The Music, Language, and Culture Workshop

SEM dry runs (10/20, 10/27)


Five Ethnomusicology PhD students will present their Society for Ethnomusicology papers over two sessions, the first on October 20 and the second on October 27. Both sessions will meet in Goodspeed Hall 205 from 4.30-6pm.

October 20: Joe Maurer, Mili Leitner, Ailsa Lipscombe.

October 27: Evan Pensis, Adrienne Alton-Gust.

Titles and abstracts below.

October 20

Joe Maurer: “Pirate Chanteys” and Revival Authenticity Discourse

The term “pirate chantey” denotes an unstable category; it encompasses all songs that, in the popular imagination, might be sung by a pirate. This term is emblematic of the tension between two revival movements: the folk song subculture of sea chanteys and the fantasy-based pirate reenactment phenomenon. The latter may be less well known to ethnomusicologists. Participants in this revival draw inspiration from sources ranging from real 18th-century pirates to fictional representations including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and the Disney Corporation’s Pirates of the Caribbean. A pervasive feature of this pirate reenactment activity is the use of songs, many of which are drawn from the 19th-century maritime work song tradition of sea chanteys. In this paper I examine the role of sea chanteys in connecting these two revival subcultures. Pirate reenactors import an authenticity discourse from the folk song revival through their use of historical sea chanteys, while the massive commercial success of the pirate phenomenon in popular culture exerts pressure on the small chantey revival movement. I argue that the “pirate chantey” represents a crucial discursive space between pirate fantasy and folk revival authenticity, wherein enthusiasts are free to remix traditional music with contemporary practices. I draw on ethnographic work within both revival movements as well as recent scholarship on pirate culture (Dawdy and Bonni 2012) and the maritime folk song revival (Carr 2006). This paper analyzes the politics of historicization and elucidates the formation of revival subcultures at the crossroads of fantasy and tradition.

Mili Leitner: The Ethical Challenges of the Ethnomusicologist’s Day Job

The New York based non-profit Kulanu supports “emerging Jewish communities around the world”. Its “world” comprises any and all Jews beyond North America, Israel and Europe – the “world” of “world music”. For some years it has funded musical projects for its own publicity and fundraising needs, simultaneously enabling musicians to generate an income. Recently appointed as their first Music Network Coordinator, I explore in this presentation the challenges of balancing the organization’s exigencies with the ethical demands of being an Ethnomusicologist. The questions I address are, to what extent do Kulanu’s patterns of musical production and consumption reinforce imperialist musical and racial hierarchies? And what impact does this have upon the already contested status of black sub-Saharan African Jews vis-à-vis global Jewry? In 2015, Kulanu withheld CD profits from an Ethiopian musician in the Beta Avraham community, due to a dispute over the purported disappearance of unrelated financial aid disbursed by Kulanu to other community members. In a second incident that same year, a track composed, performed, and recorded by a Ugandan Abayudaya musician was distributed by Kulanu’s leadership to a Jewish radio station without that musician’s permission. The discursive language regarding these incidents served to reproduce racialized, colonial power relationships within an organization outwardly committed to equitable, “colorblind” treatment of world Jewry. Nonetheless, they created space for a discussion of musicians’ rights and intellectual property issues, leading me to establish organization-wide copyright and royalty guidance. This presentation will scrutinize issues pertaining to African Music, Jewish Music, and applied/activist Ethnomusicology.

Ailsa Lipscombe: Accessible Music Pedagogy and Scholarship: Accommodations for Bodily Difference and Disability

The ocularcentric nature of many pedagogical practices and methods of engagement within a university setting can prove daunting to a participant who is blind or low vision. From the use of PowerPoint presentations and the whiteboard, to completing weekly assigned readings, to the expectation of interacting with colleagues and classmates through body language and eye contact, environments of higher education can pose challenges for an individual who cannot rely on sight as their primary means of gathering or conveying information. As a graduate student and teaching assistant with a visual disability, my time in the classroom has been shaped by my discovery of technologies that can mediate my engagement and aided by adapted pedagogical methods that emphasize aural cues over visual ones. Through consultation with university disability services in the United States and New Zealand and through working closely with faculty members, I now use a series of tools to facilitate my participation in higher education in a non-ocularcentric way. These tools include using spoken clues when completing board work, utilizing text-to-speak applications, and incorporating Skype into the classroom. The efficacy of this combination of tools also extends beyond the classroom, by opening up multiple sites of engagement, such as conferences and meetings, to participants with visual impairments. In doing so, these tools speak to the needs of a diverse university community, transforming higher education settings in invisible, audible, and significant ways.

October 27

Adrienne Alton-Gust: More Than Meets the Ear: Musicality and Embodiment Practices in Drag Performance

Drag performance stands apart from conventional modes of music performance since artists typically lip-sync to pre-recorded music. Though it is often viewed as a form of imitative performance, the presence or absence of a singing voice is not the most salient feature of the musical act. I propose a theoretically more nuanced way of understanding drag performance, by shifting the focus from the object being performed to the performing subject. While a performer works to embody a song, a spectator also experiences that song as being embodied in the performer. Even if the same song was played as “background” music twenty minutes earlier, the song and the act of hearing it have become ontologically distinct. Drawing on Noland (2009), Phelan (1993), and Cusick (1999), I examine the musical dynamics of agency and embodiment in live performance. My research is based on participant-observation in midwestern and southwestern U.S. metropolitan locales, and ethnographic interviews with artists across the queer entertainment spectrum: drag queens and drag kings; club kids and queer burlesque artists—whose acts are not cross-gender yet still gender performance—and transgender entertainers. Incorporating the perspectives of these diverse artists, I demonstrate that drag provides a creative space for performers to engage with their own musical subjectivities in a way different from conventional notions of performance. Building on recent approaches that widen the scope of performance, I contend that the musicality of the performer plays an important role in the embodiment and construction of these gendered personae.

Evan Pensis: “This is the Really Serious Part of the Song!”: Acoustic Co-opting and Sonic Subjectivity in Drag Queen Music Videos

With the development of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” WOWPresents, and other major media platforms, professional female impersonation is sweeping the digital world. A three-minute condensation of the musical-comedic drag show, the drag queen music video now constitutes a crucial cultural product in the commercial(-ized) drag queen’s oeuvre. As drag performance exemplifies an artistic process in constant contestation with hegemonic institutions of gender, sexuality, and race, drag queen music videos have emerged over the past twenty years as expressive collisions between cultural critique and commercialized modes of artistic production. In this growing music-cultural genre, I argue that drag queen music videos attend to image and sound in ways contradistinctive to conventional music videos. Employing an interdisciplinary framework for music-cultural analysis, I illustrate how drag queen music videos utilize an alternative system of recognition-reward to engage with [LGBTQI] listeners. Blending Moe Meyer’s work on camp (1994), Jose Muñoz’s work on disidentification (1999), Stephen Amico’s work on homosexual-musical embodiment (2014), and Thomas Turino’s work on musical semiotics (2008), I propose that drag queen music videos articulate a queer-ed subjectivity through “acoustic co- opting” to critique mainstream modes of audiovisual production. Exploring the music videos of U.S.- based drag queens Shangela Wadley, Alaska Thunderfvck, and Per Sia, I explicate how drag queen music videos write over pre-existing popular musics to create space for queer narratives, choosing the most well-known songs for their queer(-ed) palimpsests. Using these tactics, drag queen music videos form a primary site for queer resistance and resilience in the technologizing world.

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