Music as a Model for Postmodernist Textual Analysis

By Breyley, Gay | New Formations, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Music as a Model for Postmodernist Textual Analysis


Breyley, Gay, New Formations


For most of the twentieth century, Western analysis of music drew largely on notions of an idealised 'unity' or 'organic coherence'. The concept of 'organicism' in music derives principally from readings of music theorist Heinrich Schenker's idea that music 'grows' and 'develops' in layers (background, middleground and foreground) from a structural 'seed'. Schenker saw music as 'a living motion of tones in a naturally-given space, a composing out, a melodicising and horizontalising of the chord given in Nature'. (1) He also described music as the 'image of our life-motion', in which 'motion toward the goal' involved 'great distances'. (2) While the final decades of the century saw a growing critique of aspects of Schenkerian analysis, often drawing on movements in literary criticism, postmodernist approaches to music have been applied somewhat belatedly.

This essay is concerned less with the analysis of musical texts than with the application of musical concepts to the analysis of non-musical texts. Alongside postmodernist analyses of music, music itself, with its range of structural possibilities, provides a useful model with which to analyse any text. Applying the notion of music in its broadest sense--as an assemblage of sounds and silences, rather than as the Schenkerian 'natural system'--the essay considers the possibilities of such analysis. Referring to the work of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, it explores theoretical approaches to hearing, seeing, time and space. It argues that the mutable elements of music--such as pitch, tempo and volume, as well as music's dynamic cultural connections--provide a model for multidirectional analytical activity and for intersections of the spatial, temporal, aural and visual. While a musical model may initially appear to represent a return to History's traditional privileging of time over space, it in fact rejects the privileging of either time or space. It is, rather, an extension of twentieth-century moves toward models of multiplicity, mobility and diversity. A musical model complements and extends the possibilities of Benjamin's labyrinth, Derrida's differance, Foucault's genealogy, and Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome. Most of these paradigms seem at first to stress the spatial over the temporal and thus, arguably, the visual over the aural. However, multidirectional and 'musical' readings of the theorists' texts (as advocated by their own models) make the interdependence of temporal, spatial, aural and visual categories clear.

Each of the above-mentioned theoretical models offers possibilities for approaching the role of memory in textual analysis. Like memory, music presents multilayered patterns of modulating texture; music thus offers an especially useful model for the twists and turns of memory. Repetition, variation and crowded moments of simultaneous sound between silences or 'blanks' emerge as both temporal and spatial effects of memory, history and their readings. Musical patterns are useful for tracing such gestures as anticipation, retention, disappointment, surprise or resignation; they offer clues to the ways new or different patterns are formed and to the effects of movement between contexts. Music is also a means of activating memory, with its links to many times and places, its transportability and repeatability, its shared ownership and capacity for improvisation and extremes of articulation. 'Musical analysis' enables access to different threads of memory from those more frequently traced with such visually oriented reading models as cartography or the gaze. This essay closes with three examples of the application of musical models to textual analysis. The texts concerned are three diverse forms of memoir, published in Australia between 1988 and 1993.

SEEING AND HEARING

To frame this essay's 'aural' approach, it is useful to consider theories pertaining to hearing and seeing and the related concepts of time and space. …

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