East Asian Studies & Music
I am an interdisciplinary musicologist, writer, educator, and critic with a joint appointment as a Postdoctoral Scholar and Teaching Fellow in the Department of History and the East Asian and Music Libraries at the University of Southern California. I use music, together with the study of history, arts, and culture to illustrate the many ways in which East Asian identity has been constructed, both from within East Asia and from the Western perspective. I contend that it is only through the interdisciplinary study of music, n.b., in all of its modal manifestations, that we can get closer to understanding Japan as an art producing culture and, subsequently, the art East Asia has already and continues to produce(d).
My academic research interests have always revolved around non-western cultures, with a specific emphasis on exploring what music and language can teach us about them.
My upcoming book from Palgrave, titled Defining Waka Musically: Songs of Male Love in Premodern Japan, examines how the literary genre of waka, the oldest and most continuous form of Japanese verse, fits into the context of premodern music and performance, as well as the auditory dimension of human perception. Through a modified generative theory of music and a phenomenological analysis of calligraphy, I demonstrate how premodern Japanese song poets may not only have thought in and with sound, but may have also utilized a diverse range of musical gestures to show us something of how they felt. These gestures seem to have aided in the construction of a changing musicopoetics, which, in turn, seem to have aligned with changing constructions of male desire.
To be sure, I am excited to contribute to the history of waka by highlighting the importance of musical thought, and expanding our understanding of musical practices in premodern Asia. The forthcoming publication has been positively received, with one writer stating:
"breaks new, interdisciplinary ground by making a case for pulling down the boundaries between music and literature and showing that the tools of musical analysis commonly used by musicologists can be applied to the study of waka, and produce constructive results."
And another stating...
"Ethnomusicologist Christopher Hepburn conducts an unprecedented aural-musical analysis of waka to reveal the changing manners and mores of male love from antiquity to the premodern era of Japan. A pathbreaking exploration of the musicopoetics of classical Japanese sound art, Defining Waka Musically not only underscores the profound historicity of gender and sexuality, but moreover makes a powerful case for expanding our understanding of premodern Japan through a rigorous new blend of musical, historical, literary, and sociolinguistic approaches."
Defining Waka Musically will be available in the latter part of 2023.
My second book, Love-Death: Musicopoetic Thought in Premodern Japanese Songs about Male Love, is set to be developed within the next two years. This book follows the story of Ukyō Itami and Uneme Mokawa, two teenage male samurai from the Edo period, featured in Saikaku's Nanshoku ōkagami, and explores the theme of love and death in premodern Japan. The book aims to shed light on an overlooked aspect of premodern Japanese literature and culture, particularly as it relates to male love and song. By examining six instances of male love-death (shinjū) in song poems, using methods from music semiotics, phenomenology, and applied linguistics, I aim to understand how the theme of love-death, which is often driven by lost love, might be reflected in the music and the text, and how we can go about getting a better sense of those feelings for ourselves.
As an educator, I am a strong advocate for the inclusion of non-western history, culture, and the arts in curricula at all levels. This interdisciplinary and culturally diverse approach encompasses various fields such as music, music theory, literature, language, iconography, material culture, popular culture studies, and gender-race theory, among others, within a historical, social, and cultural context. By conveying the idea that the arts have permeated virtually every aspect of sociocultural history to undergraduate and graduate students, they can establish meaningful connections between the art they experience and essential facets of their lives.
In my teaching and research, I am committed to fostering these lasting connections, whether I am instructing core courses or designing new interdisciplinary ones such as "Musical Histories of East Asia," "Exploring Gender, Sexuality, and Identity in Premodern East Asia," "Queerying Japan," which merges the terms "queer" and "query," or "After Materiality: Premodern Japanese Song Poems in a Performative Perspective," and "Popular Music across Asia." I believe that this approach is vital for promoting diversity and inclusion in the classroom and maintaining a commitment to it.
One of my objectives as an educator is to impart the immediacy of history to my students and foster their active engagement with historical material culture. I am dedicated to integrating primary sources and hands-on experiential learning into my teaching methodology. The significance of material culture studies lies in the irreplaceable value of historical objects in understanding history. Although images and sound can be presented through various mediums, nothing compares to the tactile experience of holding a period storybook, book of poems, or playing a period instrument.