Blog

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.

I NEED TO STOP.

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?

No.

. . . I don’t know

Stop.

Enough.

 

Never enough.

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

Notes

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. http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk/2008/Cusick.htm.

———. 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). http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.96.2.2/mto.96.2.2.guck.html. 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. https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2021/03/ro-kwon-letter-to-asian-women.

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.. https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.17.23.2/mto.17.23.2.luong.html.

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. https://engagingstudentsmusic.org/article/view/8653/6321

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. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mmw_large.jpg

***

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.

Notes

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. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178273.

Hisama, Ellie M. 2021. “Getting to Count.” Music Theory Spectrum 43 (2): 349–63. https://doi.org/10.1093/mts/mtaa033.

Office for Victims of Crime. 2014. “Sexual Assault in the Transgender Community: Chicken or Egg?” Responding to Transgender Victims of Sexual Assault, June. https://ovc.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh226/files/pubs/forge/sexual_ch_e.html.

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtX1VbOsyFU.

———. (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.