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2018 Abstracts

The Community Ecology of the Music Canon

Hannah Waddel, University of Utah

Symphony orchestras today have access to a musical canon stretching back at least four hundred years and play a critical role in its establishment. Most works by new composers, if performed at all, never get performance time and enter the canon, while a few become mainstays of orchestral repertoire alongside Mozart, Beethoven, or Wagner. Full symphony orchestras are expensive to operate and have limited performance time, which only allows a finite number of songs and composers to be considered canonical. Community ecology describes the structure and interactions of species that are competing for limited resources. The structure of the musical canon and its dissemination may lend itself to analysis using ecological methods and models. We currently have performance data for nine symphony orchestras from Utah to Zurich, stretching as far back as 1842. Treating composers or songs as species, we will use quantitative ecological methods to characterize the ways that music interacts in the canon, and we will particularly focus on the ways that composers and pieces enter and remain in the canon. The canon already appears to follow some common species composition patterns, where a small number of species constitute the bulk of the biomass in an ecosystem and most species are rare. In our data, over the performances of 207,000 pieces by 296 composers, 91 composers had less than 120 performances of their work while Mozart alone accounted for nearly 12,000 performances. This result lends us confidence that some ecological methods may be used to describe the canon. Other ecological tests we apply may give further insights into the nature of the canon in different locations. Species diversity measures called alpha, beta, and gamma diversity include a spatial element, and will allow us to draw conclusions about the difference in performance content between symphonies in different cities or countries. Our project will provide a cross-disciplinary analysis of the western canon of music using mathematical and ecological methods. The efficacy of ecological models in describing the behavior of the canon will lend insights into what processes occur in the field of music composition that cause a composer to either fade into obscurity or become enshrined through centuries of performance.