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CMSC 2011 Abstracts:



Columbia Music Scholarship Conference 2011

Galen Brown, Composer/Senior Editor,

"Minimalist Cultural Practice in Humor"



                You click a link in an e-mail or on a website, hit play on a YouTube video, or download an mp3, and then it happens: Instead of the content you expected, you get Rick Astley singing his 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up,” and you’ve been Rickrolled. Again. By the fall of 2008, the phenomenon was so widely known that Rick Astley himself was recruited to Rickroll viewers of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But why is Rickrolling funny?

                In his book Repeating Ourselves, Robert Fink relates pulse-based minimalist music to a broader “cultural practice” of minimalism in which an extreme repetition born of modernity is a pervasive cultural force. As illustrated by Rick Astley, the cultural practice of minimalism extends to humor, and I intend to demonstrate that much repetitive or static humor is “minimalist” in a fairly strict sense, i.e. that certain strains of this humor engage conceptually with repetition and stasis as a sort of meta-humor, much in the way that early minimalist music deals conceptually with the repetition of sounds and the limitation of materials. In fact, I will argue that the same tools we use to study minimalist are particularly well-suited to the analysis of minimalist humor.

                A single instance of a Rickroll is funny primarily in relation to the broader cultural phenomenon--precisely because it has already happened so many times. Monty Python, Family Guy, Andy Kaufman, and others can all be seen as practitioners of minimalist comedy.



                Galen H. Brown is a New York based composer, musicologist, and Senior Editor at Sequenza21.  His recent musicological work has focused on the history of minimalist music, and his paper "Process as Means and End in Minimalist and Postminimalist Music" will appear in the Spring 2011 edition of Perspectives of New Music. He is currently researching the social construction of the idea of "minimalist music."  Galen's most recent composition was a trombone quartet called "Grind," commissioned by The Guidonian Hand. His piece "Waiting in the Tall Grass" was recently recorded by Relâche for inclusion on their next release. Please visit for more information and music.


Dario Sarlo, Goldsmiths College, University of London

"Playing with perfection: Jascha Heifetz and the art of bad violin playing"



                Known widely as the “perfect violinist,” Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) set a new standard for violin playing in the twentieth century. After his London debut in 1920, Heifetz received a letter from George Bernard Shaw:

My dear Heifetz, Your recital has filled me and my wife with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed instead of saying your prayers. No mere mortal should presume to play as faultlessly as that.

                Shaw’s comments are more than just a witty response; they provide a starting point for examining the relationship between Heifetz’s undeniable technical mastery and his lifelong fascination with the comical imitation of bad violin playing. Although not widely known, Heifetz made more than a dozen “bad” recordings under the pseudonym Joseph Hague, accompanied by the pianist “Floyd E. Sharp,” and he also performed a concerto in this same manner for a group of his students as part of a filmed masterclass series.

                To provide context to the discussion, this paper will examine the formation of the “perfection” legend and its development throughout Heifetz’s career, and will question how and why such imitation performances make us laugh. By comparing two performances of the same piece—by Heifetz and “Hague”—this paper will ask what can be learned about violin playing, about musical humor, and about Heifetz himself.



                Dario Sarlo is a British violinist and musicologist, and recently completed his PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. For his doctorate, Dario examined Jascha Heifetz’s uniqueness as a performer and spent thirteen months as a resident international research fellow at the Library of Congress Kluge Centre where he had access to Heifetz’s huge personal archive of manuscripts, programmes, scrapbooks, correspondence and other documents. To support his doctoral research, Dario interviewed a number of Heifetz’s friends, students and colleagues, across the USA.

                As a result of his research, Dario was invited to consult on an upcoming Heifetz documentary film by Peter Rosen Productions in New York, and was one of the first to examine newly-discovered private video Heifetz filmed himself between 1918 and 1950. Dario’s article on Heifetz for the November 2010 issue of The Strad was positively received, and he is currently co-producing a Heifetz biography for Indiana University Press.


Arnie Daniel Schoenberg, San Diego City College

"Playing with leadership: adolescent music in Bahia, Brazil"



                Using participant-observation in small percussion groups in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, I examine how adolescents develop leadership skills through music. I compare leadership in band rehearsals to administrative meetings with a non-governmental organization that uses music to improve the lives of young African descendants. I focused my observations on communication and problem solving in both rehearsals and meetings. My findings suggest that music contributes to the leadership development of adolescents through the music per se and through its social context. The social context for leadership development includes a racial-musical-educational project and other recreational activities. Music per se develops leadership by forcing adolescents to renegotiate social roles, by promoting the development of increased attentiveness, and by inspiring motivation through shared escapism. An important feature of leadership development was ludic behavior within music, fooling-around during rehearsals. It was always an invitation for others to join in the behavior or at least witness it, which implied abandoning or lessening the importance of the task at hand, usually withdrawing from reviewing the repertoire and learning new songs. But the judicious use of disruptive behavior had the positive function of abandoning or lessening the importance of the problem at hand, which often, because of frustration, had worked its way into a vicious cycle. I conclude that music contributes to leadership development by providing a communal experience in which adolescents can efficiently rehearse negotiations of power in a ludic setting that mitigates personal conflicts.



                Arnie Daniel Schoenberg based this presentation on research done for his 2005 MA thesis in anthropology from San Diego State University. He currently teaches at San Diego Community College. Other research includes instruments made of PVC pipe, and drumming at political demonstrations.


Keith Johnston, University of Toronto

"Competition and the Comic Style in Il marito giocatore (1719)"



                Most recent psychological studies on the interaction of humor and play emphasize their salutary effect (Mannell and McMahan 1982; Sanville 1999; Richman 2003).  These studies are part of a larger body of literature which focuses on the relationship between humor and mental health (Lefcourt 2001, et al).  Some researchers in the humanities, however, have continued to promote the superiority of theory of humor which posits that laughter arises from competition (Gruner 1997).  This paper examines the role of competition and chance in the creation of musical humor.  I take as my case study the most performed intermezzo of the eighteenth century, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s Il marito giocatore (1719).

                Orlandini’s intermezzo tells the story of an inveterate gambler who takes revenge upon his disapproving wife when she demands a divorce.  Competition plays a vital role in all levels of the intermezzo.  The husband competes at cards and the couple competes with each other.  Many of their interactions are in the form of an “elastic gag,” a type of humorous dialogue which originates with improvised theatre (Andrews 1993).  This paper examines the importance of this style of comedy to the creation of the intermezzo’s musical language.  It first explores contemporary attitudes towards play, competition, and gambling.  I then suggest that the “elastic gag” technique which governs much of the libretto influences the periodic construction of the musical phrase.  Musical humor in the intermezzo is therefore dependent upon principles of play and competition. 



                Keith Johnston is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.  His dissertation examines the practice of musical comedy in the intermezzo before 1733.  His research has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship.  A 2009 Dünnhaupt Travel Grant generously funded his archival research in Italy.  Keith is currently the student representative for the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music.     


Elizabeth Medina-Gray, Yale University

"Combat Music and Transitional Seams: Toward a Theory of Musical Modularity in 21st-Century Video Games"



                Music lends an important vitality to the virtual environments of video games.  It can—when used successfully—both contribute to the player’s sense of immersion in the game world, and adapt to (and functionally support) a specific gameplay experience.  This need for adaptability, coupled with the unpredictability of the player’s actions, makes modular musical design—an abstract array of pre-composed segments of music that are triggered at specific circumstances in the game—an excellent fit for game construction.  These modules do not exist in a vacuum, however, and as the player interacts with the game world, these small pieces of music transition from one to another or layer on top of each other, yielding interactions, or “seams,” between the modules themselves.  The relative smoothness or disjunction across these modular seams has the potential to either deflect the player’s attention from the music or to attract it, yielding functional and immersive effects that—because of the uncertainty of timing—the composer can only broadly control.

                The present paper begins to explore the roles of modular smoothness and disjunction by focusing on one type of music common in many video games: combat music.  Function is especially important in combat music, since the transitions into and out of this music must alert the player to critical changes in the game state.  This paper examines music from two games of the past ten years, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo, 2002) and Assassin’s Creed II (Ubisoft, 2009), with close attention to those musical qualities—particularly tonality, macroharmony, and rhythm and meter—that most strongly contribute to smoothness and disjunction (and subsequently immersion and function) across the modular seams of these games.



                Elizabeth Medina-Gray is currently a graduate student at Yale University, where she is pursuing her doctorate in music theory.  She holds a B.A. in music and chemistry from Swarthmore College, and an M.A. in music theory from Yale.  In addition to modular music in video games, which will form the central research topic for her dissertation, her other interests include 20th-century tonal music, mathematical musical models, choral music, and theories of voice leading in late 19th-century chromaticism.


David Gutkin, Columbia University

“Games and Art: the Autonomous, the Everyday, and the Virtual”



Numerous twentieth-century artistic practices (earlier ones as well) seem to  intentionally obfuscate the difference between game and art: e.g., Iannis Xenakis’ game compositions Duel and Stratégie, related game pieces by composer John Zorn, the Fluxus movement’s “Fluxgames,” Oulipian literary games, John Cage’s musicalized game of chess with Marcel Duchamp, Gabriel Orozco’s sculpture that is effectively a circular billiard table. A host of ontological and classificatory problems arise: Can art be (simultaneously?) a game?; Can games (including sports?) be art? Skeptical that such definitional questions can be plausibly answered (for reasons that I will address), and in fact convinced that they follow a faulty premise, in this paper I engage such issues in order to bring into focus a somewhat different theme: put simply, I ask what various ludic art practices might tell us about the dialectical relations between the concepts of “autonomy” and “the everyday.” Specifically, I propose that the concept “game” may shed a new light on the supposed rupture between formalist, hermetically sealed “autonomous art” (e.g., post-WWII serial music as a late manifestation of this) and “neo-avant-garde” attempts to eradicate barriers between art and everyday life (e.g., Cageian indeterminate practices). Finally I suggest that the prominence of the “virtual” in both postmodern games and art reflects a strange, and in some ways politically reactionary hybrid between ideologies of autonomy and the aesthetics of the everyday.



Currently a graduate student in historical musicology at Columbia University, David has written on philosophy of graphic notation in the mid-twentieth century, the television operas of Robert Ashley, and articulations of nationalism and representations of the United States in American experimental music. Following on the latter interest, his dissertation (almost in progress) is a study of American mythologies portrayed in experimental musical theater works during the age of Reaganism. He has published in If A Then B: Notes on Translation, Guitar Review, and Current Musicology (book review forthcoming).


Ji-Young Kim, Cornell University

Mit gutem Humor”: Topics as Conveyors of Wit and Humor in Schumann’s Instrumental Music



                Illuminations of humor in the music of Robert Schumann have often fallen back on the literary-aesthetic categories of romantic wit and irony, particularly as evidenced in the writings of Jean Paul, Friedrich Schlegel, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. That literary discourse has dominated such discussions is understandable given the composer’s background and documented interests. But the literary-aesthetic has been linked to the musico-analytical mostly at the level of musical form, yielding rather cerebral and unfunny results.

                This paper attempts an alternative approach by deploying topical analysis to foreground the playful aspects of Schumann’s music. In so doing, it shifts the emphasis away from musical form and towards surface phenomena. While Leonard Ratner developed the notion of topic to describe music in the classic style, this paper follows upon Kofi Agawu’s observation in Music as Discourse that 18th century topics persisted in 19th century music, albeit in different contexts and with different expressive purposes.

                One such purpose is to convey wit and humor. Through an overview of excerpts from Schumann’s solo piano and chamber music, broader categories of Volkston (or “popular style”) and more characteristic 18th century markers will emerge as important conveyors of these affects, usually via specific dance topics. Agawu acknowledges that topical analysis in and of itself may be insufficient; it does not furnish an explanatory apparatus of musical meaning. And yet, topics may function as important and arguably more direct communicators of humor than Schumann’s idiosyncratic adoption of literary strategies.



                Ji Young Kim is a first-year graduate student in musicology at Cornell University. She previously studied at Columbia University and piano performance at Manhattan School of Music. Her research interests include late 18th- to early 19th-century aesthetics and the music of Robert Schumann.


Peter Shultz, University of Chicago

"Rock Band Etudes: Pleasure and learning in music games and pedagogical pieces"



                The pleasures of music-themed video games such as the Rock Band series are usually compared to those of instrumental musicianship. To critics, they turn musical performance into a mechanical, uncreative exercise; to defenders, they extend its pleasures to non-musicians and musicians alike. But by focusing on the role of creative expression in these games, this framing obscures the pleasures they offer of learning and mastery. Their songs are not just audio tracks but also patterns of gesture, sequenced and arranged into a playful pedagogy. This paper suggests that the game-like aspects of Rock Band can lend insight into études and pedadogical music, and that the pleasures of instrumental musicianship are more game-like than commonly thought.

                Musical patterns in Rock Band's songs are analogous to patterns in game design, as described by game designers in interviews and essays. The most salient of these patterns are elaborated repetition, learn-practice-test progressions, and “summits”—moments of respite after difficult stretches. These “ludomusical” formulas allow Rock Band's music to serve as both soundtrack and game level.

                The same patterns appear in keyboard études by Chopin and Ligeti. This suggests that these pieces might also considered instances of game design, written as much to be learned as to be performed. Thus, the language of game design helps elucidate the pleasure of learning music— whether through video games, sight-reading, or plain old repeated practice.



                Peter Shultz is a graduate student in music theory at the University of Chicago. His dissertation investigates models of motion in video game music and their relation to physical and virtual gestures of gameplay, with examples drawn from everybody's favorite games. His other academic interests include mathematics and computation in music theory, embodiment in music, and 20th- and 21st-century music more broadly.


Patricia Alessandrini and Rob King

"A sea of others: play and its consequences in a physically-modeled video and sound environment"



This paper addresses play in a series of collaborative works consisting of ambient game situations in which audience members determine sonic events according to the actions of their avatars in a physically-modeled underwater world. The music in these situations acts as a motivation for acting and playing in the virtual world. The first work (2010) is a network performance involving a trio of musicians in three separate performance spaces. In the projected video, primitive sea creatures seeking life-sustaining micro-organisms - each controlled via an iPad/iPod/iPhone application – interact with one another while at the same time subject to the presence of other oceanic avatars; these latter are set into motion by the audio from the live musicians, and their movements create windows through which sound (processed recordings of Mozart) may be released into physical models of plates, which resonate in response. The creatures’ actions also influence other aspects of the electronics - such as causing the virtual plates to bend and fluctuate – and generate the score for the musicians. As the audience in each site sees and hears the interactions of the musicians and the underwater avatars, the shared display reveals what happens as the actions of individuals co-exist in a sea of others. The second work (2011) will use similar techniques for a trio including voice. In this case, ‘successful’ interactions by the creatures will cause bits of text to be concatenated, and ‘failure’ will lead to the dissipation of words into drops of water (synthesized through physical modeling).



                Patricia Alessandrini’s works actively engage with the concert music repertoire, and issues of representation, interpretation, perception and memory. She has become increasingly involved in multimedia, theatrical and collaborative work. Her compositions have been presented in festivals including Agora, Archipel, Festival de la imagen, Festival en tiempo real, Synthèse, Musica Strasbourg, Musiques Démesurées, and Pacific New Music Festival, by ensembles such as Accroche Note, Arditti Quartet, Ensemble Aleph, Ensemble Alternance, Ensemble InterContemporain, Ensemble Itinéraire, Ensemble Vortex, Ives Quartet, New Millennium, Speculum Musicae, and Talujon Quartet. She has composed music for the Ballet de l’Opéra National du Rhin, and is currently collaborating with visual artists Chiara Vecchiarelli and Rukiye Sahin, filmmaker Shirin Abu Shaqra and performer Yann Marussich. She has realised works in collaboration with IRCAM, GRM, La Muse en Circuit, and other centres of computer music research and production. She was the invited Composer-in-residence of the Soundscape Festival for 2010.







CMSC 20011
when: March 5, 2011
where: Saturday, Columbia University,
301 Philosophy Hall
theme: Sound at Play

The organizers of the CMSC would like to thank the following for their support:
Current Musicology
Department of Music
Graduate Student Advisory Council
Columbia University
The Center for Ethnomusicology