Trent Cunningham's BPhil Thesis on the Beatles

Music major Trent Cunningham successfully defended his Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil) thesis entitled “Psychadelic Orientalism: Representations of India in the Music of the Beatles” on November 1, 2011. In the thesis, Trent shows how the grouping together of psychedelic drugs and Indian music in the British and American popular imagination was made possible by the music of the Beatles during the mid-1960s. Cunningham writes:

"In 1960s Britain and America, a mystical Orientalist view of India held sway: India was seen as a land of trippy gurus holding secret, ancient, psychedelic wisdom that could liberate the young hippie from the system of stuffy, bourgeois Western values. There was of course no ethnographic basis to this view — as we will see, Indian philosophers, intellectuals, and musicians in the West resented the association with drugs — but mystical India became a powerful symbol nevertheless. The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” was one of the earliest and most potent manifestations of what I will call “psychedelic orientalism” within rock music. A close look at this song, and others like it from the Beatles’ middle period, will reveal some of the functions of this construction, as well as some of the motivations behind it. Studying the Beatles’ music in a historical and cultural context will uncover certain dynamics of power, themes of appropriation and cultural hegemony. A close analytical look at the unique stylistic divergences of these songs, understood through Timothy Leary’s manual The Psychedelic Experience and Ravi Shankar’s tutelage of George Harrison, as well as through sociological perspectives on the drug-induced experience, will reveal the role that Indian musical elements (and the ancient Oriental wisdom they reportedly represented) were made to play. Finally, the perspectives of postcolonial criticism will show how that role given to India was a subordinate one, built upon an attitude of power that characterized the Empire."

The BPhil is a unique undergraduate degree jointly awarded by the University Honors College and any undergraduate school/college at Pitt, which is the “home school” of the recipient. One of the requirements for the Bphil degree is an independent research culminating in the production of an original undergraduate thesis.

Trent began thinking about the Beatles as an academic object of study during his music theory courses with Ivan Jimenez in 2010. After taking the departmental senior seminar on the music of the Beatles in spring 2011, he began working closely with faculty member Andrew Weintraub to design and implement a research project and a written thesis on the Beatles and their involvement with Indian music during the mid-1960s. He pursued his interest in post-colonial studies during independent meetings with Weintraub in summer 2011.

Trent defended his thesis before a faculty examination committee that included Andrew Weintraub (chair), Deane Root (Music), Neepa Majumdar (English), visiting external examiner Gordon Thompson (Professor of Music, Skidmore College).

The thesis was the first substantial piece of independent scholarship that Trent has produced. Throughout the process, Trent learned how to frame a question of reasonable scope; research methods and strategies; how to set short- and long-term deadlines for the completion of various stages of the project; how to identify and find secondary sources; how to analyze and interpret data; and how to construct a persuasive argument.  Weintraub met regularly with Trent to evaluate his progress; to discuss the problems that inevitably arise; and to provide encouragement and direction.

The format for the presentation and examination was similar to that of a master’s or doctoral thesis. Trent presented an overview of his work in a speech open to the public in addition to the examining committee. The committee examined the candidate by asking him questions about his work, and the public audience also asked questions.

The committee unanimously agreed that Trent’s thesis is an outstanding piece of original research.