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James Q. Davies


I am a historian.

In my work, I think about what music is and has been made out of – broadly about poietic matters in musicmaking. I am from Johannesburg and pursued piano performance there at the University of Witwatersrand. Performance scholarships brought me north: RNCM in Manchester UK and then the University of Cambridge. My PhD, completed at Gonville & Caius College where I was later a Research Fellow, was a microhistory entitled A Musical Souvenir: London in 1829.

A first book, Romantic Anatomies of Performance (University of California Press, 2014), is a history of European hands and voices, critiquing the idea of “expression” in nineteenth-century music, and thinking about how music acts in the cultivation of bodies. My interest in the history of nineteenth-century science, particularly Euro-US engineering and the biological sciences, is borne out in Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London (University of Chicago Press, 2017) co-edited with Ellen Lockhart. Creatures of the Air (University of Chicago Press, 2023) is a macrohistory and critique of environmentality indebted to elemental media theory. Here’s a book description:

Creatures of the Air: Music, Atlantic Spirits, Breath, 1817-1913 is a history of the separation of music from air. It explains how, under the force of Euro-US fossil-fuel industrialism and colonial expansion, the air became a problem for music, and how music, as concept and product, was separated out. Thus two heavily racialized modern domains: the air as toxic medium and music qua music.

If music and air have no necessary relation, it is because of this history. Once an airy business, music, thingified, became more intangible still. Whether reproduced in print, archived in a library or digital repository, exchanged as a commodity, through wires, transmitted as a radiographic signal, performed or embodied in concert, etc., music passes through, supposedly unscathed. Yet those in search of it have found it difficult to cleanse music of air, deny the presence of air even at the ear drum, or separate breathiness from tone.

Creatures of the Air is a histoire croisée – an anthology of multi-sited stories, ranging across approximately fifteen-year intervals: the Gabon estuary 1817, Paris 1837, Birmingham/London 1848, the Amazon estuary 1871, New York City 1900, back to Gabon 1913. It explains how the air became a threatening media system, and grapples with this thickened elemental métier anew, showing how music-makers of the long nineteenth-century—ranging from Gabonese ngombi harp players to Alsatian Bach specialists—struggled with and against it. These stories recount the modern fight for air, the struggle to breathe, and the drive to separation.

I have mentored and advised for a diverse range of graduate and undergraduate dissertation and thesis topics over the years: on Afro-Brazilian and Black Atlantic performance; Anglo-Italian musical cultures, ca. 1813-1830; sonic kinship and human reproduction in contemporary Myanmar; audiovisual histories of electroacoustic and cybernetic theory in 1950s Hollywood; humanitarian regimes, critical refugee studies, and music aid in Jordan; race and sovereignty in the imperial music of Siam, 1870-1910; Wagner’s political media ecology; white mythologies in Euro-American musical modernism; ideologies of self-actualization in American Music of the long 1970s; music and water ecologies in Venice ca. 1848; fascist media systems and Italian radio, 1931–1960; inventing sacred music in Berlin, 1760–1840; music and affect during the Wars of Religion in sixteenth-century Lyon; mechanized polyphony in Italian keyboard music, ca. 1600; tropes of the diva and divadom in film; operatic novelty and consumerism in London and Paris; 1830-1850; the late nineteenth-century Milanese opera industry; noise and silence in post-Wagnerian German song; Russian opera and literature; the cold war carillon revival in USA and the Netherlands; the citizen body in belle époque ballet; Japanostalgia, soft power, and 1980s Music Now; Data-Based Climate Composition, 2015-2021; Johanna Jachmann-Wagner’s voice; music in Iran before and the after the Islamic Revolution; acoustic design in dental clinics; policing sound, noise, and music in Oakland, California; and so on.

Together with my colleague Nick Mathew, I edit the book series New Material Histories of Music at the University of Chicago Press.

Music 200B (Introduction to Scholarship); Music 70 (Music History); Music 170 (Music & Environment); Music 179 (Voice); Music 179 (Pianism); Music 170 (Sound & Resistance in South African Music); Music 220 (Sound Reproduction Ecologies); Music 220 (Material Romanticism); Music 220 (Deep Listening ideology); Music 220 (Political Anatomies of Voice); Music 220 (19th-Century Sound Tech); Music 128A/AM (Opera); Music 150C (Piano Performance); Music 98/198 (Piano Rep Class); Music 49A (Thinking about Music); Music 27 (Introduction to Western Music)

“‘Cosmopoeisis: Song Form off the Gulf of Guinea, 1817,” Acoustics of Empire: Sound, Media and Power in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Priyasha Mukhopadhyay and Peter McMurray (Oxford University Press). “‘I am an Essentialist’: the Conceit of the Voice Itself,” The Voice as Something More, eds. Martha Feldman and Judith Zeitlin (University of Chicago Press), 142–168; “Pneumotypes: Jean de Reszke’s High Pianissimos and the Occult Sciences of Breathing,” Opera and Science in the Long Nineteenth Century, eds. Benjamin Walton and David Trippett (Oxford University Press, 2019), 21-41; “Instruments of Empire,” Sound Knowledge: Music and Science in London (University of Chicago Press, 2017); “Gautier’s Diva: the first French uses of the term,” The Arts of the Prima Donna, eds. Rachel Cowgill and Hilary Poriss (Oxford University Press, 2012), 123-46.

Elijah’s Nature,” 19th-Century Music 45/1 (2021), 49–64. (“Music and the Invention of Environment”); “‘Ah! non pensar che pieno’: The Progress of an Aria,” Cambridge Opera Journal (2016); “On Being Moved/Against Objectivity,” Representations 132/1 (2015), 79-87; “Voice Belongs” in Colloquy: “Why Voice Now?,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 68/3 (2015), 677–81; “Going for a Song,” Early Music 41/1 (2012), 163-4; with Sheila Boniface Davies, ‘“So Take This Magic Flute and Blow. It Will Protect Us As We Go’: Impempe Yomlingo (2007–11) and South Africa’s Ongoing Transition,” The Opera Quarterly 28/1 (2012), 54-71; “Struggling with the Order of Things: SASRIM 2011,” SAMUS: South African Music Studies 30 (2011); with Lindiwe Dovey, “Bizet in Khayelitsha: U-Carmen eKhayelitsha as audio-visual transculturation,” Journal of African Media Studies 2/1 (2010) 39-53; “Reflecting on Reflex, or Another Touching New Fact about Chopin,” Keyboard Perspectives II (2009), 55-82 ; “Julia’s Gift: the social life of scores, ca. 1830,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 131/2 (2006), 287-309 [awarded the Jerome Roche Prize]; “Melodramatic Possessions: South Africa, The Flying Dutchman and the Imperial Stage,” The Opera Quarterly 21/3 (2005), 1-19; “Veluti in Speculum: the Twilight of the Castrato,” Cambridge Opera Journal 17/3 (2005), 271-301; “Dancing the Symphonic: Beethoven-Bochsa’s Symphonie pastorale,” 19th-Century Music 27/1 (2003), 25-47.