Rachel Mundy, 23 January 2014

Title of the Talk: Songs on the Dissecting Table: Ethnomusicology and the German Laboratory Tradition

When? Thursday 23rd January 2014 (HT Week1) (17:00-18:30)

Where? Ertegun House, St Giles, University of Oxford

Speaker: Rachel Mundy (Assistant Professor of Music, University of Pittsburgh)

Abstract: A reader scanning music journals from the 1920s and ‘30s discovers the recurrence of a gruesome metaphor, one that compares snatches of melody to the broken body of a vivisected laboratory animal. This talk explores the role of the German physiological laboratory in early ethnomusicology, tracing the empirical tradition that tied together physical bodies and musical ones. I argue that visual traditions of knowledge in the laboratory framed music as a “body” that could be cut into and examined.  Moving from the inscriptions of nineteenth-century laboratory instruments to the scratches of the stylus in early wax cylinders, I show how laboratory traditions instrumentalized this approach.  But while this musical “laboratory” legitimized the study of non-Western music, it also imposed an impossible conflict between acquiring greater knowledge about foreign cultures, and expressing greater sympathy for them.

Speaker Biography: Rachel is a musicologist specializing in American and French music of the twentieth century, with interests in the way measures of musical ability have informed conceptions of human identity.  Her research locates music in relation to the history of science, through topics ranging from racial theory in the American avant-garde to the sound spectrograph’s construction of animal voices.  As a musician, she is a classically-trained pianist and a licensed teacher of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute which she has played for over a decade.

Her work on music, modernism, and evolutionary thought has been published with some of the most respected journals in musicology, ethnomusicology, and animal studies, and has been featured with the Mostly Mozart concert series and in lectures at various universities.  She is currently in the process of writing Animal Musicalities, a book which traces studies of singing animals from social Darwinism at the end of the nineteenth century through a transition after World War II, when anxieties about racial comparison led scientists to divorce studies of animal sound from comparisons with human music. She is also in the preliminary stages of a second book-length project titled Sounding Human: 1885-2000, which provides a more sustained study of musicology’s disciplinary role in defining humanity and its cultural categories.  Her work on music, science, and the humanities speaks to a larger disciplinary intersection at which aural culture has become part of scientific discussions about what it means to be fully human.  As she moves forward with her research and teaching, she hopes to add a musical voice to current attempts to define the ‘post humanities.’


Event hosted as part of the Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies Series, based at St John’s College, University of Oxford.

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