Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning

Synopsis

This book examines the intellectual history of instrumental music, in particular the idea of absolute music. It tries to show how certain ideas in philosophy, theology and the sciences affect the meaning and, indeed, the existence of instrumental music, and how, in turn, instrumental music is used to resolve or exemplify certain problems in modern culture. Instead of existing in a pure and autonomous form, music is woven back into the epistemological fabric and entangled with numerous discourses, thus demonstrating the centrality of music in the construction of meaning.

Excerpt

Music is gendered. But it has no genitals. At least, if it were to be given a phallus it would have to be constructed as a discourse. and this would be a very messy operation in which music would find its sexual identity complicated by a host of contradictory discourses in the play of sexual politics. This is precisely what happened in the Enlightenment. Under its own critique, the age of reason found its structures of gender destabilised; the inherited distinctions of sexuality were no longer tenable under the searching light of reason. the Enlightenment needed to reconstruct sex difference. But this was an ambivalent process in which music was dragged in as a specimen and was forced to display its newly found genitalia–not that they really existed since such essential signs of sexual identity were only the constructions of a discourse and could easily be reversed. in this fluidity of sexual politics in which women were beginning to assert their rights and redraw their identity, the Enlightenment wanted to solidify the structure and to fix the identity of men and women with its tools of thought. and in this process, instrumental music had a sexuality imposed upon it, at first from the outside as a discourse which it eventually internalised as a new configuration of masculinity. It had a sex-change–but the operation was messy.

At the close of the eighteenth century, instrumental music suffered a crisis of identity: it didn't have a phallus. the discourse that spoke for this mute form was undergoing an acute sense of penis envy. It was a problem because instrumental music was perceived as female just at the point in its history when it needed male legitimisation. Some kind of sex-change was necessary to rescue music from the effeminate aesthetic of moral sensibility that had lost its moral muscles of masculine control and had fallen into the mindless sensuality of the female body. To survive, instrumental music had to become male. But it was difficult for this music to erase its female sensuality and to reconfigure its material into a new kind of moral consciousness. How could instrumental music keep its mixture of emotions and conceptual fluidity without being denounced as empty and irrational? in other words, how could it change sex without changing its tune?

The Enlightenment was not stupid; it knew that it could not simply . . .

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