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Contextualising music, generalising music and a music philosophy conference

Going to a conference outside one’s own discipline is always a strange experience. Interdisciplinary conferences, then, would seem necessarily to be quite unsettling for all concerned. The different sets of delegates bring contrasting disciplinary baggage and have different but deeply held opinions about what makes a valid research question and the proper ways of addressing such a question. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in experiencing a sense of discomfort during much of the recent interdisciplinary Music and Philosophy conference, organised by the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the Royal Musical Association at King’s College London from 19th to 20th July 2013 (details here: Continue reading


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This morning I woke up with aching muscles and a smug sense of satisfaction. The reason? I went to a Zumba class yesterday. It was an hour-long workout (it felt shorter), to loud, energetic music and it was great. A lot of the songs we exercised to were pumped up versions of salsa classics (Celia Cruz’s Quimbara made an early appearance). I loved this. I’m a keen amateur salsa dancer, but haven’t been able to dance since last November due to an unrelated injury; it was wonderful to be able to perform some of the moves I have missed to music that I adore.

My experience of the class seemed an obvious demonstration of the power of music, both to make me work harder and to make me smile. When I had observed a portion of the previous day’s class from relative safety on the other side of the soundproof door, the sweaty bodies moving not-quite-in-time looked ridiculous. But from the inside, with the bass pumping, I was carried away, and it felt as though we were all moving in harmony. (Although I haven’t thought it through properly yet, this would seem to resonate with the “distributed subjectivity” that Anahid Kassabian theorises in her brilliant latest book Ubiquitous Listening (2013).)

It is possible to formulate critiques of this experience on at least three levels:

1. Zumba (Or rather, “Zumba®”.) According to the website, this is “The World’s Leading Branded Fitness Program”. It asks participants to “Ditch the workout – join the party!” and describes itself as “a global lifestyle brand that fuses fitness, entertainment and culture into an exhilarating dance-fitness sensation!” The website continues, “Zumba® exercise classes are ‘fitness-parties’ that blend upbeat world rhythms with easy-to-follow choreography, for a total-body workout that feels like a celebration.”  In this context, “branded” is an understatement. There is, for example, a whole section of the website detailing their “Trademark Usage Guide”, with instructions such as the following:


With the letter “Z” not capitalized—For example, zumba or zumba fitness.
Misspelled — For example, “Zoomba” is not allowed.
As a verb — For example, “once you zumba, you’ll be hooked” is not allowed.
As a noun — For example, “zumba is my favorite exercise” is not allowed.
As part of a trade name — For instance, “The California Zumba Center” is not allowed.
As a generic term — For example, as a name for a fitness program “My gym offers Zumba” is not allowed.
To advertise programs or products not affiliated with Zumba Fitness, LLC.

Zumba is the latest stage in a long-standing process of romanticisation, appropriation and commodification of the idea of Cuba and Latin culture more broadly in the UK and America. It rode in on the back of the salsa craze and the viral popularity of the Buena Vista Social Club (both already heavily packaged and commodified) and represents a further step away from the culture it claims to represent. As in salsa dance classes, participants are encouraged to shake their hips and to identify with crude stereotypes of sexy Latinas. This is schizophonic mimesis on crack (Feld 1996).

2. Zumba and Virgin. I encountered the tightly-controlled corporate hegemony of Zumba in the context of a Virginactive gym; it was embedded within the multi-pronged Virgin Group corporate machine, which, as we know, touches everything from airplanes to credit cards. Zumba and Virginactive are a good fit: Zumba’s party ethos perfectly matches the “Virgin Vision” in which “Fun is fundamental” and according to which we are encouraged to “Live happily ever active” ( Although I have indeed enjoyed using the gym (including the Zumba class) enormously, I am troubled by the very explicit way in which it is attempting to sell me beauty and happiness.

Virgin gyms are strange places, where your average aqua aerobics class is renamed simply “Aqua” and spinning goes by “V-Cycle”. (Seriously, whatever next? A complimentary V-towel? Overpriced bottles of V-water? After Apple led the way by claiming the prefix “i”, it isn’t hard to imagine the approaching dystopia, in which all objects are prefixed by the one-letter brand symbol of the corporation that we buy them from.) And they’re expensive. (Even if, as I did, you negotiate the advertised membership fee down.) In my borough, the cost of membership alone makes the gym inaccessible to most; amongst other things, this produces all sorts of barely visible, uncomfortable distinctions in terms of social class (and race) between gym users and gym employees.

3. Gyms, neoliberal bodies and a bulimic society. Gyms in general are a problematic phenomenon, anyway.

In an enlightening discussion of how neoliberal capitalism is played out on our bodies, Julie Guthman writes of a “culture of bulimia, where on the one hand consuming in encouraged and on the other deservingness is performed by being thin no matter how that is accomplished” (2009: 187). She draws on writing by Susan Bordo (2003 [1993]: 201):

Bulimia embodies the unstable double bind of consumer capitalism, while anorexia and obesity embody an attempted resolution of that bind. Anorexia could thus be seen as an extreme development of the capacity for self-denial and repression of desire (the work ethic in absolute control); obesity, as an extreme capacity to capitulate to desire (consumerism in control). Both are rooted in the same consumer-culture construction of desire as overwhelming and overtaking the self.

Gym-going, then, is the perfect example of bulimic culture; it allows for the consumption of self-control. When we succumb to the desire to buy gym memberships, we are paying exorbitant membership fees in order to purchase thin bodies, happiness and, paradoxically, the illusion of being rational subjects in control of our desires.


Returning to my experience of yesterday’s class, which was overwhelmingly positive, I am left with all sorts of unanswered questions. What am I to make of the happiness I felt during the class? Is there any way of redeeming this positive experience? More broadly, what should I do with music that I enjoy, but that simultaneously I find highly problematic? I suspect these questions will not easily go away.


Bordo, Susan. 2003[1993]. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press.

Feld, Steven. 1996. “Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28: 1. doi:10.2307/767805.

Guthman, Julie. 2009. “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies.” In The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay. New York and London: New York University Press.

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.


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Postcard from a music analysis conference

Last weekend, the Society for Music Analysis held a two-day “Celebration of Music Analysis”, to mark the 30th anniversary of the founding of the journal Music Analysis. The organisers brought together an impressive group of scholars who gave largely excellent papers on a variety of music-analytical topics. Sounds great, right? Well, it was. But here’s the thing: none of those impressive scholars was an ethnomusicologist. And, as far as I am aware, I was the only ethnomusicologist in attendance. I thought this was a shame. Close musical analysis has always been a big part of my own work on North Indian classical music and I am convinced that most ethnomusicologists and music analysts have a great deal to learn from each other. I do not wish to bore you all with a comprehensive, blow-by-blow account of the conference. Rather, in the hope of promoting future engagement, I’m going to highlight a few ideas that came up in the conference that I think would be of interest to ethnomusicologists.

The universal human tendency to analyse?

In the general discussion session that concluded the event, the conversation briefly touched on ethnomusicology and the analysis of world music. I was very happy to hear Richard Cohn mention the excellent, so far North-America-based collaboration between what the Americans call “music theorists” (who mainly work on Western classical music) and ethnomusicologists, as part of the Analytical Approaches to World Music (AAWM) conferences and journal.

Defending music analysis against the claim that the discipline is moribund, condemned to disappear alongside (Western classical) musical literacy, Jonathan Dunsby then spoke of its apparent universality. He brought up anecdotal evidence suggesting that most musicians, all over the world, like to talk and think about how music works and what it means, which he is happy to label “analysis”.  (I’m paraphrasing: I can’t remember the exact words he used, but anyway that was the general idea.)

I quite like the idea that analytical thinking about music is some kind of basic human tendency, a natural complement to music-making. It certainly holds true in the case of North Indian classical music, in which there is a lively scene of musicians and connoisseurs who love to talk about the fine nuances of musical style and performance. Musicians encourage this at concerts when they introduce their performances with lengthy verbal explanations of what they are about to sing. Audiences signal their close engagement with the music they are hearing when they respond out loud to particularly interesting musical events, such as temporary departures from the main rāg in semi-classical performances. (In a Western classical concert, this would be roughly the equivalent of audience members’ turning to each other and saying “Wow!” out loud after an especially interesting or surprising modulation.) In the context of North Indian classical music at least, not to write about those fine musical details would seem to be doing an injustice to the musicians and audiences who consider them important. And this idea of a universal human tendency to analyse would seem to be a good starting point for dialogue between music analysts and ethnomusicologists.

I’d be interested to hear what you all have to say about this. Is analysis really as universal as I want it to be? Have any of you noticed anything similar in the various types of music that you study? How widespread is analytical thinking about music? How is that different from any other kinds of thinking about music, or should we label all thinking about music analytical? Even if musicians aren’t interested in analysing their own music, should we do it anyway?

Embodied understandings of music

A number of EDG (the discussion group that accompanies this blog) are interested in relationships between music and the body and ways in which types of musical understanding might be embodied. (In fact, we dealt with this issue at length at the last EDG meeting, earlier this week.) It would seem that this issue is also on the radar of our analytical colleagues. In a lovely paper on a Chopin performance by the pianist Alfred Cortot, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson drew attention to a link between the pianist’s use of rubato and the shape of the melodic line he was playing, such that he sped up as the pitches got lower and slowed down as they got higher. He compared this with the bodily sensation of cycling over hills: we speed up on downhill sections and slow down when we’re going uphill. I was quite taken by this idea: amongst other things, it resonates with my experience of listening to Cuban music through my iPod and feeling the dance steps I would be doing if I were dancing to it. It would also seem to sit very comfortably alongside, say, Martin Clayton and Laura Leante’s work on physical gesture in North Indian classical music.

Music / theory interactions

Elizabeth Eva Leach’s inspired Lacanian reading of converging melodic lines in medieval two-part vocal music was an exemplary demonstration of how one might read music through theory. This is something which some of us at EDG (and at the IMR reading group with overlapping membership) have been attempting repeatedly over the last couple of years. We often (with varying degrees of success) devote the last portion of our discussions of non-musicological texts (Freud, Spivak etc.) to considering how our chosen reading might shed light on the various types of music we all study. I, for one, have been exploring ways of doing this in my own work, too. Leach’s work would suggest that this is another area in which we might well benefit from dialogue with our analytical colleagues.

In that it dealt with aspects of musical interaction, Leach’s paper wouldn’t have seemed out of place at this year’s annual British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE) conference. In fact, I suspect it would have gone down very well there. Her ideas about “distributed cognition” in musical performance (explained here), for example, would have provided an interesting counterpoint to Joe Browning’s provocative discussion of the distribution of agency in shakuhachi performances. (I wonder what Joe would say about this…)

This blog post, already too long, could have been far longer. I could have written about Michael Spitzer’s paper on emotion in music and noted parallels with Indian theoretical discussions of rasa and bhāva. I could have discussed Nicholas Reyland’s theories of musical narrative, which he himself told me in conversation that he thought might apply outside the Western classical canon. I could focussed on the subject of metre: Richard Cohn, one of the two keynote speakers at the event, argued persuasively that metre is a topic which promises not only to bring together analysts of Western classical music with analysts of other types of music, but also to bring together analysts with performers. And I could have recounted Adam Ockelford’s stimulating descriptions of imitation in music therapy: his “zygonic” theory of music is applicable to music-making in many more contexts than just Western classical ones. But I will stop here. I have gone on long enough. I hope at least to have made the case that it’s worth it for ethnomusicologists to think about attending future music-analytical conferences. (And of course I don’t think this should be a one-way street: analysts would, I think, have a lot to learn from ethnomusicologists too – but that probably deserves a blog post of its own.) And then maybe we will be able to continue the discussion with our analyst colleagues in person some day…


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Ethnomusicology discussion group – a face-to-face meeting!

Ethnomusicology discussion group

You are welcome to attend the first meeting of a new discussion group, set up by ethnomusicology research students. We see this as a forum in which to share ideas, to pick over controversial and difficult literature, to compare notes on pressing issues in ethnomusicology and to enjoy good company over coffee/beer/cake.

We will meet at 6pm at the Institute of Education (near Russell Square) bar on Monday 25th October. (I’m going to bring along a distinctive cuddly toy and put it on the table where we are sitting so that any latecomers will know who we are!) If any of you are attending the music research training day school  at the IMR that day, it’s just across the road: we can just pop across after the day school is over with plenty of time to spare.

At the first meeting, we would like to suggest that we chat about Tim Rice’s provocative call, “Disciplining Ethnomusicology” in this year’s spring/summer edition of Ethnomusicology (volume 54, number 2). We can decide about future readings or themes for discussion after we’ve all met up.

The group is aimed especially at ethnomusicology research students, but anyone with an interest in ethnomusicology would be more than welcome to come along.

If you have any trouble getting hold of the reading or if you have any questions, please contact Chloe Zadeh on

See you there!

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Ethnomusicology and critical distance?

In a discussion of applied and activist ethnomusicology, Henry Stobart tentatively invoked the idea of “critical distance”, warning (if I remember correctly) that it might be something worth holding on to whilst we attempt to act ethically in the field, or as advocates for our informants.

It is hardly surprising that most of us avoid talking about critical distance when we relate our experiences in the field. We are aware of the impossibility of achieving “scientific” objectivity in studies of human culture; we realise that the illusion of such objectivity has long legitimated highly subjective and frequently misleading accounts of the music we are studying; and we feel deeply suspicious of any attempts to privilege the understanding of the researcher over that of the researched, particularly if the researcher’s only qualification is a generalised training in the arts and humanities from an academic institution (probably in Europe or America) and particularly when the researched may lack the agency and economic capability to be able to represent themselves in writing.

And yet, I couldn’t help feeling glad to hear this brief mention of critical distance in the roundtable last week. In my own work, I value the fact that there is relatively little for me to gain or lose in telling one story about Indian classical music over and above another. Where the status of certain  genres is contested, I feel happy that I can simply detail the different, competing interpretations of those genres without my career’s depending on which interpretation becomes the dominant narrative. Were I primarily a professional performer of Indian classical music, I would not be so lucky: my very livelihood might rely on the circulation of certain stories about the origins and past performance contexts of Indian classical music, regardless of their historical accuracy. Distance, in this case, makes it possible for me to explore and potentially to deconstruct a variety of different (and contradictory) narratives and ideologies in my work.

I don’t want to over-simplify things. As with anyone else, my position is necessarily clouded by ideology and an agenda of which I may largely be unaware. And my situation in the field is complicated by my sense of loyalty to my teacher and an ethical obligation not to damage the reputations of my informants through my research. There are a great many Indian classical musicians who would be just as capable as I am at deconstructing the rhetoric that surrounds Indian classical music. Still, I can’t help but feel that critical distance is something to which we should continue to aspire, even while we acknowledge that it is impossible to do fieldwork without becoming directly and emotionally implicated in the culture we are studying.

So I am left wondering: what would ethnomusicological research be like if we abandoned the idea  of critical distance altogether? If we don’t, how can we do research ethically and responsibly and how do we frame our scholarly objectives such that we don’t assume the intellectual superiority of researcher over researched? Is there any advantage in “coming from the outside”, in writing about a musical culture that initially feels alien and in which, at least at the beginning of our research, we are not personally involved? How might one achieve critical distance when studying a musical culture in which one is an insider, born and raised? How might one achieve critical distance after a long period of participant-observation in the field? Is critical distance necessarily undermined by the nature of our personal relationships (friendship, for example, or, I suppose,  mutual dislike) with the people we encounter while doing research?


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