This Wednesday, October 19th from 4:30-6pm, will be the second session of the Music History and Theory Study Group, featuring dry runs for the annual meetings of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory. We will feature three papers: Braxton Shelley’s “‘Tuning Up’ in Contemporary Gospel Performance,” Rebecca Flore’s “Orchestrating Speech in the Works of James Tenney,” and Maxwell Silva’s “Un-Quin(n)ing Qualia.”
Please join us in Logan 802 (note the room change) for what will undoubtedly be a productive and informative meeting. Reception to follow afterward. Automatically add this event to your google calendar by following this link.
Below, find the abstracts for Braxton, Rebecca, and Max’s papers.
“Tuning Up” in Contemporary Gospel Performance
For practitioners of many African American Christian traditions, “tuning up” is a colloquial referent for a preacher’s shift from speech into song, most often at the end of a sermon. This phenomenon and its antecedents lie at the heart of many scholarly examinations of black preaching, ranging fromBruce Rosenburg’s (1970) Can These Bones Live?: The Art of the American Folk Preacher to Frank Thomas’ (1997) They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching. These observations concerning the musicality of black preaching depend on an analogy between such sermons and gospel songs. Although scholars have noted the interrelation of African American preaching and African American gospel music (Floyd 1997; Ramsey 2003), their relationship has not yet been used as a means to theorize gospel performance.
In this paper, I extend “tuning up” from its specific role in black preaching to contemporary gospel performance, considering this practice as an analytic for formal procedure in gospel music. I begin by analyzing excerpts from sermons—Bishop James Morton’s “The Lazarus Conspiracy, Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart’s “Am I My Brother and My Sister’s Keeper” and Rev. Dr. E. Dewey Smith’s “A Seminary From A Cemetery”—to illustrate the different forms this practice can take. I will then use homiletics, ritual theory, practice theory and phenomenology to argue that “tuning up” is a means of organizing attention. Close readings of three gospel songs—Richard Smallwood’s (1998) “Healing,” Myrna Summer’s (1975) “Oh How Precious,” and Brenda Moore’s (1989) “Perfect Praise”—to illustrate how the vamp, the repetitive ending cycle that is one of gospel’s central features, musically performs the process of “tuning up.” As in the sermons, and in similar settings, the structure and performance of each of these songs invites an attention shift concomitant with the beginning of its vamp. It constitutes a shift in performance that calls forth a change in perception—from the individual to the collective, and from the ear to the body, engendering a communal perception that lies at the heart of the gospel aesthetic.
Orchestrating Speech in the Works of James Tenney
The late 20th century saw a marked interest in speech synthesis in the field of psychoacoustics. This line of inquiry spilled over into music research as scholars devised methods of analyzing and synthesizing both speech and instrumental sounds. Concurrently with—or as a result of—these scientific advancements, composers began human speech as a compositional object that can be incorporated and manipulated into a musical work.
The paper will examine speech as a compositional object in the music of West Coast composer James Tenney (1934–2006), a leading figure in American spectral music. Two pieces from different eras of Tenney’s career, Three Indigenous Songs (1978) and Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch (1999), will form the basis of this survey, demonstrating both the influence of linguistic features and acoustical analysis of speech on Tenney’s approach to orchestrating the voice, specifically with regard to harmony. The music that results from the earlier, by-ear approach to acoustical speech analysis in Three Indigenous Songs (Figure 1) will be contrasted with the more precise, computer-aided analysis for Song’n’Dance for Harry Partch, demonstrating the technological progression of this compositional trend.
Like philosopher Daniel Dennett’s infamous article “Quining Qualia,” Ian Quinn’s unified theory of chord quality refutes an intuitively obvious truism—namely, that chord quality is determined by interval content. Intervallic measurements sort chords into six rough qualitative categories according to which of the six interval classes predominate. Quinn argues, however, that membership in these categories is actually determined by alignment with an even division of the octave into 1–6 parts, measured by coefficients 1–6 of the chord’s discrete Fourier transform (DFT). Moreover, these coefficients don’t consistently correlate with their associated category’s predominant interval. Paradoxically, interval content turns out to be a symptom rather than a cause of chord quality.
Where would we need to depart from Quinn if we want to preserve our intuitions about the importance of interval? After exploring exactly what phenomenal property the DFT measures and why there is a mismatch between coefficients and intervals, I conclude that the mismatch results from the DFT’s fundamentally spatial conception of chords as objects with shapes. The unquestioned assumption is that chords themselves are necessarily the bearers of quality.
I argue that instead of thinking of chords having quality, we can think of chords giving quality to their constituent pitches. This idea of intervallic context coloring, infusing, and constituting pitches as qualitative objects resonates with work by Hasty, Hirata, Cramer, Väisälä, Hasegawa, and Hanninen. It also suggests an extension of Rings’s transformational methodology beyond tonality to account for intervallic qualia, providing a phenomenologically rich tool for post-tonal analysis.