Musicology and Meaning

By Kramer, Lawrence | Musical Times, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Musicology and Meaning


Kramer, Lawrence, Musical Times


'New' or 'ageing'? LAWRENCE KRAMER clears away some misconceptions surrounding postmodern musicology

'THE NEW MUSICOLOGY' SEEMS here to stay. The New York Times even says it has 'swept the field'.1 Well and good: but what, exactly, is it?

A phantom, for one thing. The term is more an annoyance than a convenience; it sticks like a cobweb with just as little usefulness. What the term refers to, however, is worth clearing away the cobweb to examine.

The label 'new musicology' refers to a research programme developed largely in the English-speaking world during the 1990s. Its round-up of usual suspects includes the likes of Philip Brett - whose untimely death last year deprived the musical world of one of its keenest, most humane, and bravest voices - Susan McClary, Richard Eeppert, Rose Subotnik, and myself. The aim of these authors, among numerous others on both sides of the Atlantic, is surprisingly modest, given the fuss, bother, and downright venom their work has sometimes elicited. The idea is to combine aesthetic insight into music with a fuller understanding of its cultural, social, historical, and political dimensions than was customary for most of the twentieth century. This is not as easy as it sounds, and working at it has sometimes involved conceptual tools whose complexities are not musical. It has also involved a principled resistance to over-idealising music, which is not to be confused with a resistance to loving it. The hostility this project has sometimes provoked seems to come from resentment of its emphasis on the worldly engagements of music on the one hand and of its resort to critical theory (instead of, or along with, music theory) on the other. It is not always possible to reason with such hostility, but it is at least possible to clear away the misconceptions that the hostility tends to perpetuate.

The name best suited for the fast-ageing 'new musicology' is probably 'cultural musicology'. But the term 'cultural' here should not be taken in its traditional sense. Cultural musicology often draws largely on postmodernist models of knowledge that take a sceptical (but not dismissive) view of conceptual synthesis and aesthetic autonomy. It treats culture itself more as a fragmentary, quasi-improvisatory process than as a relatively fixed body of values and traditions; more as a proliferation of forking and often crossing paths (between the 'high' and 'low' in art and society, the Western and the non-Western, the musical and the non-musical) than as a system of boundaries and distinctions; and more as a vehicle for the production of individuals, the bearers of subjectivities in which certain ideals are realised or thwarted, than as a warehouse of common customs. Music bears directly on all of these matters, but especially on subjectivity, and it seems fair to say that cultural musicology is above all a continuing effort to understand musical subjectivity in history. Like 'culture', however, the term 'subjectivity' here requires some further explanation.

The term does not refer to the condition of the self regarded as a private monad, but to the process whereby a person occupies a series of socially defined positions from which certain forms of action, desire, speech, and understanding become possible. The subject is not a nugget of inner being that extends itself outward to others whom it never quite reaches. The subject is a disposition to incessant and multiple relationship.

For most of the twentieth century, subjectivity, in the sense of the private monad, was regarded as an obstacle to both musical experience and musical knowledge. Too much emphasis on feeling or ascription of meaning could only obscure what was truly musical about music, its articulation of style, form, and structure. Musical knowledge was knowledge of the variety and history of these qualities; musical experience came from following them with rapt attention. These principles, of course, were violated almost as often as they were upheld, even by those who upheld them most strongly, and they were rarely applied to popular (as opposed to high art) music.

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