Interview with William Cheng, winner of the 2016 AMS Philip Brett Award

by Sam Killian on November 11, 2016

9780472073252We at University of Michigan Press are pleased to share that William Cheng’s new book, Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good, received this year’s Philip Brett Award from the American Musicological Society. Philip Brett (1937–2002) was a beloved professor and a pioneer of queer music scholarship.

The book, an urgent treatise on the ethical stakes of contemporary musical scholarship and citizenship, was celebrated during the AMS annual meeting. During this meeting (which happened to take place this year in Cheng’s hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia), the Society praised Just Vibrations, calling it “a nuanced and intersectional work that meets concerns from queer, feminist, race, and disability studies to challenge us to examine the myriad ways we inhabit space as academics. As a committee member wrote of this work: ‘It is one of those books that—like Feminine Endings, Queering the Pitch, or Shadows in the Field—I expect to be assigning to graduate students for many years to come as an example of a significant moment in the history of music scholarship.’”

Colleagues of Cheng at Dartmouth College also gave accolades to Just Vibrations.

“Cheng’s book is a powerful, compelling combination of intellectual rigor and moral compass,” said Dartmouth Provost Carolyn Dever. “His work is a tremendously significant intervention in humanistic thought, deployed toward a vision of hope and mutual caring.”

Theodore Levin, professor of music at Dartmouth, added: “Will Cheng’s Just Vibrations is a fascinating, courageous, and visionary book whose gentle prose belies the radical wake-up call it sounds to people of conscience everywhere—in particular, to denizens of the academy, whatever their scholarly discipline.”

And the Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen, professor at Harvard University, lauded the book with this jacket blurb: “The reflections [of Just Vibrations] are far-reaching and a source of much illumination about the function and value of work, hope, determination, realism, and interpersonal care.”

Cheng, 31, is the youngest and the first two-time recipient of the Brett Award, which honors outstanding LGBTQ research. He majored in Music and English at Stanford University, pursued his graduate degree in Musicology at Harvard University, and undertook a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Dartmouth College. He is also author of a book titled Sound Play: Video Games and the Musical Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Cheng recently sat down with Lesley Bannatyne for an interview in the Harvard Music Department Newsletter, which we’ve graciously been allowed to print and preview ahead of schedule. (Note: this interview took place on 7 November 2016, prior to the results of the U.S. presidential election).



Lesley Bannatyne: You urge academics—those entrusted with students learning new ways of thinking—to help students broaden the skill of listening to apply to more than music. How are those specific musical listening skills different from those, say, necessary for therapy or mediation?

William Cheng: Remember when your parents or teachers would tell you, “I can’t hear you if you’re yelling?” (And you’d pause, if only to ponder, “Wait…does that make sense?”) I’ve been invested in learning about how people listen to and through noise, musical and otherwise: experimental sonic arts, “shrill” Hillary Clinton, the clamor of Black Lives Matter protesters, the rhetoric of Trump supporters, the broken speech of chronic pain patients, and other kinds of expressive forces that push the sonic envelopes of so-called respectability and legibility at first blush. Along with our students, we must confront our own prejudices and habits in terms of our beliefs in what is or isn’t noise. This doesn’t mean that our ears need to make clean sense of every signal. It just means that, whether we’re dealing with songs or human beings, our listening practices represent a relational commitment that says, “I hear you—or at least, I have the choice to try.”

LB: Ethical stakes: what is at risk if musicology does not take compassion seriously? What’s happening now that is different from all the past decades of music scholarship?

WC: We can love both music and people. It’s not either-or. This has always been true. I don’t think we should love music at the expense of showing love for other people. Yet as I point out a few times in the book, there are cases where scholars’ priorities are (or appear) jumbled in this regard. My view is that music should be treated as neither a necessary nor sufficient entity for being human and humane. Too often, however, we witness dehumanizing and ableist rhetoric piled upon peers who do not showcase narrow conventions of musical taste, proclivity, or capability. This is the thrust of my forthcoming book, All the Beautiful Musicians (Oxford University Press).

LB: Have you seen evidence of this kind of compassionate thinking in other fields? I’m thinking specifically of a relatively new effort in some hospitals to offer palliative counseling for cancer patients—something that didn’t fit in the mindset of traditional doctors, who are trained to heal and fix.

WC: I hear compassion across all fields. I suppose the larger concern is whether people working within these fields feel comfortable articulating and debating issues of compassion. Compassion isn’t easy to talk about because it’s shadowed by the implicit presence of suffering. And your example of palliative care is powerful, because compassion isn’t a cure-all, and discourses of “fixing” bear stigmas of disability, debility, and anomaly.

LB: I see musicologists argue against discrimination towards women, gay people, black artists. I’m sure musicology isn’t the only field to open up criticism against discrimination in scholarship, but is it especially poised to lead the academy in this direction of compassion and caring?

WC: I would like to think so. But I’m not sure. As a field, musicology has been my disciplinary harbor. I just returned from my tenth AMS [American Musicological Society annual meeting], held in my home town of Vancouver. Some of my best friends and favorite authors are musicologists. So musicology is special to me. But musicology is not exceptional. Like all fields, like all families, musicology has its baggage and biases, its recurring demons and better angels. If we wish to treat music and musicology as if they were exceptional, then let’s at least mobilize this sense of entitlement to achieve some greater palpable good. But let’s not assume musicology’s exceptional simply (and tautologically) because it’s our profession. Right now, I’m beginning to work on a sequel of sorts [to Just Vibrations] called Touching Pitch, a deeper dive into the quandaries and imperatives of empathy in music and humanitarianism.

LB: You write, “My proposal, simply put, is this: what if the primary purpose of sounding good isn’t to do well, but to do good?” What is the first step?

WC: The next time you hear someone say something that you think is nonsense or uninformed or inarticulate, listen again, if you’re so inclined. It’s what we’d do with a piece of music or with a poem. Our peers in society deserve no less.


Another interview with William Cheng appeared earlier this year in Junction Magazine. You can follow Cheng at @willxcheng and visit his website at


Previous post:

Next post: