Old Debates, Older Problems: Elaborating the Connection between Absolute Music and the New Musicology

Music and Philosophy Study Group, Royal Musical Association, 12 July 2019

This paper performs an archaeology of the critical musicology moment, suggesting that its tacit project of undermining musical autonomy remains unfinished because the historicity of absolute music has not yet ended. In his review of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music, Leo Treitler gave a prophetic warning: “Kerman’s book can in the long run reinforce the unwholesome tendencies that worry him.” While Kerman’s original foil was “positivist musicology,” battle lines were drawn when American theorists perceived the book as an attack on their newly minted Society. Only three years after Treitler’s review, Lawrence Kramer and Scott Burnham pitted “criticism” and “analysis” against each other: the former had reductively mischaracterized the aims of analysis, while the latter still clung to a positivist will to truth. Instead of accepting what Gilles Deleuze calls a false problem, the criticism-versus-analysis discourse blossomed into a referendum on the relation of music’s formal elements to factors perceived as external to music. The ineffable menace that was calling to Susan McClary from behind Bluebeard’s final door was really a mounting anxiety over music’s ostensible autonomy.

The critical musicology moment was an important fin-de-millénaire turn against the enduring influence of the absolute music concept. Despite their variety of approaches, critical musicologists aimed to reproach the notion that formal analysis is the proper (read: only) means of musical explanation. The resulting dialectic between form and context is only possible through the notion of the extra-musical, which Carl Dahlhaus identifies as a crucial signifier of the absolute. Peter Kivy, in his polemic against the New Musicology, demonstrates that his Hanslickian view of music—as mere forms—is exactly what is at stake, taunting, “the philosophical problem of absolute music still remains with us.”

Musical discourse since the critical turn remains divided. It has either adopted the lessons as given or treated them with indifference—as evidenced by the growth of neo-structuralist methods: corpus studies, geometrical transformation theory, cognitive (“empirical”) musicology, etc. Like Seth Brodsky’s understanding of modernism, the absolute music concept is a Freudian drive, which lives on wherever interpretation attempts to get inside music by quarantining certain meanings as external, extra-musical.

Grisey’s Time and its Conceptual Implications

Spectralisms, IRCAM, 13 June 2019

This paper illustrates how three of Gérard Grisey’s essays—“Réflexions sur le temps,” “La Musique: le devenir des sons,” and “Tempus ex machina”—accord with Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez on the structure of perception. Instead of purporting to prove direct influence, exploring their common ground clarifies and elaborates three central issues in Grisey’s writings: (1) the differentiation of time and how it casts music as a process of becoming; (2) the identification of tone with pulse on a spectrum of contraction and dilation; and (3) how Grisey’s later three-part theory of musical perception relates to his early distinction between measured and perceived time.

First, Grisey’s definition of music as the becoming of sounds owes much to Bergson’s principle of duration and its distinction between homogeneous and heterogeneous time. Bergson takes issue with Kant’s acceptance of homogeneous space as a given, instead arguing that the “extensity” of objects is only known through lived intuition, which presents itself to consciousness as duration—a heterogeneous continuum of interpenetrating moments. For Deleuze, the subject experiences duration by actualizing past memories onto the psychological present, marking a distinction between the past as memory and the present as becoming. In this light, Grisey’s notion that “the apprehension and measure of difference” is “the true material of musical composition” means that music is a process of making time heterogeneous by engaging with listeners’ previously established expectations within the becoming of the present. The hierarchy that Grisey draws between periodic rhythms and statistical sounds constructs a musical bridge between this separation of homogeneous and heterogeneous time.

Second, by deconstructing the boundary between rhythm and sound object, Grisey grounds pulse and tone in a common ontology. His assertion that “the sound object is only a process which has been contracted” resonates with Deleuze’s idea that perception emerges from the contraction of memory into the present. When Grisey describes sound as a pulse compressed into a single Gestalt, he colorfully illustrates Deleuze’s conclusion that Bergsonian duration cannot be experienced apart from space: “What is expanded if not the contracted—and what is contracted if not the extended, the expanded?” Like perception for Deleuze, musical sounds for Grisey are vectors of heterogeneous and homogeneous temporality, “force fields given direction in time.”

Last, Nattiez’s semiotic tripartition helps reconcile Grisey’s early division of chronometric and perceptual time with his later theory of music as skin, flesh, and skeleton. Dimitris Exarchos attempts to join these two theories by problematically collapsing the skin into the flesh, while Yonatan Izhak Niv understands “flesh” to allude to a Merleau-Pontian chiasm. Really, skin accounts for what Nattiez calls music’s esthesic dimension, skeleton for the poietic, and flesh for the residue of interaction between composition and interpretation. Only this construction preserves Grisey’s distribution of agency over the binary between chronometric and perceived time: composers arrange the work’s temporal skeleton and inscribe its flesh with emotion, whereas listeners give body to its acoustic presence and perceive its skin-like surface.

A Hermeneutics of Recovery: Recovering Hermeneutics

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.”

Music in Hegel’s Aesthetics: Toward a Phenomenology of the Subject

Boyer College Graduand Student Forum, 24 April 2016

This paper investigates the phenomenological model of subjectivity that undergirds the theoretical descriptions of melody, harmony, and form in G. W. F. Hegel’s Aesthetics. While scholars such as Philip Alperson and Martin Donougho have denounced the Aesthetics for uninformedly devaluing instrumental music, the text’s explicit references to instrumental sonata form provide evidence to the contrary. For Hegel, music “sounds out” the subject, reverberating within the catacombs of the mind to illuminate the depths of the inner self. Considering Hegel invites us to reconsider music in terms of how it organizes events and demarcates the flow of time.

The passages on music reflect two larger motives that Andrew Bowie has observed in the Aesthetics as a whole: the mediation of nature and culture through art, and the integration of contradictions into a unified whole that imbues its components with meaning. Hegel’s anachronistic reference to Pythagorean intervals manifests the Aesthetics’ overarching attempt to order art according to principles of nature. Hegel’s taxonomical method seems at first to isolate music’s components, but the relations that emerge among the partitions establish elaborate interdependencies: melody and harmony are an analog for freedom and necessity, and create sequences of musical themes that enable the subject to perceive rhythm on a plane that transcends repetitious meter and pulse.

Hegelian subjectivity in music depends on the principle of double negation: the mind negates the plurality of things in space, condensing them into a “now”; this “now” negates itself by passing into a new “now,” iterans ad infinitum, which creates a homogeneous flow of time. Subjectivity emerges as music superimposes onto this flow of time an observable pattern of cadenced interjections. In this reading, the Aesthetics forwards a conception of music wherein a sequence of events enables the subject to perceive its endurance through time.

“Canto Gregoriano”: Paul Creston’s Adaptation of Plainchant as Topic

Music Theory Society of the Mid-Atlantic, 8 April 2016
University of Michigan Graduate Music Research Conference, 20 March 2016

This study explores the hermeneutic efficacy of topic theory in the context of 20th-century American music by theorizing Paul Creston’s adaptation of contemporary plainchant practice as a recurring topic in his compositions. The paper considers the definitions of “topic” offered by Leonard Ratner, Robert Hatten, Raymond Monelle, Michael Klein, and Danuta Mirka. In doing so, it frames Creston’s indexing of chant first as a generative style—furnishing the textural and thematic content of homogeneous works—and second as a topic that injects this style into distinct spaces of Creston’s larger, heterogeneous compositions. Interpreting Creston’s chant as a topic per se is justified according to Hatten because of its productivity, and to Lawrence Kramer because it opens hermeneutic windows and topical fields that construct interpretive frameworks for narrative.

As a Catholic organist in New York, Creston was familiar with the plainchant practice revived by the Benedictines of Solesmes. This paper traces sympathetic criticism through Creston’s two books about rhythm and a treatise on chant phraseology by the Benedictine André Mocquereau. Among the numerous musical examples it discusses, this study cites one of Leopold Stokowski’s rare, annotated scores, which labels an instance of Creston’s chant topic, “Canto Gregoriano.” In a culminating analysis of “Introduction and Song,” Symphony No. 2, the primary theme exhibits the subversion of meter, vacillation of pulse subdivisions, and orchestrational texture prototypical of the chant topic. Interpreting these features as expressing a persona—who traverses a sequence of events that signify stasis, loss, and reconciliation—proffers an apologia for the fecundity of topic theory in relation to 20th-century music.