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Reflections on Ithaca Sounding 2020

Reflections on Ithaca Sounding 2020

By Issac Jean-Francois CC ’20

I would like to open my response by sharing my immense thanks to Professor Ellie Hisama and Richard Valitutto for inviting me to participate in Ithaca Sounding 2020. Much of my current thinking on Julius Eastman would not be possible without the unending support, guidance, and mentorship of Professors Saidiya Hartman, Ellie Hisama, and Marc Hannaford—thank you.

Spanning four days between January 30th and February 2nd, Ithaca Sounding 2020 was a conference/festival that featured the work of five composers from Ithaca: David Borden, Sarah Hennies, Julius Eastman, Robert Palmer, and Ann Silsbee. It has left a lasting impression on my conceptualizations of music listening and scholarship. It was unlike any conference I had ever attended in that it featured a series of intense performances and conversations right up against each other. As we approached the end of the conference, however, I realized that the distinction between listening to a paper presentation and listening to a piano sonata began to blur. A critical sonic proximity between talk and performance allowed for questions and discussion to flow between the sound of the voice and instrumentation. How might the work of the composers featured in the festival command a listening that swings between paper and performance? Or, rather, how might the academic project and presentation become musical?

I hoped to explore this question through two particular discussions at the festival: Listening Locally and Decolonizing the Curriculum. The workshop on decoloniality was led by Sarah Haefeli of Ithaca College. The discussion argued for an insertion of underrepresented composers into the curriculum of Musicology and a shift in the instruction of music from time to place (e.g. move from an era of music making to the place that a particular kind of music would be listened to like, the Court). It was the first time that I critically considered the question of place in relation to sound. Yet, I am unsure if an insistence on a kind of rootedness is particularly decolonial. I would argue that specifying place would insist upon colonial logics of static place and location. The workshop was very helpful for my thinking about the colonial logics that make up the instruction of music history and theory. Which is to say, underrepresentation in academic faculty and compositional practice does not only set up a false notion that there are not people of color in the archive of making music but that somehow Classical and Minimalist music emerges disembodied and apolitically. A decolonial critique of music theory and praxis that rests not only in folding in the abject performers, academics, and composers alike but a critique that interrogates the very structures of the discipline. This particular workshop inspired me to invite Professor Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier of Columbia’s Department of Music and Carlota Aguilar-Gonzalez to IRWGS to discuss the intersection of gender and sexuality studies on race and decolonial musicology.

I was invited to present on a panel titled Listening Locally: Intersectionality and Contemporary Music along with Ellie Hisama, Frederick Cruz Nowell, and Matthew Mendez. My research on Julius Eastman has never led me to believe that his life and work implied an insistence on place. Sarah Hennies and Ann Silsbee were both musicians and composers whose work, either musical or poetic, indicated that they were inspired by and connected to Ithaca, New York. Yet, in parsing out whether Eastman cared much about place, I remembered I was dealing with a fractured archive where absence, through the energy of Eastman’s Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc (1981), “speaks boldly.” In reflecting on this powerful discussion, I have begun to think about the relationship between absence and place. Ellie Hisama noted that Eastman was born in New York City, though it is often told that he was born in Ithaca, New York. His mother, Frances, noted that her family’s move to Ithaca cycled around concerns about safety. Absence and place mingle with flight, here. I can only imagine what it would have been like for Eastman to move to Ithaca as a black gay man; from my short time in the area I felt out of place. The place that remained consistent for all of these composers and musicians was the space of sound. All of the featured composers from Ithaca had either known each other or performed each other’s work. As pianist, Adam Tendler discovered during one of our discussions, Eastman loved to perform Silsbee’s and Palmer’s work. Sarah Hennies performed the very difficult vibraphone section of Femenine (1974) on the evening of February 1st. What I heard was a sonic communality that traversed place, space, and normative notions of absence. Though Eastman, along with Palmer and Silsbee, are no longer with us they persist in an unrelenting sonic outpour latent in each archival encounter.

I would have to say the most impactful section of the festival was Ellie Hisama’s presentation: “A Practice of Refusal:” Hearing Queer Black Visuality in Julius Eastman’s Work. Hisama read important Eastman texts and materials against the grain by way of Tina Campt’s Listening to Images (2017). Hisama’s precise analysis of Eastman’s compositional relationship between the sonic and visual—an oft-overlooked space of inquiry in Eastman scholarship—offered an incredible alternative to normative listening practices. Thinking about the Campt’s framing of “phonic substance” of Eastman’s compositions, namely Macle (1971) and Colors (1973), Hisama argued for an interpretation of musical notation that “emanates from the image itself.” Color extends between the chromatics of flesh and timbral notation allowing us to hear singers and instrumentation sound “as if [they] are in flight” (Eastman).

I look forward to continuing my work on Julius Eastman and my participation in Ithaca Sounding 2020 was an incredible opportunity to pursue and develop my questions alongside a broader intellectual community.


Support to offset some of Isaac’s travel costs to Ithaca Sounding 2020 was provided by an IRWGS Travel Grant funded through donor contributions. If you are interested in supporting opportunities for student travel to conferences such as this, or other student initiatives, we encourage you to consider making a contribution to IRWGS, or email Ryan Grubbs, IRWGS Associate Director, at to discuss available support options.



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