Pink Martini Perform In London

Conflict and Coherence: Thinking About Idiomatic Interplay in Music

This March, I attended the International Festival of Innovation at Leeds College of Music . The conference brought together several strands of research and practice, including Popular Music, Classical Music, Leeds International Jazz Education Conference, and the International Festival of Innovation in Music Production and Composition.  In previous years, these strands have been run as separate conferences, and I have been involved with the Leeds International Jazz Education Conference for several years. To my mind, bringing together these events was an inspired move: scholars and practitioners from each field were able to network and share ideas, and delegates frequently found there was more in common between the disciplines than they had previously thought.  Dr Zack Moir (@zackmoir) and I got talking at a coffee break, and ended up having an impassioned discussion about new methods of teaching music. We agreed that practical musicianship can be informed by theoretical and historical understandings, and vice versa.

Broadly speaking, my musical and musicological aim has always been to illustrate how methodologies and perspectives from one idiom may shed light on another, in musicological study as well as in practice. When Zack invited me to write a post for the Thinking About Music blog, it seemed only natural to recap the experiences that brought me to this way of thinking about music, and to show how I do this in my current scholarship and practice. I will end the post with some examples from my forthcoming monograph Rufus Wainwright, in which I use a variety of musicological perspectives to show the similarities and differences lurking in popular music and Western Art Music.

Three experiences from my first years as a musician and musicologist stand out: as an undergraduate at King’s College London, I studied traditional musicology and classical saxophone by day, and performed semi-professionally in jazz clubs and bars by night. When my colleagues and mentors learned about my activities in the ‘other’ idiom, I met frequent opposition and occasional ridicule. I struggled to reconcile these engrained opinions: as I saw it, I was playing the same instrument, using the same notes, and the same fingerings, in both situations.

My doctoral research was borne from these experiences: in my PhD (which I undertook with Professor Mervyn Cooke at the University of Nottingham, 2008–2011), I explored the fruitful presence of techniques and traditions from Western Art Music in British jazz. Essentially, I was interrogating the criticisms and challenges I faced as a performing musician from a musicological point of view. The resulting dissertation was an interdisciplinary, multi-methodological study of the intersection and interaction of the two musics: I considered the adoption of critical frameworks from classical music in jazz; the increasing number of jazz performances in venues associated with classical music; musical features (chords, melodies, instrumental techniques) carried over to jazz from classical music; and the appropriation in jazz of existing classical pedagogical frameworks.

I had known since I was a child that I wanted to work in music in some shape or form, and the further I got into postgraduate study, the more I hoped that I would be able to work within a HE context, while maintaining my performance profile. In 2010, I took up a musicology lecturing position at a Leeds College of Music, teaching classes on musicology for undergraduates studying popular music and music production (amongst others). These students defined themselves by genre: it seemed that the ‘pathway’ they studied (pop, production, classical or jazz) provided a category they were reluctant to step outside. And yet I felt that bringing in examples from other idioms could helpfully elucidate musicological arguments.

I found myself searching for musical examples that showed influences from multiple genres, so that I would have a springboard from which to explore different theories and frameworks. I drew examples from a range of idioms (including The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, Chick Corea’s The Mozart Sessions, and almost all of Duke Ellington’s library), but frequently returned to Rufus Wainwright’s music. My popular music students accepted the pop song forms. The fact that classical influences and references were contained within provided a way to discuss some complex and relevant musicological themes with my students. The same argument worked in reverse: students that defined themselves by studying classical music could benefit from the gateway into popular music that Wainwright’s music offered. These experiences all pointed towards the fruitful juxtaposition of theories and traditions from historically opposed idioms, showing that greater understanding could be gained by their application.

Rufus Wainwright (Equinox Press, 2015)

Rufus Wainwright is a Canadian-American singer-songwriter (b. 1973) with a panoply of musical influences, of which I focus primarily on popular music and Western Art Music (WAM). He made his name on the popular music stage, but his songs usually include musical or lyrical references to WAM. Over his career (his first album was released in 1998), he has also made several forays into classical music, for example by collaborating with Robert Wilson on musical settings of Shakespeare sonnets to be staged by the Berliner Ensemble (Sonnette, April 2009), and by composing and overseeing Prima Donna, his first opera (premiered in Manchester UK, July 2009). The close interplay between these two styles allows me to apply methodologies from ‘either side’ (for any RW aficionados, this is a lyrical reference to ‘Greek Song’, discussed below). Wainwright married his husband Jörn Weisbrodt in 2012, and the couple live with their daughter Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen (the mother is Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard) in Long Island, New York State.

Some fundamental differences between popular music and music from the WAM tradition are crucial to note. In WAM, the notated score is generally considered ‘the work’. Traditional musicology tends to focus on discovering the score, analyzing the score, and theorizing/uncovering facts about the composer’s intentions when creating the score. Live performance tends to be secondary, considered an interpretation of a fixed artifact (see Small 1998). Popular song, on the other hand, is much more of an oral/aural tradition, which often does not have a fixed score. Fans and scholars tend to receive popular music as a live performance, a recorded track from an album, a music video, or a lead sheet for their own performance. Lead sheets will contain a simple melody and chord symbols—these are open to interpretation by the performer, who may choose to imitate well-known existing recordings.

As Allan Moore observes, a popular song simultaneously exists in three ways: the song (harmonic and melodic structure, as laid out on a lead sheet), the performance (the vocal timbre, instrumentation, and melodic decoration of a particular iteration of the song), and the track (a particular performance of the song, fixed in time by being issued on a recorded album). The track may also be altered by studio techniques before release (2012: 15). I use Moore’s distinctions throughout the book, allowing listeners to gain multiple understandings from different iterations of the same core material.

Consider, for example, ‘Greek Song’ from Poses (2001). The song lyrics suggest a love duet between the protagonist (assumed to be Wainwright, if the song is autobiographical) and a Greek man. Structurally, the song takes a relatively straightforward verse-chorus form (Covach and Flory offer a list of formal conventions in popular song, 2012, 10–16).

The track released on Poses features Wainwright’s voice, accompanied by ‘guitars and dobro playing [a] repeated rhythmic cell … percussion contribut[ing] something like a South American clave rhythm gone awry … piano [playing a] pentatonic flourish’ (Jones 2002: 104–5). The following internet link is to the track, showing that (as I believe) these instruments, melodic and harmonic devices combine to provide a generic exotic ‘Other’. In the new musicology trend of the early 1990s, descriptions of Orientalism show how this feature occurred in nineteenth-century French opera: for example, Susan McClary explained a parallel phenomenon, remarking that Spain, North Africa and the Orient were largely interchangeable (1992, 51–3). Ralph P. Locke’s description of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila applies equally to Wainwright’s ‘Greek Song’. Both works contain: ‘general stylistic aberrations … applied indiscriminately by composers to vastly different geographical settings’ (1991, 261).

And yet in the following live performance (from the Fillmore in San Francisco, 2006), we see the same song material, with Rufus Wainwright sitting at the front of the stage, accompanying himself on guitar. A small backing band includes female backing singers, one of whom plays guitar, a violinist, a double bassist, and an off-stage wood-block. The song is taken a fraction faster, and Wainwright’s live vocal is forefronted. I would argue that the physical and musical placement of RW at the front of the performance takes the emphasis away from the exotic backing, encouraging audiences to focus on the singer. (It is, of course, his show. The audience will predominantly have gone to see him.)

In later chapters of the book, I carry out detailed vocal analyses, considering the significance of vocal placement in the recorded mix over time (borrowing from and adapting Moore and Ruth Dockwray’s 2010 sound-box methodology), and considering the physiological production and digital capturing techniques of the voice (utilizing and adapting Dockwray’s work on proxemics). Elsewhere I consider the relationships between music, place and space, and engage with queer theory.

Popular musicology is a relatively recent discipline, with around 30 years to its name (in contrast to the study of WAM, which has a tradition of around 250 years). As a relatively young sub-discipline (and like jazz musicology before it) a good deal of popular music scholarship is concerned with legitimization—convincing the larger musicological world that popular music deserves study, and can contribute to the discipline as a whole. One of my primary aims in Rufus Wainwright is to show that different techniques of analyzing music from a popular musicology standpoint are a valuable contribution to the wider musicological discipline, and conversely that the application of theories from traditional musicology can shed light on popular song.

Rufus Wainwright is in the editing and production process. It will be available from Equinox in the summer of 2015. Katherine’s next projects include contributing to and co-editing the Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (forthcoming 2016), and co-editing the Singer-Songwriter Handbook (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).

Further Reading

Covach, John and Flory, Andrew. What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History, 3rd Edition. W. W. Norton and Company: New York/London, 2012 (first published 2006).

Dockwray, Ruth. ‘Proxemic Interaction in Popular Music Recordings’. 1 Oxtober 2013. Available at:!proxemics-1/ciq3.

Jones, Matthew J. All These Poses, Such Beautiful Poses: Articulations of Queer Masculinity in the Music of Rufus Wainwright. MA Thesis: University of Georgia, 2002.

Locke, Ralph P. ‘Constructing the Oriental “Other”: Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila’. Cambridge Opera Journal 3 (1991): 261–302.

Moore, Allan F. Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Song. Surrey: Ashgate: 2012.

            . and Ruth Dockwray. ‘Configuring the Sound-box 1965–72’, Popular Music Vol 29/2 (2010): 181–197.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meaning of Performing and Listening. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Williams, Katherine. ‘Valuing Jazz: Cross-Cultural Comparisons of the Classical Influence in Jazz’. Available at:

Share Button

Dr Katherine Williams is Lecturer in Music at Plymouth University. Prior to her appointment in 2014, she lectured at Leeds College of Music and Cardiff University, and taught on various modules at the University of Bristol. Throughout her musicological study (BMus King's College London, MA and PhD University of Nottingham), Katherine maintained an active profile as a saxophonist, performing and teaching in the idioms of classical, jazz and new music. Katherine's research has been published by Jazz Perpectives, Journal of Music History Pedagogy, and Jazz Research Journal (forthcoming 2014). Her first monograph is in production with Equinox Press, and she is co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (forthcoming 2016), and the Singer-Songwriter Handbook (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). She regularly presents her research at national and international conferences: recent and forthcoming highlights include popMAC (Liverpool University, July 2013), Royal Musical Assocation (London, September 2013), Verdi's Third Century (New York University, October 2013), New Jazz Conceptions (University of Warwick, May 2014), On Collecting: Music, Materiality and Ownership (University of Edinburgh, July 2014), IASPM-UK (University College Cork, September 2014), EuroMAC (Belgium, September 2014), Art of Record Production (Oslo, December 2014), and Society for American Music (California, March 2015).

8 thoughts on “Conflict and Coherence: Thinking About Idiomatic Interplay in Music”

  1. Hi Katherine, as a fan of Rufus Wainwright’s music and music in general, I am very much looking forward to reading your study. Just with regards to his biography, Rufus’s daughter Viva lives with her mother in LA primarily and Rufus and his husband Jorn co-parent with her. The highly original song Montauk from the Out of the Game album gives a good insight into this co-parenting relationship.

  2. Hi Adrienne

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad to hear you’re looking forward to the book. You are right; Viva lives primarily with her mother in LA. That was a case of writing my post in haste to meet the blog deadline! Thanks for the correction.

    I actually analyse ‘Montauk’ in ch. 5 of the forthcoming book, so watch this space!


    1. Hi Katherine, thanks for your reply. I’m delighted to hear Montauk is one of the songs you have analysed in the book. I’m not a Musicologist, but I hear- and see, all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff going on in that song and would love to hear what a Musicologist makes of it. Best of luck with the book.

  3. I’m looking forward to the book too and will particularly look forward to reading the analysis of Montauk as, and I hate to admit it, I really dislike this track and skip it every time I play that record. Will be interesting to read what you say about it, Katherine!

    Love Rufus, though!

    1. Hi Zack

      Thanks for your kind words–and I hope that after reading the book you’ll be able to hear ‘Montauk’ with a new perspective. Maybe you’ll evening stop skipping it for a while :)


  4. Hi Katherine,

    We Rufus Wainwright fans are all going to buy your book so do post a message on his official website’s message board when it’s available. Thank you!

  5. Hi Lulu,

    I’m delighted to hear that, and thank you for your message.

    It’s great to see such impassioned and informed debates on the official forum. I have been following it with interest!

    I will certainly post on the forum when the book is out–all being well, it’ll be early summer next year. It’s in the editing/production stages now.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *