The Poetics of the Detail in American Music and Dance

deadline for submissions: 
January 15, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
French Association for American Studies

The Poetics of the Detail in American Music and Dance

Université de Nice, France, May 22-25, 2018


Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau (Université Clermont Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand)

Mathieu Duplay (Université Paris Diderot — Paris 7)


In “Sounds,” the chapter of Walden devoted to the experience of listening, Thoreau’s attention focuses on audible singularities, on the individual phenomena which together combine to form a rich and constantly changing soundscape. As a result, he frequently resorts to the rhetoric of enumeration: the text successively evokes the “rattle of railroad cars,” the “distant lowing of some cow,” and various types of birdsong, all of them representative samples of the sensible world’s endless complexity. However, Thoreau also insists that he wishes to grasp the totality of nature, and that his true center of interest is the unifying principle that underlies all phenomena: “The rays which stream through the shutter will no longer be remembered when the shutter is wholly removed.” Throughout the text, this gives rise to a tension between the extreme importance granted to the specifics of each individual sound event, and the quest for an overarching force capable of accounting for them all, while also addressing itself to the other senses. On the one hand, Thoreau seems to practice a form of phenomenological reduction, “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”—and, one may add, of listening always to what is to be heard; on the other hand, he does his best to identify the common origin of all sound.

It is tempting to formulate the hypothesis that, since 1854, this hesitation has characterized much American music.

  • On the one hand, so-called American “art music” owes much to composers whose discourse and practices seek to “let sounds be themselves,” as John Cage puts it. According to him, the role of music is not to arrange individual sounds into intelligible structures, but to draw attention to the sensory appeal of the sound world. Minimalist composers follow in Cage’s footsteps when they use repetition to discourage listeners from trying to interpret what they hear; thus, in It’s Gonna Rain (1965), Steve Reich uses a recording of a simple English sentence, repeated so often that it loses all meaning as its phonic features take precedence over its linguistic properties. The appeal of this and comparable procedures is evident in numerous other musical styles where endlessly repeated audio samples are common; others rely on the reappearance of short melodic and/or harmonic units, a frequent feature of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, to take only one example. In a similar vein, musical styles based on improvisation—such as jazz and rock music—liberate sounds by unleashing a Dionysian energy that imperils all formal structures. In his autobiography, John Adams writes that he considered Jimi Hendrix’s ‘”lawless” guitar as the perfect antidote to the formalism of serial music then in vogue at Harvard; and it is worth noting that American popular music often makes use of “hooks”, brief melodic motifs designed to capture the listener’s attention and usually repeated without change.
  • On the other hand, American music often privileges a sense of totality and tries to suggest unity in the midst of diversity, as evidenced by the interest many musicians take in large-scale compositions. In Essays Before a Sonata (1920), Charles Ives writes that music is the prefiguration of a universal language capable of exceeding all individual differences, “a language so transcendent that its heights and depths will be common to all mankind.” More recently, John Luther Adams has created major compositions (The Place Where You Go To Listen, 2004-06; Become Ocean, 2013) which, in an environmentalist vein, seek to illuminate the relationship between the listener and the cosmos. Meanwhile, the rise of American opera has demonstrated the willingness of American composers such as John Adams (Nixon in China, 1987) and Philip Glass (Einstein on the Beach, 1976) to reflect on defining events in world history while acknowledging the legacy of Minimalism.

On all levels, the coexistence of these seemingly contradictory tendencies gives rise to considerable tension, notably as regards the complex relationship between the written score and the performances it inspires. In this regard, John Cage’s compositions are particularly problematic. What is the performer to make of the details of a score which ostensibly does not conform to any of the established codes—especially when the score in question owes much to the attention lavished by the composer on the tiniest details of the paper on which it is inscribed (Atlas Eclipticalis, 1962)? And what about the details of the sound performances based on these non-notational scores—a question raised by Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art (1968)?

Paper proposals may deal with any aspect of these issues and address a wide range of objects including musical compositions, scores, recordings, filmed musical performances (concerts, operas, musicals); theoretical essays by musicians (in this regard, it is worth pointing out that many American composers are also writers: Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, and Philip Glass are just a few of the names that spring to mind); literary works that reflect on the relationship between literature and music; as well as non-literary modes of artistic expression where music occasionally or usually plays a significant role (including, but not limited to, dance, cinema, television, the performing arts, photography, the visual arts, new media art, and sound art).


In his manifesto for modern American dance, The American Ballet, Ted Shawn delineates what modern American dance should be – vast, dynamic and profoundly democratic: “the dance of America will be as seemingly formless as the poetry of Walt Whitman, and yet like Leaves of Grass it will be so big that it will encompass all forms. Its organization will be democratic, its fundamental principles, freedom and progress; its manifestation an institution of art expression through rhythmic, beautiful body movement, broader and more elastic than has ever yet been known”. Like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, American dance is therefore meant to constantly shift from a broad spectrum – paying tribute to the immensity of the country, dancing an American epic – to a smaller scale, magnifying each little detail of this great American opus.

Dance is all about details; the body is seldom considered as a whole without the attention of the spectator, dancer or choreographer turning to a hand, a port-de-bras, a foot’s turnout, or the tilting of the head. When learning classical or contemporary techniques, a dancer has to detail each movement, to articulate it in order to enrich it and explore its every subtlety. Differences of interpretation from one dancer to another are often a matter of detail as well, just like two versions of a same ballet by two different choreographers, which raises the question of the reinterpretation and the Americanization of ballets belonging to the classical repertory in American ballet companies: one could think for example of Jerome Robbins’ 1953 version of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, which is now part of the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre’s repertoire, or the many versions of Sleeping Beauty or the Nutcracker danced by these two companies.

If the devil is in the details, some “details” in the various American dance techniques (Graham, Horton, Cunningham, or Balanchine’s and Forsythe’s neo-classical styles) are highly symbolical: the Grahamian contraction and the focus on the pelvis as a point of origin for the movement is deeply connected to the choreographer’s feminism (and, amusingly, prompted Graham’s students to call her school “the House of the pelvic truth”). Similarly, it is through a sum of details and many little “tweaks” in the approach to movement, that an African-American style of movement, combining Americanisms and Africanisms, emerged in the Alvin Ailey company, or that the Complexions company deals with the question of race and the racialization of dance.

Among the topics which may be addressed in this panel, one could interrogate the way “details” are markers of Americanness, but also, on a broader scale, how legible all these details really are for the spectator: can the audience really perceive the amount of details that are involved in the dancer’s technique, or the many details present in one ballet? During a performance, when the corps and the soloists are present on stage, how does the spectator articulate a global vision of the stage and attention to details? How do choreographers deal with the individual/group dynamics within a ballet?     

Another possible approach could be the question of the dialogue between dance and other artistic forms: dance often appears as a mere metaphorical detail in the general economy of a literary work, be it poetry or prose, and we could wonder if it is really so. Similarly, one could question the place of dance in the theatre or the cinema, or the way dance is represented in visual arts, whether it is a representation of the dancing body, or the representation of the dancer as icon, in Joseph Cornell’s works for example. In visual arts as in literature, the dancing body is often fragmented into a myriad details, which raises the question of the very representability of the dancing body, of a dynamic movement which only appears to be representable through fragmentation, in a whirl of details, and never in its entirety. In another perspective, one could also interrogate the meaning of some dance moves like the arabesque for example: in the 19th century, the arabesque is one of the key adagio movements in the great Romantic ballets, and one could question its echo in the works of writers like E. A. Poe, for whom the arabesque becomes a narrative form, an extended line which triggers digression, leading the imagination to an infinite realm of possibilities.

Submissions (abstract, 200-300 words, + bio) may be sent to Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau ( and/or Mathieu Duplay ( no later than January 15, 2018.