James Quail leaning over a park sign that reads "QUAIL"

Research Expertise and Interest

nineteenth-century music, political ecology, performance studies, pianism, vocal knowledge, medical anthropology, historical materialism

Research Description

What is it that we are making when we are making music? This question drives the research of James Q. Davies, Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, and series editor of the University of Chicago Press book series New Material Histories of Music. He comes from Johannesburg (Witwatersrand) and Cambridge (Caius). He is a music historian.

The 2023 book, Creatures of the Air: Music, Atlantic Spirits, Breath, 1817-1913 (University of Chicago Press) is a history of the separation of music from air. It explains how, under the force of Euro-US fossil-fuel industrialism and colonial expansion, the air became a problem for music, and how music, as concept and product, was separated out. Thus two heavily racialized modern domains: the air as toxic medium and music qua music.

The concern for elemental media/environmentality emerged out of Romantic Anatomies of Performance (University of California, 2014), a history of pedagogical practice and performance. That monograph built an archive of vocal tutors, piano treatises, critical reviews, and medical texts to describe a historical phase wherein, in the words of one reviewer, “new norms about music’s relation to the body emerged and began to organize new relations of social power.”  

He has published and taught on other topics too. His next book will address ideas about African music.

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