Arriving at the University of Washington as an undergraduate student majoring in piano, my knowledge of music theory was limited to core harmony and counterpoint. I loved harmony and counterpoint—I used to sing Bach chorales with my friends and indulge in the colorful harmonic progressions. However, I had no idea that there is more to music theory than the teaching of composition. As I progressed in my studies, I was struck by the breadth of the field and the diverse paths it opens for gaining musical knowledge. My first moment of wonder occurred when studying phenomenological approaches to music with John Rahn at the University of Washington, when we examined theories of music through the lens of early phenomenologist theories. I realized that ways of conceptualizing music express underlying philosophical paradigms; how we think about music is how we think about the world, and innovative ways of making music are products of novel modes of thinking. What could be more exciting than that? I had to continue to a PhD program.
What drew me to the field more than anything, and continues to guide my work, was the different ways theories of music reflect musical experience (performing, composing, and listening), and more importantly—ways in which theory and analysis can shape, and even expand musical experience. I was excited that music analytical writings affected my playing and listening, whether by changing my understanding of a piece or by echoing my own hearing of it. The prospect of hearing music through someone else’s ears, or sharing my own way of listening, seems to me as powerful an artistic mode of expression as composing or performing a piece. I have been lucky to meet fascinating musicians and musical thinkers as teachers, peers, and students, who piqued my interest in theory as a way of communicating “hearings” that shape music making and understanding.
It is a common experience that one’s understanding of a musical work changes in the course of analysis, and I have always been fascinated by ways discourse about music and musical experience interact and shape one another. My recent research has focused on intertextual relationships between music and other artworks, as I have been aiming towards analytical approaches that include components of musical experience that are sometimes called “extra musical,” following the work of scholars such as Jonathan Bernard, Marion Guck, David Lewin, Judith Lochhead, and others. While music is never conceived and performed in a vacuum, some works demand that we consider them (listen, perform, analyze) in connection with other texts. I have been focusing on compositions that take other artworks as their subject matter. It is a special case, called “musical ekphrasis,” in which composers direct performers and listeners to engage in such a relationship by adding a text to the score, which points to a connection between the composition and another artwork. Focusing on twentieth century pieces composed after paintings, architectural spaces, and other musical works, my dissertation project offers an analytical approach that expresses the diverse connections such musical works can create with their subject artworks. I have noticed that, when listening to a piece composed after another artwork side by side with its subject, a special relationship emerges—the artwork influences my understanding of the music, while at the same time the music affects my interpretation of the artwork. Drawing from theories of music in multimedia and music cognition, I define two general categories of intertextual representation whose unique interplay gives rise to the mutual relationship between the musical piece and its subject artwork, offering a conceptual framework that allows an analyst to focus on the particular relations formed when actively listening to ekphrastic compositions.
In The Open Work, Umberto Eco quotes the following from Henri Pousseur about listening to post-serial compositions: “…it is up to the listener to place himself deliberately in the midst of an inexhaustible network of relationships and to choose for himself […] his own modes of approach, his reference points and his scale, and to endeavor to use as many dimensions as he possibly can at the same time and thus dynamize, multiply, and extend to the utmost degree his perceptual faculties.” I believe this statement is true for any act of listening, and particularly for intertextual listening such as entailed by musical ekphrasis. For example, in Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, the chorus is instructed by Feldman to sing “n” throughout, resulting in a muted tone (try it and hear the tone you produce compared to singing a vowel!). I interpreted the sound of the chorus very differently before learning that Mark Rothko designed the chapel with scarce light, intending for his paintings to be experienced in a dark room. Therefore, one of the connections I made when listening to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel as musical ekphrasis was the notion of obstruction—the composition pointed me to the darkness of the chapel space and vice versa, the chapel space inspired me to understand the chorus tone as obstructed.
As an instructor, I found intertextual considerations of music and other artworks helpful in providing interpretive paths that would motivate students to explore analytical questions. For example, when teaching a seminar on music in multimedia works as part of Columbia University’s Teaching Scholars program, I started the semester by experimenting with different approaches to analyzing Lieder. The students were excited to discover that harmonies and motives become imbued with significance when taking the poem into account, an approach they later applied when studying music in dance and in film.
While at the graduate music theory program at Columbia, I was fortunate to be in an incredibly encouraging department that not only supported my research, but also provided me with numerous opportunities to share my interests with students in both core music theory courses and in advanced courses that I designed. I am immensely thankful to my dissertation sponsor Joseph Dubiel, to my mentor Ellie Hisama, and to the numerous people who supported my research and teaching endeavors throughout the years in myriad ways.
Orit Hilewicz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music. She completed her Ph.D. in Music Theory at Columbia University in 2017. Orit has a BA (majoring in piano) from the University of Washington, where she later completed her MA in music theory. Her research interests include music and visual arts, set theory, analysis of post-tonal music, and analytical approaches to musical temporality. Her dissertation, titled “Listening to Ekphrastic Musical Compositions,” studies pieces that take other artworks as their subject matter. Analyzing music composed after paintings, architectural spaces, and other musical works, her research examines the intertextual relationships between music and images. In April 2016 her article, “Tracing Space in Time: Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel,” was published in Time and Trace, a volume produced by the International Society for the Study of Time.