Meeting 5: George Adams

Please join us for the last meeting of the year on Thursday, May 28th at 4.30pm,

to discuss the current work of George Adams (music)

From George:

This is material from my growing dissertation proposal on John Cage’s conceptual music. I’ve included an introduction that covers the span of the project, from understandings of objects and sounds to cultural memory and distributed subjectivity, and the beginnings of my analysis of Cage’s “silent” piece, 4’33” (1952). I look forward to any and all feedback!
the paper is available here. please contact coordinators for the password

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Meeting 4: Yuan-Chen Li

Please join us this Thursday, May 14 from 4:306pm in Cobb 112 for a workshop with

Yuan-Chen Li (music):
Difficult Voice: Post-Holocaust Vocal Music

The paper is available here–please email the workshop coordinators for the password.

Musical examples follow (supplemental):

Chaya Czernowin: Pnima

Meredith Monk: Quarry

Schoenberg: A Survivor From Warsaw


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Meeting 3: Stefanie Harris

Please join us this Thursday, April 30 from 4:306pm in Cobb 112 for a workshop with

Stefanie Harris (Associate Professor of German and Film Studies, Texas A&M):
“Obstinate Series: Repetition and Recurrence with Alexander Kluge”

The paper is available here–please email the workshop coordinators for the password.

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Meeting 2: Ryan Dohoney

Thursday, 4/16 @4.30pm in Cobb 112

Prof. Ryan Dohoney (music, Northwestern) will present

“Shaken into Seeing: Morton Feldman’s Modernism on the Periphery”

In this excerpt from the author’s in-progress manuscript, Dohoney follows the path of Morton Feldman’s modernism to the peripheral site of Houston and explores the composer’s burgeoning relationship with patrons John and Dominique de Menil. Dohoney documents Feldman’s strategy of self-presentation which depended upon the celebrity of the New York art world—particularly the reputations of John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, and Abstract Expressionism. This excerpt focuses on a 1967 concert of Feldman’s music given in Houston and explores aspects of techne and affect on display—Feldman’s notational inventions and their role in producing sensations of “abstract experience.” Through an analysis of Vertical Thoughts 1 for two pianos, Dohoney argues that Feldman’s anxious equivocality made his music especially suitable for assimilation to the de Menil’s “off-modern” ecumenical aesthetics which would eventually materialize in their Rothko Chapel.

the paper will be available here. Please contact coordinators for the password after 4.10.15.

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Meeting 4: Semyon Khokhlov

Thursday, 3/12 @4.30pm in Cobb 219

Semyon Khokhlov (English, Notre Dame) will present

“Reappraising Modernist Autonomy in the Early Career of Marcel Duchamp”

From Semyon: “This is a draft of an article I’m working on. It combines content from the first chapter of my dissertation with conceptual framing that I’ve been developing for the dissertation as a whole. The dissertation is devoted to exploring the ways exemplary modernist figures (Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, Alfred Stieglitz, and Ezra Pound) negotiated their commitment to autonomy and their participation in the modernist marketplace. I’m looking forward to all and any feedback but I’m especially interested in views on what I can do with the final section of the paper, which is really undeveloped.”

the paper is available here. Please contact coordinators for the password.

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Meeting 3: Aleks Prigozhin

Thursday, 2/26 @4.30pm in Cobb 219 Aleksandr Prigozhin (English, UChicago)

“Intuition, History, and Anxiety: Anticipating the End in British Novels of the 1930s”

From Aleks: “This is a draft of the concluding chapter of my dissertation, “The Arrival of the World: Atmosphere and Immediacy in the British Novel 1900-1940,” which analyzes aesthetic strategies for rendering abstract and diffuse historical conditions as matter for immediate experience, putting these strategies in conversation with histories and theories of media, affect, and mass politics. I welcome any suggestions, but I am especially interested in hearing feedback on the integration of the media history with the literary analyses my sections pursue.”

the paper is available here. Please contact coordinators for the password.

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Meeting 2: Max Silva

2/12, 4.30pm Cobb 219     Max Silva, Music, UChicago

“Heard Utopia vs. Utopian Hearing: G. F. Haas’s in vain and Political Ambivalence in New Music”

This paper is a case study bookended by some material that I think will eventually expand into a larger project. This project will look at two ways that composers of recent aesthetically modernist music can follow ethical imperatives and political agendas: on one hand, they can write music intended to be about or represent some issue or reality—conveying a message, telling a story, winning over hearts and minds through the sensual; on the other, they can write music intended to challenge complacent musical practice, affording a kind of disciplined training in being more perceptive and open-minded—that is, music that encourages ‘critical thinking,’ to make a connection with the rhetoric defending the value of a liberal arts education. Both imperatives can be followed simultaneously, with some success, but they can also conflict when the latter imperative challenges and complicates the very conventions of signification needed by the former imperative for successful representation. Such sites of conflict can become traces of modernist anxiety over its own ethical and political efficacy.

This case study has two primary objects: Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain (2000), an hour long chamber orchestra work written to express futility as a response to the neoconservative victory in the Austrian election; and a brief article he wrote eight years later in which he claims no longer to believe that composers have a ‘social duty’ and that in vain was musically successful but ideologically a failure. The point of the latter criticism seems to be that good art must be open to interpretation, must invite contemplation of mystery, in a way that good propaganda should not.

But in vain’s expressive narrative is actually rather straightforward. It is structured by an opposition between threatening music in equal temperament (i.e., the modern tuning system, with twelve equally spaced discrete steps) and the auratic, ethereal, utopian sound of chords based on the overtone series (the ratios of vibrations produced by natural objects that blend together into a single sound, which require notes that are ‘in between the cracks’ of the steps of equal temperament). The sense of futility comes from the continual loss of the latter to the former. (I’m providing some interactive materials on the workshop site that you can use to teach yourself to hear these different types of tunings, if you’re interested or want to be able to follow the arguments in detail; for the purposes of this workshop, though, you don’t have to worry much about hearing the difference.)

The ambiguities and nuance seem to come from those aspects of the piece that aim towards defamiliarization. The most obvious aspect is the performance of two sections of the piece in total darkness: not only is darkness rich with an abundance of connotation in itself, but it also takes on a special significance for Haas: the elimination of one sensory medium is intended to intensify our awareness in other ways. Moreover—as I show in a series of interpretive passes through the piece, each informed by different music-theoretical writings by and about Haas and contemporaries—the meaning of the overtone chords themselves is complex because they serve to challenge our habitual sense of ‘in tune.’ In the first interpretive passes, this potential for the overtone chords to train us in a kind of ‘utopian hearing’ enhances their representational function as ‘heard utopia.’ But insofar as appreciating the sound qualities of these signifiers in themselves requires blocking their signification, the aims of representation and defamiliarization conflict, even to the point where some of the most important moments in the narrative flip their affective valence if viewed in terms of intonation aesthetics.

Thus, to the extent that Haas is right that in vain is unclear in its political message, it is only because of an apparently much stronger ethical impetus. Why, then, disavow a sense of social responsibility? It appears to be a sleight of hand: he distracts us from his ethical commitments to defamiliarization by disavowing an ethics of communicative clarity. What anxieties might this sleight of hand betray? What does Haas have to hide? Perhaps it is a secret desire to be overtly expressive and political, a tendency he hides for fear (or perhaps internalized shame) of being dismissed as indulgent agitprop. Perhaps he is in denial over the possibility that—precisely because of the complications introduced into its black-and-white narrative—in vain speaks a truth that he doesn’t want to hear, that moral absolutes are impossible in an age of relativism. And, most importantly, Haas may be hiding his ‘real’ ethical imperatives out of some repressed worry that he is naïve to follow them. Perhaps, buried in in vain and Haas’s later critique of it, is a worry as to whether modernisms defined by an aim to improve us by aesthetically challenging us can thereby justify their continued existence.


Max’s materials are available for download here. Email Aleks or Marcy for the password.

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Joseph Grim Feinberg Book Release Feb. 11

Dear All,

We are pleased to announce an event we are co-sponsoring with the CEERES, Central Europe Workshop, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures:

Joseph Grim Feinberg, “The Windmills of Humanity: Presenting a New Translation of Czech Philosopher Ivan Sviták’s Writings on Politics and Culture”

Wednesday, Feb. 11 at 4.30pm in Foster 103from the flyer:

“Philosopher and critic Ivan Sviták was among the leading Czech intellectuals during the lead-up to the “Prague Spring” of 1968, when tentative reforms by Communist Party leaders in Czechoslovakia sparked a mass movement for democratic socialism.Joseph Grim Feinberg (Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences) is the editor of Ivan Sviták, The Windmills of Humanity: On Culture and Surrealism in the Manipulated World. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago.”

Selections from the new translation, to be read before the meeting, are available here; please contact ampri [at] uchicago [dot] edu for the password.

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Protected: Meeting 1: Kate Marshall

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Meeting 4: Seth Brodsky

This week, on Thursday 11/13 at 4:30 in Harper 145, Professor Seth Brodsky will present work from his book manuscript. Please see below for his note and materials, and go here to access his paper (email Marcy, Rachel, or Aleks for the password). As always, ample snacks will be provided.


From Seth:

The text I’m sending along comes from a talk I gave last May, and which I’m now reworking as part of my book manuscript. The talk was part of a conference in Basel called “Tonality since 1950”—a rather thing for me, since since tonality, as a centuries-long, language-like historical practice in western music, is generally the purview of music theorists. Of which I am not one.
In the end, I decided to use the topic as an excuse to rethink the old saw of modernism’s “language crises” from a Lacanian angle. I talk in particular about a German composer named Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), someone who most people in the world probably haven’t heard of, but who is “kinda a big deal” in Germany, Europe, and in the global new music scene. Rihm is considered in many ways a postmodernist, in that he “likes all kinds of music”, and avails himself (allegedly) of any and all styles and historical periods. I am skeptical of this position, as I am of postmodernist labels in general, and try to argue that Rihm is still engaged—rightly, wrongly, or beyond good and evil—with a problematic opened up by musical modernism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The talk is not especially technical. But I’m still a little worried that all the brilliant English and Art History practitioners in this group, who’ve mustered such wonderful discussion in past sessions, might be put off by the musical examples and, perhaps, by the music itself. As at least an aid, I’ve uploaded a few supplementary materials:
1) a quicktime movie of my slides for the talk, which allows you to pause over slides, scroll ahead, and actually hear musical examples along with scores.
2) Some music: I’ve uploaded a .zip folder of the entire Rihm song cycle I discuss—creepy/funny stuff!—and a few other things discussed near the talk’s end. I’m more than happy to share more of Rihm’s music if anyone wants. It’s extraordinary stuff.
3) For those who have the Apple iWork program Keynote, here’s the original presentation, and here are the slides in PDF form (no audio).
Thanks so much for your time, and for braving into—for some if not most of you—unknown territory. Truth be told, I am dying to know what English/Lit/Art History folks think of this material, especially the weird act of talking about stuff from the 1980s as … modernist (!?). Be in touch if you have questions, and thanks again!
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