Critical Musicology and the Problem of Mediation

By Miles, Stephen | Notes, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Critical Musicology and the Problem of Mediation

Miles, Stephen, Notes

Critical musicology continues to encounter hostility within the academy, yet there can be no doubt that the emergence of this subdiscipline has brought about a sea change in music scholarship. Whether or not one agrees with scholars such as Rose Subotnik, Lawrence Kramer, and Susan McClary, the social contingency of autonomous music is no longer seriously questioned; rather, the debate has shifted to how this social contingency is to be interrogated. Each of these scholars has focused on different aspects of the question: Subotnik has explored the ties of musical logic to post-Enlightenment critiques of reason, Kramer has emphasized the importance of hermeneutics and the contingency of postmodern knowledge, while McClary has offered feminist critiques of the Western canon based on assumptions of music's underlying semiotic structure. (1) These scholars have been ambitious, productive, and ultimately successful in their pursuit of a new agenda for musicology.

Despite these impressive achievements, the project of critical musicology continues to carry serious risks. The reliance upon metaphor always leaves these scholars vulnerable to the charge of substituting a narrative programme for substantive analysis, and because critical musicologists acknowledge that their scholarship is "positioned," they have been accused of failing to demonstrate the veracity of their claims and of thus willfully imposing a social interpretation on autonomous music. While it is tempting to dismiss these criticisms as simply the carping of reactionaries, to do so would be a mistake. Scholars such as Charles Rosen and Pieter van den Toorn may be unsympathetic to the project of critical musicology, but that stance alone does not disqualify their objections. (2) If they have not been convinced by the arguments of critical musicologists, perhaps it is because the arguments are insufficiently grounded, the relationship between autonomous music and society inadequately developed. Indeed, critical musicology is in danger of undermining itself through a lack of attention to the problem of mediation--the concrete links between music and society on the levels of production and reception.

How are scholars to account for the complex mediations between the musical text and the social world of politics and economics? One strategy has been to interrogate the social contingency of musical form, assailing autonomous music at its root. Social interpretation is developed by relating separate domains cognitively through the extended use of analogy, with the consequence that music and society ultimately remain separate, related only through the imagination of critic and reader. Yet, mere assertions of social contingency are ultimately unpersuasive, even when these assertions are argued powerfully through the use of metaphor. Empirical evidence must be provided to substantiate these interpretive claims, demonstrating the concrete connections between the musical work and its social context.

Another strategy has been to investigate music as a social practice, If meaning is created, how is it created, by whom, and through what means? How does the creation of musical meaning connect to the acquisition of power? How do these activities connect further on the level of class? This approach is very promising, yet it is insufficient simply to raise these questions in the absence of a coherent theoretical framework. As ethnomusicologists have known all along, the problem of mediation cannot be solved by simply juxtaposing "the sociology of music" against "the sociology of musical life"; the interrelationships between the two spheres are too complex to permit such an obvious reduction. To be sure, if autonomous music bears social significance, this must be demonstrated through musical analysis; however, such analysis may prove to be little more than passionate rhetoric if the problem of mediation is ignored.

Ironically, though critical musicologists have been faulted for being too sociological, I will argue that they have not been sociological enough. …

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Critical Musicology and the Problem of Mediation


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