Musicology Lecture: Barry Shank, The Ohio State University

July 8, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm
18th Ave. Library (Room 205), 175 W. 18th

Barry Shank, professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University, presents "Participatory Discrepancies and the Political Force of Musical Beauty." This lecture is free and open to the public.

Writing in 1987, Charles Keil defined the power of music as its "participatory discrepancies." In his most concise formulation, Keil wrote "Music, to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune.’" In his initial formulation of this set of ideas [1966], Keil wrote about the small but audible differences between a bassist’s and a drummer’s approaches to the groove, the “engendered feeling” that gave rise to a track’s “vital drive.” The splash of cymbals, the overlapped strumming of multiple guitars, and the variable beats of shaken maracas and echoing handclaps "out of tune and out of time sounds" generate experiences of musical beauty.

Based on Shank’s recent book, The Political Force of Musical Beauty, this talk defines beauty and identifies some of the processes by which the experience of beauty exerts political force. Most of this talk will focus on a band that mastered being out of time and out of tune: Beat Happening (pictured). The band’s overt amateurism confused many listeners. Lyrical references to food, handholding and pajamas combined with their utter refusal of virtuosity to prompt a too-quick association of innocence with their sound and their sensibility. But there was nothing innocent about Beat Happening. They were resolutely serious and determined.  Although playful and witty, they were rigorous in their grasp of the contradictions that enabled their charm.  Beat Happening was firmly aware of the violent edge of desire and the lack of control that lurked behind the gaze of the hungry lover. That authentic discomfort compelled devotion from their listeners who could extract joy from the sonic experience of manifest imperfection. Among those listeners were young women who would go on to form Bikini Kill. Following this analysis of Beat Happening and a brief look at their influence on Bikini Kill, the talk will end with a suggestion of how to apply these analytical principles in the current era of precisely engineered pop.

Barry Shank is professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University where he teaches courses in interdisciplinary methods, cultural theory, and popular culture. He is past president of IASPM-US and the author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Wesleyan 1994), A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (Columbia, 2004), and The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke, 2014), as well as numerous essays on cultural theory, American studies, and popular music.


Musicology lectures are held Mondays 4:30-6 p.m. in the Music/Dance Library, Room 205, second floor of the 18th Avenue Library at 175 West 18th Ave., unless otherwise noted.

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