Sarah Weiss

Sarah Weiss holds an MA and a PhD in Music (ethnomusicology) from New York University and a BA from the University of Rochester/Eastman School of Music. She attained her Habilitation from KunstUniversitätGraz (KUG). She joined the Institute for Ethnomusicology at KUG in the summer of 2018. Prior to that she served as Associate Professor in the Humanities and inaugural Rector of Saga Residential College at Yale-NUS College (2013-2018) – a small, American-style, liberal arts college hosted on the campus of National University of Singapore and co-founded by Yale University. She has taught ethnomusicology at Yale University, Harvard University, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of Sydney.

A scholar working in Southeast Asian cultures and performance, gender studies, postcoloniality, and hybridity studies, her articles appear in a variety of journals including Ethnomusicology, Asian Music, Journal of Fieldwork in Religion, Volume!: French Journal of Popular Music Studies, Analytical Approaches to World Music, as well as multiple edited volumes and encyclopedias. Among her publications are two monographs: Ritual Soundings: Women Performers and World Religions (2019) and Listening to an Earlier Java: Aesthetics, Gender, and the Music of Wayang in Central Java (2007). An active musician, she is the artistic director for the university’s community Javanese ensemble, Nyai Rara Saraswati. She is also an avid singer and is currently a member of CACQ – Candy A Cappella Quartet singing songs from the 1950s-1990s arranged by Richard Parncutt.

Curriculum Vitae




Ritual Soundings: Women Performers and World Religions. University of Illinois Press, 2019.

This book documents ways in which women’s performance practices engage with and localize world religions while creating opportunities for women’s agency. This study draws on the rich resources of three disciplines: ethnomusicology, gendered studies of religion, and religious music studies. It is a meta-ethnography formed by comparisons between different ethnographic case studies. The book analyses women’s performances at religious events in cultural settings spread across the world to demonstrate the pivotal roles women can play in localizing the practice of world religions, exploring moments in which performance allows women the agency to move, however momentarily, beyond culturally determined boundaries while revealing patterns that suggest unsuspected similarities in widely divergent religious contexts. With the rise of religious fundamentalism and with world politics embroiled in debate about women’s bodies and their comportment in public, ethnomusicologists and other scholars must address questions of religion, gender, and their intersection. By reading deeply into, but also across, the ethnographic detail of multiple studies, this book reveals patterns of similarity between unrelated cultures. It invites ethnomusicologists back into comparative work, offering them encouragement to think across disciplinary boundaries and suggesting that they can actively work to counter the divisive rhetoric of religious exceptionalism by revealing the many ways in which religions and cultures are similar to one another.

Religion and Gender (2019) by Riëtte Beurmanjer

Listening to an Earlier Java: Aesthetics, Gender and the Music of Wayang in Central Java. Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde monograph series, vol. 237. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2007.

Infrequently performed, “old-style” shadow puppet theatre or wayang from the Surakarta-Klaten area of Central Java still has a following of devoted practitioners and fans. The signature element of this style of performance is a specialized solo accompaniment called grimingan played on the gender, a fourteen-keyed metallophone which can be heard when the puppeteer speaks narrative or dialog. Based on extensive musical and cultural analysis, I argue that the male puppeteer and his key musical accompanist, the female gender player, are an embodiment of a Javanese aesthetic that is replicated on many levels of culture, from everyday interactions and community events to mythical and cosmological ideas found in the present, but also in the distant past. This aesthetic is expressed through representations of a process in which male, female, chaotic, and ordered elements interact to generate states of well-being. The importance of this aesthetic, despite historical shifts in gender construction, is evident in stories and myths about legendary Javanese women and female gender players and in the twelfth-century, Old Javanese translation of the Indic Bharatayuddha. Comparative analysis of key scenes from the Bharatayuddha links the distant past to the performative interaction between the male puppeteer and the female gender player in old-style wayang today. The musical tradition of female-style grimingan makes it possible to listen back to an earlier style of Javanese performance that has endured despite cultural and political upheaval during the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde (2007) by Andrew Weintraub
Journal of Asian Studies (2008) by Judith Becker
World of Music (2009) by David Harnish
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (2009) by Muhamad Ali
Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture (2010) by Bethany Collier
Asian Music (2011) by Ben Brinner

Recent and Frequently Cited Articles

On Finding and Teaching Ethnomusicology

My whole life I have played piano. I always loved playing the piano by myself (and occasionally for my mother), but I absolutely hated to play the piano in front of others. I found the pressures to be perfect and the fears of not fulfilling expectations, as well as the friendly competitions between pianists, did not match with the pleasure I took in playing piano for myself. On the other hand, I loved being on the stage whether acting or singing in choirs, big or small. Despite my doubts about the culture of public piano performance, I decided to pursue both music and psychology at university. In my last semester, searching for any classes that I had not already taken, I came across a world music course taught by ethnomusicologist Ellen Koskoff. At some point in the semester, we were instructed to listen to some Central Javanese music. Nestling into a library listening station, I popped the headphones on and heard the first scratchy strains of the rebab as it played the opening phrase for Ketawang Puspawarna. Wondering what might follow such a raspy introduction, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the throbbing of the gong as it was struck. Transfixed, I reveled in the rolling, bronze lusciousness of the gongs and the strange, punctuating whoops and ahhhs of men seemingly together but pleasurably just a little out of synch with one another. I was amazed by the sonic experience of spatial depth rendered without too much echo in the recording, something which was allowed by (I found out later) the shape of the roof of a traditional Javanese Pendopo roof. I especially wondered how the many layers I could hear fit together. How did the players know when to stop or start or speed up? How did the parts, clearly in synchrony with one another, actually connect? The logic of the music was opaque to me at that moment, but I was smitten. I proceeded to listen to the same recording repeatedly for the next two hours (irking other students who also needed to prepare for class.) My enthusiasm for the world music course in general, and Javanese music in particular, continued to grow through my last semester. I resolved to find a gamelan ensemble to play with, once I moved to New York City to pursue graduate studies in 19th century music at New York University.

Once I started playing with Gamelan Kusuma Laras directed by Anne Stebinger and I.M. Harjito and housed in the Indonesian Consulate General on 68th Street in NYC, I discovered that gamelan music combined many things I love about performing: interpretive freedom within flexible structures; equality of players in the ensemble (effectively no real soloist ethos in many contexts); and a cultural aesthetic based on the idea that the whole is always greater than the individual parts. Learning to play a new music with palpably different aesthetics and musical procedures allowed me to listen to the musics I grew up with in new ways, ultimately enabling hearings that deepened my understanding of musics I thought I already knew. You may already know, that once such a realization sinks in, it is impossible not to follow your ear to the many other musics of the world. Given all of this, the fact that I found a cool dissertation topic on my first trip to Indonesia, and especially the inspiring presence of Kay Kaufman Shelemay then at NYU, it was clear that ethnomusicology was the right field of music study for me. Since then I have been teaching ethnomusicology and studying, playing, and teaching gamelan around the world, from Sydney and Chapel Hill, to New Haven, Singapore, and now in Graz with KUG’s Gamelan Nyai Rara Saraswati.

Weiss sings sindenan with Gamelan Singa Nglaras at the Esplanade in Singapore.

Weiss plays gender at the Esplanade with Gamelan Singa Nglaras.

In my university teaching, I offer courses on topics relating to my own research, but I also offer courses on topics I want to learn about. In my view, students are co-creators in the exploration and interpretation of the theme and ideas in any classroom interaction. Every semester I learn new things from my students, even when I am teaching topics that are extremely well-known to me, and this is one of my greatest pleasures in teaching. I regularly advise students working on PhD, MA, and BA degrees on topics that range across ethnomusicological topics.

On-going Student Advising and Committee Service at KUG

PhD Dissertations

  • Talieh Attarzadeh (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Dora Dunatov (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Tanja Haluzan (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Eva Krisper (Committee, Jazz and Popular Music Research)
  • Timea Sari (Committee, IGP)
  • Mattia Scasellati (Advisor, with K. Stepputat, Ethnomusicology)
  • Kurt Schatz (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Philipp Schmickl (Committee, Jazz and Popular Music Research)
  • Florian Wimmer (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)

MA Theses

  • Maral Eghbalzadeh (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Moamer Hadzic (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Sophie Pia Lenz (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)
  • Christina Lessiak (Advisor, Women and Gender Studies)
  • Noemi Silvestri (Advisor, Ethnomusicology)



PhD, DMA Dissertations, MA Theses Advised or Examined

(completed at KUG unless otherwise noted)

Siavash Moazzami Vahid (Advisor, Ethnomusicology) MA
Aleksandra Skrilec (Advisor, Flute), MA Artium

Talieh Attarzadeh (Advisor, Ethnomusicology), MA

Jelka Vukobratovic (Second Advisor, Ethnomusicology)

Diana Chester, University of Porto, 2016 (Second Advisor and examiner, Media Studies)
Lauren Frankel, Yale University, 2016, PhD (Advisor and Examiner, Musicology)
Rachel Hand, 2016, NUS Southeast Asian Studies PhD (Examiner, Southeast Asian Studies)

Aaron Judd, Yale University, 2015 , PhD (Advisor, Musicology)
Erin Johnson-Williams, Yale University 2015, PhD (Advisor, Musicology)
Miguel Escobar Varela, 2015, NUS (Examiner, English Language and Literature)

Marco Sartor, Yale School of Music 2013, DMA, Winner of Michael Friedmann Prize for Best Thesis (Advisor, Guitar)
Matthew Welch, Yale School of Music, 2013, DMA,Winner of Michael Friedmann Prize for Best Thesis (Advisor, Composition)

Naftali Schindler, Yale School of Music 2009, DMA (Advisor, Composition)

Ethan Lechner, University of North Carolina, 2008, PhD (Advisor, Musicology)
Robin McClellan, Yale School of Music, 2008, DMA (Advisor, Composition)


Courses Taught

  • Music and Ritual
  • Gendering Performance, Performing Gender
  • Musical Modes in Theory and Performance
  • Konversatorium/Kolloquium for Masters/PhD writers
  • Postcoloniality, Politics, and Performance
  • Musical Love and Longing
  • 21st Century Research on Southeast Asian Performance
  • Music instruments of the world
  • Permeable Boundaries: Musical and Cultural Encounter
  • Central Javanese Gamelan: Performance, Theory, Aesthetics
  • Witnessing Sound: Ethnomusicology Through Ethnography

Prof Gerd Grupe introduces Weiss at her Habilitation Presentation 17 January 2019.