Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Silencing powers of Spectacle: A State Sonata


This is not a descriptive essay, merely a speculative one, an essay that attempts to creatively deconstruct the givens of ritual performance, suggesting the hidden ideologies that bear significance on Singaporean Govermental-ity (Foucault). This is an essay that is yet to be written, but is contained in abstract form as such. The excessess of Spectacle is a well-studied one (Debord), and the yearly Singaporean Spectacle - a highly ordered ritual tampering of cathartic energies - should, by no means, be spared analysis. Every year, the nation tunes in either on TV or at a predetermined location to participate in the festive ritual of National Day. Of particular significance is the temporal ordering of events for National Day, a propagandistic tool that reproduces a formal structure year after year in the Sonata Form.

First, the exposition articulates a hypermasculine aesthetic, represented through the contingence of State Power: the Armed Forces. Simultaneously touted as the chief means by which "internal" security is managed and maintained (at what expense?), uniformity, rigor and the sacrifice of individuality (the sacrifice of individual to State for an ideology of the collective) is stressed, ex-pressed as a macho spectacle of dominance, and protection (which functions as presented negative). The Second Subject introduces the second-ary, namely the collective individualities themselves in a flamboyent display of Nationalized individuality. This too, is seized and absorbed under the umbrella of National discourse, such that individualities are re-produced as signifying archetypes. Development - struggle between the (already repressed) representation of archetypal individuality and dominant aggression - usually the military is called on to "perform" along with other constituencies. In doing so, hypermasculine modes of identification (first seen with uniforms) are vagarized by demeaning the soldier to the level of the performer, usually decking him out in "costume". The hypermasculine is emasculated, so to speak, the soldier on the performance tarpaulin is not one performing his excessive gender, but one who is forced to perform in drag.

Thirdly, Recapitulation. But here, recapitulation does not take the form of the domination over masculine/feminine appropriations. Rather, recapitulation articulates itself as a third component of the ideological triangle: multicultural (albeit plural) egalitarianism, symbolized by the harmonious integration of both Repressive State Apparatus and Expressive State Apparatus sharing the common performance tarpaulin. Here, military contingents reappropriated in uniform stand shoulder to shoulder (but not mingle!) with other contingent performers, enounciating the need for radical tolerence, although only a tolerence tolerable by keeping differences distinct both spatially and ideologically. Last, Coda, fireworks, but first - the medley of National Songs. "Count on me Singapore", "This is my country", "We Are Singapore", first seperate entities, then, in counterpoint. The bedazzled spectator ascribes to the power of voice, but disciplined voice. Nonetheless, the spectator may choose one of the contrapuntal voices to mimic - let it be known that his mimesis is one already predetermined, composed to be poylphonically consonant with rudimentary harmonic progressions that resemble a perpetual canon. Like the canon, the citizen sings forever, repetitively, doomed to reproduce a melody that is not his/her own.

What else is there to do as a last resort but to push this perpetual canon to its limits of intelligibility, that is, to push musical harmony to its extreme: that of censorship. In a startling catharsis of repressed jouissance, the medley is put to sudden cadence - interrupted, if you will - by fireworks. This explosion of sound, a carefully controlled dionisiac phenomenon, is less celebration than it is violent explosion. This is always Subjectivity's participation in State Apparatus driven to its end: it always concludes with the violence. What else are fireworks than the ultimate antithesis to ordered harmony, noise itself, absolute unintelligibility? But in this excessiveness of noise (unintelligibility), the individual voice as last means of agency to song is completely eradicated and overpowered. No voice can compete with the thundering silencing effect of complete devastation and destruction. Ironically, fireworks are usually accompanied by Tchaikovsky - an individible remainder of European colonialism, or the suggestion that the machinery that lurks behind this implosion of Self/State is really self-colonialization in process, the grand Singapore Dream not to disrupt the system of colonialization, but to sit at its head seat.

But fireworks are controlled explosions. The disorder that blinds its citizenry turns out to be ordered spectacle. Indeed disorder itself has to be silenced to make way for its final instalment of the ritual: the national pledge. All semblance of melody is effaced, supplanted by the single, mechanistic unision that regurgitates a familiar prose, in rhythm. Counterpoint has collapsed into syllabic repetition (the regimentality of hypermasculinity, perhaps, making a recovery?) at the expense of any last possible harmony. Nobody ever sings the national pledge, it is seen as a mockery, an act of insurbordination. Here, Barthe's "grain of the voice" - the last resource of the individual by means of the body - is totally and completely silenced by State-demanded euphony. The president leaves, and the crowd is dismissed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A primer on Schoenberg as Postmodernist

By 1908, Arnold Schoenberg had completely abandoned traditional triadic tonality, signalling the consummation of a process that had begun in 1900. While Schoenberg had tinkered with the limits of traditional triadic tonality in his early song cycles such as the expressionistic Gurre-Lieder (1900-1901) and Zwei-Lieder (1907-1908), his final break with triadic tonality came with the composition of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908). Set to the tragic love poetry of Stefan George, the piece was notorious for its radical use of chromatic harmonies without any single established tonal center. Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (1908) set out to further develop his newfound compositional idiosyncrasies, although its critical reception met with similar ends, that is, uproar, disapproval and harsh criticism. Needless to say, the premiere of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten in 1910 hardly fared any better. Life, it seems, was a bed of nails for Schoenberg: besides facing rejection from his critics, he was also rejected by his own wife, who ran away with mutual friend and painter Richard Gerstl.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why Schoenberg prized the “struggle for [artistic] truth higher than the truth itself”. Seen from a different angle, “struggle” could be interpreted as Schoenberg’s strategy of romanticizing or justifying personal crisis by conflating the realm of the personal with the realm of the artistic. “Beauty,” he claims, does not reside in the completed artistic object but “in that everlasting struggle for truth”. In the first published edition of Harmonielehre (1911), Schoenberg’s preface clearly instructs the pedagogue to adopt the philosophy of the struggle in which “the search itself” for artistic truth is valorized. For Schoenberg,

“[The] thinker, who keeps on searching ... shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved ... Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is definitely not something to find ... movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails ... Only activity, movement is productive ... Comfort avoids movement, it therefore does not take up the search.”

The impulse to “movement”, as demonstrated in the rest of the Harmonielehre, was one that sought to move beyond the “comforts” of traditional triadic harmony, a “search” that involved the exploration of new laws and organizing principles beyond the limited scope that traditional tonality had permitted. It would be nearly a decade later before Schoenberg finally reaped the fruits of his “search” with the invention of the 12-tone composition system. Until then, Harmonielehre was at best a traditional harmony textbook peppered with ruminations and speculative thought, making arguments for what was eventually (and famously) known as “the emancipation of the dissonance”.

Indeed, what Schoenberg set out to demonstrate in various chapters of the Harmonielehre was precisely the very constructedness of tonality as a compositional aggregate of laws and common practices. For Schoenberg, traditional tonality “is no natural law of music [which is] eternally valid” , but a historical construction which has gained its validity through years of shared practice, a “system of presentation (Darstellung)” through which the production and reception of music occurs. This Darstellung may ensure a common tonal language between producers and receivers, but what Schoenberg also points out is the way in which “Tonality” as a system is disciplinary in nature, qualifying certain practices under its umbrella while rejecting other practices as invalid or incorrect (such as parallel fourths and fifths in counterpoint). Schoenberg rejects the totalizing tendencies of the tonal disciplinary system, claiming that any meta-theory of art must necessarily “consist ... of exceptions”, although he remains aware of how the establishing of artistic laws can often “influence the way in which the sense organ of the subject, the observer, orients himself to the attributes of the object observed”.

Based on this logic, Schoenberg deduces that the dialectical separation between “consonances” and “dissonances” within the logic of tonality is inherently faulty for two reasons. Firstly, given that the basis of tonality rests on the acoustical properties Klang (tone), then the Klang must already be intrinsically “dissonant” by virtue of the “dissonant” partials heard in the higher overtone series. Since the “dissonant” partials are higher in pitch and therefore less audible than the “consonant” first few partials of the fundamental Klang (the octave, the 5th and the major 3rd), it follows that the distinction between consonance/dissonance is of “degree, [and] not of kind”. In other words, the consonance/dissonance antithesis is a false one; in the acoustical reality of the Klang, they are merely coordinates on the same trajectory. Secondly, Schoenberg argues that the binary distinction is cultural and based primarily on the level of acceptance of the listener. If the chromaticism of Wagner, Debussy and other composers can be successfully recruited into the realm of “consonance” by acculturated listeners, then it would only be a matter of time when the “growing ability of the analyzing ear” is able to embrace “the whole natural phenomenon” of Klang as consonant.

The longevity of the consonant/dissonant binary (which privileges the former), Schoenberg posits, also partially lies in the historical treatment of the identified “dissonant” tones as “passing tones”, consequently reifying or confirming “the phenomenon of dissonance itself”. What Schoenberg refers to here is the way in which the linguistic tropes used to characterize “dissonances” (i.e. as merely “passing”) simultaneously serves to construct a hierarchy of tones, an act of proscription which “names” certain intervallic relationships as less-essential than others. For Schoenberg, the “dissonant” had to be disciplined by the logic of tonality by constructing an epistemological binary (consonant/dissonant) which served to maintain the pre-established hierarchy, albeit by articulating a repertory of rules by which “dissonances” were to be “treated”: “Dissonance was accepted, but the door through which it was admitted was bolted whenever excess threatened”.

It is important to note that Schoenberg did not altogether dismiss tonality as a tool for the artists’ kit. On the contrary, Schoenberg sought to criticize the way in which tonality as a Darstellung was asserted as natural law or unquestionable rule. “Tonality” for Scheonberg remained a viable “formal possibility that emerge[d] from the nature of the tonal material, a possibility of attaining a certain completeness or closure (Geschlossenheit) by means of a certain uniformity”. To the extent that Schoenberg claimed to be “emancipating” the dissonance, this purely meant that he was attempting to undo a deep-rooted epistemological bias in the tradition of tonal music that established a hierarchy of privilege, assisted by rules of “proper treatment”. Simultaneously, as a composer, Schoenberg was attempting to establish theoretical grounds by which his non-normative chromatic dealings were justified.

To the end, Schoenberg remained resentful of the term “atonal” – an invention of the rival Hauerian school of thought which Schoenberg vehemently disagreed with. For Schoenberg, the notion of ‘atonality’ was oxymoronic in the sense that it “could only signify something inconsistent with the nature of tone”. By proposing the use of “polytonal” or “pantonal”, Schoenberg was sending a clear message that he was not attempting to adopt a radically relativist position in opposition to traditional harmony. Rather, Schoenberg saw himself as reworking the basic assumptions of tonality, rethinking the organizing properties of traditional tonality in terms of the twelve tone chromatic scale. By the end of Harmonielehre, Schoenberg expressed his excitement that:

“[We] are turning to a new epoch of polyphonic style, as in earlier epochs, harmonies will be a product of the voice leading: justified solely by the melodic line!”

In the mid 1920s, Schoenberg’s dreams for a utopian tonal democracy finally came to be realized in the tone row – a series of the twelve chromatic tones arranged without any repetitions. Once the “Basic set” (BS) of 12 non-repeating tones had been established, a series of rows could be derived from the basic set through (1) inversions, (2) Retrogrades, (3) Retrograde inversions, and (4) transpositions of the rows. Through a single BS, 36 different rows may be generated, forming a pool of creative raw material to draw from. Schoenberg’s so-called “method” of composition with twelve tones was not the only system in existence. Josef Matthias Hauer, a rival theoretician, had similarly come up with a system and theory of ordering twelve tones in a composition, based upon pseudo-Romantic ideas of “spiritualization” and “the purely musical phenomenon of the interval”. Similarly, Hebert Eimert’s 1924 treatise entitled Atonale Musiklehre attempted to treat Hauerian speculation in a systematic way, while excising the more abstract “spiritual” claims.

Although both Schoenberg and his rival schools each drew up ideological systems in which to justify and systematize the handling of twelve tone composition, their individual philosophies and approaches to dodecaphonic music differed vastly. Schoenberg harshly criticized Hauer for attempting to elucidate the “natural laws” concerning twelve-tone music, claiming that “[Hauer] looks for laws ... where he will not find them”. Instead, Schoenberg accused Hauer of “inventing kinds of form that will make it possible to accommodate the twelve tones without repetition” as merely “a means to an end” . In other words, Schoenberg accused Hauer of doing exactly what he was accusing tonal conservatives of in Harmonielehre, which is, seeking totalized epistemological universes that try to “round off the system” by increasing the girth of their theoretical fences. Schoenberg, of all people, understood the problems which “theory” and “established convention” inflicted upon the discursive field of music. While “theory” portends to describe, too often it prescribes, and ultimately proscribes, as Schoenberg had argued with the case of the consonance/dissonance binary. Similarly, newly erected laws would inevitably enact new modes of disciplining and hence new methods of exclusion by defining itself against a non-privileged musical “other”.

After all, it was the unshakable walls of historical tradition and musical “law” that operated to “exclude” Schoenberg from wider circles of musical acceptance. In Schoenberg’s eyes, he knew he was categorized as the dissident “dissonant” out of line with conservative “consonance” in Viennese musical life. At the same time, he was painfully aware of the ways in which these binaries operated to affect public musical tastes, and the reception of his works. In some ways, Schoenberg’s utopian ideal of “pantonality” underscored a personal yearning for a plural universe where his music would be properly ‘understood’; a musical universe in which the dissonant could lie beside the consonant in ‘harmony’; where the diversification and conflict of musical “laws” reflected nothing more than personal compositional and theoretical choices; where the “struggle” for truth was to be venerated over (the potentially tyrannical nature of) truth itself. To this end, through the vision of a post-consonant/dissonant world, Schoenberg was already espousing an ethics of postmodernism.

Schoenbereg: the Postmodernist?

The postmodern condition which I see prevalent in much of Schoenberg's writings (especially in his early work from Harmonielehre onwards) one that finds consonance not in Frederic Jameson's conceptualization of "Late Capitalism", which finds its form in a crises of historical representation, but one that is closer to Jean Lyotard's work (see especially the Postmodern Condition), which treats the condition of postmodernism as an epistemological one, albeit a structural condition concerning the production of knowledge, and knowledge systems. According to Lyotard, postmodernism as a condition of knowledge [systems] 'reject' overarching "metanarratives" that attempt to shoehorn a discontinuous, sublime discursive field into legible scripts, through various explanatory (and ideological) models.

This was precisely what I feel Schoenberg was reacting to by discussing the "emancipation of dissonance", that is, the rejection of the Modernist tendency (eg. Hauer) to articulate new disciplinary laws to organize 'new' discursive practices within the twelve-tone field. For Hauer, this new attempt of organization was rooted in neo-Romanticist notions of transcenence and transhumanity. By figuring the realm of the 'atonal' as a more 'authentic' intermediary space between author (composer) and reader (listener), Hauer pretty much rehearsed old Humanist neo-Platonist thought loosely through the frame of the philosophers of his time (eg. Nietszche, Schopenhauer... et al). His predilections for the "spiritual" vaguely recall absolutist visions of "Musica Mundana", whereby "God" or "Universal Harmony" is simply replaced by a conflation of the Hegelian "Geist", Kantian "Idea" and Nietschean/Schopenhauerian "Will". Human agency and heavenly spiritual realm are thus connected through mimesis of this spiritual realm, "performing" the inevitably flawed "musica instrumentalis" of higher organizing laws. In Lyotard-language, Hauer was merely repeating the act of epistemological (re)closures, finding new manipulations of an old structuralist formula. As it were, you can't teach an old dog to perform new tricks, but the dog may simulate the new by reapplying old methods.

Schoenberg's response is decisive by moving away from the Foucauldian field of "discourse" (and all its entrapments), and into the realm of the "discursive", which, as I have argued in my paper, offered a more democratic reflection of musical practice which Schoenberg both utopianized and idealized through the "emancipation of the dissonance". Read allegorically, this "emancipation" was not a liberation - Schoenberg himself asserted that it was not an excuse for absolute relativisim; and I quote:

"... [A] composer with twelve independent tones apparently possesses the kind of freedon which many would characterize by saying: 'everything is allowed'. 'Everything' has always been allowed to two kinds of artists: to masters on the one hand, and to ignoramuses on the other." (1941)

The "emancipation of the dissonance", put another way, is a crisis in 'freedom' (in the tyrannical Lacanian psychoanalytic "Real") that threatens to overwhelm "ignoramuses" with the harsh rays of meaningless relativity. It is as if to say, one were looking directly into Socrate's Sun years after lazing around in the cave of traditional tonality. And Schoenberg himself was aware of the 'dazzling' (read: overwhelming) implications of this liberation. Conversely, he was aware of false attempts that tried to completely theorize the space under the shadows of tonality (like Hauer) would be quickly recruited as a new 'metatheory', indeed a "confusion would arise" (1936) -

"I could have forseen that, when in 1921 I showed my former pupil Erwin Stein what means I had invented to profoundly provide for an organization, granting logic, coherence and unity. I then asked him to keep this a secret and to consider it as my private method to do the best for my artistic purposes." (December 1949)

Once word got of Schoenberg's method had reached the Viennese and American composerly spheres, Schoenberg was adamant about refuting any alliegence to "theory" of any kind:

"... when I came to America I could not change my trade-mark. I was the man with 'the system of the chromatic scale' ... I was of course only capable [of delivering] a superficial explanation, a description, of the methods of distribution of the twelve tones. I was always aware of this imperfection, and this is why I gave to the lecture the title - METHOD OF COMPOSING WITH TWELVE TONES!" (ibid.)

Clearly, Schoenberg insists on the tone-row method merely a method for composing, and not the be-all and end-all of compositional possibilities. Towards the end of his life, Schoenberg suprised critics and the interested public with a slew of tonal composition, although based on his principles, we should not be surprised at all. While decrying the disciplinary tendencies of tonality (in its construction of laws and strategies of proscription), at the same time Schoenberg recognized the immense value and worth of these limitations as formal constraints for creative composition. Indeed "abandoning tonality can be contemplated only if other satisfactory means for coherence and articulation present themselves". (1934) Tonality was one method of "articulation", but evidently not the only method of articulation.

Schoenberg's split with traditional traid-centered tonality was then secured with a pact: by abandoning the regimented ordering system of presentation (Darstellung), Schoenberg had to first reject the totalizing claims of any theory or musical law that touted itself to be ahistorical and transcendental. As mentioned earlier, this meant retreating from the sphere of discourse to the sphere of the discursive, a 'regression' of sorts. Of course, this was partially ideological. Recycling worn notions of psychological realism, subjectivity and the Freudian Unconscious (all large polemic topics of the late 19th and early 20th century), Schoenberg initiated a movement back to the (composerly) self:

"Tonality's origin is founded ... in the laws of sound. But there are other laws that music obeys, apart from these and the laws that result from the combination of time and sound: namely, those governing the working of our minds." (1926)

The composer then, became the locus of creative and "formal" energies, the ordering authority that authenticates its products based on "sound" as raw material. The consequences are immense, for this meant shifting away from the strongholds of a Tonality as "not an end in itself, but means to an end" (ibid), therefore leaving the system unclosed, open and therefore implicitly plural, susceptible to other laws drawn up by the composer himself. Lyotard sees this pact of knowledge as a postmodern condition, the rejection of metanarratives, whilst operational "rules" of the postmodern "game" are found preceding the "game" itself, i.e. based on the assemblage of raw material.

By harking towards a fluid self-defining concept of "unity" as found in the "Grundgestalt", Schoenberg sought to give name to the unnameable - a phemonenon that could be described as motivic "shape" on one had, or (in my preference), "structural trace", the assemblage of a basic rule or datum that structures the ordering of the entire composition (a lynchpin, if you like). One way to read the "Grundgestalt" is in its linguistic peculiarities. On one hand, "Grund" directly translates into "ground", or "soil", while "Gestalt" (making loud indications at German Gestalt psychology theory) implies "to take shape" or "to show one's true colours" (Collins Dictionary). By combining the seantic fields of both words, one imagines an Organicist idea of the "Grundgestalt" as a growth from "soil" to its full "shape". The "true colours" of the Gestalt, as it seems, would be contained in its germination (i.e. an cosmic-atomist view of musical composition).

Joseph Rufer's ruminations on the "Grundgestalt" implies an abstract germinal musical aggregate that gives rise to an entire composition (1954). Following, it is easy to see how Schoenberg's idea of the Basic Set fit the criteria of the "Grundgestalt" comfortably, a primordial compositional tool with which to flesh out the rest of a composition. On the other hand, the "Grundgestalt" rejects any resolute definition, it is an empty signifier that points to structural possibilities without itself being a determinate structural entity. Is it not so that the "Grundgetalt" as "structural trace" exists as a Lyotard's postmodern prefiguration of the compositional space with an indictement to construct rules BASED ON whatever fills the "Grundgestalt". The "Grundgestalt" therefore fulfills its own organicist destiny by creating rules (structural significance) by virtue of its filler components.

In closing, it must be said that Lyotard's formulation of the postmodern proceeds from the qualities of paradox (eg content (Grundgestalt) prior to rules (Structure)). As Lyotard claims, the postmodern is deceptive: while its etymology suggests a temporal 'afterwards', the postmodern itself resembles something more of the 'pre'Modern, although the condition itself can only arise as a consequence of the Modern. It is as if hitory, surveying its own ideologies, decides to take a step back in time to the messy inter-existing matrix of pre-ideologies with one foot still standing on the beyond. Is this then not Schoenberg, decrying the impoverty of totalizing theories as a modernist tendency, taking a historical step "backwards" to the 'free' indecisive moment of plural composerly activity which structures itself along its own "Grundgestalt"? Is this not Schoenberg, who embodied the very manifestation of paradoxical subjectivity by appealing to both "methods" of composition during his lifetime? Is this not Schoenberg who envisioned new possibilities of "unity" by rejecting epistemological claims to singular truths? This is Schoenberg, I believe, the postmodernist.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Queer Handel

“Was George Frederic Handel Gay?” asks Gary C. Thomas in one of the most influential and revealing essays on musicology and queer theory. The answer, at best, can only be inferred from primary sources since Handel never openly admitted that he was gay, and for an obvious historical reason too: the origin of the word “homosexual” (prior to its subsequent conflations with the word “gay”) dates back only to 1868 , more than 100 years after Handel died. Even so, the polarisation of “heterosexual/homosexual” did not come to signify a specific medical distinction until the 1890s, while its modern accretion of political values only crystallised during the first half of the 21st century . Quite simply, even when faced with inquiry, Handel could not have subscribed to a position or an identity that has come to signify under various contemporary social, cultural and political forces, since Handel’s own discursive fields of activity (i.e. activities that we might deem as homosexual today) would have lacked a unifying discourse, indeed a name.

Despite these historical incongruities in definition, Handel’s alleged queerness continued to egg musicologists, historians and biographers, who had the “duty to reveal the whole truth about the subject’s life with at least a modicum of dispassionate objectivity”. For these historians, the lack of clear-cut biographical data that signalled Handel’s deviance from the heterosexual norm came to signify not a subjective silence, but an epistemological silence. The final word on Handel’s sexuality was seen to be a lacuna in “the whole truth”, a niggling foreclosure that consequently recast Handel’s sexuality as a hotbed of academic contestations. For Biographers, Handel’s tendency to evade inquiries on women and sexuality seemed to fare poorly against the bulwark of empirical evidence that suggested Handel’s participation in sexually deviant activities.

A revealing manifestation of this historical deadlock finds form in Louis-Francois Roubiliac’s monumental sculpture of Handel, currently residing at the “Poet’s Corner” in Wesminster Abbey (see Fig. 1 below) . Perched atop a marbled pedestal, the composer is represented classically in scholarly gown, elbow balanced on a table bearing a copy of Handel’s most lauded Oratorio “The Messiah”. Despite these predictable elements, Roubiliac’s sculpture invites us to ponder upon more curious elements of his portrayal. For example, a large double-bass beneath the clutter of the table is partially obscured by a large foulard, held by Handel’s right hand. Noticing these details, the eye is drawn to another feature that mirror’s the curtain-like partial revelation of the bass – to the left, Handel’s own scholarly gown is garishly pulled to one side, granting the viewer a full gaze of Handel’s nether-regions. Of course, this is purely suggestive, as Handel is safely fully garbed beneath his robe; however, the viewer is left with as sense of curiosity as to what invisible force might be tugging (disrobing) the figure of Handel. With this peculiarity in mind, our previous interpretation of Handel’s ‘revealing’ of the double-bass is thrown into question: is Handel’s right hand engaged in an act of disclosure, or is it foreclosure?


I am not claiming any authoritative interpretation of Roubiliac’s sculpture; although Roubiliac was acquainted with Handel, as far as I am aware, there is no conclusive evidence that Roubiliac was a “social deviant” nor that he possessed intimate knowledge of Handel’s non-normative dealings. However, Roubiliac’s sculpture so charged with the obsessive gaze of the spectator offers us a reading into the epistemological nature of Handel’s interlocutors in their attempt to “disrobe” Handel. After all, one reading that Handel’s monument offers us is the mystery of the invisible hand that pries at Handel’s robe: aren’t these forces literally the enactments of Handel’s biographers (who mediate our received realities of Handel through their scholarly research and interpretations) on Handel, literally their desires to “unveil” or “disrobe” the truth ossified into stone for the eye of the public? Our desiring, disrobing gaze, it seems, is greeted with disappointment as Handel ‘hides’ the instrument from our reach that would allow us to solve the mystery once and for all; namely, the sweet instrumental melodies of a confessional.

Alternatively, Roubaliac’s sculpture so precisely ossifies the epistemological impasse of Handel scholarship into stone, and can be read as not a surface representation of Handel himself, but a sculptural manifestation of an epistemological structure (so ridden with the desire to disclose) that has replaced the actual subject of Handel himself. This epistemological impasse, Thomas brilliantly calls our attention to, is none other than what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the “Epistemology of the Closet”. In short, to borrow a phrase of Marshall McLuhan’s, “the medium is the message” when it comes to discussing matters of Handel’s sexuality – more specifically, the structuring of the question “Was Handel Gay?” is predicated on the heterosexual/homosexual binary that enables the question in the first place, such that any attempt to “answer” the question becomes an act of epistemological reification. For Thomson,

“The question of Handel’s homosexuality ... is constantly generated, not as a present surface of knowledge, but rather as an absent surfeit of it [in terms of silence]; a lack becomes an ‘excess’ – knowledge is produced in ‘excess’ of what is spoken ... [The] closet is that space where silences speak, obfuscations reveal, absences signify, and negations posit.” (My emphasis)

“Silence” as an epistemological phenomenon within the logic of the Closet is therefore not a mere lacuna. What Sedgwick and Thomas both acknowledge is the way in which “silences” are performative within a given social context, and can therefore be interpreted by various bodies. Thus, the interpretation of “silence” in Handel’s case is already a hermeneutic strategy with which to impose the logic of the Closet binary. Within this structural logic, “silence” is recast as an “open secret” (remember the old saying “silence is consent”?), condemning Handel’s slippery “queerness” to the legible legions of foreclosed knowledge. As D.A. Miller suggests, the “open secret” functions “not to conceal knowledge, as much as to conceal the knowledge of the knowledge.” Even as our politically-sated desiring eyes gaze upon Handel’s disrobing, it would be good to remember that the instrument which Handel’s queer silence fore/discloses is an instrument of our own making – the instrument of the Closet logic which enables and justifies Handel’s disrobing in the first place, the instrument upon which the representation of Handel which we consume seems to rest (sit) upon.

Even if we recognize our locatedness as spectators and participants in historical reconstruction, to what extent should we acknowledge Handel’s implicit queerness in biographies? For Thomas, biographic revision along the lines of a “gay” Handel risks essentializing (or re-centering) a historical version on Handel which “responds to the terms in which the struggles for gay liberation are being waged at this (our) moment in history.” Rather than permitting Handel to exist as “a site of dialectical tensions and relations in culture”, what Thomas cautions is the way in which a “gay” Handel may be structured, even celebrated, to reflect our own contemporary history of GLBT politics. Indeed, as Edward Said pointed out, the construction of text is essentially a political act; no text can be completely free our ‘outside’ the realm of cultural, social, economic and political networks it is engaged with, nor can it claim to opine upon the sphere of the contemporary discourses without ultimately participating in them.

Thus “silence”, when interpreted as a “closeted” silence risks shoehorning a queer Handel into a celebrated spokesperson for left-wing gay rights sloganists. Worse still, defending a silent Handel against the order of queerness would be to blatantly ignore glaring historical details, not to mention risk being blamed for acts of proscriptive canonicity that only permits the Western heterosexual male into its order. It is to this effect that Gary Thomas proposes what he calls a “(homo)textual Handel”, an internally diffracted historical subject that is not beholden to the 20th Century’s obsession with Closet binary logic. But even this definition runs into rocky terrain when it suggests that the (homo)textual Handel be read as “a whole field of social relations and discourses that participate in a complex and open-ended historical conversation” – is this not already the condition of all historical textuality? Thomas’ own definition sounds suspiciously close to anthropologist Michael Taussig’s “Colonial Mirror of Reproduction” condition in which colonizers project their intrinsic savagery onto the colonized “other” which is then physically and symbolically dominated. The subaltern cannot speak, nor can historical Handel, who happens to sit on many a ventriloquists’ lap.

However, there is a “third-way” to attend to silence (and not merely ignore it or treat it as an exclusion or an absence); that is, to conceive of silence not as a mode of consent, but as a strategy of resistance. In a creative exploration of music, McCarthy cold war politics and queer history, Jonathan Katz conceives John Cage’s “silence” on his sexuality a recurring compositional strategy to explore an ethics of listening. Analysing Cage’s infamous “Lecture on Nothing”, Katz opines:
“For Cage, then, communication, which is a form of expression, burdens the listener. It is an attempt to sway, to "impose" a discourse. In substituting "conversation" for "communication," Cage seeks to replace a desire for mastery or control with the open-ended free play of ideas. [...] Meaning in Cage, now replaced by a policy of non-interference, was freed from any dependence on such logos, for it was logos, after all, which had marked him, as a gay man, as disturbed, marginal and unworthy in the first place. Discriminations of meaning or value were, Cage argues here, inherently discriminatory.”

Silent resistance on the part of the composer also helped to shape an aesthetic of self-awareness both for John Cage (and his dealings with Zen philosophy) as well as his audience. Referring to Cage’s notorious 4’33’’, Katz points out that:

“Silent music inaugurated a process of reading that at least potentially moved the listener from an unselfconscious complicity with dominant forms of expression (forms wherein the expressive is passively registered as inherent in the music) towards a degree of self-consciousness about one’s role as a listener or maker of meaning.” (My emphasis)

Cage’s “queering” silences thus revealed the complicity of the listener in reifying predetermined or inherited norms of musical expression and expectation, as well as situating the music in meaning. Paradoxically, by revealing these same structures, Cage’s silent aesthetic simultaneously offers to re-empower the listener by returning agency to the listener as creative collaborator in the composition and master of self-meaning. And what better way to sidestep the problematic terrain of a (homo)textualized Handel than to start listening to Handel as resistive silence – in other words, let Handel remain eternally queer by remembering that it is ultimately Handel’s music that we have come to valorise beyond issues of sexuality and canonicity. By embracing an aesthetic (and ethic) of listening, Handel’s dissonant “locatedness” in contemporary culture becomes “silenced”, literally drowned out by the music itself. And perhaps by doing so, we become more aware of the harmonies that exist between Handel’s “disclosed” instruments, and our own instruments of entraining that, too, sometimes exist hidden beyond our knowledge.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Schenker goes to America


Heinrich Schenker never visited America. In fact, Schenker himself once dismissed inhabitants of the New World, convinced that these musical underlings would never “attain the intellectual and moral qualifications” required to achieve a “higher goal for humanity” . Ironically enough, nearly 50 years after Schenker’s own passing in 1935, the first American Symposium on Heinrich Schenker was held at the Mannes College of Music (New York) in March 1985, celebrating the originality and creativity of Schenker’s contributions to Music Theory. Not only did the symposium symbolize the accretion of interest in Schenker’s theories as laboriously worked out between 1906 and 1935 , it audaciously sought to re-imagine Schenker’s system, stretching its parameters to include analyses of music beyond Schenker’s constricted Teutonic canon . To blindly assume that Schenker’s trans-Atlantic success was a symptom of American academic hospitality, however, would to be to grossly misunderstand the very nature of Schenkerian transmission in America from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Schenker’s body of theoretical thought reached America’s shores in the early 1930s and 40s through Hans Weiss, Ernst Oster, Oswald Jonas and Felix Salzer, first generation pupils who established themselves in conservatories or universities primarily in the North American region. Jonas, for example, assumed a position at the Roosevelt University in Chicago while Weisse resided at the Mannes School of music , which was, for many years, the only American University to conduct courses based on Schenkerian Analysis . What proceeded their emigration from an increasingly war-bent nation, however, was a silence – perhaps even an embarrassed one. Despite their unequivocal devotion to their master’s passionate theoretical inclinations, there existed the possibility that their silence was precisely predicated on Schenker’s rhetoric being overly-passionate for the predilections of their new neighbours.

As William Rothstein explains in his reflection “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker”, the temperament that dominated the American intellectual scene was one based on exactly the opposite: a lack of passion for any singular principle truth, favouring a climate that cherished democratic ideals of (academic) plurality . For Rothstein (who studied under Ernst Oster in the 1970s), Schenker’s imported system contained certain radical “unassimilable elements” such as the latter’s “pan-German nationalism” and “unbending absolutism” as well as his “hatred of twentieth-century music” . Instead, Schenker was whispered amidst the hallowed halls of musicological history, framed as that German zealot who exclaimed: “Strauss, Pfitzner, Humperdinck, Mahler, Reger – such poverty!”

If music theorists in the 1930s to the 60s failed to pay any real attention to Schenker, then exactly what were they preoccupied with? Therein lies the difficulty in understanding Schenkerian transmission as a theoretical discipline, for the precise bearings of music theory in America had not yet been established. One recent debate that has arisen out of ‘New’ Musicology surrounds what Lydia Goehr famously attacked as the “work concept”. The crux of Goehr’s argument is that the autonomous “musical work” as we know it was essentially a 19th Century construction; thus any reference to pre-19th century music using the epistemological framework of a “work” is essentially an act of “conceptual imperialisation” by contemporary researchers . Likewise, trying to understand the transmission of Schenker as a “theory” in musical-theoretical circles would be forgetting that the entire discipline of music theory (co-existent with the ideologies enabling the idea of the professional music theorist) was nonexistent in the 1930s.

Long before Joseph Kerman’s biting critique on “positivist” musicology was published , music theory was subsumed under a much larger umbrella of academic categorization, namely that of “analysis” which was, crudely speaking, a muscle which the discipline of musicology flexed. Mostly a product of 19th century thought, theory’s wedding to analysis found its primary use in musicological examples which subjected “musical masterpieces” to “technical operations, descriptions, reductions and demonstrations purporting to show how they ‘work’” . Guido Adler, long considered as a founding father of modern musicology (Musikwissenschaft) subsumed the study and research of aesthetics, theory (psychology and acoustics) and pedagogy under the arm of ‘systematic’ musicology, as contrasted with ‘historical’ musicology . By doing so, Adler simultaneously helped to define the discursive space within which music “theory” would operate: not independently from musical-historical issues, but in tandem with, even connected to, three other arms of musical thinking. As Bruno Nettl notes, Adler’s assertions meant that “all types of scholarship in music are, and properly ought to be, part of musicology” . American colleges followed suit, much to the tune of Paul Henry Lang’s statement in the 1930s that Musicology rightfully “unites in its domains all the sciences which deal with the production, appearance and application of the physical phenomenon called sound” .

A landmark in the institutionalisation of Musicology as an academic discipline finally came in the 1934 with the founding of the American Musicological Society (AMS), primarily driven by the efforts of Charles Seeger which finally paved the way for the professionalization of the American musicologist (less music theorist), whose production of knowledge was, in turn, defined by the institutional constraints of the Society. According to the 1955 AMS report of the Committee on Graduate Studies, the following definition of the field was elaborated as:

“... a field of knowledge, having as its object the investigation of music as a physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. The musicologist is a research scholar and he aims primarily at knowledge about music. With this primacy he differs from the composer ... and the performer.”

By 1955, then, either theoretical studies in music had been erased from the list of the professional musicologists’ duties, or had been absorbed into “physical, psychological, aesthetic and cultural phenomenon”. But for the first time in American musicological history, the “research scholar” occupied a position independent to the “composer ... and the performer”. Schenker’s scions, therefore, were either to be absorbed by the academic institution as a researcher (and risk the difficult business of defining Schenker’s systems on the terms enumerated by the AMS), or choose monkhood in the refuge of conservatories where composers and performers were churned out. However, by the late 1950s, Alder and Seeger’s utopian unified musicological formulae had begun to turn sour. In 1955, the Society for Ethnomusicology was formed (also spearheaded by Seeger), giving palpable form to the fissures inherent in the dominant musicological doctrine. These fissures, as Joseph Kerman points out, were not merely topical ones but also fissures predicated on differing “philosophies and ideologies” . Indeed, ethnomusicology ventured and assumed the disciplinary principles of anthropology first laid out by Carl Stumpf in 1886 while musicologists with an inclination towards theory watched on enviously.

All this inner dissent was finally assuaged with the founding of the Journal of Music Theory (JMT) in 1957, merely 2 years after the ethnomusicological divorce. In the foreword to the first volume, David Kraehenbuehl enthusiastically proclaimed the journal’s new stake in the field of musical scholarship as a “restoration of music theory as more than a didactic convenience, more than a necessary discipline, as, in fact, a mode of creative thought” . For many closeted theorists, JMT answered prayers by remedying “the lack of any available forum” for “musicians who have maintained the classic concept of a creative music theory” , although it wasn’t met without some initial reservation . Despite the initially lukewarm reception to submissions, most of the letters to the editor confirmed that there was a genuine desire for a discursive sphere outside the reach of ‘traditional musicology’. More than provide burgeoning theorists with a sphere of discourse, JMT had to justify its self-distancing from either musicology or ethnomusicology by reformulating a certain inherited ideology of music theory. In other words, JMT had to produce music theory’s “difference” in order to “restore a common sense to our activities as music theorists” . This was partially answered by Kraehenbeuhl who sought to establish creative vigour in a “general operation” oriented by scientific principles such as “hypothesis” and “testing” . In short, Kraehenbeuhl envisioned music theory’s liberation in science, much in the way ethnomusicology rode out into the sunset on anthropology’s back.

With the sphere of discourse finally established by JMT, the closeted theorist finally found a name for the “operations” he was interested in, unified by a set of principles in a tangible material manifestation of a Journal. JMT therefore also structured an epistemological framework of identification which, by active participation (such as reading, submitting articles or participating in forums), one could subscribe to and draw authority from its legitimacy as a scholarly journal. Above all, as Patrick McCreless lucidly points out, the establishment of JMT within the network of scholarly research represented a shift in the dynamics of knowledge/power relation with ethnomusicology and musicology, ultimately allowing for the formation of Foucauldian “docile bodies” – albeit, the formation of the professional musical theorist .

With the structuring of power/knowledge relationships, a clearing emerged from the hubris of previous definitions (or lack thereof) that granted the hypothetical music theorist certain legitimacy (therefore power) in (re)producing the discourse as regulated by the JMT (also acting as a disciplinary body). Within the next few issues of JMT, a forum on “The Professional Music Theorist” emerged with Kraehenbuehl bearing the polemical torch, arguing for “an increasing and carefully trained corps of professional music theorists” to improve the “curricula” in schools . And it was not long before Schenker quickly rose to the Urliene of theoretical debate. Following a bitter argument between Howard Boatwright and Allen Forte over the former’s review of the latter’s book “Contemporary Tone-Structures”, Forte’s dissatisfaction over Boatwright’s blatant dismissal of his use of Schenkerian analysis prompted him to write an article in the third issue of JMT entitled “Schenker’s Conception of Musical Structure” .

Himself a professor at the Mannes College of Music where Hans Weiss taught, Forte’s article singlehandedly launched Schenker’s system to such heights of publicity it had never received before – not even by any of Schenker’s students nor Felix Salzer’s 1952 publication of “Structural Hearing”: an early (but gentle) attempt to spread the Schenkerian gospel . Not only did Forte’s article introduce an entire nation of identity-crisis-ridden music theorists to Schenker for the first time , Forte also preached the future of music theory through Schenker’s eyes by laying a project of possible theoretical applications . 1959 also marked the appointment of Allen Forte to the Yale music program, where he “proclaimed an ideological commitment to Schenker and a program of work which was to make that university into the world centre for the dissemination and extension of the Austrian theorists’ thought. ” The longevity of Schenker in JMT was further ensured when Forte took on the reins of editor to the journal in the 1960s.

As we have seen, it was primarily through the construction of the professional music theorist as legitimized by JMT that allowed for a sphere of discourse of Schenker to ultimately emerge. If we peer through the lens of history via our received notions of the modern music theorist, Schenker’s reception in the United States would be grossly misunderstood. Similarly, if we exchange positions of perspective and assume that Schenker arrived on American theoretical shores hook line and sinker, we would be forgetting that inasmuch as the concept of the professional musical theorist had to exist as a productive receptacle for Schenkerian thought, Schenkerian thought had to be coloured by the rose-tinted spectacles of this newfangled music theorist in order to reflect the ideologies and philosophy of the disciplinary system which, in turn, defined and empowered the theorist. Indeed the ghost of Schenker paid a heavy price when he sought intellectual refuge in America; as Rothstein observes: “Schenker had become so fashionable that he was being paid the ultimate American compliment: he was being vulgarized” .

Even as Forte’s article pressured the intellectual community for the need of translations of Schenker’s work, editors eventually faced a disturbing challenge with balancing honest representation and democratic ideals. For all the furore Schenker’s system had raised, Schenker’s writing remained strongly passionate, and vehemently offensive to the American theorist. In a famous example, either Oswald Jonas or Ernst Oster excised offending passages from Schenker’s “Free Composition”, exiling them under a 5 page long “appendix 4”. The decision to publish the appendix, according to Rothstein, was “a matter of intense controversy” for they foregrounded Schenker as an inhospitably ardent foul-mouth who rejected “both communism and Western-style democracy” and espoused an “elitist, aristocratic culture . Although eventually published, these products serve as historical documents, material relics infused with the ideological traces of their making.

Today, music theory has called a truce with Schenker; in exchange of incorporation and invested scholarly research, theory has carefully removed the Schenkerian sting where theorists felt it was superfluous to ‘the theory itself’. This de-contextualized Schenker enjoyed particularly good health under the pseudonym “neo-Schenkerianism” , finding itself in numerous analytical and theoretical applications, even in the study of non-Western music cultures. However, it would be useful to pay heed to Rothstein’s warning that “Schenker can no more be exempt from the history of ideas than any other thinker” , implying the need for a broader socio-cultural-political examination of Schenker’s theories and their geneses. Most recently, Nicholas Cook’s brilliant book “The Schenker Project” (2007) has accomplished this task formidably (cleverly avoiding the trappings of attempting to construct an intellectual history), framing Schenker as “a reluctant modernist” resisting the anti-modernist impulses of fin-de-siecle Vienna. Schenker would never had guessed that nearly 50 years since he left this world, he would also become a reluctant American.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Terrible History!

It's funny how you perceive with much horror and trepedition the "gesamt" musik program that Oxford seems to pride itself on, only to saunter into a postgraduate seminar and realise that everyone rattles on the same slates of anxiety as you did. Dr Leach commenced the table session by inviting us to voice our loopholes, as it were, in our own musical education. Although by practice, my jarring episode of lack (I have not even finished my undergraduate course), I felt much better prepared to discuss issues of disciplinary reflexivity in musicology. Most avoided was talk on Baroque music (for more than philological reasons), and most scholars present at the table pointed out their inadequecy at many historical topics. Quickly it became clear to me that even at the collegiate level, great leaps in scholarship were being taken as students struggled, in their undergraduate years, to compile a course of study that would be most rewarding. The quick remedy, of course, would be a recourse to a musical historical survey.

Recourse?

Today I flipped open the first of the breathtaking work "The Oxford History of Western Music" stunningly penned by single author Richard Taruskin - a sort of a enfant terrible in the musicological community. Mr Taruskin has been known for his fascist insistence in a particular brand of history, namely his own, striking out harsh and usually effective at seminars and symposiums, of which he quite regularly attends. There, in the introduction, was the troublesome indication which I had been suspicious of. Confidently, Taruskin wrote himself into a teleological lineage, a straight line of inheritance if you will, originating in Hobbes (I think, let me check my sources). With florid rhetorical ease, Taruskin proudly announces that he is, finally, writing a "true history".

Anyone even vaguely familiar with poststructuralism and the "linguistic turn" in philosophy would reel at Taruskin's audacity. Such arrogance! Such ignorance! Such blithe dismissal of years of corrective reflexivity! And amongst the critics, Cook and Tomlinson have been quick to retort with their slew of accusations agains the man chattering "true history". But the thing is, Taruskin goes on to possess his entire encyclopedia with a forceful notion of cause-and-effect, with broad overarching metanarratives including a preference for selfmade catchwords like "absolutism", regarding developments in the 20th century. It is as if Taruskin is saying: As long as we fancy ourselves with the semantic implications of "absolutism" as a concept, we have successfully grasped the lynchpin, the dynamo of 20th Century narratology. But we risk mixing hierarchical structures in our hermeneutical endeavours, obfuscating mere categorical initiatives of convenience with categories of essence. And no, Mr Taruskin, categories of essence are not universally strategic essentialism, although it may be a formidable strategy of Taruskin to terrorize those underserving scions of "New" Musicology into a kind of sublated reverence for the ancien regime.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ramblings towards a thesis

Music, at its core, is discursive practice. Shamelessly Foucauldian, one notes that discursive practices need not exist without systematic discourses to unify its (sometimes disparate and dislocated) elements. Take the formation of royal Gamelan institutions in the early 20th century. The disputed centralization of these bodies served more than to 'unify' or 'standardize' the body of musicological knowledge associated with Gamelan, neither was it an enriched attempt to musemify a historical tradition. The institutionalization indicated a further disability beyond what was readily understood at the time - that of a unified epistemological universe whose cosmology was all things Gamelan. Instead, what theorists and performers alike discovered was that their horses had run loose from under the reins. "Gamelan", it seemed, was no longer unified (or never had been); Marc Perlman's heavily influential study on the confoundedness of theorists both "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" to the system seems to confirm the problems associated with accumulating a body of knowledge about any system.

In the past 20 years or so, musicologists have been blinded by the rapid eruption of so-called "New" musicology, riding the wave of cultural, linguistic and sociological theory that arose mainly in the 1970s. Armed with the word of Joseph Kerman, new "centers" were proposed beyond the mundane "theory" and "history" inquiry that seemed to plague (as well as satisfy) the profession of musicology. Partially influenced by the exciting breakthroughs of anthropology, Ethnomusicology broke through the surface, although quickly supplicated by other lenses such as feminism and queer theory. It wouldn't be stretching the limits of logic to liken contemporary musicology as both excavation and interpretation, telling old fables while rapidly assimilating the latest version of "otherness" discovered to be neglected. One ideology after another paradigm were pushed over, signaling writers and theorists to the cruel dangers of relativism, itself provoking an intense reinquiry of historiography with respect to musicology, with most theorists agreeing that despite the flaws in this myth-machine, academics were better of pretending they didn't exist, or swallowing the bitter pill and getting on with it.

In The Puppet and the Dwarf, acerbic cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek poses the curious enigma concerning the Creation tale. If the tree of knowledge were all that forbidden, why did god place it there in the first place? In fact, assuming the basic premise of creationism and an implicit idea of 'perfect design', why was the tree of knowledge of "good and evil" created by god himself? Does this indicate that the foundations of evil are not entailed in some hypothetical binary between god's angelic nemisis, but spawned of the creator himself? This "perverse core" of Christian ideology, as Zizek would have it, was an injunction for Adam and Eve to disobey - to cast themselves away from god so as to allow god to truly become God as a mode of ontology. This curious fable lends itself to much speculation, especially regarding the condition of epistemology. If Zizek is right, the pursuit of knowledge does not fill an initial "void" of know-less-ness that is as such, but, instead, scoops out a hole in itself, creates its own blind spots and drives the notion of a 'primordial lack'. What do we know of a 'loss' of a thing without once having the 'thing' itself once?

Could it be that the failure of the musicological episteme is the result of it's epistemological agenda in the first place?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The peverse core of Sameness


"[F]or a sufficiently different culture, the very understanding of what it is to be of worth will be strange and unfamiliar to us. To approach, say, a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier would be forever to miss the point. What has to happen is what Gademer has called a "fusion of horizons." We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of formerly unfamiliar culture. The "fusion of horizons" operates through our developing new vocabulaties of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts" - Charles Taylor

In defense of my views of radical heterogenity and implicit difference, I hereby reveal that Taylor's Gadamer-inspired instructions to the future of ethnomusicology disguises a perverse totalizing ideoogy, albeit one intent on fostering common "vocabularies of comparison" which purports to erase fractured horizons of knowledge.

Taylor's allurng idea is by no means new to the field of critical studies. If Taylor had paid more attention to the French, perhaps Luce Irigaray would have rung multiple bells of consent. For Irigaray, disillusioned with phallogocentric models of articulation, the only exit from the symbolic universe of patriarchal knowledge production is through the fostering of a new language of commerce that simultaneously seeks to undo phallogocentric seams as well as politically rearticulate an agenda of egalitarianism.

Allow me to critique Irigaray, if you would (for I am not the first). Any totalizing symbolic system (or messily knotted discoursive tapestries) will inevitably create its own internal divisions of subscription and proscription. Ushuring in a new advent of a "language" that seeks to restore balance (or even undermind) an established heirarchy of power by tabling a flat political landscape will have to validate itself as a post-. This post-ness, by virtue of the Hegelian dialectic, can never recede to a choratic presymbolic realm (to use Kristeva in this debate), but must necessarily seek to incorporate, indeed disguise, the existing imbalance of power in order to legitimize its own agenda. What Irigaray's new language will do is (1) stratify differences between the old agenda and the new, creating a reflexive language of anxiety and taboos, and/or (2) seek new boundaries of otherness to clear-out its space of subscription.

This perverse core of Irigaray's "language" is a blunt rejection of phallogocentricism, but this rejection is not overcome, it constantly haunts the mechanisms that servs to legitimize the very use of the system. Lacan has reminded us of the shifting boundaries of the ego-Ideal, and the drive that constantly propels it towards alternative symbolic universes. Giving this a Zizekian spin (and I believe I'm the first to use the cheesy term "Zizekian"), the perverse political core of Irigaray's new language is a counter-drive to seek the stability of the political ego-Ideal, one that will restore presence to the marginal, and will install the decentered subject into history. Fancy hypothesizing, no? But Edelman reminds us that as long as new linguistic legacies are forged, the insoluble, traumatic kernal of the Real, that is, the subject's interminable lack, will forever be displaced onto another individual. Likewise, by act of dialectical incorporation, Irigaray's new language will have to sieve ideological plains for new scapegoats. Recall that guy named Derrida? Also recall it was as early as the 1970s when he remarked that:

"[T]he entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix [...] is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archē, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject), alētheia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth."

As Agawu has criticized, Taylor's inspirational address to the ethnomusicological community harbours not only a sense of politcal advocacy (which may be historically analyzed through the vehement and virulent aims of liberal democracy bent on world domination) but conceals the fact that the strategy of leveling difference has to be first predicated upon difference. Furthermore, who controls the terms of the levelling? As a dialectical mode of incorporation, the ones who figure difference get to propose the new paradigm, which paradoxically, rests on the position of power from which these policy makers are able to speak. For Agawu, the resulting "broader horizons" do not denote some form of Bakhtinian dialogue or agreement, where the negotiations of power are fluid, slippery and ever under question. Instead, these "broader horizons" are produced by the disciplinary field, and the discursive tradition of knowledge-production which lends it legs. It is indeed "our 'vocabularies of comparison' that will be enriched in the process" - as Agawu claims.

In another essay, I critiqued Agawu's solution regarding "sameness", but I feel for theoretical reasons, it should be returned to this discussion. For Agawu, "There is no method for attaining to samenes, only a presence of mind, an attitude, a way of seeing the world" (My emphasis). So Agawu envisions an enabling attitude that may be adopted which figures the Other as equal, (but can promptly be dismissed at will). Exactly what constitutes this "presence of mind"? If we push Agawu slightly further, we would find that his "presence of mind" strays no further that Taylor's activistic agenda. This "presence of mind" in "seeing the world" tries to stifle its own historical baggage while claiming to be reflexive of its own history. Personally, a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude seems the most dangerous one of them all. This "presence of mind" for Agawu is "not sameness but the presumption of sameness" (!) Hurray, a ladder for crawling over the fence which doubles up as an instrument with which to hit the other with. Again, "strategic sameness" falls into the trap of having to articulate itself. Once again, with whose vocabulary should "sameness" articulate itself with? Perhaps we are being too generous in letting the Subaltern speak when, at times, we are unable to listen.

Academic disciplines oriented towards the production of knowledge attempt to knot the discursive through the discoursive, each affecting each other via a highly complicated and messy feedback system. The very fact that knowledge has to be circulated in certain receptive spheres in order to be validated as a kind of academic knowledge reveals the fact that academic knowledge is, by extension, a disguised configuration of power, embodying multiple strategies of enunciation. Any symbolic universe has to be supported by the discursive, and the discursive oriented by the Symbolic. This system of power generation and perpetuation feeds back into itself, orbiting about institutional centers which oppose themselves to other centers. Producing "emic" knowledge or any form of knowledge along the gradient between "emic" and "etic" inadvertently subscribes to a particular symbolic and discursive universe - usually a Western system of articulation, that is strictly coded with its own philosophy and guiding rules to the production of knowledge. How can "new vocabularies" be forged or incorporated without being tinkered as a productive arm of the same enterprise? In the end, all that is being produced are multiple possible sites of enunciation within the same discursive sphere, an endless concentric circle of production that, fatefully, may be only undermined by academic silence.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Disciplining Noise


“Singapore’s streets are always seething with life. The noise is indescribable. London, New York, Paris and other great cities are bad enough; but they are a haven of peace in comparison with Singapore.”

– W. Robert Foran, Malayan Symphony (1935)

Nearly one and a half centuries ago, a certain Charles Wilkes, Commander of the United States Exploring Expedition, expressed his simultaneous fascination and disorientation watching a street performance of Chinese Opera in colonial Singapore during a Chinese New Year festival. Writing in February 1842, Wilkes described the “stage raised about six feet above the street … richly decorated with silk hangings, and banners with many inscriptions, and illuminated with coloured lamps” . Encountering this intriguing “spectacle” as an outsider, Wilkes expressed amusement with a certain mock fight-sequence in which:

“The two combatants draw their swords or handle their spears, and began turning round and poking each other without closing, when suddenly one runs off; the other, after having evidently informed the audience that he is the victor, then makes his exit, accompanied with a most tremendous noise from both the music and audience. After the performance had closed, it was with difficulty that I could determine whether it had been comedy or tragedy …” (My emphasis)

For Wilkes and many other Europeans visiting or working in Singapore since its humble beginnings as a trading settlement in 1819, Chinese Street Opera represented an encounter with an exotic, illegible other, eliciting responses ranging from fascination and bemusement to plain disgust. Indeed for these Europeans, “noise” was more than a mere barometer of confusion or intolerance; noise as a discourse operated as a mode of knowledge-production about Chinese Opera and the Chinese, that ultimately reified a relation of power between the Europeans and the Chinese – albeit one that was asymmetrical, Eurocentric, and implicitly racist. This paper will explore the ways in which the discourse surrounding Chinese Opera and “noise” eventually led to the need to discipline Chinese-Opera-as-noise, and the various methods of containment and control exercised by the colonial powers to do so.

To Wilkes, the “tremendous noise” which he witnessed during the Chinese Street Opera referred to an act that was both performative (on the part of the Chinese orchestra) and participatory (on the part of the roused spectators). Indeed for Wilkes, “noise” existed as a boundary which he could not transgress; “noise” indicated the limits of Chinese Opera’s legibility (or intelligibility), a domain of knowledge to which he had no access to because of his exclusion from the opera’s language, historical, cultural and social significance. To another Danish traveler HV Pederson, the “four or five Chinese [that] took charge of the music … played their primitive and hardly harmonious instruments of wood and metal with a truly irritating perseverance.” According to his account, noise was less a method of de-scribing what could not be understood than a strategy of delimiting the difference between civilization and primitiveness.

Jonas Daniel Vaughan, a colonial official in the early Straits Settlements was similarly intrigued with the confounding spectacle of Chinese Opera in Penang and Singapore, where he noted that the Chinese in the 1850s were “ardent admirers of the drama and will night after night sit to see what happens to us unmeaning spectacles.” For Vaughan, the performances were simply too much to bear:

“During the performance the audience smoke and chat away at the top of their voices; when anything interesting is going on they sit very still and pay great attention to the stage … To a European one or two visits to the theatre suffice for a lifetime. The din, smoke and foul air within are somewhat too much for his sensibilities …”

The “din” and “noise” that both Wilkes, Pederson and Vaughan described most likely referred to the wuchang [military or percussive] section of the Chinese Orchestra which accompanies the performers onstage. Usually consisting of up to eight kinds of drums, clappers, cymbals and gongs , the wuchang typically punctuated intricately choreographed fight sequences to cultivate an aesthetic climate of excitement and activity by mimicking the sound effects of war drums and swords clashing. To any spectator unaware of the narrative content of the performance he or she was encountering would most likely mistake the clamor of the wuchang for spectacular chaos.


To these European observers, the condition of noise was less an immanent essence residing within the aesthetic of Chinese Opera, but a strategy of delimiting and controlling the unknowable, indeed a judgment call that allowed these observers to assert their power as bearers of the colonial enterprise upon the local Chinese population. Noise, Paul Hegarty shrewdly asserts, “is not an objective fact” , but is constructed through a dialectic. For Hegarty, noise can only be understood as “a negativity … it does not exist independently, as it exists only in relation to what it is not.” In other words, Chinese Opera as noise could only have been defined as such in juxtaposition with its other, that is, the tradition of European music that helped to define Vaughan’s particular “sensibilities”.

Till 1867, Singapore remained under the control, jurisdiction and governance of the British East-India Company before it came under the direct control of the British Empire as part of the Crown Colonies, placing Singapore and her neighboring colonized sisters under the direct supervision of the London colonial office. Together with the increase of Steam Ships to Singapore in the 1840s and a refashioning of colonial control, the traveling of artists and musicians between London and the Crown Colonies were greatly facilitated . As Margaret Shennan notes, Singapore’s Western musical climate thrived between 1880 and 1914, accommodating musical celebrities such as Edward Salzmann (once of the Royal Italian Opera Company in London), Marie Hall, CB Buckley, AP Ager and Abrose Cross . These prominent musical talents quickly established themselves in schools, organizations and churches, helping to organize amateur musical societies to cultivate a receptive climate for Western music. With the founding of the Singapore Philharmonic Society in March 1819, Singapore found itself struck with the history of Western music from Rossini to the show tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan (then widely popular in London) .

This burgeoning climate of Western music impacted Singapore’s musical landscape in multiple ways. Besides appealing to homesick expatriate families with a yearning appetite for the familiar, the introduction of Western music studies in numerous institutions in Singapore (most notably mission schools) helped to cultivate a receptive audience comprised of a particular social and racial class. This, in turn, led to a reinforcement of the previous civilized/primitive binary: the social classes in Singapore which had access to education mostly consisted of the children of Colonial officers and a smattering of wealthy Chinese merchants. The large majority of the Chinese working class had no or little education, and virtually no tools with which to navigate this new Western soundscape they were encountering. Inevitably, this led to severe social divisions fostered by differing musical tastes – while the colonial servants embraced Western music as “our” music – the music of an apparently educated and civilized social and racial class – other forms of music including that of Chinese Opera were construed as “other”, “primitive” and “inferior”.

The great musical-cultural division initially predicated upon subscription to differing musical communities therefore simultaneously reified racial differences between the Europeans and the Chinese. Indeed ‘noise’ originally attributed to mere sonic phenomenon became coterminous with the Chinese themselves, an essential category that was perceived by the Europeans as intrinsic to “Chinese-ness” which struck up images of disorder and chaos in opposition to European “sensibilities”. It must be noted that several other social phenomena fed into the fashioning of the “noise” paradigm. Although not all of them were interrelated nor did they have immediate associations with Chinese Opera, what must be stressed was the way in which these individual discourses concerning ‘noise’ came to inform and inflect upon each other, and, as a totality, had material and physical bearings upon the perception and attitudes taken up towards Chinese Opera and its disciplining.

As a sonic phenomenon, “noise” was generally used to describe much of the din and clamor that characterized Chinese celebrations during festivals. Following the Lunar Calendar, the celebration of festivals such as Lunar New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival gave occasion to the performance of Chinese Opera alongside several other traditional practices that were deemed “noisy” by the European community. One such practice was the lighting of firecrackers on the streets during Chinese New Year, usually in the hundreds, “[occasioned] so much alarm” that drove he British authorities to issue a ban in 1848. This move was countered by Chinese anti-British sentiments and “public disquiet”, forcing the authorities to lift the ban in the same year of its imposition . The frequent use of drums, gongs and cymbals during other celebratory performances such as “Lion Dance” (traditionally used in villages to attract other distant villagers) were deemed a “public nuisance” in the crowded cosmopolitan city of Singapore, which ultimately caused Chinese Opera (which capitalized on the use of similar percussive instruments) to be similarly classified as “noise”.

At the same time, the bustling environment of Singapore’s Chinatown struck many travelers new to the area’s chaotic street-life, which they took to be not a sign of the activity particular to Chinatown, but a condition of noise particular to an essential “Chinese-ness”. For Isabella Bird, a “mature, middle-class Scotswoman” who travelled to Singapore in the late 1870s, Chinatown represented a “heathenish” soundscape of “vociferation … [mingling] with the ringing bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms, an intensely heathenish sound.” To another RCH Mackie, Chinatown was “a street of a dozen languages, but the people are mostly Chinese and the noise is like the roar of a cup-final crowd gone crazy.” This chaotic turmoil of noise perceived of the Chinese way of life was perhaps best captured by John Maccallum Scott who reflected on a dining experience in Chinatown:

“At one end of the room a Chinese Orchestra strummed away on an incredible variety of instruments, and produced a perfect bedlam of noise. Out in the street someone was honouring the occasion by letting off fire-crackers in a manner which seemed to bring Chicago dangerously near.”

It was these coexistent geographical, social and cultural activities that intertwined to represent the European’s experience and perception of the sonic worldview of the Chinese: a worldview that was characterized by dischord, disharmony, and noise. “Noise,” Hegarty also points out, is not merely a sonic phenomenon but is also “cultural” , a knot formed by the knitting together of various cultural discourses. “Noise” in the creation of the European perception of the Chinese, therefore also exhibited an extra-musical or non-sonic phenomenon that cannot be simply ignored. Indeed other forms of extra-musical “noise” played an indispensible role in weaving the complete colonial fabric of the imaginary Oriental other, which, in turn, affected the (imagined) cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was viewed.

At the level of public peacekeeping, the local Chinese population was cause for much social “noise” in the form of unrest and gang rivalries. As early as the 1830s, the British authorities had much to worry about regarding Chinese secret societies – “kongsis” or “Chinese Hoeys” as they were called . According to a journal kept by Major Low from 1840 – 1841, the Singaporean Chinese settlers “[upheld] … the kongsis or Secret Societies of which the Emperor of China is so much afraid. […] The largest proportion of charges of felony is found on the side of the Chinese: who, in the main, at this island, are little better than the refuse population of China.” With a vast majority of Chinese migrating from the coastal strip of east Kwangtung and south Fukien – provinces notorious for their “bitter clan feuds” , the Chinese settlers in Singapore were quick to mobilize secret societies of their own, enacting their violent rivalries on local pastures.

In addition to providing new settlers with a sense of brotherhood, community and protection, the power of these underground societies were used to “maintain or consolidate certain lucrative businesses such as mining, opium and spirit farms, gambling and prostitution.” As CM Turnbull notes, clan-based Secret Societies and gangs also flourished in the late 19th Century alongside these associations (usually closely related), some of which reenacted longstanding feuds from China in Singapore, leading to a series of unruly fights and casualties in 1824 . By 1840, it was reported that the Triad Society (a notorious political secret society) had some five to six thousand members who were responsible for “much of the violence and crime which plagued Singapore” . To make existing matters worse, the secret societies demonstrated open hostility to European religions, especially Christianity. In 1851, the hoeys instigated the island-wide slaughter of Christian converts, killing almost 500 Christians and destroying 30 agricultural settlements.

Further troubling the authorities was the intimate relationship between Secret Societies, prostitution and Chinese Opera. Since Chinese women were initially forbidden by tradition to emigrate , early Singapore’s Chinese demographic was predominantly male, creating a climate conducive for industries of the flesh. According to Terence Chong, Cantonese Opera in particular “thrived alongside prostitution” by the end of the 19th Century, with brothels blossoming “side-by-side with other businesses, including opera troupes and teahouses”, serving as a geographical one-stop-shop for pleasures of all kinds. For Chong,

“It was customary for prostitutes and their clients to frequent operas together, and opera actors regularly patronized the brothels as well. Furthermore, the accessibility of the Cantonese opera made it a communal activity closely related to other activities such as social eating, drinking and, in this case, sex.”


Prostitution, on the other hand, was closely controlled by the numerous secret societies in Singapore, who provided a constant influx of Chinese woman through illegal trafficking . For Ching-Hwang, the link between secret societies and brothel keepers was not completely clear, since “some of [the keepers] were secret society members turned into brothel keepers [while] some were businessmen, who joined the secret society ranks because of instant benefits” . While the revenue collected from prostitution helped to fund a significant part of the societies’ activities, Chinese Opera came to serve as a mark of the societies’ wealth and distinct dialect identity, thriving on the support of wealthy Chinese merchants who were themselves members of secret societies .


All these activities were thus instrumental in constructing a complicated web of sonic and social “noise” as perceived by the colonial powers, a manifestation disorder, anarchy and, above all, a form of misbehavior and resistance in the eyes of the colonial parent. This web was the ascertained cultural matrix in which Chinese Opera was inevitably part of, a ‘noisy’ cog in the machine of Chinese unruliness, threatening the hegemony of colonial rule. “Noise”, Hegarty explains, “threatens [the subject and] is part of the other I define myself against. Noise is a phenomenology of noise, insofar as it exists in relation to individuals, who define themselves as being subject to noise” . This total matrix of “noise” of which Chinese Opera was seen to be a part of was subjected to being perceived as threatening. This noise, therefore, had to be disciplined not only to remove it as perceived threat, but also to rearticulate the hegemony of Colonial power over the local Chinese. To exercise discipline on the various forms of Chinese “noise” was to reaffirm a discourse of dominance over the Chinese, and, to correspondingly (and actively) construct the Chinese as racially inferior. In order to sustain and reproduce the colonial fantasy of superiority and Eurocentrism, it was necessary to prove that the disciplining of noise was both necessary and the Chinese “noise” deserved to be disciplined, serving a particular language of colonialism that reinforced notions of (European) parenthood and (Chinese) infancy.

In 1837, an acerbic article appeared in the Singapore Free Press regarding the disorderly circumstances in which Chinese celebrations were held. Criticizing the unchecked liberal usage of firecrackers, the writer (presumably European), likened the “little Chinese urchins” to “boys everywhere else who are allowed to have their own way”, arguing that the “customs of the natives” should “be restricted at least to particular hours and places” . Consequently, in 1850, the authorities issued a set of restrictions on public street performances and street processions in a bid to maintain public order, which sparked an outcry from the local Chinese population . Despite a petition submitted in February by 83 Chinese businessmen and well-regarded personalities, the government implemented the Police and Conservatory Acts in 1856 to “further restrict assemblies and processions, including wayang [Chinese Opera]” . To protest the Acts, Chinese shops, markets and transport workers staged a strike on 2 January 1857 , claiming that the Acts “had been brought into force without their objects properly made known to or understood” . 2 months later in Penang, when colonial police attempted to stop an opera performance, a fierce riot ensued which culminated in several casualties and deaths . Despite these clashes, the colonial authorities failed to relent, and it became necessary for all organizations to apply for public licensing from the police to stage Chinese Opera – a practice which still continues today.

Thus, by the late 1850s, street Chinese Opera was both spatially and temporally disciplined. In order to perform, troupes had to seek permission from the police, who issued licenses based on time-slots in which these troupes were allowed to perform, at pre-destined locations that were deemed suitable for performance. Facing sudden obstacles in the freedom of performances, Chinese Opera was forced to make the transition from street to indoor stage in order to find alternative performance spaces. In 1887, a Chinese diplomat by the name of Zhen Jie noted that there were already four to five permanent theatres erected for the performance of Chinese Opera . The relocation of street Opera to indoor venues were valuable in the colonial disciplining of noise for several reasons. Firstly, the sound produced by the opera troupe was contained as opposed to exposed, greatly reducing Chinese Opera’s audibility on the streets. Secondly, the limited sizes of the theatres effectively restricted the number of spectators that could watch the opera at any one time, thereby reducing the possibility of social chaos within such contained quarters. Thirdly, the move from outdoor to indoors drastically reduced the immediate visibility of Chinese Opera, removing to the realm of invisibility. This geographical disciplining of Chinese Opera’s performance spaces was therefore a material manifestation of the social and cultural divide between the Europeans and the Chinese communities, helping to keep their cultural worlds as far apart from each other as possible. Although these restrictions did not entirely efface street performances of Chinese Opera, it greatly reduced the number of troupes performing on the streets. For the Europeans, the movement of Chinese Opera indoors was also a method of containment, indeed a way of controlling of the Singaporean cultural soundscape which – in their belief – rightly belonged to them.

If the spatial disciplining of Chinese Opera were not enough, in 1896, the Municipal Commissioners drafted and effected the Theatre Ordinance Law to regulate and control all native theatres. Under this law, municipal committee had the right to evict theatres that did not meet their standards of cleanliness and safety. Buildings used as theatre halls were required to possess certificates of fitness issued by the committee if the building adhered to the conditions specified by the commissioners . By 1917, the supervision over native theatres was tightened, and the colonial government found ways to make their disciplining essentially a productive one. During the performances, since theatres used kerosene and oil lamps for lighting, theatres were required to employ government-owned fire brigades to be on standby. Jokingly called the “fire brigade watching theatres”, the revenue collected by the government from the theatres rose from $2,025 in 1915 to $5,146 in 1924 . Such tight control meant that certain buildings were made unsuitable for the performance of Chinese Opera, which further limited the number of spaces troupes could perform in. To make matters worse, the fees demanded for these “fire brigade watching theatres” made Chinese Opera a pricey endeavor, creating economically difficult circumstances for the staging of Chinese Opera. As a result, only theatres run by wealthy Chinese merchants were available for renting; naturally, these rental fees were extremely high. As Opera actor Chang Tik Ying recalls,

“You had to pay rent to the owners of the theatres and there was no guarantee that you could recover that cost from your revenue.”

Under these disciplinary conditions up till the early 20th Century, it appeared Chinese Opera hit a brick wall. Had these practices continued to stand without intervention, the presence of local opera troupes in Singapore were likely to have completely vanished were it not for a new phenomenon of “amusement worlds” in the 1930s, opening up lucrative new spaces for performance which led to a mini-revival of the genre.


Despite its freedom from colonial tyranny, Chinese Opera in Singapore today has been perceived by many to be on the decline. Indeed, owing to a different set of political circumstances particular to Singapore’s post-colonial history, Chinese Opera became subject to a different kind of disciplining that was unforeseen by her forefathers. Liberated from her colonial parent in the 1960s, Singapore’s homegrown leaders scrambled to construct a sense of shared ethnic identity coupled with a new cultural aesthetic, leading to the valorization of “indoor” amateur opera troupes over “outdoor” professional troupes . The decentralization of Chinese living quarters in Chinatown into multi-ethnic high-rise flats forced more non-Chinese speakers into closer proximity, leading the government to issue tighter performance regulations which echoed the early 1856 police Acts. Furthermore, with the decline of the use of dialects by second generation Singaporeans , Chinese Opera has once more returned into the obscure shadow of unintelligibility from whence it once emerged. Indeed for these second generation Singaporeans, Chinese Opera became associated with a different form of noise: that of generational noise. Younger citizens who have come to embrace English and standardized mandarin as their language of commerce perceive not only linguistic distance from their dialect-speaking forefathers, but also a sense of alienation from dialect-dependent art forms such as Chinese Opera . For many of these citizens, the cultural importance which Chinese Opera once represented has faded into a ghost of a distant past, lodged somewhere between ossified or museumified artifact and a persistent noise haunting the city-scape of modern Singapore.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

RE: Wayang

JN wrote
at 12:15pm

dude it might be out of the scope of your discussion but chinese opera is wayy more alive in hongkong and china. The Wayang as we know it in a modern theatre with smoke and lights and lip-synced and all the pantomine physical comedy sorta thing with VCDs, KTV albums and major merchandising for the auntie crowd. Was at one of those shows (for work) and the audience is not particularly any better behaved, (nuff to make any western theatre director cry at the insult, can't hardly blame them though, think the audience is old enough to have their ears and bladders long gone)

but for the struggling Singapore wayang troupes, it i simply 7th mth for the Gods and Gods and random ah ma, ah pek alone.

HT wrote
at 12:22pm

You are absolutely right, I'm not construing Wayang to be a privileged form in Singapore. On the contrary, I am fully aware that Hong Kong and China's treatment of Wayang has been much more receptive. There is also a long history in Singapore about the professionalization of the early postcolonial wayang troupes, and the politics between indoors/outdoors as cultivated by a constructed NAtional Aesthetic that had severe repurcussians on the troupes. What I am inerested in is the cultural "space" wayang occupies today, partially museumified, partially ghettocized, but always in a trapartite relation to Getai (which is itself a fascinating phenomenon), and theatrical forms of representation. Wayang has had a rich and complicated history in Singapore that threatens to withstand categorization or convenient narrative. There are implications to what you say about "Wayang as we know it in a modern theatre with smoke and lights" - and this transitory phenomenon was not accidental at all.

JN wrote
at 12:40pm

'cultural "space" wayang occupies today, partially museumified, partially ghettocized'- hmmmm very interesting line and very true for singapore.
yup even wayang has gone mainstream. Is this part of your coursework, cos it sounds like a one hell of a project. Especially if your tracing it from its migrant roots of individual threads of culture (dialects, systems of community control) and against the colonial control. National Asethetic? gee, its almost a misnomer, like describing the beauty of sterile concrete. Still, lacking asethetic is still not no asethetic especially for a nation that once declared that 'we have no time for poetry' (LKY, 1967 speech).

I bitch. Nahhh sounds like your onto something :) sweet.

HT wrote
at 2:12pm

Haha, the history is so complicated I'm not going to be able to cover everything. What I'm probably aiming for in talking about the cultivation of a national aesthetic is nothing implicitly jingoistic. In fact, cultivation already implies intervention, and in the 1970s, the intervention of Confucianism as a discursive viability had real consequences for the funding of opera troupes in Sinapore, followed by the reguation, control and marginalization of certain kinds of Opera. It is a mistake to conceive of Wayang as a nominal essence, easily forgetting that it is intrinsically so diverse, bearing multiple histories under a single umbrella term. Wayang has come to signify partially through feats of spatial disciplining by the government as well as certain socio-political affiliations.