Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Mark Evan Bonds, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (Oxford, 2014)

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Mark Evan Bonds, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea (Oxford, 2014)

Article excerpt

[1] Mark Evan Bonds has written a history of music without music. This is because his monograph on absolute music is, as the subtitle states, "the history of an idea." Absolute music, he claims, should be treated as a "regulative concept" (6). So it is an idea in a Kantian sense: absolute music is not constitutive of the world; it cannot be realized as something to be experienced; and it is certainly not something to be sullied by a repertory of works, as Bonds adamantly points out. Rather, absolute music exists as an abstract construct. It is an idea without an object, or an idea that can be imposed on any object as a subjective choice (which, perhaps, amounts to the same thing). So in this sovereign and abstract form, absolute music takes command as a concept that quite literally regulates music, imbuing it with its identity (what Bonds calls "essence") and its power (or "effect") without actually making any music. As a method, it mimes the transcendental claim of absolute music, but in the guise of a historicizing subject wielding its theoretical tool to control the materials at its disposal. The object-the "music itself" that absolute music claims to represent-has no say.

[2] So there will not be a dot of music among the 375 pages of this handsome volume. In one sense, this is understandable since Bonds has to control a vast amount of material, and by keeping the concept "pure" the narrative can flow without such murky and problematic obstacles getting in the way. Moreover, wielding absolute music as a regulative principle also liberates its history, claims Bonds. With this construct in hand, he is now free to venture beyond the normal framework in which most histories of absolute music are apparently cast, allowing the concept to wander more freely across millennia without the weight of historical specificity, especially the Wagner-Hanslick polemic in the 1850s controlling the narrative. That's far too "myopic" for Bonds (7), because absolute music, despite its late baptism, has a very long history that concerns the essence and effect of music. If you recast the definition of absolute music as the relationship between music's essence and effect, you pretty much have to cover the entire history of Western music.

[3] So the idea turns out to be a big one, and Bonds rises brilliantly to his own challenge, writing an epic narrative with a masterly command of 2,500 years of music history from the mysteries of Pythagoras to the mysteries of the CIA. However, it turns out that this idea, despite its epic size, is also a very lonely one, since, in true Kantian fashion, Bonds takes his regulative concept very seriously and limits its empirical reach. After all, this is a "history of an idea," and not a history of ideas. So not only is there no "real" music in the narrative; there is no significant interaction with "real" history: the Reformation, the French Revolution, the two World Wars are somewhat tangential events-in fact, they are mostly non-events. Absolute music is a giant idea floating lonely as a cloud, changing shape under its own impetus; if lucky, it might occasionally skid across the tip of a mountain and interact with the empirical world, but mostly it just scuttles along as a self-moving form. Bonds's concept is immaculately conceived, wonderfully lucid, beautifully organized, and elegantly written.

[4] But you might be wondering where all the materials are for this well-regulated idea to have a history at all. Bonds rightly claims that "the history of the idea of absolute music has never been adequately documented" (13), and so he sets out to do just that: to document. The book is best described as a reception history of an idea, a reception that is found in written texts-in treatises, tracts, books, letters, marginalia. Absolute music is a history of discourses in a very narrow sense. And why not? Its skeptics have always suspected absolute music's claim to ineffability to be a verbal conceit, so perhaps its feigned unintelligibility deserves a history based on perfectly intelligible words. …

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