Studying the context behind music

Have you ever stopped to wonder about what gives a song its character? The history, the culture, and story behind a piece of music can impact the way it’s written and, as a result, how it’s heard. Meet Theresa Abalos, a junior BHA in global studies and music performance, who is working to understand the traditions and culture behind songs.

Abalos has spent her three years at Carnegie Mellon at the intersection of arts and humanities, inspired to find the context behind music and how people use it to shape the world around them. "Sometimes, you can't articulate why the world is so complex, but you can engage with it by creating something that's breathtaking and moving, often in healing ways," said Abalos.

Her flute professor, Alberto Almarza, has encouraged Abalos in her endeavors to balance the musical and non-musical portions of her degree. Her minor in Hispanic Studies provides a linguistic context for her research, while the BXA program has helped her “become a more critical musician.” In Abalos’ words, “while music is transcendental, it’s also rooted in the specific places and histories from which it was created.”

Alongside Assistant Musicology Professor Alexa Woloshyn, Abalos has made the case that tradition and modernity can work together. Her research project, "Who are the 'folk' in música folclórica? Indigeneity and the Performance of Belonging in Argentina," delves into the vague title that is “folk music” in Argentina, which has been used to refer to a variety of types of music.

Abalos’ research builds on experience from her 2018 study abroad in Argentina, where she connected with world-renowned flutists and indigenous musicians who are shaping the modern soundscape of Argentina. These folk musicians have helped Abalos learn about their use of musical traditions in their performances.

“Their identity as indigenous does not mean they are frozen in the past; rather, they're engaging with and helping to build what we consider modern, leading to movements both ideologically and across rural and urban spaces,” said Abalos.

In addition to her research in Argentine, Abalos recently went on an interview with WQED’s Voice of the Arts podcast, where she spoke about a collaboration with public artist Molly Rice. The collaboration took the form of a performance project, Khūrākī, in which Abalos and other musicians worked with five Afghan women refugees to tell their stories.

Although you may have just missed Abalos’ junior recital on April 19th, she will be presenting her research at the 2019 Meeting of the Minds on May 8th. On May 6th, she will be performing at City of Asylum at Alphabet City in Pittsburgh as part of Khūrākī (which is now sold out.)