The Hidden Bias of “Meeting Students Where They Are”

Richard Desinord

Edited by Clifton Boyd

This fall will mark my 13th year of teaching.[1] Some may say I’ve accomplished much through my experiences in different education settings, from building a band program at my first job in a public school system to landing a tenure-track job at my current institution. And while I can look back and celebrate those successes in earnest, I’ve always considered how I responded to the needs of my students during my first year of teaching to be my greatest shame and failure as an educator.

After completing my undergraduate degree in music education at Howard University, I began my career as a full-time general music teacher in an inner-city D.C. middle school. I was given six classes with many of the students unable to read, write, or do math on grade level. One eighth-grader was not able to even recognize her own name unless the script was in her own handwriting. But as a product of the majority-Black public school systems of Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s County, MD, I was well aware of the challenges that I would face when I entered in the classroom, and felt that I was capable of fulfilling the duties of imparting knowledge to my students to help them progress in all areas of learning. My motives were sincere and I worked assiduously to consistently prep what I believed were meaningful and engaging lessons. Like many new teachers, I had a few missteps, but two stand out to me the most.

The first occurred about a month into the school year when I had just wrapped up my first two classes of the day and dismissed the students for lunch. Both periods contained a particularly large and rowdy group of eighth-graders, and I spent more time managing behavior than I did teaching. That day also happened to be the first time I showcased some of my skills on the piano outside of very rudimentary theoretical concepts like a one-octave major scale. I noticed around 10 of my most problematic students sticking around, their presence sparking a small level of concern that they were up to no good given the number of fights that I had to prevent or break up during that short month of teaching. I slowly realized they were just hanging around, and all of them eventually made their way to the piano as the most boisterous among them played a couple of notes. “Hey, Mr. D,” he called. “Can you play that song you was just playin’?”

The “song” he was referring to was just a basic homorhythmic chord progression I’d made up on the spot, and though I was curious as to what exactly had piqued his interest, it was the overall demeanor of the students that struck me as odd. After all, these students had barely shown any interest in what I had to say since school started, and here they were, listening with rapt attention awaiting my response. Just before I could place my hands on the keys, another student voiced a different request: “Naw, play ‘Lean on Me.’”

Suddenly all of the Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues, and other classical works that I had learned came to mind as I considered the comparatively simplistic harmonic structure of the Bill Withers tune. You see, I had no conception of a theory curriculum that would meaningfully allow for the inclusion of non-classical genres outside of a few songs for younger kids. And despite not growing up with classical music, in many ways my formal music education situated vernacular music as less refined than art music through the exclusion of the former. Many of my students could sing or rap, and had a good sense of time, rhythm, and pitch, but in order to teach them, I believed I had to begin with the notion that they knew virtually nothing because they were unfamiliar with many traditional theory topics like reading Western notation.

Responding to the student’s request, I dismissively replied, “I’m not playing that.” The student’s hardened façade, toughened early by a social decree within a community that dissuades Black men from expressing any vulnerability, broke for a moment, long enough for me to see a flash of disappointment strewn across his face. “Alright,” he replied as he walked out of the room with the others following. For the first time, I had their undivided attention, but with one sentence I ruined it and never got it back for the rest of the year.

The second moment happened later that semester. At the time, I lived in the same low-income D.C. community as many of the students, an environment that I was raised in until second grade. Their accents and diction mirrored mine, but for much of the year, I took any chance that I could to “correct” them. In order to “improve” how they spoke, “we was” was immediately met with “we were.” “I ain’t” shot down in favor of “I am not.”

One day at a grocery store, I ran into one of my students and his father. I briefly conversed with the parent before saying goodbye to finish shopping. When I ran into the student at school the next day, he turned to a friend and said, “I saw Mr. D at Giant yesterday.” “And I saw you,” I replied. As I turned to leave, he stopped me and asked, “Mr. D, why you don’t talk like that when you here?” Confused, I asked him to explain the question. “When you was talking to my dad, you sound like us,” the student replied. “But at school you sound different. Like them.”

I started the year with a self-imposed and unintentionally destructive edict of teaching my students to become better students by discarding their culture. Still, in overhearing just one brief conversation outside of school grounds, the student could sense that I was much more at home using AAVE (African-American Vernacular English). While I still do not think it was wrong to furnish my students with additional tools to expand how they communicated with others, I did so in a way that positioned AAVE as an “incorrect” starting point, a cultural chasm out of which they could be liberated. I stood there for a few moments, silently processing his words, and a wave a shame overcame me.

Each of those vignettes illustrates a moment where I failed my students not just as an educator, but also as a Black male figure. I dismissed our art and way of speaking in favor of an approach that elevated European culture above my own. The silent undercurrent of internalized racism that I could disregard as a Black student in majority-Black school districts and at an historically Black university had finally bore its way to the surface. Though well-intentioned, it was a misguided effort to have my students assimilate to an ostensibly superior manner of conducting themselves, and I neglected to observe that my attitude pitted their success against their identity.

I was trying to “meet students where they are,” a pedagogical approach that encourages educators to not be dismissive of a student’s background or cultural group but rather to consider how these attributes positively contribute to the learning process. It’s a sentiment that I’m certain is imbued with the noblest of intentions, and if carried out correctly, course aims are met through careful planning that centers, affirms, and builds on students’ individual life experiences and viewpoints. Yet the mistake many teachers make, including myself, is that we see the attributes of their starting point as dirt to be washed away from a newly unearthed rough diamond. The “uncivilized” aspects of their identity, especially for students of color, function as a burden to excise and overcome.

In light of many conversations on the topic of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within music theory, we’re encouraged to meet students where they are in our field, too. Picture a student that is well-versed in the gospel tradition through their experiences singing in Black churches, but not proficient in Western classical idioms or the accompanying theoretical concepts as it is taught in the academy. What would a typical approach entail? One might cull a couple of Black music examples in a lesson. Or some would, perhaps, emphasize an aural component in order to use the domain in which they’re most comfortable. However, what goes unnoticed is that most, if not all, of our efforts in this regard are in service of reinforcing a curriculum and cultural aesthetic that is otherwise overwhelmingly Eurocentric. If a student “makes it,” whether that means learning to part-write or sing through a few lines of lied, their achievements are measured by their proximity to whiteness.

I should be clear that trying to start with the skills and cultural background that a student brings to the table is not an inherently contemptible approach. In fact, it’s likely the best tactic in many situations, particularly in areas like math where the overall goal is arguably the attainment of a neutrally beneficial skill. But in cases like having a music major in a theory class who is proficient at producing beats with a DAW but has little experience reading music, their skillset would likely be seen as conflicting with the course content. Rather, I urge educators to be mindful of the unintended harm that can be inflicted when your desire to help comes at the expense of a student’s sense of self.

Richard Desinord is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Michigan State University College of Music.


[1] This blog series is supported by a subvention grant from the Society for Music Theory (SMT). [return]

Experimentaciones sensoriales comprometidas [English text]

Miguel Garutti

Translated by Noel Torres Rivera.

Presione aquí para leer el texto en español.

Translator’s Note

Last summer, a few months after finishing my doctoral degree, I received the invitation to write a post for the recently launched Engaged Music Theory Working Group’s blog. Having been somewhat involved with this young collective since its pre-pandemic beginnings, I felt extremely honored that my fellow members had considered me, along with talented scholars Danielle Sofer and Vivian Luong, to contribute to this year’s series. Interestingly, the invitation came right at a time when I was invested in a summer reading group on postcolonial and decolonial studies led by Nalini Natarajan (UPR, Río Piedras). A group of mostly junior scholars, we read and discussed primary and secondary sources on the topic with a dual purpose: seeking to better understand current academic discussions within our field as well as devising ways in which each of us could reconsider our own academic and pedagogical work through those lenses. Furthermore, as a colonial subject, I used this opportunity to revisit the cultural, social, political, and economic forces that continue to impact the lives of many of us Puerto Ricans.

Certainly, the experience was eye-opening, yet also emotionally upsetting. As a nonwhite gay man from a Spanish-speaking region, with a working-class upbringing and an all-public education, I am easily lumped into the heterogeneous group of scholars that legitimately claim a status of marginality (or coloniality, so to speak) in North American academic, social, and political contexts. However, in spite of all hardship (of which I can speak plenty), when I consider my current position—a middle-class citizen of the so-called “First World,” working as a tenure-track professor in an academic community of uncontested supremacy—another way of understanding the complexity of my identities surfaces: one that places me on the privileged side of the seesaw in relation to most academics, some of them my own friends, who work outside the places on earth where academic capital has accumulated. This realization collided with my academic motivations. While I had begun asking myself, “How can my work be decolonial?,” I was now rephrasing: “Can my work ever be decolonial?” Furthermore, I reconsidered what I have always thought to be a major elephant in the academic rooms I frequent: How can we, particularly music academics working in North America, categorically ascribe moral value to our work when its main purpose often seems to be personal gain (getting a job, working towards tenure, acquiring institutional prestige, etc.)?—And when such work is often enabled by institutions that derive their capital (economic, cultural, and social) from a privileged position within an unredeemable, unfair, and unequal system? In other words, and talking specifically about the “north”/“south” divide at the center of my own work: Is the solution to coloniality really, then, for us—academics with greater access to resources—to insist upon speaking for the Other while deriving benefit from it? Aren’t scholars around the world already making those claims? Shouldn’t we just listen?

There is plenty to unpack here. However, a lengthy discussion is not the purpose of this introductory note. Still I repeat what is obvious to many: that when calling in our circles for much-needed academic reforms, through which we could firmly obliterate damaging and established power dynamics based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and ableism (among other categories), we also need to acknowledge and act against the imperialist and—why not?—colonialist forces that constantly condition the work of scholars outside and “below” North America. For this reason, and with no claim to originality, I have decided to cede the opportunity offered to me to share my own work and instead do what I was once told would be a “waste” of my own time, an “obstacle” to my own academic progress: translate, into English in this case, the contribution of a fellow scholar, the composer and producer Miguel Garutti (Universidad de Buenos Aires). For this reason too our editor, EMT member Nathan Pell, has chosen to remain off the masthead. Perhaps acts such as ours—ceding power or title in the name of a political goal—will strike the reader rather in the same way that, in the text below, Kusnir suggestively leaning forward his hooded head failed to impress the critic Müller: merely performative, bizarrely solemn, empty of significance. Perhaps that cynicism is warranted. Nevertheless, the text you are about to read, in its final version, was created through countless hours of scholarly care by a group of friends, and friends of friends, working collaboratively across two, sometimes three continents, and in the service of music made to “un-compose” barriers between sound and a turbulent world. Amidst the petty posturing of academic politics, is it possible that the sort of artistic-scholarly engagement proposed here “expresses,” as Garutti asks, “in our current world some sort of commitment to reality?”

—Noel Torres Rivera (University of Missouri-Kansas City)


Experimentaciones sensoriales comprometidas: comentarios sobre Experiencia poliartística de Francis Schwartz y Eduardo Kusnir

Note on the Title: Below we have rendered comprometidas (adjective modifying the title’s “Sense Experiments”) as “committed,” though on the Latin American left the word denotes a political attitude more revolutionary than its stiff English counterpart can commit to. Differences aside, these words customarily translate the French engagé, Sartre’s term for art that actively pursues social or political reform.

un concierto

“Those were sinister times.” That was the first thing Eduardo Kusnir told me. I was visiting Kusnir (b. 1939) because I wanted to know what he remembered from a concert he had done with fellow composer Francis Schwartz (b. 1940) at the Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) in Buenos Aires on July 15, 1975. I had come across some old newspaper headlines announcing and reviewing the event several months earlier while doing dissertation research at the National Library:

“A poly-artistic show will be presented today, with an array of stimuli for different senses” (La Opinión, July 15, 1975).

“In a spectacle at CAYC showcasing their combined artistic research, two musicians manipulated modern forms of communication” (La Opinión, July 20, 1975).

The show was titled Experiencia poliartística (“Polyartistic Experience”) and, according to what Schwartz described to the critic Martín Müller, it consisted of two works “merged into a fixed structure that allowed for some aleatoric moments.” The first one, Schwartz’s Tiempo, espacio y el hombre encapuchado (“Time, Sound, and the Hooded Man”), was meant to induce in a “predominantly young” audience a multi-sensorial experience through the use of video screens, audio tapes/reels, perfume, a synthesizer, and the actions of four performers. Off to the side was Schwartz himself—at an audio-video console watching the action and the screens. An “artist-researcher,” a potential “creator of the future,” in “semi-darkness,” manipulating “his strange technological alchemy.” On the screens, close-ups of a bearded face, fingers, and an arm stood out to Müller; of the sounds, “varied rhythmic schemes, an ample diversity of timbers, and juxtaposed sonorities.” “Indistinct flower aromas” occasionally filled the room. Standing opposite Schwartz, a man would tilt his bagged head forward. The sack removed—the young man onscreen was Kusnir.

It was right at that moment that the second work of the program, Brindis XIII, began. This work consisted of Kusnir reading a chapter of the thesis that he had presented a year earlier for his Ph.D. at Paris VIII. At his command, young girls performed slow and pleasing actions: stroking their own hair and caressing cigarettes. Unimpressed, Müller described Kusnir’s text as “surreal,” at times inaudible, languid, saturated with monotony.

Reading the review for this concert confirmed my suspicions from the headlines: Kusnir and Schwartz presented this as a concert of “artistic research”; in which sensorial experimentation, avant-garde music, and political symbology were blended together without distinction. This at a time when, above all, an artist was expected to make their political commitment explicit in their art—a commitment that in those “sinister times” tolerated ever fewer sensory experiments, formal vagaries, and ironic estrangements, like those put forward by this concert. Today, regardless of what the reception of Kusnir and Schwartz’s works would have been back then, could we consider and reconsider whether such a concert—one that embraced the ominous, stretched solemnity to the limits of absurd humor—expresses in our current world some sort of commitment to reality? A surreal one, perhaps?


arte comprometido

Until recently there was a general belief among cultural historians that, as far as Buenos Aires’ art world went, the concert music scene was one of the city’s less radical during the 1960s and 70s. The least committed of the vanguardistas, the most detached from the world’s noise. Within the visual arts, not only did many artists articulate their solidarity with revolutionary causes through their work; quite a few even renounced art for political action (Giunta 2001, Longoni 2014). Actors and playwrights discussed strategies for constructing a national theater tradition, popular and free from foreign (that is to say, in this context, imperialist) influences (Verzero 2013, Devrient et al. 1975). Filmmakers documented and denounced the injustice of the economic system in secret, avoiding censorship through clandestine screenings in neighborhoods, factories, and universities (Oubiña 2011). The new music scene, though allegedly less concerned with social issues, still shared the same spaces and audiences with those more radically committed revolutionary artists. Therefore, the disconnection or indifference could not have been absolute.

During the last few years there has been an increasing attempt to trace the particular ways in which politics did intervene in concert halls. I here provide a list, not exhaustive, of works and composers that advanced the incorporation, with more or less remove, of political commitment into their productions.

§ Dancer and choreographer Teresa Monsegur (b. 1942) and her partner, composer Gabriel Brnčić (b. 1942) left Argentina faced with threats by the infamous Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (“La Triple A”), which led to a simulated execution in the garden of their house. In both her native Chile and Argentina, Monsegur had worked to bring modern dance to jails and neighborhoods. Just a few months before exile, Monsegur premiered a modern dance work at the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires that portrayed “monsters who dominated the people and the people who ended up rebelling and overcoming the monsters,” according to Graciela Rusiñol, one of the dancers in the show.[1] This performance included an electroacoustic work by Colombian composer Jaqueline Nova (1935–1973), Creación de la tierra o canto de los indios tunebos (“The Creation of the World or the Song of the Tunebo Indians,” 1972).[2] This was four years after Brnčić’s orchestral work Volveremos a las montañas (“We will Return to the Mountains,” 1969)—its title refers to Che Guevara’s revolutionary army in Bolivia—had its premiere cancelled because of an alleged bomb threat at the Teatro Colón, Argentina’s most prestigious concert hall, where the premiere was taking place. Brnčić also demonstrated his political commitment in the “Introduction to Sound” course he used to offer at the Centro de Investigaciones en Comunicación Masiva Arte y Tecnología (CICMAT). In this course, Brnčić articulated the necessity of training professional technicians who could counteract “subtle forms of cultural penetration,” arguing for technical instruction with a “mind to include consideration of social benefit” (Brnčić 1973).

§ Eduardo Bértola (1939–1996) returned to Argentina in 1971 after some time at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) in Paris—the centers of high modernism continued to attract new generations of Latin American composers—to carry out his “social duty” in the “social revolution” and “cultural liberation” of Latin America. Interested in associating avant-garde music with the revolutionary cause, Bértola composed unprocessed radiophonic collages that, with esthetic distance mediating, traced the political signals underlying mass media’s apparently trivial content. He also composed the electroacoustic work Gomecito contra la Siemens o El diablo de San Agustín (“Gomecito v. Siemens, or The Devil of Saint Augustine,” 1973), in solidarity against a case of injustice committed by this international corporation (Paraskevaídis 2001).

§ A short distance away from Buenos Aires, in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, Graciela Paraskevaídis (1940–2017) and Corihún Aharonián (1940–2017) developed a program of action—compositional and musicological—that advocated the construction of a Latin American esthetic, critical of the power of attraction held by certain metropolitan centers. Starting in 1971, they experimented with a new method of self-managed institutional organization through the Cursos Latinoamericanos de Música Contemporánea (CLAMC), gathering musicians and educators from across the continent a total of fifteen times between 1971 and 1989 (Paraskevaídis 2014).

§ Oscar Bazán (1936–2005), though a technician at the electronic music laboratory of CICMAT, proposed an alternative to the endless thirst, predominant at the time, for technological progress: austerity—works inspired by music from the region employing only the most elemental techniques offered by the ARP 2600 synthesizer (Garutti 2015, Perrone 2016, Domínguez Pesce 2021).

§ The Movimiento Música Más found another way of innovating, one in which we can read an esthetic sensibility close to political renewal. This group organized “free improvisation” inside and outside concert halls, from the Teatro Colón to a public bus on the 7 line (Raffo Dewar 2018).

§ The Grupo de Experimentación Musical at CICMAT, composed of professors Gerardo Gandini, José Maranzano, Francisco Kröpfl, and Brnčić, offered didactic lectures before its 1973 concerts. In these lectures they connected experimentation with the democratization of musical practice, replicating mid-1960s Italian discourses from groups such as Nuova Consonanza and Musica Elettronica Viva (Garutti 2018). Arguments grew ever less subtle as the series progressed, to such an extent that they even included quotes from Juan Perón in an attempt to placate the very audience members (some were far-right Peronists too) who found these avant-garde artistic expressions too abstract and, therefore, too far removed from the country’s political situation. Similar criticisms caught up to Movimiento Música Más, which as a result disbanded that same year. As Noberto Chavarri, one of its protagonists, later admitted, MMM was more interested in innovation than in revolution (Tapia 2016).

It is important to remember that not all art produced during the 1970s in Argentina was radical. The theaters on Avenida Corrientes (the “South American Broadway”), the greater part of commercial cinema and music heard on the radio, the galleries full of geometric abstraction, and other avant-gardes: all continued working with normalcy, more or less alien to politicization, more or less psychedelic, pop, modernist, or traditionalist. Kusnir and Schwartz’s work does not entirely adhere to either of these two positions. They were not indifferent to the political. For instance, in the notice publicizing Experiencia poliartística Schwartz expressed a desire for his spectacle to reach beyond “the minority’s leash,” outside of a “small circuit of sophisticated personages.” Nonetheless, the way he demonstrated his political interest—through the psychedelic, the ironic, the ambiguous, the technological—related more to those hardly committed mainstream poetics. How then should we describe this middle position?


Kusnir caressing CICMAT’s ARP 2600, ca. 1975. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

lo surreal

The way the critic Müller characterized Kusnir and Schwartz’s concert, “surreal,” gave me an idea for rethinking how they differ from other composers of their generation. For I do see a similarity with some current trends in Buenos Aires today. A surrealist air indeed permeates the imagination of its artistic community. Every day we find in galleries and concert halls works committed to the unknown, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the miraculous, the fantastical, the dreaming, the daydreaming, the lyric, the precarious, the strange, the deformed, the animal, the intimate, the sinister. This is a surrealism different from the historic French kind, the avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. It does not have a specific esthetic or political program; it is more ambiguous, more erratic. It escapes analysis. Its cause seems to be an attempt at dissolving the artistic law of non-contradiction, and its trick, by surfeit or by some defective act, ends up being discomfited surprise. Recuperating this brand of surrealism from negative critiques like Müller’s, artist and curator Santiago Villanueva proposes considering this particular affect of Buenos Aires’ art scene as surrealismo rosa (“pink surrealism”).

It is pink because it is the color used least by the avant-garde, a hardly serious color, more street-like and less pretentious. . . Pink surrealism is directly bound to the body, empathizes more with queer theory than with psychoanalysis, more with newspapers than with poetry. It is just that it is not presented as evident, it sneaks and cheats. (Villanueva 2021)

In Schwartz and Kusnir’s performance, the laboratory in which the “artist-operator” does his magic—the place of technological utopia—was shrouded in darkness. But whatever a hooded man says is incomprehensible; it is not articulated as an explicit critique of the technoscientific-imaginary, like that in Mauricio Kagel’s Anthithese (1962), where scientist reacts explosively towards machine. That night in 1975, in place of the real and the modern stood an artist-researcher reciting a languid daydream.


Concert program for Experiencia poliartística. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.


Throughout, I have mentioned two institutions a few times: CICMAT and CAyC. The creation of both institutions coincided with the demise of the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT), a vital establishment for the neo-avant-garde movement in Argentina during the capitalist desarrollismo (developmentalism) of the 1960s (King 1985, Giunta 2001, García 2021). CICMAT and CAyC continued fostering the idea of the artist-researcher that the ITDT had promoted at its Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM). In contrast to CAyC and the ITDT, however, CICMAT was financed by the Municipality of Buenos Aires. It had originally proposed that the research it developed through its departments of Mass Communication, Technology, Topology and Dynamism of Visual Forms, and Contemporary Music would serve the community. The programming at CICMAT included pedagogical initiatives, public events, performances, and outreach in all its areas of specialization. CAyC, by contrast, was a private institution created by a group of artists and architects who favored the idea of arte de sistemas (a CAyC-specific term coined by its founder Jorge Glusberg, theorizing art as experimental-political research agenda) and continued with the internationalizing project that the ITDT had begun (Sarti 2013). CAyC operated from a commercial building by Viamonte, the street where Buenos Aires’ bohemian-intellectual elite had gathered since the late 1950s (Sebreli 1964). CICMAT operated from a building near the iconic Avenida Corrientes that—along with conference rooms, concert halls, and offices—also hosted the Municipal Radio, the Conservatory, and one of the city’s most important theaters, the Teatro General San Martín. This complex was an epicenter in the conflicts between the left and the Peronist right starting in 1973 and became a symbol of the new order that the military junta imposed in 1976. During the early 1970s hostility towards artist-researchers increased, as much for their apparently insufficient commitment to revolutionary causes as for their transgressions of artistic traditions. This situation in turn pushed artist-researchers further from audiences, since those musicians who decided to remain in their positions in order to protect their laboratories progressively cut down on public engagements (Garutti 2015). What spaces are left for musical research and experimentation in these increasingly sinister times?

Teatro Municipal y Centro Cultural General San Martín. Informes de la construcción, Vol. 26, No. 259, April 1974.


Kusnir y Schwartz

In 1969, some years after moving to Puerto Rico, Francis Schwartz had provoked scandal with the San Juan premiere of his work Auschwitz (1968). In a colonial house he recited a text he had written, as choreographer Carmen Biscochea danced to electronic sounds among barbed wire. Halfway through the work, Schwartz started to burn hair on stage while his students locked the hall’s exits from the outside. The audience, which included some American diplomats, rioted trying to escape the hall. When they finally did, the student-captors transformed into journalists and questioned attendees about their experience (Kusnir 1988). On the same trip to Buenos Aires that produced Experiencia poliartística, and just before presenting a concert at the Teatro San Martín, Schwartz was warned by CICMAT artist-researchers not to be too politically explicit in a situation that was already delicate and uncomfortable for them. Still, Schwartz performed a work for piano and tape: the tape produced electronic sounds and listed the names of Latin American cities where massacres had occurred. Schwartz told me that he had no problems with the censors. Kusnir suspects, in hindsight, that this work was not explicit enough: its abstraction did not make them uncomfortable. The piano’s dissonances masked the uncomfortable text, the concert hall neutralized the political provocation.[3] At least on that day.

Kusnir on a tricycle in Old San Juan. “What Does a Tricycle Have To Do With Music?,” review of the premiere of Eduardo Kusnir’s Brindis No. 3 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, by Francis Schwartz. San Juan Star, October 7, 1973. Photo by Eddie Crespo. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

Eduardo Kusnir had returned to Buenos Aires in 1974, another stop during his nomadic years. Those began at the Bulgarian State Conservatory in post-Stalinist Sofia, followed by tours around the Red world conducting the Ballet Nacional de Cuba during the first years of the Revolution, a scholarship at CLAEM at the ITDT, another scholarship in Ghent, Belgium where he composed a chance-based radiophonic work, and yet another at Paris VIII to work on his doctoral thesis under the mentorship of Daniel Charles: Brindis. Una mirada a los juegos desgarradores del arte (“Brindis: A Look at Art’s Heartbreaking Games”)—or, in its original version, Brindis. la musique est-elle un langage universel? (“Brindis: Is Music a Universal Language?”). Kusnir’s thesis moves between reality and fiction in a set of what he calls brindis (“toasts,” like those given with wine), experimental instrumental theater works that he had presented at concerts and festivals since the late 1960s. The chapters of the thesis provide explanations for each of the works, including information about the compositional process. In order to differentiate those chapters from the actual Brindis, Kurnir titled them máquinas (“machines”), probably influenced by the machines désirantes (“desiring machines”) that Deleuze was proposing around the same time at the same university (Deleuze and Guattari 1972). In his máquinas, Kusnir came up with fictional characters that supposedly commissioned the works and detailed the hypothesis and inevitable fiasco of each investigation (that is, of each Brindis)—mocking the ironic falsehoods of the technocratic language that artist-researchers adopted. Apparatuses, modalities, and operation fields (like minefields, like encampments in the “unforeseeable”), org. charts, algorithms, regulated mechanisms, mental microphones that detect the intermittent pulsations of memorized music, catalogs of canonic composers’ signatures, inventories of pianistic gestures, teleguided and timed works, flowcharts, organizations, projects, structural integrities, perturbations in the system. Kusnir’s Brindis develops in a constant tension between composition-as-an-attempt-for-control and the uncertainty of a spectacle where anything can fail. Its back and forth between contradictory instructions—orders and counterorders, mends and tears, reality and fiction, irony and sincerity, production and reception—points to an attempt to dissolve one of the binaries that seems to bother him most: music and the world. Kusnir proposes the term “un-composition.”

To compose is to configure a series of original connections, without, in principle, any element being set aside or into a hierarchy. Nothing exists outside of music. We shall move towards un-composition, which will consist of mixing those elements in a common container that we call the concert-event, or rather, “the staged concert”: the music, the musicians, the orchestra conductor, silence, curtseys, tics, ovations, whispers, coughs, little biscuits, bracelets, the noisy zips of bags and purses, the instruments of the orchestra, the smoke from cigars and the cigars themselves, and—why not?—butterflies and spiders. (Kusnir 2005 [1974])

At the CAyC concert Kusnir read from this dissertation. Brindis XIII is a monologue, originally addressed to the dissertation committee, that describes “pleasant” actions—from smoking to listening to music on the radio—that performers should carry out on stage as they hear them. Through the instructions, Kusnir develops an alienated speculation. Taking advantage, for instance, of the word acción’s double meaning (as “action”; as “share” of invested capital), he proposed founding a bank: “an entity that could hold common funds containing all possible habits and slips, from which any interested individual would be able to deposit or, as it suited them, withdraw (by buying or borrowing) whatever actions they needed.” Transactions would be regulated by a Stock Exchange. Among ironies aimed for John Cage and the international financial system, far from articulating the expected conclusions of a doctoral thesis, Brindis XIII posits new enigmas—enigmas Kusnir insists upon, for the surrealist air that the critic Müller finds in this monologue is to be found in many of his other works.[4]

Pages 5 and 6 of Blancanieves by Eduardo Kusnir (2001). Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

How should we interpret, politically, works that allude to politics but lack the disengagement of abstraction, exclude direct political references? Is it about a kind of political commitment that functions through irony without renouncing an honest and explicit presentation of the composer’s impressions and experiences? In Kusnir and Schwartz’s music, certainties are canceled. Their ironies impose a kind of distancing, necessary if you don’t want to get petrified staring horror right in the face. Impishness lightens the seriousness of customs and conventions, but triggers nervous smiles too. For the distance can never be cold enough. In their commitment to merge the marvelous with the abstract, they summon into the concert hall some of reality’s monsters.


[1] Conversation with the author, 2020. [return]

[2] [Editor’s note] “Tunebo” is the colonial name for the U’wa people, whose land covers the forests of Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental. [return]

[3] Conversation with the author, 2022. [return]

[4] Analyzing Kusnir’s sense of the surrounding political violence, Esteban Buch reads in some of his late 70s works, like Brindis X, an anticipation of “State terrorism’s sensory machine” (Buch 2016). The contact points between this work and Schwartz’s hooded man are evident: the pianist, blindfolded, gains knowledge of the score from two informants who dictate it to him. [return]

Works Cited

Brnčić, Gabriel. Course syllabus for “Introducción al sonido,” 1973. Fondo del Laboratorio de Investigación y Producción Musical, Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires.

Buch, Esteban. Música, dictadura, resistencia. La orquesta de París en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2016.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. L’Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénie. Paris: Minuit, 1972.

Devrient, Eduardo, Irma Barrese, Oscar Rovito, Fernando Sendra, and Adolfo Berasategui. Cuaderno CICMAT 6: Primer encuentro de autores del teatro nacional. Buenos Aires: Área de Comunicación Artística del CICMAT, 1975.

Domínguez Pesce, Agustín. Escuchando archivos musicales: esto no es una historia del Centro de Música Experimental (UNC). Buenos Aires: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación, 2021.

García, Fernando. El Di Tella. Historia íntima de un fenómeno cultural. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2021.

Garutti, Miguel. “Modos de actuar en estado de excepción: la música electroacústica en los últimos años del CICMAT (1975–1977).” Afuera 15 (September 2015).

–––. “Música y escena en el CICMAT: ejercicios de improvisación y música electrónica entre las Audiciones Didácticas y el Plan de Reencuentro del Teatro con el Pueblo (1973–1976).” Unpublished conference presentation at TIMEAL 2018: “Teatro Instrumental. Música y escena en América latina (1954–2006),” Buenos Aires, December 5, 2018.

Giunta, Andrea. Vanguardia, internacionalismo y política: Arte argentino en los años sesenta. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2001.

King, John. El Di Tella y el desarrollo cultural argentino en la década del sesenta. Translated by Carlos Gardini. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Gaglianone, 1985.

Kusnir, Eduardo. Brindis : la musique est-elle un langage universel? Ph.D. diss., Université Paris 8, 1974. Revised and translated by the author as Brindis. Una mirada a los juegos desgarradores del arte. Posted 2005.

–––. “¿Knock out musical? (II).” El Nacional (Caracas), January 8, 1988.

Longoni, Ana. Vanguardia y Revolución. Arte e izquierdas en la Argentina de los sesenta-setenta. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2014.

Oubiña, David. El silencio y sus bordes: modos de lo extremo en la literatura y el cine. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011.

Paraskevaídis, Graciela. “Eduardo Bértola.” Revista del Instituto Superior de Música 8 (2001): 12–59.

–––. “Cursos Latinoamericanos de Música Contemporánea. Documentación, I.” Posted 2014.

Perrone, Marcela. “La obra Parca de Oscar Bazán y la estética austera.” In Actas del Cuarto Congreso Internacional “Artes en Cruce”: Constelaciones de sentido. Buenos Aires: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad de Buenos Aires, 2016.

Raffo Dewar, Andrew. “Performance, Resistance, and the Sounding of Public Space: Movimiento Música Más in Buenos Aires, 1969–1973.” In Experimentalisms in Practice: Music Perspectives from Latin America, edited by Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera, and Alejandro L. Madrid, 279–304. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Sarti, Graciela. “Grupo CAyC. Historia.” Centro Virtual de Arte Argentino. Posted March 2013.

Sebreli, Juan José. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana y alineación. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Siglo Veinte, 1964.

Tapia, Víctor. “Bondis, plazas y experimentación: Movimiento Música Más, los olvidados vanguardistas de la música argentina.” Universo Epígrafe, September 2016.

Verzero, Lorena. Teatro militante. Radicalización artística y política en los años 70. Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2013.

Villanueva, Santiago. El surrealismo rosa hoy. Ensayo visual y crítico. Rosario: Iván Rosado, 2021.

Experimentaciones sensoriales comprometidas [texto en español]

Miguel Garutti

Editado por Noel Torres Rivera.

Click here to read this text in English.

Nota del traductor

El verano pasado, tan solo unos meses después de terminar mi doctorado, recibí la invitación para el blog del Engaged Music Theory Working Group. Habiendo estado involucrado con este colectivo desde sus comienzos en la primavera del 2020, me sentí extremadamente honrado de que mis colegas me consideraran para contribuir a la serie de este año, junto con las talentosas académicas Danielle Sofer y Vivian Luong. Curiosamente, la invitación llegó justo en el verano en el que me involucré en un grupo de lectura sobre teoría postcolonial y decolonial moderado por la profesora Nalini Natarajan (Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras). Al ser este un grupo en su mayoría de jóvenes académicos, tuvimos la idea de estudiar y discutir fuentes primarias y secundarias sobre el tema con un doble propósito: comprender mejor algunas de las discusiones recientes en nuestras respectivas áreas de especialidad, así como también reconsiderar nuestro propio trabajo académico y pedagógico desde esas perspectivas. En mi caso particular, tomé la oportunidad para repensar las presiones culturales, sociales, políticas y económicas que continúan impactando en la vida de muchos de nosotros, los puertorriqueños.

Ciertamente, la experiencia fue reveladora, y a la vez emocionalmente perturbadora. Al ser un hombre no-blanco, homosexual, proveniente de una región hispanohablante, con una crianza de clase trabajadora y de una formación educativa pública, fácilmente me agrupan dentro del grupo heterogéneo de académicos que legítimamente reclaman un estatus de marginalidad (o colonialidad, por así decirlo) en los contextos sociales, políticos y académicos de América del Norte. Sin embargo, a pesar de todas las dificultades (de las cuales puedo abundar bastante), cuando considero mi realidad actual —soy un ciudadano de clase media viviendo en el llamado “Primer mundo” y trabajando como profesor en camino a una cátedra permanente dentro de una comunidad académica de supremacía no disputada— surge otra manera de entender la complejidad de mis identidades: una que me ubica en el lado privilegiado de la ecuación en relación a la mayoría de los académicos, algunos de ellos mis amigos, quienes trabajan fuera de los lugares en el planeta en donde el capital académico se ha acumulado. Esta epifanía colisionó con mis motivaciones profesionales académicas. Cuando en un principio me planteaba “¿Cómo puede mi trabajo ser de-colonial?”, me veía reformulando la pregunta: “¿podría mi trabajo ser alguna vez de-colonial?”. Además, reconsideré lo que siempre he pensado que es uno de los temas más apremiantes dentro de los espacios académicos que frecuento: ¿cómo podemos nosotros, particularmente los académicos de la música que laboramos en América del Norte, atribuir categóricamente un valor moral a nuestro trabajo cuando su objetivo principal suele ser el provecho personal (conseguir un trabajo, encaminarse hacia la cátedra permanente, adquirir prestigio institucional, etc.) y cuando dicho trabajo a menudo recibe la anuencia de instituciones que derivan su capital (económico, cultural y social) de una posición privilegiada dentro de un sistema irredimible, injusto y desigual? En otras palabras, y refiriéndome específicamente a la división “norte”/“sur” en el centro de mi propio trabajo: ¿es la solución a la colonialidad realmente, entonces, para nosotros, académicos con mayor acceso a recursos, insistir en hablar por el Otro mientras nos beneficiamos de ello? ¿Acaso no están ya los académicos alrededor del mundo reclamando eso? ¿No deberíamos simplemente escuchar?

Hay mucho que exponer y desarrollar aquí. Sin embargo, el propósito de esta nota preliminar no es entablar un largo debate. Aún así, sigo dando eco a algo que para muchas personas está claro: cuando hacemos un llamado en nuestros círculos a reformas académicas imperativas a través de la cuales podríamos decididamente borrar dinámicas dañinas y establecidas de poder cimentadas en la raza, el género, la sexualidad, la etnicidad y el capacitismo (entre otras categorías),— necesitamos también reconocer y actuar contra las fuerzas imperialistas y, ¿por qué no?, colonialistas que continuamente condicionan el trabajo de los académicos que operan desde instituciones fuera y “debajo” de América del Norte. Por esta razón, y sin pretensiones de originalidad, he decidido ceder la oportunidad que se me ofrece de compartir mi trabajo y, en su lugar, hacer lo que una vez se me dijo que sería un “desperdicio” de mi propio tiempo, un “obstáculo” para mi carrera académica: traducir, al inglés en este caso, la contribución del colega académico, compositor y productor Miguel Garutti (Universidad de Buenos Aires). Por esta misma razón nuestro editor, miembro de EMT Nathan Pell, ha decidido permanecer fuera de la cabecera. Isedua Oribhabor y Luis Pabón Rico contribuyeron en la traducción de esta nota. Ahora bien, es probable que, tal y como la acción de Kusnir de inclinar su cabeza encapuchada no llegó a impresionar al crítico Müller, nuestras acciones —ceder poder o título por razones políticas— le parezcan al lector un mero performance: extrañamente solemne, sin significado alguno. Es probable que este cinismo sea inevitable. No obstante, el texto a continuación, en su versión final, fue el resultado de incontables horas de intercambio académico entre amigos, incluso amigos de amigos, que conjuntamente trabajaron desde dos y hasta tres continentes al servicio de una música creada con el propósito de “de-componer” barreras entre el sonido y un mundo turbulento. A pesar de la posible mezquindad de algunas posturas académicas, es posible que el ejercicio artístico/académico aquí propuesto esté, tal y como pregunta Garutti, “comprometido con la realidad?”

—Noel Torres Rivera (University of Missouri-Kansas City)


Experimentaciones sensoriales comprometidas: comentarios sobre Experiencia poliartística de Francis Schwartz y Eduardo Kusnir

un concierto

“Una época siniestra” fue lo primero que me dijo Eduardo Kusnir. Fui a visitarlo porque quería saber qué recordaba de un concierto que hizo junto a Francis Schwartz el 15 de julio de 1975 en el Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) de Buenos Aires. Unos meses antes de nuestra conversación, revisando diarios en la hemeroteca de la Biblioteca Nacional, encontré los títulos del anuncio y la crítica:

“Con estímulos sucesivos para diferentes sentidos, ofrecen hoy una función ‘poli-artística’” (La Opinión, 15 de julio de 1975).

“En un espectáculo del CAYC que combina investigaciones artísticas, dos músicos manipularon modernas formas de comunicación” (La Opinión, 20 de julio de 1975).

El espectáculo se llamó Experiencia poliartística. Consistió en dos obras “fusionadas en una estructura fija que admitía momentos aleatorios”, según la describió Schwartz al crítico Martin Müller. La primera, Tiempo, espacio y el hombre encapuchado de Schwartz, intentaba inducir a la audiencia “predominantemente joven” a una experiencia multisensorial, mediante pantallas de video, cintas de audio, perfumes, un sintetizador y las acciones de cuatro performers. Schwartz, junto a dos chicas, mezclaba cintas mirando las pantallas y el resto de la escena. Un “artista-operador”, posible “creador del futuro”, en la “semipenumbra” manipulando “su extraña alquimia tecnológica”. Entre las imágenes, Müller destacó los planos detalle de un rostro barbado, dedos y un brazo; entre los sonidos, “variados esquemas rítmicos, amplia diversidad de timbres y sonoridades yuxtapuestas”. “Indiscernibles aromas florales” impregnaban la sala ocasionalmente. Parado del lado opuesto a Schwartz, un hombre con una bolsa en la cabeza inclina la cabeza hacia adelante. Se la saca: el hombre joven que aparecía en las pantallas era Kusnir. En este momento empezaba Brindis XIII, la segunda obra del espectáculo. Consistía en la lectura de un capítulo de la disertación que había presentado el año anterior para doctorarse en París VIII. Bajo sus órdenes, las chicas ejecutaban acciones lentas y placenteras, como acariciarse el pelo y los cigarrillos. Müller describió el monólogo de Kusnir como un largo texto surrealista, por momentos inaudible, languidecido, saturado por la monotonía.

Al leer la crítica de este espectáculo confirmé las expectativas que me habían generado los títulos: un concierto de Kusnir y Schwartz presentado como “investigación artística”, donde experimentación sensorial, música de vanguardia y símbolos críticos se presentaron sin distinción en una época en la que se demandaba a los artistas que explicitaran el compromiso político en sus obras. Un compromiso que era cada vez menos tolerante hacia las experimentaciones sensoriales, especulaciones formales y distanciamientos irónicos. Independientemente de cuál haya sido la recepción de estas obras en su tiempo, ¿podríamos reconsiderar que un concierto como este, uno que incorporó lo siniestro, tensando la solemnidad hasta los límites del humor absurdo, está comprometido con la realidad? ¿surrealmente?


arte político

Hasta no hace mucho existía cierto consenso entre historiadores del arte de que la música de concierto fue una de las artes menos radicalizadas en la Buenos Aires de los sesenta-setenta. La menos comprometida entre las vanguardistas, la más retirada del ruido del mundo. En las visuales, muchos artistas no solo demostraron su solidaridad con las causas revolucionarias a través de sus obras, sino que incluso dejaron el arte por la acción política (Giunta 2001, Longoni 2014). Actores y dramaturgos discutieron estrategias para construir una tradición de teatro nacional, libre de influencias extranjeras, popular (Verzero 2013, Devrient et al. 1975). Cineastas denunciaron y documentaron las injusticias del sistema económico desde la clandestinidad, escapando a la censura y la represión mediante funciones secretas en barrios, fábricas y universidades (Oubiña 2011). La música de avanzada compartía espacios y espectadores con este otro arte radicalmente comprometido con la liberación. Esa desconexión o indiferencia no pudo haber sido total.

En los últimos años aumentó el interés en trazar los modos particulares en que la política estuvo presente en las salas de concierto. Empecemos con una lista no exhaustiva de obras y compositores que, con más o menos distancia, se propusieron integrar el compromiso político en sus producciones.

§ Teresa Monsegur (n. 1942) y su compañero el compositor Gabriel Brnčić (n. 1942) dejaron el país por las amenazas de la Alianza Anticomunista Argentina (“Triple A”) que culminaron en un simulacro de fusilamiento en el jardín de su casa. Esto sucedió cuatro años después de que el estreno de su obra orquestal Volveremos a las montañas (1969), con un título que remitía al ejército revolucionario del Che Guevara en Bolivia, fuese cancelado debido a una amenaza de bomba en el Teatro Colón, lugar en donde se realizaría el estreno. Brnčić también mostraba su compromiso político en el curso de “Introducción al sonido” del laboratorio de música electrónica del CICMAT, Centro de Investigaciones en Comunicación Masiva Arte y Tecnología. Brnčić planteaba la necesidad de formar técnicos profesionales que contrarrestaran las “formas sutiles de la penetración cultural”, articulando el entrenamiento técnico con un “plan de inclusión de utilidad social” (Brnčić 1973). Por su parte, Monsegur, pocos meses antes del exilio, había estrenado una obra de danza moderna en el Teatro San Martín de Buenos Aires que hacía referencia a “los monstruos que dominaban al pueblo y el pueblo que se terminaba rebelando y venciendo a los monstruos” —según recuerda Graciela Rusiñol, una de las bailarinas.[1] Esta obra incluía la pieza electroacústica de la compositora colombiana Jaqueline Nova (1935–1975), Creación de la tierra o canto de los indios tunebos (1972).[2] Desde sus años en Chile, Monsegur intentaba aproximar la danza moderna a barrios populares y cárceles.

§ Eduardo Bértola (1939–1996) regresó a la Argentina en 1971, luego de su experiencia en el Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) en París para asumir sus “responsabilidades sociales” en la “revolución social” y “liberación cultural” de América Latina. Preocupado por integrar la música de vanguardia con las causas revolucionarias, Bértola compuso collages radiofónicos sin procesamiento que, distanciamiento estético mediante, producían un señalamiento político de contenidos aparentemente triviales de los medios de comunicación. También compuso la obra electrónica Gomecito contra la Siemens o El diablo de San Agustín (1973), solidarizándose con un caso de injusticia cometido por la corporación internacional (Paraskevaídis 2001).

§ Graciela Paraskevaídis (1940–2017) y Corihún Aharonián (1940–2017), en Montevideo, Uruguay, desarrollaron un programa de acción que desde la composición y la musicología proponía la construcción de una estética latinoamericana, crítica del poder de atracción que imponían los centros metropolitanos. Desde 1971 ensayaron una nueva forma de organización institucional autogestiva a través de los Cursos Latinoamericanos de Música Contemporánea (1971–1980), reuniendo en sus quince encuentros itinerantes a músicos y educadores de todo el continente (Paraskevaídis 2014).

§ Oscar Bazán (1936–2005) en el laboratorio de música electrónica del CICMAT planteó una alternativa a la sed ilimitada de desarrollo tecnológico: la austeridad, obras inspiradas en músicas originarias del continente que usaban lo más elemental de las técnicas de síntesis del ARP 2600 (Garutti 2015, Perrone 2016, Domínguez Pesce 2021).

§ En el Movimiento Música Más encontramos otra forma de innovación en la que podríamos leer una sensibilidad estética cercana a la renovación política. Este grupo hacía circular la “improvisación libre” dentro y fuera de la sala de conciertos, desde el Teatro Colón a un colectivo de la línea 7 (Raffo Dewar 2018).

§ El Grupo de Experimentación Musical del CICMAT —que formaban los profesores Gerardo Gandini, José Maranzano, Francisco Kröpfl y Gabriel Brnčić— tuvo la necesidad de dar discursos didácticos antes de sus conciertos de 1973. En estos discursos se vinculaba la experimentación con la democratización de la práctica musical, replicando las ideas de grupos italianos de mediados los sesenta Nuova Consonanza y Musica Elettronica Viva (Garutti 2018). Las argumentaciones fueron perdiendo sutilezas mientras se sucedían los conciertos hasta llegar a incluir citas de Juan Perón, en un intento de moderar la hostilidad de una parte del público que percibía que estas manifestaciones artísticas eran demasiado abstractas y, por lo tanto, retiradas de la situación política. Alcanzado por críticas similares, se disolvió ese mismo año el Movimiento Música Más. Según confesó restrospectivamente Norberto Chavarri, uno de sus protagonistas, MMM estaba más interesado en la innovación que en la revolución (Tapia 2016).

No todo el arte durante los años setenta en Argentina estaba radicalizado. Los teatros de la calle Corrientes, gran parte del cine comercial y de la música que se oía por la radio, las galerías de abstracción geométrica y otras “vanguardias” continuaban funcionando con normalidad, más o menos ajenas a la politización, más o menos psicodélicas, pop, modernas o tradicionalistas. Los trabajos de Kusnir y Schwartz no se adhieren del todo a ninguna de estas dos posiciones. Lo político no les era indiferente. Por ejemplo, en el anuncio de Experiencia poliartística, Schwartz expresa el deseo de que su espectáculo trascienda “el alcance minoritario”, fuera del “pequeño circuito de públicos sofisticados”. Sin embargo, la manera de demostrar su sensibilidad política a través de lo psicodélico, lo irónico, lo ambiguo, lo tecnológico, tiene más puntos de contactos con poéticas poco comprometidas. ¿Cómo podemos describir este punto medio?


Kusnir acariciando el ARP 2600 del CICMAT, ca. 1975. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

real surreal

La caracterización de “surrealista” que hizo el crítico del concierto de Kusnir y Schwartz me dio una pista para repensar las diferencias entre ellos y los compositores de su generación. Porque veo una coincidencia con algo actual. Un aire surrealista impregna la imaginación de la comunidad artística de Buenos Aires. Encontramos en galerías y salas de concierto obras que se comprometen con lo desconocido, lo enigmático, lo misterioso, lo milagroso, lo fantástico, el sueño, el ensueño, lo lírico, lo precario, lo extraño, lo deforme, lo animal, lo íntimo, lo siniestro. Un surrealismo diferente al francés de las vanguardias históricas de los veinte y los treinta. No tiene un programa estético o político definido; es más ambiguo, más errático. Escapa al análisis. Su causa parece ser el intento de disolver el principio de no contradicción y su truco, por falta o por exceso de acción, es la sorpresa incómoda. Recuperando una valoración negativa similar a la que hizo el crítico del concierto de Kusnir y Schwartz, el artista y curador Santiago Villanueva propone considerar este estado particular del ánimo del arte porteño como “surrealismo rosa”:

Es rosa porque es el color que la vanguardia menos utilizó, el color poco serio, más callejero y menos pretencioso. . . El surrealismo rosa está directamente vinculado al cuerpo, empatiza más con la teoría queer que con el psicoanálisis, con los diarios que con la poesía. Solo que no se presenta evidente, es más escurridizo y tramposo. (Villanueva 2021)

En la performance de Schwartz y Kusnir el recinto de la utopía tecnológica, el laboratorio en el que el “artista operador” despliega sus artificios, está teñido de oscuridad. Lo que el hombre encapuchado tiene para decir es incomprensible, no llega a articularse en crítica explícita al imaginario tecno-científico —como en la explosiva reacción del científico entre los aparatos de Antithese (1962) de Mauricio Kagel. Esa noche, las fantasías modernas fueron reinterpretadas en la ensoñación de baja intensidad de un artista-investigador.


Programa del concierto Experiencia poliartística. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.


Mencioné varias veces en lo que va de este texto dos instituciones: el CICMAT y el CAyC. Ambos espacios tuvieron mucho en común y algunas diferencias. La creación de ambas instituciones coincidió con el ocaso del Instituto Torcuato Di Tella (ITDT), sede fundamental de la neo-vanguardia desarrollista en la Argentina de los sesenta (King 1985, Giunta 2001, García 2021). Estos centros continuaron con la promoción del modelo de artista-investigador que el ITDT proponía en su Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales. A diferencia del CAyC y del ITDT, sin embargo, el CICMAT era financiado por la Municipalidad de Buenos Aires. Su proyecto original proponía que las investigaciones de sus departamentos de Comunicación Masiva, Tecnología, Topología y Dinámica de las Formas Visuales y Música Contemporánea sirvieran principalmente a la comunidad. Sus actividades incluían la enseñanza en cada una de estas áreas de especialización, la divulgación musical y la producción de espectáculos públicos. El CAyC, por su parte, fue una institución privada creada por un grupo de artistas y arquitectos que promovía la idea de “arte de sistemas” y que continuó con el proyecto de internacionalización que había iniciado el ITDT (Sarti 2013). El CAyC operaba en un local comercial sobre Viamonte, la calle que reunía a la bohemia intelectual desde finales de los años 50 (Sebreli 1964). El CICMAT estaba instalado en un edificio cerca de la popular avenida Corrientes donde, entre salas de conferencias, auditorios y oficinas, también funcionaba la Radio Municipal, el Conservatorio y uno de los teatros más importantes de la ciudad, el Teatro General San Martín. Este complejo fue uno de los epicentros de los conflictos entre sectores de izquierda y derecha del movimiento peronista desde 1973 y emblema del nuevo orden que impuso la junta militar a partir del 76. En esos primeros setenta fueron aumentando las hostilidades hacia los artistas-investigadores tanto por su insuficiente compromiso con las causas revolucionarias como por sus transgresión a las tradiciones artísticas. Los músicos decidieron permanecer en sus puestos con el propósito de proteger el laboratorio de música electrónica y redujeron progresivamente sus actividades públicas (Garutti 2015). ¿Cómo son los espacios para la investigación y experimentación musical en un tiempo cada vez más siniestro?

Teatro Municipal y Centro Cultural General San Martín. Informes de la construcción, vol. 26, no. 259, abril de 1974.


Schwartz y Kusnir

En 1969, cinco años antes de mudarse a Puerto Rico, Francis Schwartz había provocado un escándalo en San Juan con su obra Auschwitz (1968). En una casona colonial Schawrtz recitaba un texto suyo mientras la coreógrafa Carmen Diascochea bailaba entre alambres de púas y sonidos electrónicos. Hacia la mitad de la obra, Schwartz comenzó a quemar pelos en el escenario y sus estudiantes-colaboradores bloquearon la puerta. El público —entre los que se encontraban funcionarios estadounidenses— se revoltó intentando salir. Cuando por fin lo lograron, los becarios captores se transformaron en “periodistas” al cuestionar a los espectadores acerca de sus sensaciones (Kusnir 1988).

Antes de presentar un concierto en el Teatro San Martín de Buenos Aires, en la misma estadía de Experiencia poliartística, Schwartz fue advertido por los músicos del laboratorio del CICMAT de que no era conveniente ser tan explícito en un momento incómodo para ellos. Aún así, Schwartz interpretó una obra para piano y cinta magnetofónica con sonidos electrónicos y nombres de ciudades latinoamericanas en donde se habían cometido masacres. Schwartz me contó que no tuvo problemas con los censores. Kusnir sospecha, retrospectivamente, que esta obra no era lo suficientemente explícita, su abstracción no llegaba a incomodarlos. Las disonancias del piano enmascararon el texto incómodo, la sala de conciertos neutralizó la provocación política.[3] Por lo menos esa tarde.

Kusnir en un triciclo en Viejo San Juan. “What Does a Tricycle Have To Do With Music?”, crítica del estreno de Brindis No. 3 de Eduardo Kusnir en San Juan de Puerto Rico, por Francis Schwartz. San Juan Star, 7 de octubre de 1973. Foto por Eddie Crespo. Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

Eduardo Kusnir había vuelto a Buenos Aires en el 74, otro punto del itinerario de sus años nómades. Comenzaron en el Conservatorio Estatal de Sofía en la Bulgaria post-estalinista, seguidos de las giras por el mundo rojo dirigiendo el Ballet Nacional de Cuba de los primeros años de la revolución, una beca en el Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM) del ITDT; otra beca en Gante, Bélgica, donde compuso una obra radiofónica utilizando el azar, y otra en París VIII para escribir su tesis, dirigida por Daniel Charles. Brindis. Una mirada a los juegos desgarradores del arte [o en su título original: Brindis. la musique est-elle un langage universel?] se despliega entre la realidad y la ficción. Los “Brindis” son una serie de obras de teatro instrumental que Kusnir presentó en festivales y conciertos desde finales de los años sesenta. Los capítulos de la tesis articulan una explicación para cada una de esas obras, incluida la información sobre el proceso de composición. Para diferenciarlos de los “Brindis”, Kusnir tituló estos capítulos “máquinas”, probablemente influido por las machines désirantes [máquinas deseantes] que Deleuze y Guattari proponían por esos años en la misma universidad (Deleuze y Guattari 1972). En sus “máquinas”, Kusnir inventó personajes que financiaron los encargos y detalla las hipótesis y fracasos de cada investigación (Brindis) —ironizando sobre la impostura del lenguaje tecnocrático propio de artistas-científicos. Aparatos, modos y campos operativos como campos minados, como emplazamiento de las “imprevisibilidades”, organigramas, algoritmos, mecanismos regulados, micrófonos mentales que detectan las pulsaciones intermitentes de las músicas memorizadas, catálogos de firmas de compositores canónicos e inventarios de muecas de pianistas, trabajo teleguiado y cronometrado, diagramas de flujo, organizaciones, proyectos, solidez estructural, perturbaciones en el sistema. Los Brindis de Kusnir se despliegan en la constante tensión entre la composición como intento de control y la incertidumbre del espectáculo, donde todo puede fallar. Esta oscilación entre contrarios —órdenes y contraórdenes, ajustes y rupturas, realidad y ficción, ironía y sinceridad, producción y recepción— apunta a disolver una de las dualidades que más parecen incomodarlo, la que separa a las obras de lo “extramusical”: la música y el mundo. Kusnir propone el concepto de “de-composición”:

Componer es configurar una serie de conexiones originales, sin desechar ni jerarquizar en principio ningún elemento. No hay afuera de la música. Iremos hacia una de-composición, la cual consistirá en mezclar esos elementos dentro de un recipiente común, que llamaremos el evento-concierto, o bien “el concierto escenificado”: la música, los músicos, el director de orquesta, el silencio, las reverencias, los “tics”, las ovaciones, los susurros, las toses, las galletitas, los brazaletes, los cierres ruidosos de bolsos y carteras, los instrumentos de orquesta, el humo de los cigarrillos y los cigarrillos mismos, y —¿por qué no?— las mariposas y las arañas. (Kusnir 2005 [1974])

En el concierto del CAyC Kusnir leyó esta disertación. Brindis XIII es un monólogo dirigido al jurado que describe acciones “agradables” que deben realizar los performers en escena mientras las oyen, desde fumar a escuchar música en la radio. Entre las instrucciones, Kusnir desarrolla su especulación extrañada. Aprovechando el doble sentido de la palabra “acción”, por ejemplo, propone fundar un banco, “una entidad que represente un fondo común que contenga todos los hábitos y desarreglos posibles, del cual cada interesado podría depositar y oportunamente retirar (comprando o en préstamo) aquellas acciones que más le convengan”. La negociación de estas acciones la regularía una Bolsa de valores. Entre ironías que apuntan contra John Cage y el sistema financiero internacional, lejos de exponer las conclusiones de una tesis de doctorado, Brindis XIII presenta nuevos enigmas. Enigmas en los que Kusnir insiste, porque el aire surrealista que el crítico encuentra en este monólogo envuelve una buena parte de sus obras.[4]

Páginas 5 y 6 de Blancanieves de Eduardo Kusnir (2001). Archivo de Música y Arte Sonoro Fernando von Reichenbach, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.

¿Cómo interpretar en clave política piezas que remiten a lo político sin la distancia de la abstracción ni la incorporación de consignas políticas directas? ¿Se trata de un tipo de compromiso político que opera desde la ironía sin por ello renunciar a la presentación sincera y en primer plano de las impresiones y experiencias del autor? En la música de Kusnir y Schwartz se suspenden las certezas. Su ironía impone una distancia necesaria para no quedar petrificado ante la mirada directa del horror. La picardía, que hace más liviana la seriedad de las costumbres y convenciones, provoca sonrisas nerviosas. Porque su distancia nunca llega a ser fría. En su compromiso de unir lo maravilloso y lo abstracto hace aparecer en la sala de conciertos algunos monstruos de la realidad.


[1] Conversación con el autor, 2020. [return]

[2] [Nota del editor] “Tunebo” es el nombre colonial para los U’wa, cuyas tierras abarcan los bosques de la cordillera oriental colombiana. [return]

[3] Conversación con el autor, 2022. [return]

[4] Esteban Buch analiza la sensibilidad de Kusnir al clima de violencia política, leyendo en algunos de sus trabajos de finales de los años setenta, como Brindis X, una anticipación a la “máquina sensorial del terrorismo de Estado” (Buch 2016). Los puntos de contacto entre esta obra y el hombre encapuchado de Schwartz son evidentes: el pianista, con los ojos vendados, tiene conocimiento de la partitura por dos informantes que se la dictan. [return]


Brnčić, Gabriel. Programa de clase “Introducción al sonido”, 1973. Fondo del Laboratorio de Investigación y Producción Musical, Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires.

Buch, Esteban. Música, dictadura, resistencia. La orquesta de París en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2016.

Deleuze, Gilles y Felix Guattari. L’Anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénie. París: Minuit, 1972.

Devrient, Eduardo, Irma Barrese, Oscar Rovito, Fernando Sendra y Adolfo Berasategui. Cuaderno CICMAT 6: Primer encuentro de autores del teatro nacional. Buenos Aires: Área de Comunicación Artística del CICMAT, 1975.

Domínguez Pesce, Agustín. Escuchando archivos musicales: esto no es una historia del Centro de Música Experimental (UNC). Buenos Aires: Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación, 2021.

García, Fernando. El Di Tella. Historia íntima de un fenómeno cultural. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2021.

Garutti, Miguel. “Modos de actuar en estado de excepción: la música electroacústica en los últimos años del CICMAT (1975–1977)”. Afuera 15 (septiembre 2015).

–––. “Música y escena en el CICMAT: ejercicios de improvisación y música electrónica entre las Audiciones Didácticas y el Plan de Reencuentro del Teatro con el Pueblo (1973–1976)”. Ponencia para conferencia TIMEAL 2018: “Teatro Instrumental. Música y escena en América latina (1954–2006)”, Buenos Aires, 5 de diciembre de 2018.

Giunta, Andrea. Vanguardia, internacionalismo y política: Arte argentino en los años sesenta. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2001.

King, John. El Di Tella y el desarrollo cultural argentino en la década del sesenta. Traducido por Carlos Gardini. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Gaglianone, 1985.

Kusnir, Eduardo. Brindis: la musique est-elle un langage universel? Tesis doctoral, Université Paris 8, 1974. Revisado y traducido por el autor como Brindis. Una mirada a los juegos desgarradores del arte. Publicado en 2005.

–––. “¿Knock out musical? (II)”. El Nacional (Caracas), 8 de enero de 1988.

Longoni, Ana. Vanguardia y Revolución. Arte e izquierdas en la Argentina de los sesenta-setenta. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 2014.

Oubiña, David. El silencio y sus bordes: modos de lo extremo en la literatura y el cine. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2011.

Paraskevaídis, Graciela. “Eduardo Bértola”. Revista del Instituto Superior de Música 8 (2001): 12–59.

–––. “Cursos Latinoamericanos de Música Contemporánea. Documentación, I”. Publicado en 2014.

Perrone, Marcela. “La obra Parca de Oscar Bazán y la estética austera”. En Actas del Cuarto Congreso Internacional “Artes en Cruce”: Constelaciones de sentido. Buenos Aires: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad de Buenos Aires, 2016.

Raffo Dewar, Andrew. “Performance, Resistance, and the Sounding of Public Space: Movimiento Música Más in Buenos Aires, 1969–1973.” En Experimentalisms in Practice: Music Perspectives from Latin America, editado por Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera y Alejandro L. Madrid, 279–304. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Sarti, Graciela. “Grupo CAyC. Historia”. Centro Virtual de Arte Argentino. Publicado en marzo del 2013.

Sebreli, Juan José. Buenos Aires, vida cotidiana y alineación. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Siglo Veinte, 1964.

Tapia, Víctor. “Bondis, plazas y experimentación: Movimiento Música Más, los olvidados vanguardistas de la música argentina”. Universo Epígrafe, septiembre 2016.

Verzero, Lorena. Teatro militante. Radicalización artística y política en los años 70. Buenos Aires: Biblos, 2013.

Villanueva, Santiago. El surrealismo rosa hoy. Ensayo visual y crítico. Rosario: Iván Rosado, 2021.

Feeling Like a Theorist

Vivian Luong

Collaboratively edited with Chelsea Burns and Samuel Chan

Write an introduction:

Construct something that invites the reader in. Make a place for them to sit a while and take in your words. Be friendly and gentle. Demonstrate that you can write and belong here with the careful precision of your prose. Write and rewrite each sentence until its meaning is shiny, polished, and pristine with a hint of antiseptic. Come in. I tidied my argument before you got here.[1] Welcome.

But what if what I want to share might make you uncomfortable? What if my writing needs to be disturbing?


And now I’ve written myself into an impasse—a place of “stuckness,” ambivalence, and uncertainty.[2] This usually happens when I’m writing about something difficult that I really don’t want to write about, but that I also really want to write about. I tiptoe to the edge of what I want to say and then I swerve away. Over and over again, I repeat this process until I’m exhausted, having spent all of my time and energy carving a path that leads me nowhere closer to where I want to go. What I am able to offer in this post is a trace of this repeated battle—of desperately wanting to express something but feeling like I can’t. I shouldn’t, don’t deserve to. I’m not qualified to. Let me step back and try again.


I want need to write about (self-)hate and the conditions in the discipline of music theory that make hate a taboo subject to talk about. In addition to feelings of ambivalence, it has been extremely difficult—painful—to write about hate. Pinning the concept down, sitting with it, thinking through it, and then sharing my thoughts about it. Why does this feel even more intimate, more frightening, than sharing my ideas about love?

As a music theorist who writes about music loving, I haven’t really been able to escape thinking about hate. In fact, one of the hazards of working on love is that I get lots of questions about hate.

What does love have to do with the analysis of music that we despise?
Where’s the love when we ask our students to engage with music that they hate?
What do we do about analytical methods rooted in hate?

Oftentimes, these questions come up while I am poised behind a podium during the Q&A portion of a conference talk. Still hopped up on adrenaline, stale conference-center coffee, and a lack of sleep, I stumble my way through an answer about how love is complicated; how checking in and asking for students’ consent should be a part of a loving pedagogy;[3] and oh, hey, isn’t it neat that Deleuze and Guattari imagine loving in multiplicities?[4] I always divert back to the safety of love. In short, my answers about hate have been inadequate.


Claiming the identity of the “professional music lover” was a central strategy in constructing a space for early feminist and queer music studies.[5] And as a minoritized junior scholar trying to get us to imagine a liberatory music studies, I often choose writing about love as a way in. I am grateful and indebted to this strategy for providing me with citational legibility.[6] And furthermore, love seems so positive an affect that perhaps my insidious, burn-the-discipline-down-from-the-inside-to-build-another-world tendencies can fly under the radar.[7] But I also experience love’s pitfalls.

As noted by Suzanne Cusick, William Cheng, and others, hailing the love of music can also run the risk of minimizing the harm it does as a weapon of torture and racialized violence.[8] And as Danielle Sofer argues, this limited notion of love equates musical queerness with white, masculine-oriented homonormativity, thereby erasing the experiences of other minoritized individuals, such as women of color as well as nonbinary and trans-feminine people.[9]

I share these authors’ concerns both professionally and personally. This absence, this lack, our refusal to deal not only with the ambivalence of music’s effects, but also our effects in the world—it makes me angry. This anger fuels my attempts to prove all of this in my writing, in my conversations with colleagues, in my teaching.

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions [sexism and racism], personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.[10]

But it’s precarious enough sometimes to bring gender and sexuality into music-theoretical spaces. So I couch my statements. I tone them down. I temper my words until they form yet another essay disguised under the safe veneer of music loving. Excuse me? I/we would like to exist here. Let me explain again why I/we matter. I stop.

This strategy of survival hurts because my anger still seethes. I can’t make it go where it needs to go. So it winds inward into my gut, my psyche, my sense of self until it manifests into self-hate.

Anger is useful to help clarify our differences, but in the long run, strength that is bred by anger alone is a blind force which cannot create the future. It can only demolish the past. Such strength does not focus upon what lies ahead, but upon what lies behind, upon what created it—hatred. And hatred is a deathwish for the hated, not a lifewish for anything else. To grow up metabolizing hatred like daily bread means that eventually every human interaction becomes tainted with the negative passion and intensity of its by-products—anger and cruelty.[11]


A part of the reason I feel more comfortable citing established, implicitly white feminist and queer thought on music is that it doesn’t call attention to other aspects of my situated experience.

I’ve typed, deleted, re-typed, and then deleted again a clarification of what exactly I mean here multiple times now.

How is this music theory?
Why does this matter?
How does this speak to the universal experience of every music theorist?

I’m making us uncomfortable.


It seems that I’ve hit an impasse again.


Why is it so hard to bridge my racialized identity with my work on music loving and/or hate? It’s a defense that I’ve built up, a reflexive response to the “Who are you?/What are you?/Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” line of questioning that some of us are familiar with. I am tired of needing to prove where I’m “really from.” I’m tired of the restrictive orientalist and sexualized stereotypes pinned onto me when I articulate my identity at this intersection.[12] More recently, this fatigue has warped into a deadened state of burnout. I am flattened by the constant deferral of my anger, my grief, my fear of violent retaliation—all of which has only been made ever more mundane-yet-exceptional in the past two years of the pandemic.[13] I feel unrooted, de-situated, displaced from institution to institution in an increasingly contingent labor market. How and with whom can I grieve when I’m not sure where I will be and if I will survive?

When I do feel, it’s guilt. I feel ashamed of my inability to theorize these integral parts of myself into my work. I am performing the very act of making myself and others like me and adjacent to me invisible. I am complicit in denying us the capacity to fully exist. Asking for the right to exist seems a bit much for a blog post . . . Have I talked enough about music or music theory yet for this to count?


Let me hide behind a quotation or two from Asian-American poet Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning as I withdraw back to safety. On the conditional existence of her own identity and sense of self, Hong writes:

For as long as I could remember, I have struggled to prove myself into existence. I, the modern-day scrivener, working five times as hard as others and still I saw my hand dissolve, then my arm. Often at night, I flinched awake and berated myself until dawn’s shiv of light pierced my eyes. My confidence was impoverished from a lifelong diet of conditional love and a society who thinks I’m as interchangeable as lint . . . Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you.[14]

The ugly, contradictory, and hateful affects embodied in this quote exemplify Hong’s concept of “minor feelings.” Hong defines minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”[15] Aligning with other perspectives on negative political affects by Lauren Berlant, Ann Cvetkovich, and Sianne Ngai, Hong’s minor feelings depict the condition of living with a constant dissonance of one’s own racialized reality pushing against a racist-capitalist enforcement of optimism.[16] For Hong, this tension results in self-negation and internalized doubt. She writes:

I ransack my mind for what I could have done, could have said. I stop trusting what I see, what I hear. My ego is in free fall while my superego is boundless, railing that my existence is not enough, never enough, so I become compulsive in my efforts to do better, be better, blindly following this country’s gospel of self-interest, proving my individual worth by expanding my net worth, until I vanish.[17]

I have been subscribing to a similarly optimistic story of survival as a professional music lover. If I play along with this discipline, if I could just sublimate my anger into music loving, if I write myself out of existence, then maybe I too can finally be enough.

But at what cost? How many more times can I retrace this path? How much more hate can I accumulate? I am tired of disciplining my anger and rendering it into self-destruction.

And now as I try to draw this essay to a close, I feel the pull to swerve away again. A final time. To disappear. To vanish. But have I said what I’ve been meaning to say?


. . . I don’t know




Never enough.

Vivian Luong is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Oklahoma.


This blog series is supported by a subvention grant from the Society for Music Theory (SMT). 

If you decide to read on, I hope that you’ll get the sense that writing does not come easily to me. With that, I am very grateful for the support and space offered by the Engaged Music Theory Working Group to work through some of this difficulty here. Thank you also to editors Chelsea Burns and Samuel Chan for sharing their expertise and time with me, and to the American Musicological Society’s Music and Philosophy Study Group for their invitation to present an earlier version of this post at their 2020 meeting. Finally, I’d like to thank Stephen Lett for serving as an interlocutor throughout the writing process. 

[1] Turabian (2013, 104–109). [return] 

[2] Berlant (2011, 5 and 117); Cvetkovich (2012, 20–21); Robinson (2020, 257). [return] 

[3] hooks (2003, 137). [return] 

[4] Luong (2017). [return] 

[5] Cusick (1994); Guck (1996); Maus (1995). [return] 

[6] Hong (2020, 181–204). [return] 

[7] Robinson (2022). [return] 

[8] Cusick (2008a; 2008b); Cheng (2020). [return] 

[9] Sofer (2020, 38 and 40). [return] 

[10] Lorde (1984b, 127). [return] 

[11] Lorde (1984a, 152). [return] 

[12] Hisama (1993); Shimizu (2007). [return] 

[13] Kwon (2021). [return] 

[14] Hong (2020, 9–10). [return] 

[15] Hong (2020, 55). [return]

[16] Berlant (2011); Cvetkovich (2012); Ngai (2005). [return]

[17] Hong (2020, 35). [return]

Works Cited 

Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Cheng, William. 2020. Loving Music Till It Hurts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cusick, Suzanne G. 1994. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight.” In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, 67–83. New York, NY: Routledge.

———. 2008a. “Musicology, Torture, Repair.” Radical Musicology 3.

———. 2008b. “‘You Are in a Place That Is out of the World . . .’: Music in the Detention Camps of the ‘Global War on Terror.’” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 1 (February): 1–26.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Eng, David L., and Shinhee Han. 2019. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Durham: Duke University Press.

Guck, Marion A. 1996. “Music Loving, Or the Relationship with the Piece.” Music Theory Online 2, no. 2 (March). Reprinted in Journal of Musicology 15, no. 3 (Summer 1997): 343–52.

Hisama, Ellie M. 1993. “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, and John Zorn.” Popular Music 12, no. 2 (May): 91–104.

Hong, Cathy Park. 2020. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. New York: One World.

hooks, bell. 2003. Teaching Community: Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge.

Kwon, R. O. 2021. “A Letter to My Fellow Asian Women Whose Hearts Are Still Breaking.” Vanity Fair, March 19, 2021.

Lorde, Audre. 1984a. “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 145–75. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

———. 1984b. “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 124–33. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press.

Luong, Vivian. 2017.  “Rethinking Music Loving.” Music Theory Online 23, no. 2..

Maus, Fred Everett. 1995. “Love Stories.” Repercussions 4, no. 2: 86–96.

Ngai, Sianne. 2005. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Robinson, Dylan. 2020. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

———. 2022. “Decolonial Metaphors for Return and Renewal.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 8.

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. 2007. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sofer, Danielle. 2020. “Specters of Sex: Tracing the Tools and Techniques of Contemporary Music Analysis.” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 17, no. 1: 31–63.

Turabian, Kate L. 2013. “Writing Your Final Introduction and Conclusion.” A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, 104–109. 8th edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 

Playing by the Rules in the House of the Dead

Danielle Shlomit Sofer

Collaboratively edited with Clifton Boyd and Stephen Lett

Content Warning: The following post discusses rape and sexual assault in the academy.

All of the major scholarly music societies have subgroups devoted to queer themes these days.[1] As late as 2016, however, no independent body devoted to supporting queer music scholars’ inquiry into queer issues existed. After I met ethnomusicologist Thomas Hilder (Figure 1, bottom right) through Freya Cloud Jarman (not pictured, but always present), we together decided to organize such a group—what became the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group. Our first social gathering met in London six years ago, and in April 2022, just before writing this blogpost, I attended the most recent Symposium “Queer, Care, Futures,” in Vienna, Austria.

An image with a dozen people seated around a table in a restaurant. It is sunny, and the people are smiling.
Figure 1. Breaking bread at the 2022 Symposium of the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group in Vienna, Austria. Posted with the express permission of those photographed.


Upon a flat or smooth surface, queers in the academy appear as staggered, dislocated spaces between words arranged in a paragraph such as this one. Each space a perforation, indenting the smooth space, puncturing it, in one side and out the other. Perforations take on a depth imperceptible to those whose vantage merely skims the surface. Dedicated spaces afforded by these ever-so-slight indentations are necessary to foster the sense of belonging that anyone longs to feel in public. We occupy and protect these spaces for now, until a time when there is no difference between our sense of self during our day-to-day activities and our existence in such a humble queer bubble as the Study Group.


On my way back to Dayton, Ohio after the conference I was violently thrust back to this world’s surface. In the security line at Heathrow airport in London, I was physically assaulted by a security officer and subsequently escorted away to a more remote area. During those few moments, I experienced the familiar tug of the dreamworld in which I find myself when my complex Post Traumatic Stress (c-PTSD) response kicks in: reliving past sexual traumas from childhood abuse, multiple instances of rape (beginning at the age of 12), and an incident along these lines I experienced in my own on-campus office a few years back.[2] Before, I silently capitulated to the demands of another against my will.

But not this time. It should be considered unconscionable for an officer of the law to violently approach an unarmed citizen, just as speaking out against my abusers should have led to their persecution, not mine.


While writing my book Sex Sounds (forthcoming), I was thinking a lot about Lauren Berlant’s argument that our conceptions of privacy and property hinge upon “a boundary between proper and improper bodies” (1995, 380–81).[3] Entering the millimeter body scanner at the airport—the one that allows them to visibly undress you in public (Figure 2)—I was again thinking of Berlant’s words and of the list of sexualizing codewords TSA agents have for female passengers, there are nine according to one former agent.

An image with four panels which replicate a security agent’s view while someone is being scanned. There are two images, front and back, for women and men, respectively.
Figure 2. “Millimeter wave technology. Gen 2 scanner manufactured by Brijot of Lake Mary, Fla.” Transportation Security Administration. Image is in the public domain.


At the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory (SMT) in 2019 many members were shocked by how the conference seemingly centralized the themes of “identity politics.” For others it was a welcome but long overdue spotlight. That year, the Society also solicited recommendations from members of the Queer Resource Group on forming a Standing Committee on LGBTQ+ Issues to represent its queer members and liaise with the Executive Board. But, by far, the most noted event that year—publicized more widely than any subject debated by our Society prior—Philip Ewell presented his research on music theory’s “white racial frame” at that conference’s Plenary Session, commencing the famous “Schenker was a racist” debacle. Surely we are all grateful that this dam has at last been rushed, its façade finally crumbled. And yet, I cannot help but notice that, not only were there other speakers on this panel—Yayoi Uno Everett, Joseph Straus, and Ellie M. Hisama—but that the heinous acts outlined in the last talk appear to have been completely forgotten:

A network of sexual violence and bullying festers in the underbelly of our discipline.

Hisama’s plenary lecture exhibited sound recordings from 1997 of the late Milton Babbitt. She kept the tapes hidden all this time for fear of what would happen to her if she exposed these unspoken beliefs to his disciples, many of whom now dominate the profession. On the recordings, Babbitt sexually objectifies his colleagues in detail and unabashedly announces his spite for the so-called “homosexual domination” over musical societies and awards committees. He claims this domination prevented him and his allies from gaining their desired recognition for their work (Hisama 2021, 345), the “proper” respect he believes they deserve.

She also presented testimonies from several women music theorists who have experienced targeted harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying at work. As the testimonials show, Babbitt’s homophobic and anti-woman sentiments still haunt the halls of our universities and the vacant hotel rooms of past conferences. In the wake of these revelations, the Society issued no statement on sexual violence nor harassment.[4] Nothing at all has been done. Sexual assault and rape are simply and quietly swept under the rug.[5]

Remarks like Babbitt’s are being repeated RIGHT NOW in 2022. Indeed, Babbitt’s comments echo in many I have heard on the job market and later as an assistant professor. Aside from the unfortunately typical microaggressions and misgenderings, professional spaces, because of their insularity, give the appearance of an echo chamber. According to Berlant: “Dead citizenship, which haunts the shadowland of national culture, takes place in a privacy zone” (1995, 382). The shared principles that bind past members are implicit, hidden to newcomers who are have yet to become citizens or naturalized as such, by which I mean accustomed, habituated and settled. When abiding by unspoken rules, it is easy to misstep, to lose one’s way, and because of this newcomers often feel uneasy—unsettled. We do not know who the aggressors are. And we have often already lost the victims and their guiding whispers, “rumors”—they’ve either abandoned the Society or the academy altogether. Entering our Society is like walking down a long winding corridor in the dark when you know there is a potential attack looming. It has neither preventative measures nor recourse. In this way, individual members of the Society become complicit by way of silence. Whether out of indifference or discomfort, the effect is the same: silence imposed as a benchmark of “professionalism,” which is really just another right to privacy bestowed upon those “proper,” acculturated bodies. And because they do not speak (those who came before us, who may have perpetrated, witnessed, or even experienced an incident), we, too, may see no chance to speak.


The SMT Policy for Harassment was last updated three years ago, following closely the wording of an American Musicological Society policy. Although the policy rightly identifies all members as equally accountable for reporting offending actions, there is no concrete guidance on how to handle such situations within SMT other than contacting the Society’s president or other members of its Executive Board. There is no obvious benefit to coming forward to report incidents, and all the risk is taken by the victims. This essay deliberately refrains from making suggestions to improve this policy, since any proposed actions should be in consultation with the Society’s membership.    

Privacy in our Society, citizenship/membership in the Society, even life in the fullest sense in proximity to the Society, is extended only to certain members of our discipline, to those who are deemed entitled to those privileges—proper bodies. While we may have collectively (if tacitly) agreed that, hey, maybe Schenker was a racist after all, could it be that, as compromise for this little morsel of validation, our Society lets Babbitt’s comments about the “homosexual domination” slide? Quietly we swallow these beliefs, and mere beliefs become rule. If “homosexual domination” sounds old-fashioned to you, what about sexual assault or rape?

Danielle Shlomit Sofer is Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Music Technology at the University of Dayton.


I am tremendously grateful to the members of the Engaged Music Theory Working Group. Even as I transitioned out of and then back into academia, they always made me feel welcome. I had the immense pleasure of working with dedicated and dutiful editors Clifton Boyd and Stephen Lett who enthusiastically volunteered to usher this post to publication. Thank you also to the ever generous Reb Lentjes for her suggestions and time.

[1] This blog series is supported by a subvention grant from the Society for Music Theory (SMT). [return]

[2] It is well documented that individuals belonging to LGBTQIA+ communities experience incidences of sexual abuse and trauma at disproportionately high rates. Within this community, trans and non-binary individuals have “shockingly high levels of sexual abuse and assault” (Office for Victims of Crime 2014), with the highest rates among trans people of color. For statistics I collated specifically for SMT and an analysis of issues arising when seeking to calculate the percentage of members of SMT who identify with a category under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, see Sofer 2019. [return]

[3] Berlant demonstrated, via a material history of Parental Advisory labels, how the elite classes (citizens) use the law to wage war against those whose rights to privacy (i.e., protection from public scrutiny—whether racial, sexual, musical, or otherwise) are not protected by law. I do not have space here to lay this out, but it is easy to imagine how hip-hop producers and musicians may experience negative outcomes in copyright cases, for example, if they are viewed by the court as lacking protection from the law on account of racial and musical identifiers (Rose 2008; Williams 2013). [return]

[4] I am told SMT is forming a committee concerned with hiring practices in the discipline. [return]

[5] A few months before this blogpost was published, two senior members of the Department of Music at Harvard University were named authors of a letter in support of retaining a male colleague who had several years’ worth of complaints lodged against him. This letter has since been retracted. [return]

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. 1995. “Live Sex Acts (Parental Advisory: Explicit Material).” Feminist Studies 21 (2): 379–404.

Hisama, Ellie M. 2021. “Getting to Count.” Music Theory Spectrum 43 (2): 349–63.

Office for Victims of Crime. 2014. “Sexual Assault in the Transgender Community: Chicken or Egg?” Responding to Transgender Victims of Sexual Assault, June.

Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk about When We Talk about Hip Hop—and Why It Matters. New York: Perseus Book Group.

Sofer, Danielle. 2019. “Queer Stats.” Presented at the Queer Resource Group Business Meeting, Society for Music Theory, December 9.

———. (forthcoming). Sex Sounds: Vectors of Difference in Electronic Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williams, Justin A. 2013. Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Engaged Music Theory Blog Video #1: A Conversation with Dr. Naomi André and Dr. Sumanth Gopinath

The first post in our new blog series.

In conversation

The Engaged Music Theory Working Group is excited to announce the launch of a new blog series focused on equity within music studies, particularly the field of music theory. 

Our first post is a 90-minute video conversation between Dr. Naomi André, Dr. Sumanth Gopinath, Dr. Vivian Luong, and Dr. Danielle Shlomit Sofer on engaged scholarship in music studies. Subsequent posts will follow throughout the remainder of the 2020/21 academic year. 

We’d like to thank everyone involved in the Enganged Music Theory Working Group, Dr. Naomi André and Dr. Sumanth Gopinath for sharing their wisdom and insights, Dr. Vivian Luong, and Dr. Danielle Shlomit Sofer for moderating the conversation, and the Society for Music Theory for a subvention grant to support this series.