Lester Hu, PhD '19, receives Dean's Distinguished Dissertation Award from Humanities Division

Lester Hu


Each year, the Dean's Distinguished Dissertation Award recognizes the work of a graduate of the Humanities Division in the last academic year. This year, Music Department alumnus Lester Hu (PhD '19), who currently holds an appointment as Assistant Professor in the Music Department at the University of California, Berkeley, has received the award in recognition of his dissertation titled From Ut, Re, Mi to Fourteen-Tone Temperament: The Global Acoustemologies of an Early Modern Chinese Tuning Reform.

"Lester Hu’s dissertation leads the way in musicology’s current path toward a new global musicology, and does so with a highly versatile skill set combined with depth of source work, critical thinking, and rigorous argument," says Music Department Professor Martha Feldman, who served as Hu's dissertation advisor alongside Professor Judith Zeitlin in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. "Working outwards from close analysis of a major case study on tuning debates undertaken by Qing dynasty rulers and intellectuals in conversation with European Jesuits, the dissertation shows how the Qing expanded their political place as a new conquest empire in the late 17th and 18th centuries by revising the practical and imperialist cosmological foundations of tuning and how Qing thinking evolved in a feedback loop with the west with implications for ideologies of voice, phonography, and subjectivity.”

Hu's research interests focus on the Early Modern Period and the popular music and operas as well as tuning systems and musical thought that flourished in both Europe and Asia by way of trans-Eurasian networks of people, goods, and knowledge. His current book project, The Phonographic Revolution: Writing, Song, and the Advent of Global Modernity, captures a critical shift in the relationship between voice and writing in the early modern world.

Abstract: From Ut, Re, Mi to Fourteen-Tone Temperament: The Global Acoustemologies of an Early Modern Chinese Tuning Reform

This dissertation examines what is commonly known as the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722)’s fourteen-tone temperament, a 1714 reform to Chinese musical tuning that effectively uses the familiar Pythagorean proportions to divide the octave into fourteen parts. Besides examining the ideological and cultural contexts of the tuning reform and correcting many long-held misconceptions, I argue that the reform largely resulted from an epistemological shift that rearticulated the empirical process of sounding and listening vis-à-vis the historicist studies of texts and records in producing musical knowledge. Besides examining it in the context of traditional Chinese scholarship, I shed particular light on the transregional and even global scale of this shift. I argue that the series of experiments and studies on which the fourteen-tone temperament was based took place within the specific political structures of the Qing Empire (1636-1912) as a conquest regime that subjugated China under its minority Manchu ruling class. I also show that the shift was itself inspired by a global exchange of musical knowledge, in which the concept of octave equivalence in Western music theory was misunderstood yet appropriated to advocate an empirical term in music theory and a reform to Chinese opera, both in turn harnessed for Qing-imperial ideological purposes. What is more, by comparing the fourteen-tone temperament to roughly contemporary discourses on texts vs. sounds, writing vs. speech, and historicism vs. empiricism, both within the Qing Empire and beyond, I argue that the Qing’s reform to musical tuning, despite its apparent parochialism, potentially reflected a much broader transformation that took place on a global scale, or what I call the “Phonological Revolution.” In concluding this dissertation, I make a case for further examining how seemingly discrete rearticulations of the relation between historicism and empiricism across different discourses and praxes of language, music, writing, and songs may reveal a coeval and co-constitutive epistemological shift on a global scale in the early modern world.