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Paper Session
Nov 20, 2021 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM(America/Chicago)
20211120T1000 20211120T1050 America/Chicago Hackers, Harps, and Soundscapes: New Histories of the Musical Topic

In an episode of the TV sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," Amy (Mayim Bialik) asks Jim (Sheldon Cooper) if she can play the harp for him. Jim responds, "No. I dislike the sound of the harp. Its overuse in classic television sitcoms always make me think I'm going to experience an episode from my past." Though this stock gesture's signifiers are legible in a variety of musical and non-musical contexts, the history of its semantic meaning is virtually unknown. This session explores the taxonomic challenges of this and other musical topics through three neglected histories: the transformative harp glissando, the soundscape, and "hotness" in post-millennial pop. Danuta Mirka has proposed, in her edited volume on topic theory (2014), that topics are "musical styles and genres taken out of their proper context and used in another one." Our papers challenge this definition by demonstrating how musical icons might acquire indexicality over time without necessarily displaying the marked, fish-out-of-water qualities Mirka has described. All three papers argue for the contingency of topics and the significance of historical developments in defining their connotative meanings.

The first paper considers how the harp glissando--an iconic gesture in Russian music by the 1880s--became a topical emblem of transformative states over the ensuing decades, functioning in wide-ranging contexts by the mid-twentieth century. The second paper takes the impressionistic soundscape as a case study, ex ...

AMS 2021 ams@amsmusicology.org

In an episode of the TV sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," Amy (Mayim Bialik) asks Jim (Sheldon Cooper) if she can play the harp for him. Jim responds, "No. I dislike the sound of the harp. Its overuse in classic television sitcoms always make me think I'm going to experience an episode from my past." Though this stock gesture's signifiers are legible in a variety of musical and non-musical contexts, the history of its semantic meaning is virtually unknown. This session explores the taxonomic challenges of this and other musical topics through three neglected histories: the transformative harp glissando, the soundscape, and "hotness" in post-millennial pop. Danuta Mirka has proposed, in her edited volume on topic theory (2014), that topics are "musical styles and genres taken out of their proper context and used in another one." Our papers challenge this definition by demonstrating how musical icons might acquire indexicality over time without necessarily displaying the marked, fish-out-of-water qualities Mirka has described. All three papers argue for the contingency of topics and the significance of historical developments in defining their connotative meanings.


The first paper considers how the harp glissando--an iconic gesture in Russian music by the 1880s--became a topical emblem of transformative states over the ensuing decades, functioning in wide-ranging contexts by the mid-twentieth century. The second paper takes the impressionistic soundscape as a case study, examining the process by which musical pictorialism can acquire topical status. Its related analysis of the machine topic shows not only how fluid signifiers function within and across topics, but also how such designations might reveal hidden affinities between apparently oppositional topics. The third paper traces the origins of the flat-"hotness" topic, first heard with orientalist overtones in post-millennial pop music, to its earlier transgressive manifestations in film and underground musical genres of the late 1990s. By examining the flat-2's gradual movement from heterodox aesthetics to mainstream commercial pop, this paper highlights the importance of historical study in defining musical topics, whose contested meanings inevitably change over time. 

The Transformative Harp Glissando as a Musical Topic
Session 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/20 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/20 16:50:00 UTC

After first emerging in Franz Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (1860), the orchestral harp glissando had become a cliché by the early twentieth century--a view articulated by the English composer Cecil Forsyth, who noted that "this mechanical sweeping sound at every orchestral crisis becomes tiresome in the extreme." Yet it remains one of the most emblematic gestures in Western music, signifying transformation born of temporal and spatial ruptures and most typically linked to flashbacks, dreams, and fantasy sequences. Despite its longstanding semiotic durability, the harp glissando has received scant analytical attention, even from topic theorists, who might consider the gesture mimetic, insufficiently marked or, in derisive terms, a cliché.   

In this paper, I argue that the harp glissando has retained its currency precisely because of its capacity to function as cliché--and, moreover, that it acquires the characteristics of a musical topic over the course of the twentieth century. To distinguish signifiers from topics, Raymond Monelle has posed two questions: "Has this musical sign passed from literal imitation (iconism) or stylistic reference (indexicality) into signification by association?...Is there a level of conventionality in the sign?" (2000, 80). Using these questions as a guide, I examine the harp glissando's early appearances in Russian opera and ballet, where its function was iconic and mimetic. The gesture developed its now-familiar association with magical, transportive, and transformational states primarily in Rimsky-Korsakov's music, as examples from The Snow Maiden, Sadko, and Kashchey the Deathless will reveal. In some contexts Rimsky's harp glissandos were also indexical, functioning as if they themselves caused or had become synonymous with transformation, evoking Robert Hatten's interpretive links between indexicality, synecdoche, and causality.

By the twentieth century, composers expected listeners to know what the harp glissando signified, as examples from Ravel and Stravinsky attest. Evidence that the gesture ultimately fulfills Monelle's second condition--conventionality--appears in modern media, where harp glissandos signal transformative states in TV and film scores, cartoons, and video games. Indeed, the fact that the glissando can be the crux of a joke in comedic contexts demonstrates its topical legibility across musical styles and media types.

Presenters
JF
Jessie Fillerup
University Of Richmond
‘Wie ein Naturlaut’: Soundscape as a Challenge to Topic Theory
Session 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/20 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/20 16:50:00 UTC

Ever since the notion of the musical topic was introduced into the vocabulary of musicology, the distinction between topics and pictorialism has been the object of controversy, arising from conflicting conceptual definitions and differing semiotic models. Raymond Monelle (2000), for one, subsumed some instances of musical icons under the category of topics, based on what he termed the 'indexicality of content', a property he ascribed to topics in general. However, the difference between such iconic topics and musical icons is far from clear-cut, and in any case indexicality cannot be determined a priori. By contrast, according to Danuta Mirka (2014), Monelle's 'iconic topics' should not be considered topics because they 'do not form cross-references between musical styles or genres.' Since musical imitation inevitably involves some degree of stylisation, the question arises as to what distinguishes an imitation of 'extra-musical sounds' from musical styles that typically incorporate those sounds – as, for instance, the imitation of natural sounds within the semantic field of the pastoral.


In this paper, I address some of the processes through which musical icons become part of standard typologies and eventually acquire the status of topics, by focusing on the representation of landscape in selected orchestral works from the 19th and 20th centuries, and in particular on the 'impressionistic soundscape' in the tradition of the 'Waldweben' music from Wagner's Siegfried, together with some parallel examples from Debussy, Ravel, Mahler and Rimsky-Korsakov. By examining the way melodic, rhythmic, harmonic and timbral features are woven together to form characteristic musical textures (Klangflächen), often blurring the distinction between background and foreground, my purpose is: (1) to show the intertextual character of such typologies and the way they convey temporal and spatial structures, particularly suited to the evocation of pristine nature, and (2) to show that the 'soundscape' topic is open to various degrees of semantic fluidity, to the extent of sharing some structural features with its apparent opposite, the representation of the mechanic – two extremes paradoxically linked by a common emphasis on 'immobile movement' (V. Jankélévitch) and the poetics of 'objectivity'.

Presenters
PF
Paulo Ferreira De Castro
Universidade NOVA (Lisbon)
Hackers, Headbangers, Vampires, and Goths: the Subversive Origins of the Pop b2 "Hotness" Topic
Session 10:00 AM - 10:50 AM (America/Chicago) 2021/11/20 16:00:00 UTC - 2021/11/20 16:50:00 UTC

Topic theory has evolved as a framework for studying communication and meaning in European classical music. Some scholarship has extended beyond this repertoire (ex. Echard 2017), but many conventional topics in popular music remain understudied. The music theorist Eron Smith has identified a b2-1 "hotness" topic in post-millenial pop and has traced the topic to long-standing orientalist stereotypes associating b2 with non-Western music. Some of Smith's examples clearly resonate with orientalism by combining the b2 with sitars or other timbral markers of foreignness.


But many examples of the b2 "hotness" topic do not contain orientalist timbral markers. I argue for another source: the ubiquitous use of b2 in extreme metal, gothic/industrial/EBM, and other pre-millennial underground music subcultures. Some post-millenial pop examples of the hotness topic, such as Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback" (2006), imitate the distorted timbres of EBM exactly, rather than the orientalist "foreign" timbres. I trace the transmission of b2 into mainstream pop through millennial films that romanticized these subcultures and brought them to mainstream attention, like _Queen of the Damned_ (2002) and _The Matrix_ (1999), as well as late-90s moments when these underground styles crossed over into the mainstream, like electro house (ex. Benny Benassi "Satisfaction," 2003) and nu metal (ex. Korn, whose singer Jonathan Davis composed songs for _Queen of the Damned_). What began as a pre-millennial performative icon of transgressive anti-mainstream aesthetics and ideology was sublimated into an indexical sign for edgy cool, then co-opted and commodified as post-millennial sexiness.


This trajectory certainly does not replace the b2's orientalist resonances, nor is it the only route of transmission to post-millennial pop (b2 is also common in trap music, for example). b2 "hotness," like all topics, is not a static analytical symbol, but carries contingent, plural meanings that evolve over time as the topic is used by different communities and for different purposes. This demonstrates a crucial role for historical research as topic theory expands to popular genres: to understand how pop topics change, what they have signified, and for whom.

Presenters
SH
Stephen Hudson
University of Richmond
Universidade NOVA (Lisbon)
Universidade NOVA (Lisbon)
University of South Carolina
University of South Carolina
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