I study the way music is linked to philosophical, cultural, and spiritual practices. I am particularly interested in the disorienting impact of musical sound, an impact that is perennially difficult to describe. In Western musical aesthetics, the ineffability of music has traditionally been associated with autonomous, abstract, and non-semantic conceptions of music. My first book, Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable (University of Chicago Press, 2017) challenges these conservative associations by showing how music’s ineffability spurred an array of modern European philosophers (principally, Bloch, Adorno, Jankélévitch, and Deleuze) to address ethically engaged questions and problems that reside at the limits of conceptual reasoning.
I am now working on my second book, Strange Inscriptions: The Ineffable Avant-Garde, 1958–78. It argues that a philosophical approach to music’s ineffability is also deeply relevant to diverse locales of the post-war American avant-garde. Through the prism of six case histories—David Tudor, Ornette Coleman, the Velvet Underground, Alice Coltrane, Patti Smith, and Richard Hell—music’s ineffability reemerges not as a conceit based in music’s abstraction, but through mystical conceits that surround complex, collaborative musical practices that are both forceful and unstable in their exact meaning. Strange Inscriptions argues that these musicians—all of whom are understudied, and none of whom are traditionally taken to be composers—not only challenged the rules by which music is written and practiced, but also confounded and reconfigured gendered and racialized expectations for what critics took to be legitimate forms of musical sound.
As a musician, I work in a variety of genres that span a range of experimental music, rock, and electronic dance music. In Minneapolis, I currently play with the drone band, IE. From 2010–18, I performed, toured, and served as co-manager for Sierra Leonean singer Janka Nabay, and collaborated with him on two full length albums released by David Byrne's label Luaka Bop. The band's performances were featured at The Museum of Modern Art, The Getty Center, The Kennedy Center, The Arab American National Museum, The Chicago World Music Festival, Bonnaroo Music Festival, P.S. 1 Warm-Up, Prospect Park / Celebrate Brooklyn, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and at international festivals in Denmark (Roskilde), Netherlands (Lowlands), Portugal (Milhoes De Festa), Germany (By the Lake), Poland (OFF), Norway (Øya), Spain (Sinsal Audio), Italy (Pop Sagra Urbana), and the United Kingdom (Walthamstow Garden Party), among numerous other festivals and venues.