm 1972), it has become conventional to understand them as distinct categories (e.g. Brady and Gotham 2021; De Souza 2020; Huron 1989), where “in heterophony, [parts] elaborate the ‘same’ melodic material with asynchronous rhythms; in strict polyphony, parts are doubly independent [in rhythm and melody]” (De Souza 2020, 166). The aim of this paper is not to prescribe new definitions, but to consider how current uses of the heterophony/polyphony binary reveal a disciplinary “information infrastructure” (Bowker and Star 2000) built upon politicized classifications that is ethically fraught for global-facing research and teaching.

Using four brief musical examples—Johann Sebastian Bach’s F major fugue from WTC I, “Frères Jacques,” the Mongolian long song “My Beautiful Hangai Land,” and the kua-a opera aria “Too-Ma Tiau”—I illustrate how the distinction between heterophony and polyphony is prone to slippage. Namely, it is not always clear how the classifications are structurally defined, especially with respect to melodic and rhythmic independence. A knee-jerk response would be to classify the first two examples as polyphonic and the second two examples as heterophonic. Yet, under scrutiny, the fugue and round do not necessarily exemplify melodic and rhythmic autonomy, while the long song and opera aria can be shown to share substantial textural similarities with their “polyphonic” counterparts.

In such cases where their music-structural distinctions are blurred, I posit that the heterophony/polyphony binary is ultimately an instrument of social class-making. I argue that “heterophony” advances 1) a political habit to define a "primordial and primitive" (Adler 1908) or subordinate class of musics and musicians and, in parallel, 2) an epistemic habit to categorize even that which is not thoroughly understood. I conclude by speculating that other common classifications in Anglo-American music theory—structural/ornamental and tonal/modal—may also rest on privileged/deprivileged binaries that subtly reinforce ingrained class associations.

Visualizing the relative brightness of concurrent textural layers in Ruth Crawford’s Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

Stephen Spencer

Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

The relative brightness of simultaneous instrumental sounds plays a crucial role in the perception of texture in polyphonic music. Scholars of musical stratification, however, have converged on a definition of texture that privileges rhythmic coordination. Proponents of “partitional” approaches to texture, for example, understand polyphonic music to be divisible into layers (or “partitions”) primarily on the basis of onset synchrony and shared contour, as represented in the symbolic data of the score. This paper argues that this model is unsatisfactory for characterizing musical texture unless supplemented by empirical assessments of timbre obtained through acoustic measurement and perceptual grouping analysis.The paper focuses on Ruth Crawford's Music for Small Orchestra (1926), a piece whose rhythmic organization suggests a straightforward textural layering, but whose timbral dimension problematizes such a layering. Through close analysis of the score and audio data, I demonstrate that the auditory attribute of timbral brightness in particular— quantified by what I call contrast ratios—allows us to assess relationships both within and between rhythmically coordinated layers in the piece. Additionally, these contrast ratios allow us to account for two common situations wherein rhythm-based partitioning is in tension with auditory grouping, namely (a) when uncoordinated layers cohere into a single perceptual unit and (b) when coordinated layers do not. The overall approach emphasizes the distinction between texture-as-coordination and texture-as-grouping, enabling more sensitive readings of post-tonal polyphony as written, performed, and heard.

Specters of Bach: Hauntology in the Music of Sofia Gubaidulina

Christopher Segall

University of Cincinnati

Under loosened restrictions in late-Soviet society, composers such as Alfred Schnittke (1934–98) initially responded to the sudden influx of newly available music through “polystylism,” or the compositional incorporation of manifold historical styles. But as Soviet communism began to collapse, stylistic references shifted from gleeful sonic utopia to depictions of loss and mourning. The music of Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931) enacts this shift most profoundly. Departing from previous studies of polystylism, I propound a hauntological analysis that explores how quotations in Gubaidulina’s music function as markers of lost futures.

Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994) coined “hauntology,” a pun on “ontology,” to refer to the liminal status of ghosts, neither present nor absent. Hauntological studies in various humanities disciplines expand Derrida’s concept to embrace confrontation with an uncertain past. In popular music studies, Burial, the Caretaker, and other “hauntological” electronic artists combine distorted samples with ambient static to suggest lost transmissions from long ago. Adapting this interpretation, I argue that distorted quotations in ethereal timbres serve a hauntological role in Gubaidulina’s music.

Two Gubaidulina works quote hauntologically from the music of J. S. Bach. The violin concerto Offertorium (1980/1986) begins with the theme from Bach’s Musical Offering. Gubaidulina’s muted-brass orchestration, reminiscent of Webern’s similar arrangement, timbrally defamiliarizes the source material. Reflections on the Theme BACH (2002), for string quartet, draws quotations from Art of the Fugue, a pinnacle of contrapuntal achievement that Bach died before completing. My hauntological analysis proceeds from the idea that the Bachian ideals of the departed classical tradition fail to materialize in a musical environment that remains haunted by their loss.

My approach questions why Gubaidulina wrote “spectral” music around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Haunting suffused Soviet culture, as the millions of victims of Stalin’s terror were never memorialized, preventing closure even in Gubaidulina’s time a generation later. Hauntology provides a conceptual means for tying the endemic mourning of the late-Soviet period to the compositional techniques of Gubaidulina’s quotation-based music, differentiating the latter from the polystylistic wave with which it has been associated.

Specters of Bach-Segall-915_Handout.pdf

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