Conference Abstracts


KEYNOTE: Deb Vargas, “El Grito: The Errant Cries of Mexicanidad”

This presentation will consider Mexican gritos. Gritos are generally understood as cries or dichos often associated with mariachi music although mostly improvised in numerous other contexts. The vocal performances of gritos are simultaneously distinguishable to those who recognize them and structurally indeterminate enough to inhibit precise duplication. As such, I approach gritos less as a vocal form and instead as a rehearsal shaped by ephemera, impermanence, and creative effort.

Mark Burford, “Performing Preservation: White Women’s Voices and Old South Black Song”

This talk considers inscrutable contradictions in the reception of three early twentieth-century white southern women expressly committed to preserving antebellum Black vernacular song by performing the voices of their childhood “mammies.” Even as their blackvoiced commemoration consolidated the national project of nostalgic Old South vindication, these women were also legitimized by alliances with the nascent scholarly discipline of folklore studies and, more unexpectedly, by the implicit endorsement of such African Americans as Harry T. Burleigh and W. E. B. Du Bois, who championed the cultural-political significance of Black folk song.

micha cárdenas, “Poetic Operations and Trans Ecologies in Media Art”

Beginning with Édouard Glissant’s concept of errantry as a decolonial response to Deleuze’s eurocentric formulation of nomadism, this paper will describe how trans of color poetics emerge in response to Glissant’s poetics of relation in my book Poetic Operations. Using trans of color poetics focus on movement and action through the idea of operations, the paper will discuss the glitchy trans Latinx voice in my augmented reality artwork Sin Sol. Glitch aesthetics, in dialog with glitch feminism, will then be the bridge into my recent artwork Oceanic, which uses Lidar scans of bodies, and disappearing ecotonal environments, in motion, to reflect on grief and loss in relation to sea level rise and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Joshua Chambers-Letson, “Season of Glass: Yoko Ono’s Shatter and Scream”

A meditation on the shatter and the scream in the work of Yoko Ono. In Ono’s practice (and in her scream), the shattering effects of grief never pass nor conclude, so much as grief is recurrent and durational. Within the crackle and choke of Ono’s voice, we find a queer mode of living-with grief and living on after, before, and within death.

Katie Crawford, “Race, Castration, and Confusion: An Epistemology of Silence”

Eunuchs in the Ottoman Empire did not say much. The harem was a place of conspicuous quiet, and westerners rarely spoke to the castrated men who by turns fascinated and alarmed them. The lack of reliable information, unsurprisingly, did not deter western commentators from describing and critiquing Ottoman eunuchs. Western commentators layered and imbricated notions of race, hierarchy, court functions, and castration in their descriptions of Ottoman eunuchs. Utilizing Donna Haraway’s notion of “situated knowledges,” but privileging voice (rather than vision), this paper considers the entangled formulations of gender, race, ableism, and the violence of silencing produced by epistemological arrogance. Some of this arrogance was manifest in the misunderstandings of the functions of Ottoman eunuchs. The lack of voices of those who knew what terms and positions and bodily states meant in context allowed unknowing subjects to impose incomprehension as knowledge. This in turn produced an assemblage of insistent racial normalizing and over-determined ableism cast as errant, even as those so marked remained voiceless. 

Bonnie Gordon, “Syncopated Histories / Castrato Temporalities”

In 1645 Loretto Vittori is rumored to have given a mind-bending performance of Domenico Mazzochi’s lament of Mary Magdalene. The castrato, famous for lament singing, had nine years earlier thrown himself at the feet of the pope asking pardon for supposedly abducting a young woman. This paper begins with a performance whose details remain elusive to emphasize the castrato voice as an opaque assemblage of effects filtered through a kaleidoscope of sound, sexuality, and desire. Riffing on early modern descriptions of the castrato voice and body, I suggest that these constructed voices function as what Kara Keeling describes in popular music as the potential to “make audible the social and political dimensions of the spaces it remaps or maps anew and make perceptible the milieus and rhythms from which those territories are formed.”

Martha Feldman, “Castrato / Trans”

This paper experiments with thinking adjacently between cases of castrated singers and trans singers. Proceeding from the assumption that different conditions preclude assimilating one to the other, I nevertheless try to think trans alongside castrati in hopes of opening new conceptual paths. Doing so exposes cracks in prevailing presuppositions about castrato ontologies, aesthetics, vocality, and sociality. It might also nuance understandings of vocal fluidity more generally and put pressure on notions of gender “assignment,” gender representation, gender embodiment, and ideas of becoming, specifically ideas of “becoming oneself” through voice. To do so, I provisionally take transgenderism as a wider-than-usual phenomenon, historically and ethnographically speaking, in a longer-than-usual durée–one that cuts uneven paths across different historical contingencies and motivations. To map these ideas, the paper thinks with fugitivity in the Black radical tradition and trans biopolitics as delineated especially by Paul Preciado.

Freya Jarman, “Vexatious Voices: Madness and Other Metaphysical Journeys of Pitch”

This paper forms part of a larger project on high notes in western vocal music, considering them as moments where issues adjacent to concerns of gender rapidly become crucially gendered. Here, I explore high notes as signifiers of madness and the demonic, including the slippage between those two notions, considering a range of musical material (including opera, twentieth-century popular music, and performance art) in order to do so.

Tammy Kernodle, “Take It from My Mouth: Odetta, Black Orality, and the Radicalness of Black Folk Culture”

Folksinger Odetta came to prominence in the late 1950s as one of the central black female voices of the second wave of the folk song movement. Politically she bridged the leftist ideologies espoused by Paul Robeson and Josh White through their performances of black folk songs during the 1930s and 1940s with the radical political ideologies that inspired the direct action campaigns of the 1960s. More importantly her performances of black folk song traditions embodied Robeson’s assertions that they represented a radical form of black cultural expression primed for countering racial and social injustice. This paper explores how Odetta’s performance of black folk song repertories aligned with the black civil rights struggle of the 1950s, but also reflected a black leftist feminist aesthetic that colaesced leftist ideologies within an artistic framework that called to attention the experiences of black working class women. Through Odetta, this aesthetic centered on re-engagement with aspects of black vocality that challenged the prevailing conceptions of sonic femininity promoted through post-war popular music. Lastly, this presentation will illuminate how Odetta’s performance aesthetic inspired a generation of artist-activists that spawned the direct action campaigns of the early 1960s and thus expanded the relationship between music and social movements during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Grace Lavery, “Notes on Clockiness: Towards a Theory of the Giveaway”

When we talk of “clockiness,” we switch the conventional modes of active and passive assumed by most models of aesthetic judgment. If I refer to an aspect of my embodiment as clocky, I attribute to myself a capacity—what TK might call an “affordance”—for a particular kind of interpretation, even as I distance myself from the interpretation itself. My adam’s apple, let’s say, might mark me as someone whose embodiment is conditioned within the category of “male,” but that claim alone does not amount to an ascription of clockiness, which is present if and only if the marking itself would be, in my view, incorrect—that is, if I would not categorize myself as male. So, clockiness is not exactly a symptom, but an openness to the symptomatology of the other; not a property of the perceiving subject, but an anticipation of observance.


Francesca Royster, “Tina Turner’s Queer Frequencies: Tina Turns the Country On! (1974)”

In my paper, I’ll explore Tina Turner’s performance of Black feminist sonic queerness in her 1974 solo country music album Tina Turns the Country On! I consider these songs as a declaration of independence, a way of coming home and embracing the past. At the same time, these songs recall experiences of gendered violence, surveillance and white supremacy for herself and for Black women more widely. As I consider my own development as a fan of Tina’s country songs, I do so in light of the queer moments in these songs, their exploration of constraint, suffering and ultimately, liberation. In this album, Turner reoccupies her own country self, as well as country music, signifying on traditional country music modes of lyricism, nostalgia and freedom as part of her own “coming out” and coming into self-process. A cover album, Tina Turns the Country On! engages with the work of Hank Snow, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson, lending their work her own powerful sound and style, while also engaging music that gives her pleasure. The result is an album that reflects an ethos of reclaiming a self and sound erased and then reborn. Despite country music’s historic culture of constraint for Black female performers, within Tina’s covers of country songs here, she explores masculinity, femme to femme eroticism and gender fluidity. In the same way that Michael Awkward has argued that Al Green uses country sound to explore his femininity and vulnerability in his sound, Tina Turner’s country sound has a queer frequency as well.

Amy Skjerseth, “Lip Sync vs. the Music Box: Sasha Velour’s Play with Playback in Drag”

Drag artists lip-sync to recordings to embody singers or to use songs as vessels for political and aesthetic expression. But recording playback technology has been neglected in drag scholarship, and it often goes unnoticed in performances unless the recording malfunctions. What would it mean to take playback technologies seriously in drag—to examine how they at once impose constraints on performers (in a song’s length and often singular voice) but also inspire roving vocalities? In a 2019 performance at the Brooklyn drag revue NightGowns, Sasha Velour appears to trap the playback of Allie X’s “Alexandra” in a music box prop. The song plays when Velour lifts the box’s lid but then grinds to a halt to shatter the illusion that she fully embodies Allie X’s voice. Velour’s sophisticated sound design and performance prowess distribute drag’s vocal source among the theater’s loudspeakers, the lip-syncing body, and the props. Here I show that the itinerant ventriloquy of the voice in playback has roots in 18th-century musical automata and 20th-century film sound, when technicians’ lip-sync and dubbing practices amplified sonic stereotypes of gender and race both to make new technologies believable and to foreground fakery for audiences. To defy historical forms of playback that box in identities, drag stokes collisions between present and past, singer and sung, artist and audience.

Emily Wilbourne, “The Black Castrato in the Seventeenth Century”

Giovannino Buonaccorsi (fl 1651-1674) was an enslaved, Black soprano who lived and sang at the Medici court, in a series of operas at La Pergola in Florence, and in at least one season on the public stage in Venice. If Buonaccorsi were not Black, if he were not enslaved, the question of whether he was a castrato would be largely academic. After all, at the time, most serious male singers were. In this paper, I argue that the castrato voice—which confounds modern taxonomies of gender difference—also provides a way to think about Buonaccorsi’s racial difference. Simultaneously, his race helps us to think more carefully about castration as a socio/musical practice since Buonaccorsi’s Black body forces attention to the ways in which the violence of slavery and the violence of castration cohere in their instrumentalization of the human body.