Thursday, March 6, 2008

To Speaketh, or to speaketh not...

To speak or not to speak, that is the question. After all, music has endured an uncanny history of having its arm bent. In a scuffle-inciting essay by Carolyn Abbate "Drastic or Gnostic", the perennial question of whether interrogating music to discourse - any discourse at all - is worth its weight. Music, Abbate argues, has had enough with being used as a mouthpiece for authors with latent intentions. The musical-work-in-itself, to twist a little Kantian terminology, is intrinsically "drastic", that is, fundamentally performative, its ontology embedded in sonic spatiality. What it has suffered has been no less than semantic rape, ripping music from its privileged status in the active, performative realm of the sonic into the voracious all-consuming hunger of textuality and discourse. Let us forgo the metatextual intricacies of how the Tristan chord operates in Wagner, says Abbate, and focus our energies instead in that funny virtuoso passage that is "fun" to play. The gnostic, or the textual imperialism of discourse over the music-in-itself has caused scholarly bodies to create a polarization between two points of gravitation: the practical and the (written) scholastic.

Naturally, Abbate's little barb at the world of institutional hermeticism has suffered much a lashing from ruddy-faced musicologists, drilling at every crevice to dismantle her logic. This impetus is largely driven by a fear, however, a spectral fear that haunts every self-doubting text of music produced: that musicologists and theorists find themselves in a professional existential crisis. Abbate has not been the only whistle-blower, to be completely fair. In Kevin Korsyn's 2002 publication "Decentering Music", Korsyn unleashes a powerful body of post Structuralist thinkers to dismantle the mythic regalia of truth wielded by what he satires as a "Ministry of Truth" and a "Tower of Babel".

But have we moved away from this position of privilege in musical research? David Lewin seems to think so, preferring a "creative" approach to musical analysis and knowledge production that both verifies itself as artifice, and yet celebrates its status as such. Indeed, he envisions what he calls a "Bloomian" approach to musical discourse, in the sense that every text produced is inevitably a creative act, literally a "poem" of "another poem". While Lewin's formula works to illuminate the vast network of intertextualities that govern the sphere of knowledge production in the musical world, one could go on to argue that framing music analysis and discourse in such a paradigm is itself false, since the leap from note to page involves a disciplinary swerve. What may be an option is to fight fire with fire, or, to establish analyses through the creative medium of the "other poem" itself, meaning music. In this vein, it would not be too balance-throwing to re-imagine revisions of the work as literally analytical statements of a work along the signifying chain of its own production, or to compose a piece as interpretation of a former.

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