The First Ukulele International Conference (UIC 2021) – Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Performance, Composition, and Organology is hosted by the Department of Cultural Heritage and Environment of the University of Milan (Italy) and co-directed by Giovanni Albini and Giovanni Cestino. Its aim is to delve into the diverse cultural identities and resources of the ukulele from both academic and artistic perspectives. It will be held virtually on Zoom (speakers only) and streamed live on YouTube on December 3 (first day direct link) and 4 (second day direct link), 2021. Participants will be able to comment and ask questions on YouTube. A volume of the conference papers will be published in 2022.
December, 3 2021
Jonathan De Souza (University of Western Ontario) keynote speaker
What Can You Do with an Ukulele? Instruments and Musical Affordances
Friday, December 3, 2021 – 17:00 (UTC+1, CET)
The term ‘affordance’ was coined by the ecological psychologist James J. Gibson. It describes something that an animal can do with an object. For example, an apple might afford eating, throwing, juggling, and so on. Gibson’s theory of affordances has influenced many fields, including cognitive science, human-computer interaction, design studies, architectural theory, and musicology. This presentation will use the ukulele to reflect on the affordances of music and musical instruments. Music in general seems to have affordances (e.g., for dancing, worship, or social bonding), and musical objects like chords can afford music-specific actions (e.g., diminished-seventh chords afford enharmonic reinterpretation). Of course, musical instruments are more tangible. Instruments convert action into sound, and their affordances are shaped by both physics and culture. Research in music theory, psychology, and neuroscience suggests that players have distinctive responses to their instruments’ affordances and that these affordances facilitate a kind of multisensory, auditory-motor experience. Much of this research discusses the guitar, approaching the fretboard as a kind of interface for musical action. But while the ukulele shares certain features with other stringed and fretted instruments, there are also important differences here. With that in mind, the presentation will closely examine the ukulele, considering the instrument’s structure, tuning, and dynamic range, and also selected performances and comments from performers. Ultimately, the ukulele has its own set of instrumental affordances, and these relate to its social and sonic possibilities.
* Jonathan De Souza is an Associate Professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music and an Associate Member of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of Music at Hand: Instruments, Bodies, and Cognition (Oxford University Press, 2017), which received the 2020 Emerging Scholar Book Award from the Society for Music Theory.
Fabrizio Nastari (Eesti Muusika-ja Teatri Akadeemia, Tallinn)
Inside the Ukulele: Approaches and Solutions in Classical Contemporary Compositions
Friday, December 3, 2021 – 18:00 (UTC+1, CET)
A little more than a century after its appearance, the ukulele has continuously attracted interest, but only in more recent times it called attention also in the contemporary classical composition world. This research is an attempt to start an insight about the relation between the ukulele and the creativity of a composer in such a context. Thus, I will explore different approaches in writing new music for the ukulele solo, by focusing mostly on compositions from the last decade. In fact, the peculiar challenges and suggestions of the ukulele bring composers to a variety of writing solutions showing the versatility and richness of the instrument. Moreover, the analysis and reflections undertaken offers the opportunity to discuss the creativity and possible influences that the practice of writing for the ukulele can have on a bigger scale.
Starting from my own experience as a composer, I will take into consideration at least three main aspects and the questions that come along: 1) How does the composer’s approach differ when writing for the ukulele than when working with instruments more conventionally embedded in classic tradition? 2) How aspects like the instrument’s size, the variety of models, the cost, the easiness to be tried out by the composer for finding solutions, impact the performer-composer relation? 3) How do the images and extra-music references that the ukulele can recall may influence the composer’s style and outputs?
* Fabrizio Nastari is a composer whose aesthetic is primarily based on the use of ironical devices. He is active both as a researcher as well as a composer pursuing a PhD in Artistic Research at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre in Tallinn investigating more in general the use of rhetorical devices in the composition practice. He is presenting his research in international conferences and in artistic research journals. He composes music for solo, ensembles, orchestra, choir and art installation for international ensembles and festivals. He is production assistant of the highSCORE Festival since 2019.
Samantha Muir (University of Surrey, Guildford)
The Search for Classical Ukulele
Friday, December 3, 2021 – 18:40 (UTC+1, CET)
A recent surge of interest in classical ukulele has led to a new vanguard of classical ukulele exponents (including composers, arrangers, performers and teachers) who are seeking to develop a contemporary, challenging and cultivated repertoire for the ukulele. This in turn is generating more interest from the mainstream media and on social media networks. Arrangements of works by composers such as Bach, Carulli and Sor are becoming more commonplace on the ukulele and the current push is to create new and original repertoire that extends the boundaries of the instrument while helping to establish it as a concert and academic instrument. To date little, if anything, has been written about the evolution of classical ukulele and there remains a level of obscurity and uncertainty about what it might constitute. This paper will, therefore, seek to define and clarify the aims and objectives of classical ukulele exponents from classical ukulele pioneer John King to the present day. In so doing I will address the following questions: What are the defining characteristics of classical ukulele and how do these characteristics differ from traditional approaches to playing the ukulele? How can other historically related instruments such as the machete de braga from Madeira, the Renaissance guitar and the Baroque guitar offer an inspirational framework for new technical and musical approaches to the ukulele? By exploring these questions I aim to provide a comprehensive foundation that will facilitate a fuller understanding and appreciation of the classical ukulele movement to date. A foundation which I hope others will build upon.
* Samantha Muir studied classical guitar at the Royal College of Music in London and on graduating was awarded the Madeline Walton guitar prize. Since 2012 she has dedicated herself to promoting and furthering classical ukulele and is currently doing a PhD at the University of Surrey focusing on creating new works for classical ukulele. Her arrangements and compositions are published by Les Productions d’Oz and Schott. Recently her work was featured in Ukulele Magazine and on the BBC radio programme The Forum. Samantha’s research interests include the history of the ukulele and she is a member of the Consortium for Guitar Research at Sidney Sussex College, the University of Cambridge.
Giovanni Albini (Conservatorio “A. Vivaldi”, Alessandria)
A Musical Pocket Knife: the Ukulele’s Unique Arranging Features
Friday, December 3, 2021 – 19:20 (UTC+1, CET)
Ernest Kaʻai wrote back in 1906 that “some would call the Ukulele an insignificant instrument, and yet we have all there is necessary to make and cover an accompaniment for the most difficult opera written, the harmony is all there, if one would give it a complete and thorough study.” More than a century after Kaʻai’s cited method – The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It – the ukulele has undoubtedly shown that it can not only cover an accompaniment, but rather allow the adaptation of a vast and diverse set of works of music, offering a wide and ever growing repertoire of arrangements and even of faithful transcriptions. In this context, the aim of this paper is to explain how and why an instrument of such apparent limited resources can be so effective in arranging and transcribing.
* Giovanni Albini, composer, ukulelist and music theorist, is a tenured professor and head of research at the Conservatory of Alessandria. He has researched the use of quantitative methods in music and composition, developing a personal and unique mathematically informed aesthetics. The recordings of his music are published by Brilliant Classics. Moreover, he commissions and performs new contemporary classical music written for the ukulele and arrange classical and renowned contemporary and twentieth century scores for it, fostering the development of a new challenging and cultivated ukulele repertoire and aiming to deepen and evolve the idiomatic unique features of the instrument.
December, 4 2021
Jim Tranquada (Occidental College, Los Angeles) keynote speaker
The ‘Invention’ of the ‘Ukulele
Saturday, December 4, 2021 – 17:00 (UTC+1, CET)
Since December 1909, when Manuel Nunes of Honolulu first claimed that he was the inventor of the ‘ukulele, credit for the invention/introduction of this iconic Hawaiian instrument has been widely contested. Most origin stories didn’t emerge until after 1915, spurred by the explosive popularity of the ‘ukulele on the U.S. mainland—stories that credited everyone from shipwrecked 18th century Portuguese sailors and unnamed Germans to an anonymous Yale undergraduate. Hawaiian naming practices prior to 1888, when the name ‘ukulele first appeared in print, and speculation over tuning changes have fueled the confusion. However, all of the contemporary evidence that has come to light, including surviving instruments made prior to 1900 by Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, provide little support for the idea that the ‘ukulele was “invented” in Honolulu. Wide acceptance of the invention story reflects the need of manufacturers and retailers to overcome the awkward fact that the instrument so closely associated with Hawai’i wasn’t really Hawaiian. Other factors at play included a profound ignorance of Hawaiian history and culture, as well as American racism, on display in 1922 when the death of Nunes prompted mainland press coverage proclaiming that the ‘ukulele was invented by a white man. Ultimately, it may be more helpful to regard the ‘ukulele as Ernest Kaai did in 1906—as a creation, not an invention, the product of what Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz called the process of transculturation.
* Jim Tranquada is the co-author, with the late John King, of The ‘Ukulele: A History (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012). An independent scholar with a history degree from Stanford University, Jim’s research has been published in the Hawaiian Journal of History and the Galpin Society Journal. He is currently director of communications and community relations at Occidental College in Los Angeles. His great-great grandfather, Augusto Dias, was one of the first ‘ukulele makers in Hawai’i.
Davide Donelli (Associazione Musicale “C. Monteverdi”, Cologno Monzese)
The Ukulele in Italy. Paths of a Recent (Hi)Story
Saturday, December 4, 2021 – 18:00 (UTC+1, CET)
The spreading popularity of the ukulele is a global phenomenon. A deep rooted historical tradition, however, and an awareness of the instrument’s history exists only in a few countries, specifically Hawaii, the USA and the UK. In this sense, Italy is no exception, and the ukulele’s recent spread over the last twenty years has been characterized by both a considerable heterogeneity and vitality. Local and national festivals gather singers, songwriters and musicians of every level, attracting ukulele enthusiasts and curious onlookers. As a result, websites and social communities began to appear, together with educational publications and ukulele makers.
In this paper I intend to provide a critical overview of the popularization of the ukulele in Italy, in order to begin outlining its unique local characteristics. Focusing on some specific case studies that move away from the ukulele’s ‘standardised image’, I will discuss the relationship with Italian folk and popular music, the possibility of identifying distinctive performative approaches, and the legitimacy of an ‘Italian identity’ of the instrument.
* Davide Donelli holds a degree in Musical Education from the Conservatory of Brescia, and a degree in Classical Guitar from the Conservatory of Milan. An expert in the guitar family instruments, he runs the most important Italian blog on the ukulele (www.intornoallukulele.it), and holds the only Italian radio show on the instrument (Intorno all’ukulele on www.deejayfoxradio.com). He recently published the first Italian book about the main characters in the history of ukulele (Saltellando qua e là. Intorno all’ukulele, 2019), along with articles and essays on music education. He is currently a music educator at the Leopardi Institute in Milan, and he directs the Music School of the Association “C. Monteverdi” (Cologno Monzese).
Mimmo Peruffo (Aquila Corde Armoniche, Caldogno)
A History “Over the Top”. Historical Development and Sonic Evolution of Ukulele Strings
Saturday, December 4, 2021 – 18:40 (UTC+1, CET)
The history of ukulele strings has undergone significant changes due to the introduction of new construction materials. Before 1950, only gut strings were produced, until nylon emerged as an alternative material for ease of processing and greater reliability. The situation remained unchanged until the introduction of Nylgut in 2002, causing nylon to almost completely disappear from industrial ukulele string production. Beside this new material, fluorocarbon strings also began to spread in the same years, yet not in Chinese mass production companies. The most recent step occurred between 2013 and 2020, with a significant increase in the research of new technologies and materials, like bioplastics, which allow the string density to be increased. The result was a remarkable variety of product types – accompanied by a curious “gut strings revival” – that offers an unprecedented diversity of sonorities.
In this paper I will present an historical overview of how ukulele strings have developed over time, touching on some major technological and aesthetic issues. Drawing on a first-hand experience of string making, I will also discuss how the history of ukulele strings fits into the broader context of string production for plucked instruments.
* Mimmo Peruffo was born in Arborea (Sardinia). Since 1983 he devotes himself to the study and recreation of gut strings in use in the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. In 1997 he discovered and marketed Nylgut, a ‘synthetic gut’ that could replace nylon on historical plucked instruments and on classical ones. His research works have appeared in many volumes and journals, among them: Recercare, F.O.M.R.H.I quarterly, The Italian Lute Society Bulletin, Orfeo, The Lute Society of America Bulletin, Quattrocentoquindici, Il Fronimo, Gendai Guitar, Das Musikinstrument. He has given papers in several conservatories and universities, including Vienna, Dresden, Milan, Venice, London, Brussells, Florence, Brescia, The Hague, and Gijon.
A final roundtable moderated by Giovanni Cestino, with Giovanni Albini, Jonathan De Souza, Davide Donelli, Samantha Muir, Fabrizio Nastari, Mimmo Peruffo, and Jim Tranquada.
Saturday, December 4, 2021 – 19:20 (UTC+1, CET)
* Giovanni Cestino received a MA from the University of Pavia (2014) and a PhD from the University of Milan (2019). Between 2018 and 2019 he has been visiting fellow at Harvard Music Department. In 2020 he received a research scholarship from the Paul Sacher Stiftung (Basel). He collaborates with the Centro Studi Luciano Berio (Florence), and with the LEAV – Ethnomusicology and Visual Anthropology Lab (University of Milan). He is also active as a musician. He holds a degree in Classical Guitar from Conservatory of Alessandria (2010), and also took courses in Composition, Conducting, and Renaissance Lute. Since 2014 he conducts the Coro Facoltà di Musicologia (Cremona). He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Milan (Department of Cultural Heritage and Environment).
Cover image: Soprano ukulele “Anna” by Peppe Treccia.