Featured Research: Music and Its Uses | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: Music and Its Uses

October 2, 2023

This month we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2023–24 whose projects consider the role that music plays in shaping lives. From churches in medieval Iberia to movie houses in the Soviet bloc to the streets and dancehalls of New Orleans and Nigeria, these scholars are examining music’s profound power to reveal and reimagine the world around us.

Adeshina Afolayan

Project: Philosophy in the Dancehall: Philosophy and Popular Music in Postcolonial Nigeria

Adeshina Afolayan has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He has been teaching philosophy, especially contemporary African philosophy and social and political philosophy, since 2001. His areas of specialization are the philosophy of politics, politics and Pentecostalism, African cultural studies, and African political philosophy. His current project involves a philosophical interrogation of how popular culture and (African) philosophy relate within the Nigerian postcolony and its multiple predicaments. The first part of the project involves a critical investigation of how Afropop, the unique Nigerian blend of hip-hop and Afrobeats, generates or reveals philosophical insights derived from creative engagements with postcolonial, existential lifeworlds.

two young Black women singing into a microphone
Afropop artists Arielle T and Selmor Mtukudzi recording “Strong Girl,” a collaboration with seven other female musicians in support of the worldwide #PovertyIsSexist campaign. Johannesburg, South Africa, April 29, 2015.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

I have always been fascinated by popular culture and the postcolonial aesthetics it creates. I was born into the family of a filmmaker, and this opened my eyes so early to how popular creativity ties in with the dynamics and predicaments of postcoloniality. How, for instance, the popular culture modulates and is modulated by the postcolonial.

What is postcoloniality? What is the postcolonial aesthetics? How is a unique postcolonial aesthetics created in the conflict zone between existential predicament and postcoloniality in Nigeria? What does Afropop contribute to the understanding of how postcolonial dynamics shape who we are and what we are capable of achieving? How does popular music enable a philosophical reflection on sociocultural and sociopolitical dynamics in postcolonial Nigeria? How is popular music the philosophical source of what I am calling postcolonial realism?

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

Popular music, and especially Afropop, is often taken at face value. On the surface level, it is a means of escaping the suffering that characterizes postcolonial Nigeria. Cultural researchers have contributed a lot to excavating the aesthetic components and dynamics of Afropop. My surprise, or rather frustration, has to do with the near absence of a philosophical interest in the significance that popular music brings to the table of postcolonial studies, especially in Nigeria. This frustration is further aggravated by my critical engagement with Afropop musicians and how their music reveals critical insights into what can be called the postcolonial sensibility.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I am hoping that this research project will make possible a significant philosophical interest in popular culture, and that it contributes to the conceptual understanding of postcoloniality in Nigeria. Nigerian philosophers need to be more intrigued by the postcolonial popular, and how it offers crucial insights into not only world-making, but also the political articulation of the desire for a new lifeworld.

Rebecca Maloy

Project: Soundings the Saints in Early Medieval Iberia

Rebecca Maloy was recently appointed professor of music at the University of Notre Dame and will take on the role of director of Sacred Music at Notre Dame in January 2024. Maloy specializes in the liturgy and liturgical chant of the Middle Ages, particularly that of the Iberian Peninsula. Her current and recent work examines the liturgy and chant of the Old Hispanic rite, practiced between the seventh and eleventh centuries, from the perspectives of liturgical and ritual structure, theology, melodic analysis, notation and paleography, and the relationship between words and melody. As an avid collaborator, Maloy has coauthored many publications with Emma Hornby (University of Bristol) and contributed to many interdisciplinary projects, including the EU-funded Old Hispanic Office Project and, most recently, Doctrine, Devotion, and Cultural Expression in the Cults of Medieval Iberian Saints, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK.

medieval manuscript
León, Cathedral archive MS 8 (mid-tenth century)

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

I wanted to understand how the cult of the saints in medieval Iberia developed through music, liturgy, and other aspects of ritual. What values were encapsulated in these liturgies, and how were they enacted and imprinted through sound?

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I marvel at the extent to which the melodies of the Old Hispanic chant work in tandem with carefully constructed texts to promote a distinctively Iberian experience of sainthood. Each saint was vividly encountered through a rich multisensory experience, in which congregants interacted with the saint through direct speech and dialogue. The result is reminiscent, in some respects, of how modern audio and visual experiences are curated for maximum impact on thought, emotion, and behavior.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I hope that it will contribute to a new understanding of devotion and religious practice on the Iberian Peninsula.

Matt Sakakeeny

Project: Music is Life: Coming-of-Age Stories from the Margins of America

Matt Sakakeeny is associate professor of music at Tulane University. He is an anthropologist studying music and sound in relation to structures of inequality in the United States. His book, Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans, follows brass band musicians as they march off the streets and into nightclubs, festival grounds, and recording studios. Sakakeeny’s research also brings an ethnomusicological perspective to sound studies. Along with David Novak, he edited the reference work Keywords in Sound, a collection of 20 entries written by leading scholars in the field of sound studies. Beyond music and sound, Sakakeeny researches New Orleans history and culture. He edited the volume Remaking New Orleans: Beyond Exceptionalism and Authenticity with Thomas Adams. Sakakeeny’s articles have appeared in the journals Southern Cultures, Souls, Ethnomusicology, and Black Music Research Journal. His next monograph considers marching band education in the New Orleans school system.

two Black youths with tubas
Two tuba players in The Roots of Music marching band rehearse before a Mardi Gras parade. Photo by Abdul Aziz, New Orleans, January 19, 2023.

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

My first book was an ethnographic study of brass band musicians in New Orleans and their experiences with economic exploitation, structural racism, and urban violence. I learned that most musicians were introduced to music in school, especially in the marching bands that are a fixture throughout the South. In 2007, drummer Derrick Tabb of the Rebirth Brass Band asked for help in starting a marching band program for middle-school students. For fifteen years, The Roots of Music has offered free instruction, meals, transportation, and tutoring to thousands of kids. Over and over, I’ve heard their stories of music saving lives. How do claims about the life-saving potential of music relate to the threats of economic insecurity, environmental hazards, policing and incarceration, crime and violence, and the restructuring of public education?

In the course of your research, have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I’m an analyst of structures of power in the United States that render certain lives disposable, and I’ve witnessed students, parents, and teachers face enormous challenges with policing, schooling, housing, work, poverty, violence, health, and death. Every time I step onto the Roots of Music campus, I’m reminded of the immense joy that kids can experience in being together and the atmosphere of love and community their teachers create. This does not mean that music is some sort of magical antidote that can counteract the poisons of the given world. But band can offer an orientation toward a world with different codes of living in relation; an alternate world, a pro-Black world, made through the participatory arts of music and marching.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

In my field of ethnomusicology, music is situated as the primary “object” of study within secondary social, cultural, and political “contexts.” My approach amounts to a reversal of this ordering, so that close ethnographic study of kids’ musical socialization provides understanding of structures of inequality. The signal contribution of the book is to link the micro-level study of music-making to the macro-level concept of “life,” as theorized in anthropology, Black studies, and environmental studies. Within conditions of possibility that render certain lives disposable, I encounter boys and girls making life through music: forming social bonds in rehearsal and finding solidarity through the act of performing together.

Joan Titus

Project: Dmitry Shostakovich and Music for Thaw-Era Cinema

Joan Titus researches the intersections between nation, gender, and ethnicity in music and audiovisual media. Her recent projects include postfeminist framing of nation and gender in US cinema and music; Soviet Russian modernism, postmodernism, and socialist realism in music and cinema cultures; liminality in global audiovisual histories, particularly in music and cinema; and a book trilogy on the cultural politics of Dmitry Shostakovich’s film scoring career in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1971. The first two books of the Shostakovich trilogy—The Early Film Music of Dmitry Shostakovich (Oxford UP, 2016) and Dmitry Shostakovich and Music for Stalinist Cinema (Oxford UP, in press) provide examinations of the composer’s navigation of modernism, socialist realism, and Soviet filmmaking as Russia’s first film composer. During her time at the Center, she is drafting the final book of the trilogy titled, Dmitry Shostakovich and Music for Thaw-Era Cinema, which provides a socio-cultural history and musical-cinematic analysis of Shostakovich’s last film scores from 1953 to 1971.

book cover
Cover of The Early Film Music of Dmitry Shostakovich, the first book in the trilogy

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

When I began this project over 20 years ago, there was almost no scholarship about Soviet and/or Russian film music, which contrasted with abundant discussion of Soviet and Russian film histories and theories. I wanted to explore this missing history, and question the canonization of certain musics. Because I had been fascinated by cultural politics of the twentieth century and by Russian composers, I started with examining Shostakovich’s film scoring career. I wanted to understand how composers navigated the Soviet film industry from the 1920s forward, and how they asserted their artistic identities within changing socio-political structures. Shostakovich was a strong example of someone who was a witness to and creator of sounds that narrated reflections of mainstream Soviet culture that were perpetuated onscreen.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

When first starting this research, I was surprised to discover that Shostakovich was the first Russian to work under the label of “film composer” in 1928 according to Lenfil’m studios, the leading Soviet Russian studio of the time. I had known that he was a celebrated concert music composer; and suspected that he had made an enormous and untold impact on Soviet film scoring starting in the 1920s. But the archival materials revealed invaluable insights about the film industry’s perspectives on music and image, including previously unknown details of how Shostakovich serendipitously was hired to compose the first Russian film score. From there, I was intrigued by how he found his compositional voice within film teams, collaborated with directors, and approached the musical narration of moving images.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

This is the final book in a trilogy about the cultural politics of Soviet film scoring from the 1920s to the 1970s that uses Shostakovich as a case study. In addition to contributing to newly emerging global film music histories, this book provides models for culturally embedded analyses of Soviet film scores, provides a history of how one Soviet composer collaborated with studio teams to develop an influential style of musical narration, and reveals insights into how composers navigated film production and studio/state politics. Since this work necessarily intersects with Slavic studies, musicology, and film/media studies, I hope that it encourages further study of the role of audiovisual media in Soviet arts politics.