Fulkerson presents novel system in Granoff Colloquium series

The Granoff Music Center is pictured on May 7, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archives

Although only here for a short time while Tufts Musicology Professor Melinda Latour-O’Brien is on sabbatical, Dr. Jessica Fulkerson is making good use of her time at Tufts. After teaching Intro to Western Music last semester, Dr. Fulkerson currently teaches Sound and Structure II and a seminar on medieval harmony. Fulkerson is an expert in medieval music and hopes to bring more visibility to the field.

“I think that with most undergraduate educations there is a strong focus on the common practice era, and I think that’s great for a lot of reasons, but because we are limited by the number of hours, classes and years that students are here, some of the other stuff gets put on the back burner,”  Fulkerson said. 

Fulkerson earned Bachelor’s degrees in flute performance and music theory from Texas Christian University (TCU) and went on to receive a Master’s in music theory from TCU shortly after. She received a Ph.D. in Musicology-Analysis (Theory) from Brandeis University, where she went on to act as a teaching fellow and writing seminar instructor. 

Her dissertation topic, as well as the topic of her lecture on Feb. 10 which kicked off the semester’s Granoff Music Center Colloquium series, was on a revised system of notation for traditional diatonic set theory — a method of harmonic analysis — and its applications to medieval polyphony, or music with multiple distinct lines. The talk, wittingly named  “O V, Where Art Thou? A New Approach to Diatonic Set Theory,” surveyed her original system of intervallic analysis for polyphonic music and its application to several specific polyphonic works of the 13th century.

Fulkerson’s system puts a new spin on what is known as arithmetic modulo seven (mod seven) set theory through the incorporation of symbols that give analysts more information about a particular harmony. Fulkerson believes that traditional mod seven set theory is oversimplified, because the same set can be used to represent a variety of harmonies; her theory incorporates symbols to differentiate analogous but not identical patterns in music. 

Fulkerson then put her system to work through the analysis of two works of 13th century tripla by Pérotin, a French composer and teacher who was integral in the shift from plainchant (music with just one melodic line and no supporting harmony) to the polyphonic music that set a precedent for music of the post-medieval world. To aid in her presentation of the set theory analysis, Fulkerson used graphs to map occurrences of dissonance and consonance in Pérotin’s works. Fulkerson admitted that dissonance is difficult to quantify and represent graphically, so she created a system that assigned different levels of dissonance to different sets from her modified system, where certain sets are inherently more dissonant than others due to their intervallic content. 

One question that arose in the lecture from audience members was that of historical versus anachronic listening. According to Fulkerson, there is a debate among scholars of medieval music regarding the appropriate way to listen to and analyze early music; some scholars prefer to adhere to the treatises and what was the common practice at the time, while others prefer to listen to and analyze music with a modern ear. Although there are arguments for both sides, Fulkerson falls into the group supporting an anachronic analysis of music over a historical one — though this is not meant to say she abandons the historical approach to medieval harmonic analysis entirely. Through looking at treatises contemporary to the compositions of Pérotin that were central to her lecture and specifically a treatise produced by Johannes de Garlandia, a 13th-14th century French music theorist, Fulkerson was able to check her classifications of dissonance against a medieval listener’s ear. Garlandia classified intervals based on their relative levels of dissonance in a similar way to Fulkerson, and when each dissonance classification was implemented in the analysis, the results were nearly identical. While it is impossible to know what a medieval listener would find dissonant because “they are all dead” as stated by Fulkerson in her presentation, checking modern classifications of dissonance against treatises contemporary to the works of interest appeases those on the “historical listening” side of the debate. 

Fulkerson hopes that students are inspired and encouraged by her strides in music theory. 

“I am really excited for this opportunity for the colloquium,” Fulkerson said, “because I hope that students, especially undergrad students, can see what work is being done, not only in medieval sonority analysis, but also… that you can come up with your own stuff.”

Dr. Fulkerson will be presenting her new approach to diatonic set theory in several regional music theory conferences in the coming months. The Granoff Music Center Colloquium series will continue on March 9 with a lecture by Evergreen State College Professor of Music Sean Williams entitled “Irishness, Celtic Culture and Magical Whiteness in the 21st Century.”