Music Theory as Productivity

By Krims, Adam | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Music Theory as Productivity


Krims, Adam, Canadian University Music Review


Recently, some music theorists and musicologists have been incorporating poststructuralism into their work, producing paradigms and problematics that had previously been rare in music scholarship. The list of musicologists engaging recent critical theory is, by now, quite vast, and in addition to well-known names like Susan McClary, Gary Tomlinson, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert, it also embraces newer (and different) scholarship.1 In the case of music theory, however, the ventures into post-structuralism have been more modest. Krims assembles some exceptional cases, to which one may add such ventures as David Schwarz, Richard Littlefield and David Neumeyer, and, depending on what one might consider "post-structuralist," perhaps several others as well.2

Many theorists appear to believe that abandoning the essentialist premise will either lead us into solipsism or somehow compromise the technical "advances" in the field.3 In fact, neither fear is justified, if developments in other fields can be taken as a cue. On the contrary, facing recent ideas about "structure," "work," and "text" (not to mention "context") is more likely to prevent solipsism, by enabling much broader communication with scholars outside our field. Solipsism is far more likely when we willingly accept methodological premises without serious examination.

As an illustration, it will be useful to invoke an idea from early ost-structuralist theory: "productivity," originally developed by Julia Kristeva and then adopted by Roland Barthes in the early 1970s.4 An important difference between productivity and the kind of textual analysis usually practiced by music theory lies in the relationship between the musical work (or the score) and the analyst. In most contemporary music-theoretical works the music is treated as an object whose properties are to be discovered by a theoretical system. The theoretical system (whether it be pitch-class-set analysis, Schenkerian theory, serial theory, or whatever) is brought to bear on the piece, yielding information about that piece. If the piece manages somehow to instantiate the theory, then a mutual confirmation results: the theory is reinforced by its success at describing the piece, and the piece is praised for the masterful way in which it reflects the theory.5 Occasionally, pieces will cause the music theorist to modify her or his theoretical approach (as, say, some works of Milton Babbitt might be occasion for formalizing combinatorial possibilities6); but that case, too, lies within a model of mutual verification between theory and its objects.

The model requires that both the music and the theories be configured in a certain way. The musical work remains independent of the theorist's activity; its qualities are intrinsic to it, and it is the job of the music theorist to discover these qualities (or at least some of them). As for the theory, it must either be sufficient to describe some properties of the music (properties often deemed the most "essential") or must be modified to do so. If some aspects of the musical work seem to challenge the theory, then the challenge must be met either by making system and object jibe, or by modifying the system. (The bracketing off of social life from psychological interiority and ineffability of musical experience also act to support these procedures.)

The conception of music theory just described, while it has often produced interesting results, remains largely impervious to the critiques of essentialism and structuralism that have been developed in the last few decades.7 The alternative I would like to suggest is, in fact, only one aspect of Kristeva's much more involved exposition of productivity, although it is arguably the most influential.8 Reflecting my own biases, I wish to focus on the textualist, rather than the psychoanalytic or political aspects of productivity, though in my view they are ultimately inseparable, as I will discuss shortly. …

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