Global Histories of Music Theory


Global Histories of Music Theory is a conference that will be held at Columbia University in New York on February 20, 2017. In the days leading up to the conference, we interviewed the two organizers, Carmel Raz and Lan Li, about their ideas and the experience of interdisciplinary collaboration.

HoT Blog: What inspired Global Histories in Music Theory?

Carmel Raz: I was really inspired by the past SMT History of Theory Interest Group panel with Thomas Christensen and Roger Grant around the genesis, production, and future of The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002). A lot of the discussion focused on strategies for expanding the purview of our field beyond the Western context, and this connected with some of the conversations I’d already been having with my friend and colleague Lan Li, a historian of science and highly accomplished guzheng player, as well as with my colleagues Nathan Martin and Drew Hicks, both of whom contributed expertise and ideas at different stages of planning this event.

HoTB: How did your collaboration come about?

Lan Li: One of our first conversations was about the Otamatone, and Carmel’s ears perked up when I suggested potential parallels with the erhu in Chinese music. Much of our collaboration has been extremely serendipitous ever since. Both of us are coming to this conference with different goals in mind specific to our disciplines, but we also share this genuine interest in thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries as we both were trained in interdisciplinary programs.

CR: Basically since the moment I met Lan I was hoping we’d get a chance to collaborate. Lan has a really original and interesting perspective as both a musician and a historian of science, so it was really exciting to discover our interests converging around global histories of music theory.

HoTB: Lan, as a science historian, how does your work intersect with music theory?

LL: I’ve increasingly found music theory as a source of inspiration. My own research involves a comparative history of medical theory, which might be a sort of counterpoint to music theory. There are a number of overlapping concepts in theories about the nature of the body and the nature of music that emerged from the same cosmology. For instance, it’s fascinating to me how theories of Yin and Yang were used to organize 12 pitches in the chromatic scale, in the same way that theories of Yin and Yang were used to classify the 12 meridians in the body (which are still used today). The divergence, perhaps, emerges in questions about historical ontology, which I’d like explore further in this conference.

HoTB: You’ve brought together scholars from an array of disciplines, including musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, history, history of science, and area studies. Do you think that a global history relies on such collaboration? In what ways do you see it enriching the history of music theory?

CR: The history of music theory is already a very interdisciplinary corner of the field, drawing on music history and theory as well the histories of science, mathematics, philosophy, religion, ideas, and many more. Of course, we have much to learn from other methodological approaches, particularly with respect to global history. But I also believe that our training as historians of theory can help us contribute to broader debates around questions of global flows of ideas, sounds, and instruments.

LL: Right, the same goes for history as a field. Global history, or comparative frameworks, demands new approaches to sources that are in different languages and from different sociopolitical circumstances. For instance, I found literature in transnational feminism to be extremely useful in writing an article about films featuring amateur physicians in China. So, many assumptions don’t hold when we shift into a different context. I’ve also found literature in cultural anthropology, STS (science technology and society studies) literature, architecture, and media studies to be particularly helpful in reframing my own assumptions to approach sources with a new perspective.

HoTB: Carmel, do you see the comparative project underlying this conference as signaling a larger trend in historical studies of music theory?

CR: I certainly hope so! We added an “emerging scholars” component to this conference precisely to encourage early career researchers working in various disciplines to identify their work as history of music theory.

HoTB: “An Evening with the Monochord” is a focal point of the conference. How did the monochord become so central to the program?

CR: We decided to structure the evening panel around the monochord, as an instrument which really makes measurement both visible and audible. It is also found in a large number of cultures, so we thought it could serve as a great departure point for a broader discussion around the nature of a global history of music theory.

LL: Right. I also think that for historians of science, the monochord brings together concerns about measurement and mathematics on the one hand, while also stretching across natural philosophy and cosmology on the other.

HoTB: What have you learned about each other’s disciplines through this collaboration? What have you learned about your own discipline?

LL: Being able to peek into another discipline is such a privilege. It’s also reminded me that interdisciplinary work is not intuitive. We really have to learn how to find common ground. It’s fascinating to me that historians of music theory are also practicing music theorists, and to a certain degree historians of medical theory engage with a range of body practices to explore different ways of knowing.

CR: I’ve learned that there is so much curiosity and good will in both music theory and the history of science, as well as a genuine desire to communicate across disciplinary boundaries.

HoTB: Thank you so much for letting us in on some of your visions for this event. We hope it will inspire vivid dialogue, and we are looking forward to hearing more about it!

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