In this episode of High Theory, Brian Fairley tells us about Polyphony, a concept from music that describes multiple melodic lines sounding at once. The many voices of polyphony have an ancient and colonial history, which has reappeared in some key reverberations in twentieth century criticism and theory. 

In the conversation, we discuss several texts, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929); James Clifford and George Marcus, Writing Culture The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (UC Press, 1986); Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1993); and one of Kim’s favorite scholarly books, Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton, 2021). Brian also discusses Denise Ferreira da Silva’s work “On Difference Without Separability.” 

Brian Fairley received his PhD in Ethnomusicology from New York University in 2023; he is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Music at Amherst College.His manuscript in progress, Dissected Listening: Race, Nation, and Polyphony in the South Caucasus, excavates a series of experimental sound recordings from 1916 to 1966 to show how the concept of musical polyphony emerged in tandem with techniques of multichannel sound and imperial discourses of racial, national, and religious difference. His work has appeared in the journal Ethnomusicology and is forthcoming in Theoria: Historical Aspects of Music Theory, as well as an edited volume titled Key Terms in Music Theory for Antiracist Scholars

The image for this episode is Paul Klee’s 1932 painting “Polyphony,” which is in the public domain in the US and Europe, but maybe not in Mexico. Digital image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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