Seth Brodsky

Seth Brodsky
Associate Professor, Music and in the Humanities; Director, Richard & Mary L. Gray Center for Arts & Inquiry; Editor-in-Chief, Portable Gray
Goodspeed 405
PhD, Eastman School of Music, 2007; BA, Wake Forest University, 1997
Research Interests: 20th- and 21st-century music; modernisms; influence and intertextuality; psychoanalysis; philosophy; critical theory; voice; theories of repetition

My scholarly and critical work pursues several lines of inquiry, generally clustered around “unconscious” problems—ideology, fantasy, influence and reception, libidinal economy, etc.—and the peculiar role music and sound play in their operations. Past work has centered on modernism and western classical music, exploring how musical modernism’s endeavors in ending and beginning engender structural cycles of repetition and inversion: traversals of (old) fantasies transform (repeatedly) into (new) fantasies of traversal. In my book  From 1989 (short précis here) I explore how musical modernism is what psychoanalysis sounds like when it wanders into the concert hall—or, more pointedly, how psychoanalysis is what musical modernism sounds like when it enters the disenchanting space of the clinic. Related work on Benjamin Britten, John Cage, Wolfgang Rihm, and Arnold Schoenberg expands on these questions of tradition and what Freud called “family romance.” How does music interweave love and hate, and how are musical forms of inheritance especially effective at encoding ambivalence, the contradictory desire to fuse and to separate? 

My current work is moving along two distinct paths. One is a book project on music and (death) drive, which asks how music and sound illuminate contemporary forms of (self-)destructive repetition, from the immediate dopamine hit of the doomscroll to the unshakeable nightmare of history—the rise of new fascisms, climate catastrophe, the specter of extinction. How does music mediate individual and collective self-sabotage? And how might sound serve a generally ambidextrous function in a death-driven culture, as both binding eros and the thrall of Thanatos, a fulcrum for the social contradiction of living in end times, disaster capitalism’s ideal medium and recalcitrant other? (A short preview here.) A second project, tentatively titled Mahler: A Theory, concerns the life, work, and reception of Gustav Mahler as an unlikely territory for rethinking contemporary relations between music and labor, form and excess, institution and dissolution, patriarchy and polymorphous perversity. What might the untimeliness of this “thrice homeless” artist—now the epicenter of both orchestral music and neurotic western subjectivity in all their anachronism—have to say to a present closer to Mahler’s fin-de-siècle than at any point since his death? 

Since 2019, I have also served as director of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, a forum at the University of Chicago for experimental collaborations between artists and scholars. The Center seeks to intervene in existing structures that keep scholarship and the arts separate from each other, and to help reimagine new relationships between them. During this time, I have also served as editor-in-chief of our biannual journal/magazine Portable Gray, and have started the experimental music-sound-performance initiatives Gray Sound and Gray Sound Sessions.  


From 1989, or European Music and the Modernist Unconscious (University of California Press, Jan. 2017). See also:
     Read the Introduction
     “Listening in, hearing back” (Short Précis)
     “Eric Drott reviews From 1989”, (Critical Inquiry, Oct 2018)
     Review by Amy Bauer (Journal of the American Musicological Society, April 2019) 


Selected Articles 

“The Dream of Interpretation: Composer, Performer, Listener, Object,” in Performance–Interaktion–Vermittlung: 75 Tagungen des Instituts für Neue Musik und Musikerziehung Darmstadt 1948–2022, ed. Christa Brüstle et al. (Schott Verlag, 2023).

“‘now is simply the mess.’ Formalism, Modernism, Again,” Portable Gray 1/2 (Spring 2019)

“There is No Such Thing as the Composer’s Voice,” in A Voice as Something More: Essays Toward Materiality, ed. Martha Feldman & Judith Zeitlin, Afterword by Mladen Dolar (University of Chicago Press, 2019) 

“Waiting, Still, or Is Psychoanalysis Tonal?,”Opera Quarterly 32/4 (2016) 

“Rihm, Tonality, Psychosis, Modernity,”Twentieth-Century Music 15/2 (2018) 

“the child at the piano, fumbling: A Hauskonzert,”Perspectives of New Music 55/1 (2017) 

"Remembering, Repeating, Passacaglia: Weak Britten,"Acta Musicologica 88/2 (2016) 

“Are Sounds Just Sounds or Are They Cage? Five Writings Around John Cage’s Influence on Contemporary Composers” (unpublished, 2012) 

“Britten as Another. Six Notes on a Mystic Writing Pad”, in Great Shakespeareans, Vol. 11: Berlioz, Verdi, Wagner, Britten, ed. Daniel Albright, Continuum Press 2012) 


Selected Essays, Concert Notes, & Album Notes 

“‘An Infinite Amount of Hope’: On Liza Lim’s Annunciation Triptych” (Kairos 2023) 

“Diptych/Being-Together (for Eric Wubbels)” (Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung 2023)

“Editor’s Plaisance,” Portable Gray, Vol. 5, Issue 2, “Arts of Psychoanalysis” (Fall 2022)

“Found Abjects/Music from Nowhere” (Party Perfect, PP-01, 2022) [album here!]

“The Birth of Music out of the Spirit of Critical Idolatry?,” Brooklyn Rail (Dec 2021/Jan 2022) 

“Accompaniments: Hearing Christian Wolff These Days,” notes to Trio Accanto, Trio X & Exercises (Wergo 2021) 

“Threads, Bells, for Adam Roberts,” notes to Adam Roberts portrait album Bell Threads (New Focus Records 2021)     

“Power in Sound: The Music of Galina Ustvolskaya,” 11 essays for three-concert series, University of Chicago (5–6 October 2017) 

“Spahlinger als Frau,” Spahlinger Festival (Chicago, 6–16 March 2015) 

“Hot and Cold,” Notes for Ryan Muncy, Hot (New Focus Records, 2013) 

“This was not meant for you,” essay for the exhibition Arturo Herrera/David Schutter, Collages & Drawings, 10 September—9 October 2010 (Tony Wight Gallery, Chicago) 

“Real Time, Wartime, and Nine Times of Music (Jonathan Kramer in memoriam),” concert essay for the Columbia University Orchestra (Dec. 5-6, 2004) 


Selected Interviews, Conversations, & Podcasts 

"Time Giver: Sarah Hennies in Conversation with Seth Brodsky,” Sarah Hennies: Motor Tapes (New World Records, 2024)

“Full Pink Moon: Night on Earth: A Conversation with Opera Povera’s Sean Griffin by Seth Brodsky,” Portable Gray 5/1 (Spring 2022) 

“Small Talk” (Andrew Stock in conversation with Seth Brodsky), Podcast for Beuys 2021: The Earth is Speaking (Oct. 2021) 

“We Are Clear like a Crystal: A Conversation with Composer Peter Ablinger.” Portable Gray 3/1 (Spring 2020) 

“Episode 723: Peter Ablinger.” Bad at Sports Podcast (Feb. 2020) 

“Music is the Production of an Ear that Listens to Us: Mladen Dolar in Conversation with Seth Brodsky,” Portable Gray 1/2 (Spring 2019)