Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Alan Frogley and Reception History
I met Alan Frogley today, author of a fair number of influential studies investigating the reception of Vaughn Williams. A number of his articles attend to reception history from a vast array of perspectives including one on the myth of "Englishness" - what he terms the "sweet Anglo-Saxon spell" with regards to the rise of racism in the post-colonial United States. Reception Theory and the exercise of reception history in the discipline of musicology has been fairly well received. One need look no further than Mark Everist's essay in "Rethinking Music" that calls for Reception History as no less than an imperative in contemporary musicological scholarship. Briefly, reception history and theory assigns value to the event of a musical work's reception and proliferation in any given culture, taking into account the technologies of production and reproduction that defines its space in the invisible stepladder of music and listening.
And what a powerful suggestion Reception Theory has been! The appeal in reception history rests (in part) in the allocation of alternative musical 'truths' in the process of transference and dissemination. Also, it imparts the receiving end of the musical chain (the listener) with a certain elevated agency, perhaps even claiming that it is ultimately the hypothetical public that invigorates, validates or trashes music. Taken literally, reception history might be used to signal the empowering (and very appealing) claim that it is "we" who define and shape history, and following, the very parameters by which musical 'works' are themselves understood. In other words, stretched to extremes, reception history may masquerade itself as the golden key to musical ontology, if not at least to upset its stronghold on the author-text relationship.
Humming over lunch, I recalled an argument of one of my fellow students posed to my lecturer that ran in parallel to another of my worries regarding reception history. Plainly, I asked Mr. Frogley: "Where is the reception in reception history"? I had to quickly clarify myself. Reception history and its accompanying theory rests on the assumption not only of a hypothetical listener, but also on a certain vision of subjecthood, specifically that of the socio-cultural subject that can never listen with untainted ears. Easily dispatching with metaphysics and aesthetic theory, reception history presupposes that experience can only be informed by the historical subject afflicted by all kinds of intersecting forces which work to inform taste, value judgments and cognition. This is not the only blind spot.
The other problem regarding reception history is its predilection to the same old modernist critique, even though it may claim to liberate dominant discourses. After all, any formation of text must generalize, and therefore be subjected to implicit censorship. Some things will be included, other things omitted. While all this is well, good and inevitable, as one might say, there is a further related problem. How does one go about interpreting empirical data gathered for reception history? Very often, the very same sources acquired - journal articles, newspaper clippings, personal accounts, testimonies of other composers - are, in one way or another, share an umbilical cord with the same institutions that reception history attempts to criticize for exercising a monopoly over discourse. And, of course, reception is a dead end in itself. The act of reception ends in receiving. Any act of translating the inner-phenomenological experience of reception (making the intrinsic extrinsic and explicit) involves the act of translation and interpretation, which are filtered through the inevitable mesh of discourses invariably tied to common discursive practice. As the old saying goes "put it into words", one struggles to be productive in a different system. Even if no act of reception may be an innocent one, no act of speaking of reception may be an innocent one either.