Naomi Waltham-Smith

Assistant Professor of Music
Affiliated Faculty, Comparative Literature
Music Building, Room 332

Naomi Waltham-Smith is a theorist of sound and listening. In her research and creative projects, she is interested in how music and sound are implicated in some of the most significant and urgent political issues in our world today. Her work sits at the intersection of continental philosophy, sound studies, and music theory, and her interests extend from late 18th- and early 19th-century music to contemporary urban sound ecologies, and from post-Kantian European thought to Kafka and casinos. 

Her first book, Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration (Oxford University Press, 2017) explores how the instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven is implicated in a politics of belonging, understood in the double sense of inclusion and possession. Putting this music in dialogue with the thought of Derrida, Nancy, Agamben, and Badiou, it examines how musical aesthetics can intervene in debates over the politics of community. Her work on musical aesthetics is also published in Music Theory Spectrum, Music Analysis, Journal of Music Theory, and The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory.  

Waltham-Smith is currently finishing a second monograph, The Sound of Biopolitics, under contract with Fordham University Press for the Commonalities series. Staging a confrontation between Derrida and Agamben, his speculative study traces how sound has been caught up in philosophy’s attempts to theorize the politics of sovereignty and shows how a focus on aurality sheds new light on the debates between deconstruction and theories of biopolitics. Other work on philosophies of listening is published in boundary 2, Current Musicology, Opera Quarterly, The Oxford Handbook of Western Music and Philosophy, and The Oxford Handbook of Timbre and Orchestration; an article on “Agamben’s Museicology” is forthcoming in The New Centennial Review

Her recent work, supported by the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, deploys a creative praxis of field recording and soundmapping to investigate urban sound ecologies and the conditions of aurality under neoliberalism and with the rise of right populisms. This work includes an analysis of psychotechnologies of listening on the Vegas Strip (forthcoming in Sound Studies), a study of the sound of precarity in the Parisian banlieues, a collaboration with photographer Alessandro Zanoni documenting the sights and sound of China’s urban villages, and investigations into practices of sound activism. She is also building a sound archive Listening under global Trumpsim that gathers together field recordings from cities around the globe and will be hosted by the Slought Foundation; some of her recent fieldwork in Paris is presented in a podcast for Sounding Out! Waltham-Smith has been awarded a fellowship at the Akademie Schloss Solitude to continue her work on urban soundscapes with a project entitled “Cart-otographies of Cities: Soundmapping Urban Political Economies.” 

Future plans include a project on “ec(h)otechnics” that explores the technological modulation of listening and posthuman modes of aural attunement to the environment. Waltham-Smith is writing an article on this topic for a special issue of diacritics on “The Turn.” 

 Co-chair of the Society for Music Theory Music and Philosophy Group and actively involved in the American Musicological Society’s sister group, Waltham-Smith is also a member of the American Comparative Literature Association and the German Studies Association. At Penn, she participates in the Mellon Humanities + Urbanism + Design Colloquium and the Faculty Working Group on Environmental Humanities. She is committed to nurturing the research interests of students and has received a number of grants in recognition of her dedication to undergraduate mentoring. She teaches courses on music theory, philosophies of music and listening, and transdisciplinary approaches to urban sound. Two of her courses have been co-taught with Francesca Ammon and Daniel Barber in PennDesign sponsored by the Mellon H+U+D Initiative and in fall 2018 she will be co-teaching with Ian Fleishman a seminar on “Aurality and Deconstruction,” crosslisted in Comparative Literature and German. 

Waltham-Smith holds a PhD from King’s College London (2009) where she also completed her Master’s. She graduated with a double First from Selwyn College, Cambridge in 2003 before taking up the DAAD Kurt Hahn Research Scholarship at the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität in Heidelberg. Before coming to Penn she taught at the

Selected recent publications

Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 

“The Time it Takes to Listen,” Music Theory Spectrum 38/2 (2017): 18–35. 

“The Sound of the Outside,” boundary 2 43/1 (2016), 75–105. 

“Rethinking Difference and Community in Parsifal,” Opera Quarterly 29/3–4 (2013): 355–360.

“Badiou contra Badiou,” Current Musicology 94 (2012): 143–164.

“Sequence,” in Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, ed. Alexander Rehding and Steven Rings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Review of Dominic Pettman, Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (or, How To Listen to the World), b2o, June 1, 2017.

“Untying Bodies” [review of Peter Szendy, Phantom Limbs: On Musical Bodies], Los Angeles Review of Books, September 9, 2016.

Other Affiliations: 

Program in Comparative Literature and Environmental Humanities Working Group