Research Interests

In the past, my research interests have included formal linguistics (the architecture of syntax, labeling, phases, etc.) and the history of languages (especially the “future cycle” in Chinese). My current interests are in the rhetoric and cultural analysis of music using linguistics as a springboard. The following are two projects I’m working on:

  • “Idioglossia in the Work of Lisa Gerrard” (article)

Lisa Gerrard (solo artist and one half of the duo Dead Can Dance) is well-known for her idiosyncratic singing style, whereby she uses a “private language” akin to idioglossia, scatting, or even glossolalia in order to create an otherworldly or ethereal mood to her work. Although her private language does not seem to be wholly and formally constructed, it does seem to obey supersegmental and syntactic constraints of English, her native language. Thus, unlike constructed languages like Klingon, which is purposely intended to create an alien feeling, Gerrard’s private language is both familiar and foreign, making accessible the world-ness of the “world music” genre her work is sometimes categorized as.

  • Towards the Gods: From Burlesque to Epic in Extreme Music (book)

In this book, I analyze a phenomenon utilized by many European extreme music artists (and to a lesser extent, genres as a whole). Many artists, particularly in the genres of heavy metal and industrial music, begin their careers by making liberal use of extreme sounds and imagery, particularly those associated with the occult, Anton LaVey, Aleister Crowley, etc. Inevitably, or so it seems, later work matures and becomes associated with religious themes, either pagan or Christian.

For example, Swedish black metal artist Bathory used “evil” themes on his first album, including cover art based on a drawing by Joseph A. Smith (itself in the vein of occultist Eliphas Levi).  After releasing music of this style for three albums, he later switched themes to paganism and Norse mythology, and is largely credited with having invented a new genre: Viking metal. Similarly, English industrial/folk group Current 93 experimented in the early eighties with a number of dark albums utilizing frighting  sounds and cover art. Later, Current 93’s founder converted to Catholicism, and album themes changed accordingly. In both cases, and in many others, the changes of heart appear to be genuine, and not simply aesthetic choices or marketing gimmicks.

I argue that this kind of change is fully in accordance with what I call a “spectrum” view of Kenneth Burke’s frames (first outlined in Attitudes Towards History). If each of the acceptance frames (Epic, Tragic, and Comic) are thought of as having the rejection frames as their individual counterparts (Epic corresponds to Elegy, Tragic to Satire, and Comic to Burlesque), and each grouping is itself a spectrum, than an artist producing work can “shift” to another frame so long as he or she obeys the constraints on movement.

In other words, in the current example, artists shift ultimately from Burlesque to Epic via the route of Satire and Elegy. No frame can be skipped, and the process cannot be done “diagonally” (e.g., Burlesque cannot skip to Tragic unless it goes through Satire first). Two other interesting observations come from this: first, the direction as described only seems to move one way (at least, it only does so to the satisfaction of audiences — moving the other way would be very challenging and avant-garde to an audience). This is probably to establish one’s ethos as an outsider before cementing it as a traditionalist. Secondly, this “L” movement is exactly the movement Donald Trump made during his 2016 presidential campaign, and probably for the exact reasons as just described.