Sylvie Tran presents at WLA 2022

November 02, 2022
Sylvie Tran

In October, I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico to attend the conference of the Western Literature Association. This was my first time attending a conference in a field other than music, and it was productive for me to think through some of the extramusical dimensions of my research and learn about how other scholars engage with the American West. Everyone was very generous and welcoming, and I received helpful feedback on the paper I presented (title and abstract below). I would highly recommend attending and presenting at conferences a little outside of your discipline—I learned a lot, and it was a good way to practice sharing my research with an audience that wasn’t familiar with music jargon. As an added bonus, Santa Fe is less than an hour’s drive from my hometown (Albuquerque), so it was fun to return home, feel a bit like a tourist, and experience fall in New Mexico for the first time in almost a decade.

The Sonic Frontier: Musical Portrayals of Western Landscapes

In Western music theory, a “topic” is a conventionalized musical gesture or style that has been used so frequently outside its original context that it becomes associated with specific extramusical imagery or narratives. In this paper, I theorize what I call the “frontier” topic, a category of musical gestures that portray landscapes of the American West in Western classical music. Analyzing passages from musical works such as Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid (1938), Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite (1932), and Virgil Thomson’s Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), I first identify musical features that constitute the frontier topic, such as pentatonic scales (which contribute to a sense of vastness and timelessness) and walking bass lines (which create a sense of constant forward motion). I then consider how these features might communicate different conceptions of the West. For instance, in The Plow that Broke the Plains—which was composed for a documentary about the agricultural contributors to the Dust Bowl—walking bass lines herald natural catastrophe. The paradoxical simultaneity of pentatonicism and walking bass lines in the frontier topic suggests a perception of the West that is defined both by preservation of natural landscape and by constant settlement and colonial expansion.

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