Lester Hu

Research Expertise and Interest

Europe, East Asia, Inner Asia, music, history of music theory

Research Description

Lester Hu is an assistant professor in the Department of Music.  His research focuses on the global history of music during the so-called early modern period—both on the time period itself, typically defined as late 1400s to early 1800s, and on its much-debated “early modern” label. Specifically, he studies popular songs, operas, tunings, and musical thoughts that flourished in Europe and East and Inner Asia and the trans-Eurasian networks of people, goods, and knowledge. Besides examining the interstices between songs/sounds and empire-building, colonialism, migration, and global integration, he also asks how music can help us understand exactly what (early) modernity meant in a global context, and how its sonic legacies continue to inform the ways we hear and conceptualize globality today.

His current book project, The Phonographic Revolution: Writing, Song, and the Advent of Global Modernity, captures a critical shift in the relationship between voice and writing in the early modern world. Focusing on Western Europe and China, he aims to demonstrate how the two ends of Eurasia moved concurrently towards a theory and praxis of writing qua fundamentally a form of phonography: i.e. the writing of the voice. To do so, he compares the French and Qing Empires not as independent entities but as co-constitutive cultural-colonial spheres deeply integrated with each other and with the rest of the world. By examining song and opera cultures in relation to musical ethnographies, book cultures, and paradigm shifts in philosophy and philology, he examines how voice and writing began to take on that phonographic relationship as the two empires effected and responded to sweeping global transformations. Some of the fascinating primary sources he's working on include singing manuals written in French, Italian, and Classical Chinese; Qing collections of songs from Taiwan and Uyghurstan; European attempts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs; discussions of pronunciations by Chinese philologists and opera aficionados; and a manuscript from the Qing court containing a treatise on Western music theory, experiment notes for a fourteen-tone temperament system, and an outline for reforming Chinese opera. In the end, he seeks to understand whether phonography defines a hitherto overlooked aspect of modernity, and whether this aspect can help us better narrate the history of (early) modernity in a way oblique to the teleologies of scientific or technological progress.

Besides his own research in early modern Europe and China, he is also interested in developing new methodologies for comparative and global music histories. On the theoretical side, he explores how existing models of “big history,” “deep history,” “global history,” “world history,” postcolonial studies, and more can (or cannot) overcome the ethnocentrism and cultural essentialism that persist in scholarly as well as non-scholarly understandings of music. On the practical side, he is interested in translating historical sources on music from different languages, cultures, and modalities of communications into English, so as to facilitate reforms to music history pedagogy towards a global and cross-cultural direction. Currently, he is accumulating my own translations of Chinese and Manchu sources (as well as related documents from other languages), hoping to publish them as a critical reader for the history of music in China. His interests in global history also serve to expand the scope of his own research, which is currently limited to Europe and China. Through studying more languages and engaging with scholars and students across disciplinary and cultural boundaries, he looks forward to expanding the narrative of his current book project beyond just the French and Qing Empires in my future monographs.

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