Society for Music Theory, 10 November 2017
This paper offers a narrative account of Darius Milhaud’s cantata Le Château du feu and draws from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilles Deleuze, and Lawrence Kramer in order to critique the epistemological relation of description to music’s ontologies. The Lacanian notion that knowledge is mediated by language hearkens to Nietzsche, and fortifies Kramer’s assertion that “there is no such thing as music”—or, no such transcendental category. Instead, music emerges as a perceptual category as subjects circumnavigate their experiences with all kinds of description. Deleuze’s Bergsonism deconstructs the temporal distinction between past and present, asserting that consciousness emerges through the hermeneutic process of actualization, in which the subject recovers a recollection from the ontological past and re-perceives it in the psychological present. Through actualization, the descriptive associations that subjects ascribe to music determine the epistemological form of its knowable ontologies: music is the aggregate of its descriptions. In other words, where there is music, there is hermeneutics.
By invoking memories of holocaust violence, the ontologies of Milhaud’s cantata reach beyond score and performance to encompass the re-perception of recalled atrocities. The cantata’s repeated, ascending glissando motive springs to life as the ferrous rasp of a death-camp crematorium door, while canons separated by semitone revive the weeping of bereaved mothers. Le Château du feu is a ritual of re-perception through which victims’ voices gain embodiment to speak once again, yielding meanings that are ontologically indissociable from “the music itself.”