Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Ownership, in Music and Music Theory

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Ownership, in Music and Music Theory

Article excerpt

I was honored by the Society for Music Theory last year by being asked to give the keynote talk at our November meeting in Indianapolis. In general, I have left it in its form as an oral presentation for a particular time and place, rather than converting it into an essay or scholarly paper. I have added bibliography and footnotes, and have made slight alterations necessitated by the new format. My thanks to Stephen Gosden, a doctoral student in music theory at Yale, for preparing the musical examples, and to recording engineer Mateusz Zechowski for recording the sound files.

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[0.1] "The Scarlatti, Schumann and Debussy in the first half were lovely, but wow-she really owned the Liszt Sonata in the second half!" "Try as they might, the Dodgers were helpless today; Don Larsen owned them from the first pitch to the last." The first of these two statements I heard after the piano recital of a former student in New York this past April. The second I made up myself, as something that well could have been said by a sportscaster reviewing the World Series game between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 8, 1956-the game in which Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. As you surely realize, the verb own in the two sentences is not to be taken literally. Informally, we'd say this usage is slang; more formally, we'd say it's a metaphor. The speaker in the first statement didn't mean that the pianist owned the Liszt B-minor Sonata as a piece of property, nor did the speaker of the second mean that Don Larsen owned the Dodgers as a franchise on a random October day in 1956. I'd wager that all of you knew exactly what was meant in the two sentences as soon as you heard them. That's the good thing about slang: it works. It delivers meaning quickly and clearly, and with a punch. It's the punch, in fact, that differentiates our slang and metaphorical meaning of the verb own from the more common, conventional one.

[0.2] My contention today is that the idea of ownership-both in its traditional and metaphorical meanings-is a handy springboard for considering some important issues in music and in music theory. I offer it as a useful locus around which I can gather some seemingly disparate, though I hope not actually disparate, thoughts. We'll discover, I think, that in the realms of music and music theory, we can use the concept of ownership to describe particular relationships that are meaningful to us-the relation of theorist to composer, especially canonic composer; of theorist to scholar in another discipline; of theorist to analyzed musical piece; and of scholar to competing scholar. Such questions, it seems to me, are eminently worth pursuing, for ownership, as a concept, as an activity, and as a value, is central to our culture-both our culture at large, and to our more narrowly defined musical and music-scholarly culture. Whatever musical usage I can make of it, it is critical to our lives, right now, on the ground, just as it has been critical to our cultural and political history for hundreds of years. On the one hand, we, as literal consumers in a literally consumer society, tend to love what we own; we devote extraordinary amounts of time and energy to achieving various types of ownership. Indeed, without economic and material ownership on a fairly massive scale, none of us would be here in the Marriott Hotel today. On the other hand, our spiritual traditions, some of our canonic literature, Marxism, and a few other political movements, all encourage us, in different ways and in varying degrees, to be skeptical of ownership-at the very least to keep it in its place; at most, to do away with it altogether. And so the topic is, I submit, even in the improbable setting of a music theory conference, worth talking about for an hour or so.

[0.3] So here we go. Having studied rhetoric now for the past two decades, I have learned that a speech should be composed of five or six parts. …

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