• Ellen Lueck

Proposing a Theory for a New Space: The Affinity Interzone

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

This paper develops a useful socio-ethnomusicological tool for looking at how cohesive communities form among far-reaching music affinity groups. It was presented at the 2017 national conference for the Society of Ethnomusicology in Denver.

Sacred Harp singing in Scotland. Photo by Ellen Lueck


A musical affinity group is a network of people who devote themselves to a particular musical interest. For many participants in these affinity groups, the musical interest may be associated with a cultural “Other” relative to themselves. Rather than acquire musical and cultural knowledge on their own, individual enthusiasts rely on an affinity group-specific, socially constructed space which transmits and regulates appropriation on its own terms. I call this type of space the affinity interzone. The affinity interzone, in a broad sense, is a portable space constructed to create community cohesion and uniform understanding of a genre of music, its meaning, and performance across geographic distance by its practitioners. It aids in promoting the “sameness” of a musical activity throughout the world so that enthusiasts may participate in any affinity-oriented musical event. The affinity interzone is constructed by transmitting participants’ expectations regarding a familiar event choreography at formal gatherings, as well as nuanced performative and social codes to incoming enthusiasts. This paper draws on my ethnographic research into three affinity groups—the Sacred Harp singing affinity group in Europe, the Balinese gamelan affinity group in North America, and the Scottish Highland bagpiping affinity group in North America—as well as theoretical materials outlined in sociologist Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis (1974), in order to describe and define the affinity interzone. The affinity interzone is a useful theoretical tool for ethnomusicologists studying affinity groups and transnational musical communities.

What is the Affinity Interzone?

A musical affinity group is a network of people who devote themselves to a particular musical interest. For many people in these affinity groups, the musical interest may be associated with a cultural “Other” relative to themselves—for example, Europeans who regularly participate in American shape-note singing, or Americans who play Balinese gamelan.

Rather than acquire musical and cultural knowledge individually, participants often rely on an affinity group-specific, socially constructed space which transmits and regulates appropriation on its own terms. I call this type of space the affinity interzone (Lueck 2017).

The affinity interzone, in a broad sense, is a portable space constructed to create community cohesion and uniform understanding of a genre of music, its meaning, and performance across geographic distance by its practitioners. It aids in promoting the “sameness” of a musical activity throughout the world so that enthusiasts may participate in any affinity-oriented musical event. In other words, the Sacred Harp affinity interzone ensures that singing from The Sacred Harpon Lookout Mountain in Alabama is more or less done the same way in Budapest. And, though perhaps not quite as rigid an example, the Balinese gamelan affinity interzone ensures that a white gamelan enthusiast from New York can travel to a gamelan in Toronto and more or less experience the same activity.

A community constructs the affinity interzone by transmitting participants’ expectations regarding a familiar event choreography at formal gatherings, nuanced performative keys, and social codes to incoming enthusiasts. I will explain my use of these terms in a minute. Additionally, the successful production of these elements defines a legitimate musical event for experienced participants. Yet, how exactly is the affinity interzone constructed, and who is responsible for carrying out each element?

The organizational format of a formal musical event or gathering acts as recognizable choreography, which creates structure for the affinity interzone space. The implementation of event choreography is usually the responsibility of the event hosts. For example, national pipe band associations are responsible for assembling pipe band competitions, and these competitions have a standardized format, or choreography, which competitors expect to be able to move through: band arrives, finds a spot to set up camp, band gets the competition schedule, band marches into a circle formation before a panel of judges, band convenes by the beer cooler, results are announced at the end of the day, etc. Gamelan musicians come to rehearsal, take off their shoes, and arrange the instruments. Sacred Harp enthusiasts expect that a hosting community will arrange their singing in accordance with a standardized choreography. Eyes will roll if the choreography is not performed accurately, or worse, the event could be seen as illegitimate.

The next element, the performative keys, are where the intricacies of the musical style lie. For example, at an American gamelan rehearsal, which is a loosely choreographed event, a participant may flick their mallet in a particular way in a dynamic moment in the music, which signals to other gamelan enthusiasts surrounding them that they understand Balinese methods for cueing an ensemble. A Sacred Harp singer will lead their fellow participants with a rigid arm gesture, rather than the affected gestures typical among classical music conductors.

The final foundational element, the expected social codes are, in essence, the "laws" that govern the people who occupy the affinity interzone. For example, at a Sacred Harp singing, which is limited to explicitly religious music, it would go against social code to publicly discuss religion. At a gamelan event, it would go against social code to present your feet to the instruments.

When the event choreography is successfully engaged and interpreted through these performative keys and social codes, the result is the creation of a space, the affinity interzone, where the musical and social ideals of a dispersed affinity group are underscored and encouraged.

Supporting Theories

The foundational elements for the construction of an affinity interzone are supported in theoretical materials outlined in sociologist Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis (1974).

Goffman’s work successfully describes the interpretation and recognition of both natural and social events, which he refers to as “primary frameworks,” through the correct understanding of “keys” by members of society. These keys are defined as “a set of conventions” which are “meaningful in terms of some primary framework” (ibid., 43-44). In the case of the affinity interzone, the event choreography is like the primary framework. The "keys" are the performative keys and social codes.

So, considering the performative nature of the affinity interzone, I find it helpful to separate out the keys which distinguish performative style (hence “performative keys”), and the keys or codes which distinguish the expectations of the social dynamic of a community event (hence “social codes”). By “codes” I also mean a set of conventions by which an event is interpreted. I use these two terms merely to distinguish between performativities relating to the mastery of music, and those which govern the desired social atmosphere of the affinity interzone.

From this point on in this paper, I will continue discussing the specifics of the affinity interzone that has been tailored by the Sacred Harp singing affinity group, and I will do this because I have done the most fieldwork with this group, and because the affinity interzone is particularly rigid within the Sacred Harp community, making it easier to demonstrate my concept. Using Sacred Harp singing will also allow me to delve into some detail about issues that may arise within the affinity interzone, such as its boundaries, and susceptibility to "false" performative keys or social codes. However, as I've tried to convey so far, I believe that the affinity interzone can still be used to describe a space that is created in nearly any musical affinity group, and perhaps beyond.

Sacred Harp Singing's Affinity Interzone

The greatest tool that Sacred Harp singing has for the transmission of the elements that make up the affinity interzone is the Sacred Harp convention, an event which is held by a local singing cohort where enthusiasts travel to sing from The Sacred Harp together for a determined weekend. Members of this dispersed community expect each Sacred Harp singing convention, regardless of location, to maintain the same organizational format and event choreography. This format contains many specifics, including the arrangement of chairs into a hollow square; public prayers; an organized system for calling upon volunteer song leaders; and most importantly, an allegiance to the book, The Sacred Harp. These choreographic elements help to define the Sacred Harp convention, and it is expected that convention hosts will not deviate from them.

Layout of a Sacred Harp singing. Photo by Ellen Lueck

Enthusiasts also expect that advanced singers will engage performative keys which are deemed traditional. The list of keys also contains many specifics, but includes pitching songs without the assistance of an external tool, designating the front row of the tenor section for experienced leaders, singing without the use of vibrato, and expressing a familiarity with the repertoire by singing tunes from memory with a closed tunebook.

There is the social expectation that Sacred Harp singing events will respect an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds. At a convention, the display of personal politics and religious beliefs are avoided despite the explicitly Christian texts used. Comments or suggestions regarding a singer’s musical ability are also deemed inappropriate. This ban on controversial topics and expressed aesthetic preferences is supposed to enable singers to focus on singing and fellowship, rather than personal difference. (Within the realm of social politics, this "no politics in the square" stance is indeed highly privileged, and can itself lead to the exclusion of underrepresented groups.)

So, if a local singing cohort expects singers from other places to travel to their convention, it is understood that they must first and foremost meet these definitive choreographic expectations, and that the legitimacy of the event will be determined through participant enactment of such social codes, as well as performative keys which are perceived to be “authentic”.

Traditional Sacred Harp singers have largely been successful in retaining control over the affinity-wide selection of choreography, keys, and codes through frequent, direct intervention and engagement with Sacred Harp enthusiasts. These selected musical and cultural aspects are most frequently disseminated to enthusiasts through experience and absorption in the affinity interzone. However, the outer regions of the dispersed community—which reaches into Europe, Oceania, and East Asia—do find themselves with a significant amount of independence, and “conflicting assertions of authenticity” do occur (Hill 2014). These conflicts can either result in a rift in the affinity interzone, or they may be simply ignored by participants in accordance with the Sacred Harp social codes.

So, to reiterate my main point, the affinity interzone is a space that provides a familiar structure and social order across geographic and cultural distance. Sacred Harp singing’s sameness as an activity performed around the world is ensured through the shared event choreography which is legitimized through performative keys which rely on that choreography for interpretation, and social codes which police the space. But more than that, the affinity interzone is a space in which singers can express their belonging to the community-at-large, giving this structure and order meaning, and corroborating its meaning with other singers.

The rows of chairs arranged into the hollow square, along with sightings of dark red copies of The Sacred Harp are the primary signals that the room Sacred Harp enthusiasts have entered is now a space for Sacred Harp singing. Other expected choreographed details act as markers which continue to reinforce the definition of the event: the chairperson greets the class; a prayer is given; the arranging committee invites singers one by one into the hollow square to lead a song from The Sacred Harp of their choosing; an hour break is taken for dinner-on-the-grounds. These details continue to signal to participants throughout the day that they are attending a Sacred Harp singing, and not any other kind of musical event. In other words, the correct implementation of event choreography limits the potential to alternately define the space or activity. When hosts fail to execute the choreography, or seek to alter it, singers may perceive a rift in the interzone.

Likewise, when singers engage Sacred Harp performative keys, these keys signal social belonging within the choreographed event format, as well as signal cultural competence. For example, when a Sacred Harp enthusiast is invited to the center of the square, then calls a fuging tune, pitches her own song, and leads that tune from memory with a closed book under her left arm, she not only proves her mastery of tune leading skills, but also signals that she is a Sacred Harp singer specifically. She belongs in the hollow square. She was invited to contribute by the arranging committee—a major choreographic role. She demonstrates that she knows how to move idiomatically through the choreography. Those who sing with her demonstrate that they also belong.

To clarify, while performative keys are somewhat choreographed, the expectation of their enactment is lesser than the expectation of strict event choreography. For example, there are certain nuanced movements and sounds that signal an individual’s performative legitimacy more than others, such as confident yet assertive arm movements when leading a song. Likewise, there are certain movements and sounds that when used within a Sacred Harp singing context explicitly signal an individual’s performative illegitimacy (or deliberate transgression), such as the use of a music stand by a song leader, or the use of a bel canto timbre. At a Sacred Harp convention, it is not expected that each participant will engage every nuanced performative key that signals legitimacy. As long as a small number of participants are visibly engaging these keys, attempting to pass them on to the rest of the class through example, then the event itself is not in jeopardy of being perceived as illegitimate. By engaging such performative keys, these singers demonstrate to each other that they understand the meaning behind the strict event choreography. On the other hand, if the majority of singers—particularly those with hosting authority over the event—are using music stands, then the other singers may perceive a rift in the affinity interzone.

Back to my point concerning the outer reaches of the Sacred Harp affinity group, variations in the nuance of these performative keys may also be subtly shifting the collective understanding of their meaning. For example, a visiting American enthusiast to a European convention may perform a vocal ornament that is not traditionally within the Sacred Harp singing style, though the European singers may nevertheless hear it and interpret it as traditional. In this scenario, the expectations of event choreography do not change, but a new performative key now occupies the interzone.

Finally, the social codes regarding inclusivity act as social governing within the Sacred Harp affinity interzone. The interzone has organizational choreography and a performative culture, but it also needs laws to maintain peace and order as individuals who aren’t necessarily likeminded move and engage each other throughout the space. The ‘laws’ of the Sacred Harp affinity interzone are few in number, and there is no formal institution which enforces them. Mere social pressure to abide by these expectations is usually enough to keep enthusiasts from transgressing.

These social codes are designed to make everyone involved feel welcome and safe while in the Sacred Harp affinity interzone, no matter their musical ability or political, religious, economic, educational, or other type of personal identity. Even when a singer does transgress and engage another in these topics, the social policy is generally to pretend it did not occur—at least while they remain in the affinity interzone. For example, singers in the hollow square may audibly critique an enthusiast’s choice to lead a particular song. Public critique goes against social codes of appropriateness, yet even a few revered singers are known for this transgression. It is generally not worth further disruption to the class to make a scene of it. However, once an offended singer is outside the limits of the interzone, he may very well discuss another’s transgression with Sacred Harp singing friends who he relates to on a personal level. Even in such a widely dispersed international community, gossip of a singer’s transgressions against these basic social expectations can travel and damage a singer’s reputation.

This brings us to the limits of the affinity interzone, which are often flexible, and at times, difficult to distinguish. The Sacred Harp affinity interzone is always erected at a Sacred Harp convention, yet they are not one and the same. The convention is an event, and the interzone is the socially constructed space that forms within the event. The interzone is not necessarily bound only to the convention. It may form at local Sacred Harp singings as well, particularly if a local cohort has significant ideological diversity, or is seeking to transmit Sacred Harp knowledge to newly attending enthusiasts.

It is also true that the Sacred Harp convention is not entirely bound by the affinity interzone. For example, if the arranging committee is continuing to call leaders in the square, and the class is participating, the singers in the square are engaged in the interzone. But if two singers temporarily leave the active square for the coffee and donut table in the back of the room, and quietly gossip about the odd performativities of certain singers at the convention, they have temporarily removed themselves from the affinity interzone, yet have not removed themselves from the convention. However, when a formal break is called and the ideologically diverse class of singers is mingling at the coffee and donut table in this context, the table now occupies the affinity interzone.

Here is a more contextualized example of how the Sacred Harp affinity interzone works.

I attended my first Sacred Harp convention in New York City in the fall of 2008 where I began to absorb these keys, codes, and choreography. This event was attended by approximately 100 people, and was more formal than the local Baltimore singings I had attended over the summer where the meetings were generally occupied by ten to fifteen people who behaved casually with one another. At the convention, I noticed a distinct structure or event choreography, and that most people in the room—many of them not from NYC— were familiar with this structure, the nuances of performative keys, and social codes. Most people just seemed to know what to do. Those who weren’t familiar were helped by those who were.

As time went on, I attended other conventions in the U.S. where these elements were reinforced through repetition, and my understanding of them deepened with nuance. The event choreography was the same at each singing. Participants generally engaged in the same performative keys, and the social expectations were uniform. Even the specific personnel had some uniformity as other enthusiasts traveled frequently for the same Sacred Harp events that I traveled to. The singers from New York to California were more or less defining the Sacred Harp convention and Sacred Harp singing practice the same way, and these definitions were formally presented and performed by constructing and engaging in a Sacred Harp affinity interzone wherever participants happened to be.

When I attended the Second Ireland Sacred Harp Convention in 2011—an event hosted by a local cohort with only a few years of Sacred Harp singing experience under their belt—I still had no trouble participating in the same way I had in the U.S. because the Irish singers organized their convention according to the standard Sacred Harp event choreography. They learned how to do this through the help of more experienced singers. They had a hollow square, they sang from the same red book, and they arranged an elaborate potluck, breaks every hour, a memorial lesson, a chairperson, etc.

The enthusiastic yet inexperienced Irish singers performed the most important performative keys and social codes, such as singing the shape-note solfege before singing the text, and leading in the square. The experienced visitors performed more nuanced keys, such as leading with their books closed, and engaging each vocal part throughout their chosen song. As most of them were aware that inexperienced singers were watching and learning from them, there were few instances of performative transgressions. Some of the Irish singers picked up on many of these nuances, and began performing them throughout the convention as well. All participants, for the most part, respected an inclusive environment that accommodated the diverse, international crowd.

Impact does not only flow from experienced singers to inexperienced ones, but vice versa as well. The experienced singers who traveled to the Ireland Sacred Harp Convention were invigorated by the exuberance expressed by the youthful, eager hosting cohort. Additionally, experienced singers from the U.S. were introduced to experienced singers from the U.K.—whose perceived authenticity was corroborated through performative keys and social codes—and these new social connections began to form.

The Irish singers successfully implemented the Sacred Harp event choreography, which signaled a framework for the proper construction of the complete Sacred Harp affinity interzone by both the host community and the visitors. Other inexperienced visitors from other European countries such as France, Germany, and Poland, also learned about these expectations by engaging in the affinity interzone, and went on to encourage the same behavior and habits in their own newly forming local cohorts, perpetuating the sameness of the Sacred Harp convention even further around the world.

Sources Cited

Lueck, Ellen. "Sacred Harp Singing in Europe: Its Pathways, Spaces, and Meanings." Wesleyan University, 2017.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1974.

Hill, Juniper and Caroline Bithell. "An Introduction to Music Revival as Concept, Cultural Process, and Medium of Change." Chap. 1 In The Oxford Handbook of Music Revival, edited by Juniper Hill and Caroline Bithell, 3-42. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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