MUSICOLOGIST DANIEL PARTY was Tinker Visiting Professor at LLILAS during spring 2023. He is an associate professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where he holds joint appointments in the College and the School of the Arts. His research interests include popular music and culture of the Americas and Spain; gender and sexuality; artivism and social movements; diaspora and migration. His fields of expertise are musicology and ethnomusicology, and the ways in which these intersect with gender and sexuality studies, and contemporary social movements. Party’s scholarly work is interdisciplinary. He is the author of a wide array of articles on topics ranging from musical events and their relationship to democracy and political action, to questions of gender, cultural trends in popular music, and other subjects. During his semester at UT Austin, he taught a graduate seminar titled Activist Arts in Contemporary Latin America at the Butler School of Music.
In his current book project on the late Chilean singer, songwriter, and activist Víctor Jara, Party seeks to paint a complex, multi-dimensional portrait of the man he calls “the martyr of Chilean New Song.” Examining Jara’s early work in theater and folk music circles, Party reveals aspects of Jara unknown to the broader public. The man who has been immortalized as a revolutionary peasant in a poncho with a guitar had a bawdy sense of humor, extensive training and experience in avant-garde theater, and a queer sexuality that clashed with the gender ideology of the Chilean Communist Party and the Popular Unity coalition. Along with biographical and historical research, Party’s detailed and careful analysis of Jara’s songs illuminates a new understanding of Jara’s life and its paradoxes.
Susanna Sharpe, Editor
Please explain how you define musicology and the path that led you to this area of study.
I understand musicology as the scholarly study of music and music making. It’s a very broad definition that includes the study of musical pieces, composers, musicians, the music industry, and even the audiences that listen to music. I arrived to musicology after trying out a number of things. I started my college education as a physics major. Then I added a second major in classical guitar. In the latter stages of my college years, I realized that I wasn’t interested in being a physicist or a professional classical guitarist. It was then that I discovered musicology, and I realized that it would allow me to combine the things that I loved about physics and music. In physics I discovered a passion for developing and conducting research projects, and also for working in an academic context. In my BA in music, I was more interested in reading, thinking about, and listening to music than in playing it for an audience. Hence, in musicology I found a discipline in which I could do research and teach about music, a subject that truly fascinated me.
Contrary to what the name suggests, musicology deals with an array of topics that aren’t music. How has this discipline allowed you to combine the subjects you’re curious about? How would you describe its role in your scholarly work?
One of the things that I love about musicology is that while the focus is on music, the way we approach music and music making can vary considerably. When I look back at the wide range of research projects I have done, I see that they have been driven by a desire to learn new things; to use music to explore, understand, and explain social phenomena. For example, I’ve used music to explore how homophobia had an impact on the careers of queer Chilean musicians, what the uses of music can tell us about the social uprising that occurred in Chile in 2019, or what music production and consumption during the 1990s can tell us about Chilean society during a period known as the post-dictatorship. For each of these projects I’ve had to learn something new—about social psychology, the history of sexuality, political-science approaches to social movements, and sociological understandings of transitions to democracy.
Your current book project, “Beyond the Martyr,” deals with the life of Chilean songwriter and singer Víctor Jara, who was tortured and assassinated within days of the 1973 coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. What drew you to this particular project, and what is the significance for you of exploring, and revealing, the three-dimensional flesh-and-blood human being who is a powerful symbol for so many?
In my opinion, it is regrettable that Jara is best known internationally for how his life ended. There is no doubt that the unfathomable way in which he was treated needed to be known around the world; his fate served as the embodiment of the human rights abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship. The problem is that his death has eclipsed his life, or has lent his life an eerie teleology, as if he’d lived his life knowing he’d be killed. In the half-century since he was killed, it has been very difficult to think about him, to listen to his music, and to approach him in a scholarly way through a lens beyond his death.
When I think critically about his life and work, I realize that a lot has been pruned to make him fit into the role of a martyr. His life and artistic pursuits have been oversimplified. Jara was a creative force, one of those rare people who are always pushing artistic boundaries, provoking the art world as well as audiences. When you pay attention to these things, you realize that his artistic contributions are much broader than the political project in which he was immersed. In fact, his artistic pursuits often came into conflict with the political ideology of the Communist Party. For example, as a theater stage director he was interested in staging plays that challenged traditional gender norms, and in music he was inspired by countercultural rock and roll. The story of these tensions hasn’t been told.
Could you talk about your process of inquiry with Jara, and how you weave musicology in with biography, sexuality, history, politics, and more?
Víctor Jara wrote his songs over 50, 60 years ago. In order to make sense of them and their context, I need to immerse myself, among other things, in the history of the Cold War, in the specifics of Chilean society under Presidents Frei and Allende. Since Jara was an active member of the Communist Party, I have been looking at documents produced by the Party in the late 1960s and the 1970s to make sense of how he was aligned or not with his party’s ideology.
With regard to Jara’s music, my main contribution has to do with close listening of his songs. Most scholars who have written about his music have paid attention only to the lyrics. I consider the multiple aspects that constitute a song, such as the melody, the harmony, the arrangement, the effects used in the studio, and so forth. I am convinced that songs are not poems; hence, the meaning of a song cannot be derived only from the lyrics. For example, there are songs of his in which the lyrics seem to be asserting something, but the music turns the assertion into a tentative question, complicating the meaning of the song.
In biographical terms, it’s particularly tricky because his personal materials, if they exist, are not yet available to scholars or the general public. Fifty years after his death, we still have to rely on interviews he gave to newspapers and magazines. This is very limiting because, as artists often do, what he says in interviews has a clear intent of establishing a legacy, of constructing a particular image of himself.
The matter of his sexuality is perhaps the most difficult to study given the lack of available personal materials. I have interviewed many people from the theater and music worlds who knew him and most of them acknowledge that Jara’s queerness was an open secret. But very few have been willing to speak about it on the record. Still, I am convinced of the need to approach Jara as a queer subject because it will help us understand better some aspects of his biography, such as the artistic paths he took and the networks he collaborated with. I hope my work will contribute to the reparative effort of acknowledging the existence of queer leftists from the past so that, perhaps, in the future, Jara may be celebrated as a queer icon by younger generations.
What kinds of dialogues do you have with your students in the classroom? How did the conversations with, and questions posed by, your UT students compare with those that arise with your students in Chile?
Perhaps the most marked difference between teaching a graduate seminar at UT and at Universidad Católica, where I am based, is how international the grad student population at UT is. In Chile, most of my grad students are Chilean. This semester at UT I had the privilege of teaching a seminar with Brazilian, Mexican, Chilean, Salvadorean, and American (U.S.) students. This resulted in very enriching discussions in which a wide range of experiences and perspectives were included.
What are the questions in musicology that excite you the most? Any particular genres or musicians you hope to research in the future?
After I finish the Jara book, my next book will be a study of 1980s pop duets! For a few years now I have been fascinated by duets, by which I mean pop songs that feature two lead singers. I am particularly interested in duets in which the singers sing not simultaneously (in harmony), but in alternation. Songs in which two singers sing to each other.
Duets have never been the bread and butter of pop music, but they have been there since the early twentieth century. The reason I am focusing on the 1980s is that during that decade there was an exponential growth in the number of hit songs that were duets—this is evident if you compare the number of Billboard number 1 songs in the 1970s with the ones in the 1980s or the 1990s. So, I wish to explain why that happened in the 1980s. And in musicological terms, I am interested in explaining what makes a duet work, what makes them affecting and compelling. ✹