Martha Feldman and Seth Brodsky. Photo by Jože Suhadolnik.
Professors Martha Feldman and Seth Brodsky were recently interviewed in the prominent Slovenian newspaper Delo following a joint residency at the University of Ljubljana's Faculty of Arts in October. Their residency featured multiple lectures under the title "Spectral Sound," in which the pair discussed "how music and sound can help us confront the dilemmas that cut through the return of the past while announcing the future."
Ivana Maričić of Delo sat down with Feldman and Brodsky to discuss their work, the academic influence of Ljubljana and Slovenian scholars, the state of the musicological field, and more. Click here to view the original article published in Slovenian in December 2023, or read the full translated text below.
Maričić: With your visit to Ljubljana, you've stepped into a city that has sparked numerous reflections shaping your work. Prof. Feldman, your exploration of Dr. Mladen Dolar's study on the voice in musicology triggered a wave of interest in the phenomenon of the voice. Prof. Brodsky, your work is intricately woven with references to the philosophical school in Ljubljana.
Martha Feldman: Mladen Dolar had a tremendous impact on musicology in Chicago. By pure coincidence, he was present just when we were starting a project and a faculty seminar on the voice. People of various backgrounds convened, and psychoanalysis provided us with a common starting point. Later, we jointly organized a conference, and the anthology "The Voice as Something More" was published with his epilogue. The project fundamentally shaped a generation of students who now teach at prestigious universities. Discussions with Dr. Dolar on issues related to the treatment of the voice, its cracks, and ruptures were crucial in shaping my intellectual path.
Seth Brodsky: The discovery of Lacan, initially through the works of Slavoj Žižek and later through Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič—works I consider historically significant—established the landscape of my thoughts, a conceptual surface enabling me to understand the world around us. I was fascinated by the treatment of the unconscious as something not hidden but constantly in front of us, yet we can't say anything about it, even though we speak, speak, and speak... and something is still missing. The visit to the city of the "troika" was a delight, but now it signifies something else: hospitality, wonderful people, and privilege.
Maričić: Prof. Feldman, for many years, you have devoted your research to the figure of the castrato. This topic seems particularly relevant today, as contemporary public discourse pays significant attention to questions regarding the fluidity of sexual identities and arising problems with binary concepts of gender. Do you believe that the figure of the castrato challenges established assumptions from a time linked to stable gender roles?
Feldman: The figure of the castrato certainly challenges conventional assumptions about gender. I perceive castrati as a kind of compound, attempting to break them down into smaller parts through my research to verify if our ideas about gender ontologies also apply to them. However, it consistently turns out that the figure of the castrato doesn't easily conform to preconceived molds. The mere existence of castrati complicates the "natural" understanding of gender. I am convinced that we can learn the most from concepts that limp, that don't operate by the usual rules of causality. Castrati rupture concepts of gender; they no longer function. After all, they can't function because gender binarism is a historically enacted construct.
Castrati opened up possibilities for playing with gender roles in Western society, while simultaneously doing so as embodiments of society's interventions into the human body. The throat is exceptionally sensitive to hormonal changes, and a single incision could preserve male bodies from puberty. This physical intervention left castrati in a state of perpetual hormonal childhood, allowing them to retain a youthful, high voice.
Maričić: Why and how did castrati emerge?
Feldman: Castrati appeared in Italy in the second half of the 16th century. This period coincided with a severe financial crisis and the introduction of patrilineal primogeniture. Wealth was no longer distributed horizontally to the extended family; instead, it was transmitted along the thin bloodline within the nuclear family to the first son. Since second-born sons – including nobles – lost the opportunity to inherit and the associated social security, they were forced to find new means of survival. Increasingly impoverished families were compelled to send their sons away in exchange for often meager financial compensations. Local churches could then take castrati under their wing, employing them as singers.
Family holds a proverbially central place in the life of every Italian, so when they began earning money through singing, they sent funds back home to their relatives. Consequently, the profession of singing teacher was highly esteemed and rewarded, as these instructors were responsible for nurturing the sensitive voices of castrati. Later on, castrati themselves transmitted vocal technique skills, further earning from their expertise. This established an economic, political, and social microcosmos around castrati. Although castration was by no means legal in powerful religious centers like Italy, due to the economic crisis, it could still function as an unspoken agreement.
Maričić: Today, we might call this a social corrective.
Feldman: I don't want to be a complete reductionist. The phenomenon of castrati is not exclusively tied to financial flows, but I would still dare to argue that their emergence intertwines the meeting of contemporary economic needs with the desire for spectacle, serving the needs of authority. In churches, their initial home and sanctuary, these extraordinarily voluminous voices represented the divine itself. Their later prominence on the stage symbolized the magnificent power of the monarchy and its transcendent elevation.
Maričić: Some castrati rapidly ascended the social ladder. The most famous castrato of all time, Farinelli, for instance, rose to the inner circle of Spanish King Philip V.
Feldman: It's essential to understand that castrati constituted a vast, numerous population. Social historian and musicologist John Rosselli talks about hundreds, but I suspect it would be more accurate to speak of thousands. At one point, almost every village had a church singer who was a castrato. Most castrati modestly lived in the service of the church, rarely getting the chance to perform in smaller theaters in supporting roles. However, a handful were indeed very close to power. They usually became the Michael Jacksons of their time. Occasionally, female singers also succeeded, but they generally did not have the same vocal training or opportunities for frequent performances.
Maričić: Opera is born at the roughly same time marking the first musical form present in the free market. Within this industry, castrati soon emerge as its most alluring product, true superstars.
Feldman: There is a clear connection between capitalism and opera. Historians often cite the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy as the birthplace of a market-oriented capitalist economy. Music undoubtedly played a significant role in this development. It began with the printing press and the mass sale of music books containing madrigals, chansons, and motets. Comparing just the late 15th to the early 16th century, a noticeable spike in sales can be observed. When it comes to opera, this artistic form evolved in support of capitalist principles, combining artistic expression with commercial interests that included ticket sales, merchandise, and the promotion of stars. Castrati quickly became iconic figures in this operatic blend of art and commerce, representing the pinnacle of artistic and commercial success. When we talk about spectacle and the public sphere – or the audience created by this very spectacle – opera has been crucial since the 17th century. Initially, it wasn't characterized by castrati, but they quickly became its focal point.
Maričić: What fascinated the audience of that time about castrati?
Feldman: It's a intertwining of the emerging market economy and curiosity. In the desire to see the monarch, his family, or advisors, crowds filled the theater coffers where castrati repeatedly, night after night, portrayed these magical and powerful figures. Their charisma, peculiarity, even physical monstrosity, glued gazes onto them much like real monarchs. The theater became a kind of laboratory for the dynamic exchange and intertwining of the social and the political.
Maričić: When does castration cease?
Feldman: After the presence of castrati in musical theaters spreads throughout Europe (except in France), reaching courts and bourgeois salons, they are found in the 19th century only in Rome, especially in the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. In fact, castration for singing abilities persisted due to the approval of the Vatican, where the idea of replacing castrati with soprano voices was long inconceivable. Only in the late 19th century does the Church gradually replace castrati with boy voices, and in 1905, young boys entirely take over soprano roles.
Maričić: When I mention that I am a musicologist, people usually ask me which musical instrument I play. Is it different in the USA?
Brodsky: In three out of five cases, I get the exact same question. I would say it stems from surprise that people can devote their entire lives to the study of music history and professionally engage with its cultural significance.
Feldman: Well, sometimes I mention that I was a classical guitarist, as I truly began my musical journey with an instrument in hand at a young age. I usually simplify by explaining that I am a historian of music, which sounds equivalent to art history and is also more understandable to most people. From a historical perspective, in the U.S., there hasn't been widespread awareness of the scope of musicology or what it even is. Part of this was due to our seclusion in ivory towers, but that is gradually changing. We are striving to make musicology more present in public discourse, and there is an observable increase in musicological contributions in established publications such as the New Yorker or the New York Times.
Just a decade ago, the American Musicological Society didn't make a significant effort to engage with the public. Today, it systematically invites various social groups to public lectures and roundtable discussions with prominent public intellectuals from other fields of knowledge. The success of these projects is undoubtedly influenced by a thoughtful choice of enticing venues, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or the Library of Congress in Washington.
Maričić: Why this sudden need for musicology to participate more frequently in public discourse?
Feldman: The ivory tower that musicologists once secluded themselves in is no longer in control of all the strings, if it ever was. Due to persistent financial pressures, increasing doubts about the validity and importance of the humanities, and the rapid loosening of its prestige, the field is facing numerous challenges, or one might say, threats. Staying and operating in remote fortified strongholds is no longer permissible, if it ever was. The outward opening is not only a consequence of a desire for the renewed legitimization of the humanities but also a response to the radically different needs of the younger generation. They demand that their older colleagues assert their social mission, part of which involves engaging in public discourse.
Brodsky: I first encountered musicology in the articles of the recently deceased titan of American musicology, Richard Taruskin. For the New York Times, he contributed not just composer biographies but sought to understand them within specific social contexts. For instance, he wrote about Shostakovich as a dissident, a messenger of the people under the siege of the then authorities, suggesting that his symphonies contained hidden, coded messages. He combined the analysis of the political climate in the Soviet Union at the time with an analysis of the music, which captivated me entirely. Such contributions in the 1980s and 1990s symbolized a certain respect and institutional power of the humanities and journalism in the United States. However, their status is no longer the same today, and the emergence of so-called "public musicology" is a response to the newly created situation. It's not that musicology was never part of public discourse, but rather that journalism and the humanities have lost prestige and influence. This has given rise to the need to reach a broader audience.
Maričić: In your book, you delve into musical modernism, which rejected mass appeal. You also highlight the paradox that, in 1989, it was easier to listen to Beethoven than to contemporary composers. More than thirty years later, new questions arise: as a society, we cultivate an institutionalized listening to the past, what we call a musical museum, whose audience is dwindling. On the other hand, younger listeners consider music old if only a few years have passed since the release of a composition. Clearly, much has changed since 1989...
Brodsky: Musical modernism internally constructs a certain paradox: it focuses on temporality, constantly dealing with the present, its historical moment. However, this very focus allows it to step out of the flow of historical movement. So, I don't want to speak about musical modernism as a space where we linger and wait. I think we cannot afford that for political reasons.
Because musical modernism is a dead-end, it assigns it, albeit small, yet significant power: the stream of the present, especially in the era of ubiquitous streaming, appears inevitable, as if there is truly no alternative. This is precisely what Mark Fisher's book "Capitalist Realism" talks about, or Slavoj Žižek's famous statement that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, or Alenka Zupančič's thesis that the world can end, but our problems won't.
Your book emphasizes the year 1989, commonly associated with diverse political changes. Why did you choose that year?
Brodsky: The book stems from my dissertation, dedicated to four post-war European composers: Helmut Lachenmann, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, and Wolfgang Rihm. I began crafting the book from the dissertation chapter that focused on the premieres of their compositions in 1989. Each of these first-performed works contained some accidental or covert recognition of the current events of that time and even predicted forthcoming changes, even though all the pieces were written before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so there was no causal connection between the content of this music and the political events surrounding it.
The strange (posthumous) life of all this music is, in my opinion, its revolutionary tradition. In the book, I argue that musical modernism, in the contemporary sense of the term, began with Beethoven's late quartets. While not modernist in themselves, they are indeed unusual. They generated incredible interest, being proclaimed both as anti-music and the greatest music or the music of the future. I understand their emergence as a result of a (failed) revolution or even counter-revolution. Vienna in 1820 was a dark, cynical, and deeply frustrated city, with its population profoundly distrustful.
Musical modernism, which was still alive in 1989, found itself in a similar situation to Beethoven's quartets but also somewhat ahead of its time. Not as a contemplation of a failed revolution but as a reflection, a dream about its fulfillment. Different materials that composers took from the recent past wove their revolutionary dreams, while at the same time, some other, softer revolution was actually happening in front of them.
The book thus talks about anachronism, which I do not address solely in a negative sense. The revolution is the unconscious source of modernism, shaping the material of its dreams precisely because it was not fulfilled. Modernism will continue to be driven by dreams of revolution because it is – and will never be – definitively fulfilled. This music is primarily a repository for untimely fantasies. However, it is not necessary for the audience and composers to be aware of its non-revolutionary nature or to yearn for radical political changes.
Maričić: Music is proverbially one of the most common ways to escape, and you often connect it with the concept of fantasy. Could today's media spectacle be understood as a grand collective civilizational fantasy?
Brodsky: As a musicologist, I often consciously avoid flirting with the thesis of the exceptionalism of music compared to other art forms. Nevertheless, I believe that the ear apparatus and the life of its fantasies operate entirely differently from the visual level. It is more challenging, for example, to fantasize about various objects with the ears than with the eyes. The Internet, in particular, allows an infinite and cancerous expansion of fantasies, which must be tied to the question of domination. Those who fantasize are excluded from the events, but at the same time, the fantasized dispositif is totalizing.
Let me explain: I can complain about Israel and Palestine on social media, but I do not see myself in it; instead, I see everything else. I dominate this "other" with my gaze when I take screenshots, tag people I don't like in posts, and share my targets with others in this way. Similarly, with the advent of streaming platforms, music offers the creation of musical and sonic landscapes, neighborhoods, furniture, and wallpaper, eliminating our experience of music as a punctual experience of notches, divisions, puzzles, encrypted speech, ultimately as an enigma of our own bodies. Streaming music content does not lead to fantasies of domination; on the contrary, it encourages fantasies that we are dominated by music, that we are limited, that we submit to it.
Maričić: Much ink has been spilled on the connections between music and the concept of ideology.
Brodsky: Regarding the effectiveness of music in this regard, I am skeptical. We long for music to be effective, to be able to achieve something. We simultaneously celebrate its effectiveness and fear it. Both are unnecessary. We could say that it is persuasive or powerful, but not to the extent we often attribute to it.
Feldman: Music has an effect, but it does so politely, as it does not inherently perform a political act. Nevertheless, it can certainly amplify the effect of an intervention. The song "We Shall Overcome" may not trigger protests, but it can potentiate the emotional impact of a march on Washington. I admit, I believe in the visionary power of music, as I wouldn't say there is anything else that could so powerfully influence our mind, heart, soul, and mechanisms of desire.
Brodsky: In the infamous year 2020, a plethora of politically engaged music emerged in the United States. After the nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd, it was thrilling to see people collectively connecting through song, noise, rhythm, and speech. It was a mass musicalization. Simultaneously, the most attention was drawn to the song "WAP" [a notorious song with explicit lyrics performed by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion], which became the unofficial anthem of the protests, which is quite incredible! I do not equate sex with a general strike, but when we engage in all this fun in a different way, we reject domination. When we express our sexuality so desirefully and affirmatively, it is a stunning counterpoint to the horrors, disgust, and frustrations of that year. This stark contrast certainly confirms the previously mentioned expansiveness of music during that time. Perhaps this dislocation is precisely what made "WAP" the anthem of the protests.
Maričić: From your responses, it is evident that despite being in the academic domain of musicology, you are fascinated by musical and music-related phenomena that exist here and now and touch on the mass, which is not typical for local musicologists.
Brodsky: The traditional musicological practice, exclusively dealing with the European classical music tradition, is no longer predominant. It has proven necessary to incorporate different perspectives, and quality music history has always seen music as a social practice. In the U.S., departments focused on music theory have been the last bastion upholding the notion of the autonomy of musical art, but even there, they can no longer escape its evident social conditioning.
Feldman: Music theory is experiencing a crisis precisely because it was based on dissecting musical objects with the assumption of their autonomy, which is now theoretically unsubstantiated. The autonomy of art operates as an axiom...
Brodsky: ... and like any good axiom, it is, of course, repressed (laughs).