White Noise: Composition, Colonization, and Colour1

By Finn, Geraldine | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview
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White Noise: Composition, Colonization, and Colour1

Finn, Geraldine, Canadian University Music Review


This paper examines the links between Western music, Western metaphysics, and Western imperialism. Taking Derrida's reading of "White Mythology" and "Violence and Metaphysics" as its point of departure, the paper explores the relationship between the theories and practices of musical composition formalized in Europe in the eighteenth and finalized in the nineteenth century, and the theories and practices of race, racial differentiation, and empire that coincide(d) with it.

A pure white noise signal may only be produced by a generator called a white noise generator.2

The objective of this article is not just to establish links between the structures and rhetorics of race and the structures and rhetorics of functional tonality, but to re-inscribe the latter within and as the former, i.e., to re-write the text(s) of classical composition as practices of white supremacy. This re-writing of the classical texts of Western composition within and as a discourse of colonization and colour entails a sustained and systematic practice of (re)reading (re-citing). This article takes the quarrel between Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) over the respective merits of melody and harmony as the essence and origin of music as its point of entry into this re-reading of the classical tradition, and Bizet's Carmen as an exemplification of what is at stake in their debate and of the violence of its resolution in favour of Rameau, i.e., in favour of harmony over melody and song.

The study draws on recent scholarship in alternative musicology which takes the interests and realities of class, sexuality, and gender into account in its analyses of the forms and structures of Western music(s),3 and extends them to include the interests and realities of race, the white European race,4 inviting the reader to consider the implications of this for contemporary practices of Western music and its preservation and reproduction of its classical traditions - like Carmen - in particular.

1. Harmony. Reduced to Its Natural Principles

I begin with a citation from Jean Philippe Rameau's Treatise on Harmony Reduced to Its Natural Principles. Rameau is credited with having laid the foundations of the modern theory of Harmony in his treatise, in which he set forth the principles of key-centre, fundamental bass, and the roots and inversion of chords.5 So what he has to say is not without significance. I have italicized those words which are most revealing of his embeddedness in, his indebtedness to the hierarchical oppositions which organize Western metaphysics and its privileging of reason and abstraction over experience and the evidence of sensation, and which are discussed in more detail in subsequent sections of this article.

However much progress music may have made until our time, it appears that the more sensitive the ear has become to the marvellous effects of this art, the less inquisitive the mind has been about its true principles. One might say that reason has lost its rights, while experience has acquired a certain authority.

The surviving writings of the Ancients show us clearly that reason alone enabled them to discover most of the properties of music. Although experience still obliges us to accept the greater part of their rules, we neglect today all the advantages to be derived from the use of reason in favour of purely practical experience.

Even if experience can enlighten us concerning the different properties of music, it alone cannot lead us to discover UK principle behind these properties with the precision appropriate to reason. Conclusions drawn from experience are often false, or at least leave us with doubts that only reason can dispel. How, for example, could we prove that our music is more perfect than that of the Ancients, since it no longer appears to produce the same effects they attributed to theirs? ... But if through the exposition of an evident principle, from which we then draw; just and certain conclusions, we can show that our music has attained the last degree of perfection and that the Ancients were far from this perfection.

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White Noise: Composition, Colonization, and Colour1


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