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Ryan Dohoney

Associate Professor of Musicology

PhD, Columbia University

Director of Graduate Music Studies. I am a scholar of U.S. and European modernism and experimentalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My research documents the relationships produced by musical performance and artistic collaboration within interdisciplinary artistic communities. I draw upon insights from ethnomusicology, microhistory, affect theory, religious studies, and phenomenology and combine these interdisciplinary methods with rigorous archival research.

My work has explored matters of music, collectivity, and friendship through the artistic world of Morton Feldman (1926–1987), a central figure of postwar musical modernism. My first monograph, Saving Abstraction: Morton Feldman, the de Menils, and the Rothko Chapel (Oxford, 2019), takes on the conflicted history of Morton Feldman’s most important collaboration—his work with Dominique and John de Menil on music for the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The book is a microhistorical analysis of the premiere of Morton Feldman’s music for the Rothko Chapel in Houston on April 9, 1972. In it, I reconstruct the network of artists, musicians, and patrons who collaborated on the event: composer Feldman, painter Mark Rothko, violist Karen Philips, and the patrons Dominique and John de Menil. These collaborators struggled over fundamental questions about the emotional efficacy of artistic practice and its potential translation into religious feeling. At the center of this study is the question of ecumenism—that is, in what terms can religious encounters be staged for fruitful dialog to take place? This was a dilemma for Feldman, whose music sought to produce sublime “abstract experience,” as well as the de Menils, who envisioned the Rothko Chapel as a space for ritual intervention into late modernity. I develop two central concepts in the book: abstract ecumenism and agonistic universalism. Abstract ecumenism characterizes a broad spiritual orientation within postwar musical modernism and experimentalism that aspired to altered states of ego-loss This offered a renewed religious sensibility achieved through artistic practice. Agonistic universalism describes the particular religious form that Feldman’s music achieves both within Rothko Chapel. It is an ascetic mode of existence that endures with hope the aporia of postwar modernization’s destructiveness and modernism’s failure to effectively counter it.

The research and writing on this book were supported by a number of awards from the Paul Sacher Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Philosophical Society, and a Faculty Research Grant from the Graduate School at Northwestern.

My second monograph, Morton Feldman: Friendship and Mourning in the New York Avant-Garde, is expected in 2021 from Bloomsbury and will consist of expanded versions of four previously published essays on Feldman’s relationships with John Cage, Merle Marsicano, Frank O’Hara, Earle Brown and Charlotte Moorman. It will feature a new chapter on Feldman’s troubled friendship with painter Philip Guston. I also contribute a wide-ranging methodological introduction on modernism and the historiography of friendship and mourning. Intimate bonds produced more than an “underlying network of awareness” that painter Robert Motherwell intuited as the glue holding together the New York avant-garde; friendship itself is the answer to his question of “what exactly constitutes the basis of our community?” To show this, I position Feldman as a relational center of a social word and advocate for scholarly attention to the affective and epistemological conditions of friendship. I show how poems, films, compositions, and recordings register the tensions and attachments of this community.

Beyond my writing on Feldman and his world, I have written on the life and music of Julius Eastman as well as essays in music and philosophy. I am currently involved in long-term ethnographic work on the experimental music community Wandelweiser.

I advise a wide range of PhD students and am particularly interested to work with researchers investigating musical modernism (broadly construed), experimental music, music philosophy, LGBTQ topics, critical race studies, and science/technology studies. I work closely with my students to develop both research and professional skills and am particularly keen to help them develop non-pathological writing habits. My advisees’ current research includes experimental music as interpretive labor, the re-mediation of U.S. musicals from film to radio, the affects and semiotics of Japanese popular music, the soundscapes of spiritualism and early media technology, and transatlantic networks of gay modernists and their intimate publics.

In addition to my work in Bienen’s music studies department, I work closely with the Institute for New Music and am affiliated faculty with the interdisciplinary clusters in Critical Theory, Global Avant-Garde and Modernist Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies.