Music and dramatic diachrony

I re-read some of Kofi Agawu’s Playing with Signs the other day. Whilst discussing ‘extroversive semiosis’, i.e. ‘topics’ – expressive content in ‘Classic’ music, whose discursive character and significance, like all signs, emerges from perceiver competence, and evolves over time depending on what Agawu calls the ‘listening/sound environment’ (which was shared by composers and listeners alike in the eighteenth century; a sociocultural, normative ‘meaning context’ for the basic structural rhythms and properties of musical pieces) – Agawu makes a basic point very well.

Counterposing his own topical method of suggestive and interpretative (not exhaustive), narrative topical analysis with motivic analysis of the absolute, intra-musical kind, Agawu points out that motivic analysis is all very well, but that failing to account in even a superficial way (and in this respect Agawu’s analysis is self-consciously superficial) for the referential basis of this music (described contemporaneously in terms of ‘expression’, ‘character’, ‘style’), which as Agawu shows through analysis of both eighteenth century writings and musical pieces was at the centre of how both audiences and composers conceived and conceptualised, and thus on the part of the composers composed, this music, consigns motivic analysis not only to a solipsistic frame, but also to a synchronic, profoundly inadequate mode of investigation. Contrary to what most implicitly claim on behalf of this kind of analysis, musical conventions are not synchronous and meaningless; their sociocultural, processual basis is one their most interesting aspects. Topical analysis, amongst other things, allows the analyst to account in part for the ‘historical specificity’ of musical syntax, thus locating the music’s syntax in a historical continuum. Agawu has a wonderful line here: ‘the idea that syntax exists in a timeless, synchronic dimension seems unduly facile’ (41). Even if motivic analysts do situate their findings in some kind of historical frame (which, at the level of individual and fairly anonymous motives, would be particularly difficult), they miss what is fundamentally interesting about motives; their rhetorical function and significance.

Motivic and other formalistic methods of analysis not only compress music’s diachrony into an artificial, ahsitorical synchrony, they miss the fundamentally human drama happening at the music’s surface and, by recursion, thus deep in its structural background. As Agawu suggests, speaking specifically of his analysis of Mozart’s K.332 sonata, ‘by empirically locating the content of Mozart’s sonata in an eighteenth century sound environment, {he has} provided a point of departure for making sense of that eloquent and richly diversified drama’ (48).

Of course, the common response – of Charles Rosen, for example – that none of the formalistic theorists ever actually held that music emerges in a vacuum, but instead merely adopt this bracketing attitude in order to see what results they can get, is fatuous; if these theorists do not account for context and historical evolution in its fullest sense in their theory, then that theory has to be judged as woefully inadequate, since it cannot even account for the basic referential dimensions of music, let alone model in any meaningful way music’s diachronic, normative historical development as a dramatic, meaningful form.

This music, as with later forms of classical and even popular music, is ahistoricised by synchronic and non-referential analysts of design and motive not as a result of deeply held analytical convictions about what is at stake in discussions of music, but rather simply so analysts would not have to build music into its proper sociocultural context. Music, conceived in a vacuum, could submit to positivistic analysis and would yield replicable, seemingly rigorous results. This was lazy scholarship, essentialising a musical form(at) in order that it could be artificially analysed as a self-complete, intra-conceptual (at best) piece of data. ‘Music’ here emerges as a polemical, malingering coldness, set against its proper proliferatory, hybridic nature. This is of course hardly news, but its bold-faced cheek deserves all the opprobrium it gets! And, I’m not suggesting for a moment that ‘cold’ analysis does not produce interesting results – it does, even if they’re onanistically-inclined – but this kind of absolutist approach becomes deeply problematic when it is conceptualised as a totalising system.


3 Responses to “Music and dramatic diachrony”

  1. Ed McKeon Says:

    In terms of critically situating music, I fully agree. I’m not sure that’s what musical analysis is always aiming at, though. It can also be about using the canon to validate aesthetic precepts (e.g. organicism) and performance practice (formalism). It’s striking that many analysts are also composers, such that analytic practice becomes a surrogate for compositional practice (and, indeed, validation of their aesthetic precepts).

    In other words, both critical and positivistic approaches may be valid, to different ends. The former may locate the music within its context and divine its significance. The latter may render it as ‘material’ for thinking through the making of new work. And both approaches may have value – and problems – for interpretation in contemporary performance.

  2. Stephen Graham Says:

    I agree, both approaches certainly have value; speaking as someone who used to like nothing more than to pore over scores in my own little mystic processes of divination, more power to analysts. However, when their work becomes the primary signifier (pun intended!) in a kind of ‘discourse of the master’, rubbing out any debate about culture and contexts and diverting any funds that might undermine what Tagg used to call their ‘congeneric’ formalism, then you’re left with a problem.

    This is all very old news, so readers might wonder why I even bother bringing it up; the point I was trying to make with this post was that, even by their own analytical lights of intra-musical ‘decontexts’, formalist analysts end up with a hopelessly bland hermeneutic frame; the drama of these topics/signs, the very expressive character of the music itself as broadly understood by composer and audience, is absent from their analyses. It might be replaced by some highly libidinal and auto-erotic charts, diagrams, Schenkergrams, set theories, and so on, but these are merely skeins on the music’s skin (often highly entertaining and interesting skeins).

  3. Stephen Graham Says:

    Then again, I’ve reverted to my own kind of ‘discourse of the master’ here, locating the moment of essential meaning production in the interplay of audience and composer coding and decoding, an approach that is itself ripe for deconstruction…though without falling into a hall of mirrors, I’d suggest it’s at least a more dynamic and historicised model than that offered by formalists.

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