KLI fellow Alejandro Villanueva Hernández has an incredible range of projects and talents. We interviewed him to understand how he combines music- both through research and performances- with philosophy of the biological and cognitive sciences.
The origin story: music, philosophy, biology, and cognitive sciences
Tell me a bit about your academic background.
I graduated from the National University of Mexico, UNAM with a PhD in philosophy of science. At the KLI as a postdoc, I work on the philosophy of the cognitive sciences of music—if there is such a thing!—with a focus on understanding how the development of cognitive capacities mediate the maintenance and change of musical traditions. Prior to my PhD, I did a MA in Ethnomusicology at the same university. As part of my master studies, I conducted fieldwork in the Municipality of Huehuetla, an indigenous community from Northern Puebla, Mexico. My master’s thesis analyzed how the musical repertoires played by the members of this community diversified between the last three decades of the past century and how that change interplayed with the social and political context of that region. The fieldwork provided me with the empirical data and very useful insights to develop, in my PhD studies, a conceptual model on the origins of the cognitive capacities of music from a niche construction perspective.
Alejandro at the KLI
Philosophy of science, music, and cognition, that’s an interesting connection! How did you get involved in these specific fields?
In fact, I began playing music before I started my high school. So, when I did my BA in philosophy I was already interested in music. Philosophy of science attracted my attention but at the time music and philosophy of science seemed like different fields. How could they overlap or connect? The connection started through my approach to cognitive sciences. During my master studies in ethnomusicology, I attended seminars on music cognition. At the time, the cognitive approach to music was mostly focused on Western classical music. Yet I realized that in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the interrelation between music and human cognition, it was necessary to think beyond the Western context to explore how music works in different domains of human social life across different cultures.
Some years later, I made the first theoretical connection between music, cognition, and philosophy of science after studying philosophy of biology and cognitive sciences (from an embodied and enactive approach), through my PhD advisor Sergio Martínez. The work of Francisco Vergara in evolutionary biology, and of Jose Luis Diaz in neurosciences, were also very useful to develop an interdisciplinary perspective on the topic. During my PhD, I got fellowships to visit the Center for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge and the KLI. At Cambridge, with Ian Cross, I worked on the connection between music evolution, music cognition, and cognitive ethnomusicology.
The other theoretical link was made through the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and especially Niche Construction Theory and Evo-Devo. These helped me adopt a particular theoretical approach to the cognitive capacities of music, one that can generate explanations that are more realistic and multifactorial. At the KLI, I applied a niche construction approach to my research. Gerd Müller’s academic support was very helpful in that matter. So, at the end, my PhD dissertation combined a niche construction theoretical perspective with a cognitive and ethnomusicological perspective to music. Together, I offered a theoretical approach to how human cognitive capacities might have evolved and enabled the origins of what we call music.
An evo-devo approach to the transmission of musical traditions
Let’s dig into your current work at the KLI as a postdoc researcher. How are you furthering your work now?
The goal of my postdoc is to apply an evo-devo perspective to cultural evolution, with a focus on the transmission and change of musical traditions and the cognitive capacities behind it.
First, it is important to recognize that a musical tradition is not constituted only by sounds. If we just focus on the sound itself, we miss the whole story! Musical traditions involve rituals, festivities, but also the physical materials and structures of instruments, the social contexts in which the music is performed. Musical repertoires are attached to the social settings that allow people to perceive and understand music, and also provide the ways from which people acquire and transmit a specific musical tradition. I look at how the cognitive abilities of the people contribute to the maintenance and change of these repertoires within musical traditions. How are they changing? How are they stable? How are they maintained in a more comprehensive picture?
In short, I study how cognitive capacities for music developed, and how musical traditions are transmitted. It is a deeply intertwined relationship: as the abilities uphold the structure of musical traditions, they are also changed by it. Looking at distinct musical traditions around the world, we also see how an articulated set of sociomaterial affordances is triggered, that is, a multifactorial set of invitations to interact with the sociomaterial surroundings. Examining how traditional music is learned in a specific social environment and passed down across generations, mostly, without explicit verbalization, we can figure out how a set of cognitive capacities for music arise and develop within these kinds of social settings. For instance, the improvisational nature of traditional music in different regions of Mexico comes from a trained, learned ability to be flexible. This ability in turn comes from the ability to recognize components that can be recombined, rules that can be played with in the context of a group, through group signaling.
Enacting one’s own research through performances and teaching
You also teach and perform, music, Alejandro! Let’s talk about the projects you have been involved in here in Vienna.
Last year, after I completed my PhD, I did a short research stay with Julio Mendívil at the Institute of Musicology at the University of Vienna. It was a very fruitful experience and we already started planning future collaborations. This year, from February to May, I participated as a musician and as a KLI researcher in the project “Climart Lab Evolving Futures: Owning our Mess”. This project puts artists and scientists to work together towards the shared goal of supporting regenerative futures in times of climate emergency.
Regarding my musical work, since my arrival in Vienna in 2018, I´ve been playing Mexican traditional music with different groups. In the last two years, I have been playing with a group called “Entramar”, which can be translated into English as “to link, to connect, to weave, to create something by combining different things”. For us, the name of our group portrays three aspects we want to emphasize in our musical work: 1) the multicultural roots of the music we play (son jarocho), 2) the multicultural constitution of our group whose members are from Mexico, Austria, and Venezuela, and 3) our aim to foster multicultural encounters among the people who attend our concerts. With “Entramar”, I have performed in local bars, music festivals, cultural institutions. We also have collaborated in artistic projects as “Banal Complexities. Big Little Stories”, and “Movements after Muybridge”. These two events took placed this year in Vienna and were organized by the visual artist Oscar Cueto. In the beginning of November this year, we also collaborated with the artist Stephany D. Rodriguez with a performance and concert for the event on “The day of the death in Mexico” at the Weltmuseum.
This year, we created a cultural association called “Entramar: Verein für Musik, Kunst and Kulturelle inklusion”. Through this association we aim to organize multi-cultural events to bring people together with poetry, music, talks, storytelling, etc.
Very impressive! How do these performances influence your research?
In our group, we decide the repertoire we want to play and collectively see how it evolves. Everything goes by ear. What I enjoy about the process is that music always invites people to participate—it triggers a set of sociomaterial affordances. In fact, the theoretical framework I’m developing in my research has become a very useful tool for me when I perform as well! As I play with my friends, I’m noticing the affordances we are responding to. On the other hand, by fully enjoying the music I play and reflecting on it afterwards, I gain inspirations for the conceptual model. It feeds into each other.
Similar reflections occur when I teach. This semester I started teaching Mexican traditional music at the Department of Ethnomusicology at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien. My class consists of Polish, Romanian, and Mexican students interested in playing music from Mexico. It cannot be fully described with words how amazing it is to see how people use and develop their musical skills! Teaching and playing with people help me also to reflect on what it means to transmit musical knowledge. It also inspires the theoretical models I’m building on the transmission of musical traditions from a cross-cultural perspective, a perspective that goes beyond the western canon. Without any doubt, the intellectual environment of the KLI is the ideal place to develop this kind of theoretical work!
Would you consider yourself a “philosopher in practice” of sorts?
I have to say that ethnomusicology has always been a research field based on ethnographic work. It is a discipline that fundamentally study music in situ, in practice. When I started my master studies in ethnomusicology, after being trained as a philosopher, it was not easy for me to bridge philosophy, with its abstract, conceptual ideas and reasoning, with the scientific methodology of ethnomusicology, which is based upon fieldwork and social interaction. The mentorship of my advisor, the ethnomusicologist Gonzalo Camacho, was fundamental to start walking towards that direction. Nowadays, I have to say that my current philosophical approach has gained a lot from my ethnomusicological and musical work. So, perhaps I might be doing now philosophy in practice as well!
From music to cognitive science to philosophy of science, back to music again
I vividly recall the different paths through which a great indigenous violinist, called Salvador Aquino, introduced me to the music of the huastec region in Mexico. Once, when I was learning to play at the violin a repertoire of ritual music, he told me: “pay attention to how people dance what you play, for their dance depends on how you play, but also you’ll notice that how they dance will determine how you play.” Now, going back to all these memories, I realized that—they, the traditional musicians and dancers, already know that “music is not just the sound but something that emergences from social interaction”. They already know all about social and material affordances. I’ve been there just to learn, observe, and develop a theoretical framework for things they already know!
Ultimately, everything started with me learning to play music and trying to figure out how people can do that, and what it can tell us about social interaction. In this journey, I have been lucky to meet people in different places that led me down this path. When I perform, when I play, when I talk about my work, I recall all the great friends I’ve made along the way—the musicians, the researchers, the students, the mentors, the colleagues, the communities—and it’s all part of my emotional life. I am convinced that what we have done, and what we can do, is the result of the support we’re lucky to get. We’re not isolated individuals, but always supported in one way or the other by people, institutions, and in my case, by musicians, academics, colleagues, research institutions, and of course, family and friends. We are only possible through our social conditions. As for music… it comes back to how we as human beings have created something so very special, a power that can make people interact and feel close to each other, despite, or… I would rather say, thanks to the complementary of our cultural differences.
Thank you, Alejandro! This was a breathtaking journey!
Interview by Lynn Chiu