Elements of Semiotics/The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays

By Echard, William | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Elements of Semiotics/The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays


Echard, William, Canadian University Music Review


David Lidov. Elements of Semiotics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. xvi, 288 pp. ISBN 0-312-21413-8 (hardcover).

Raymond Monelle. The Sense of Music: Semiotic Essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000. xvi, 248 pp. ISBN 0-691-05716-8 (paperback).

Musical semiotics is at a crossroads. The field established itself in the 1970s, expanded in the 1980s, and was consolidated in the 1990s. Now, leading figures are returning to basic questions about the nature of analysis, hermeneutics, and scmiosis, wishing to set a viable course for the next decade. Two such authors are David Lidov and Raymond Monelle. Monelle's book is narrowly focused on music, whereas Lidov's is a work of general semiotic theory with a special interest in aesthetics (and written by a music theorist/composer). It is profitable to read and review these works side-by-side. Lidov and Monelle have been colleagues for many years, and concern themselves with similar issues. However, while Lidov has devoted himself to refurbishing structuralist semiotics, Monelle has turned towards postmodernism. As a result, the books implicitly speak to one another, sketching divergent options on the question of what relationship semiotics in the new century should bear to its structuralist roots.

The preface to Monelle's book, by Robert Hatten, presents the work as a new stage for musical semiotics, one "in which semiotic theory confronts postmodernism and emerges as viable, even after relinquishing the hitherto unacknowledged hegemony of its structuralist core" (p. xi). While Hatten welcomes this new direction, he does not display an unreserved commitment to postmodernism in its more radical forms. He feels that the approach suggested in Monelle's book is "one that has absorbed the intellectual energies of postmodernism without falling into the abyss of its relativisms and indeterminacies" (p. xiii). Certainly, musical semiotics must confront the postmodern influence. I should also point out that, in the present review, I use the phrase "musical semiotics" to refer to the body of work focused on classical music. There is a substantial body of work available in the semiotics of popular music as well, but it is not cited by Monelle or by Lidov, and has had no visible effect on their work. Il may be expected that workers in the semiotics of classical music, rooted in a canonical tradition and thinking within the lineages of structuralism and traditional aesthetics, would approach postmodern theory cautiously if at all. In this sense, Monelle's foray into the abyss is to be welcomed. Monelle describes his understanding of postmodernism as follows:

Postmodernism is, specifically, a rejection of unification, of manifestos, of centralizing and totalizing forces. It is both a return to pluralism after the modernist experiment and-its true novelty-an embracing of pluralism as a fundamental tenet (p. 4).

As one may expect, this becomes the starting point for a critique of systematic thought, but also a general defense of theory, which Monelle defines in a very specific sense. Theory for Monelle is not a formal science, but rather an interpretive framework applied to intentional objects. Monelle wishes to allow theory a maximum degree of autonomy, to the point where he explicitly rejects some of the culturalist and political influences often associated with the postmodern turn. Monelle asserts that theory is ahistorical. In addition, "a theory of the sense of music is not autonomous, but it is immanent, self-related, and logically prior to music sociology" (p. 6). Monelle's thinking seems divided in this respect. On the one hand, he frequently argues for the necessity of contextual, social, and historical factors as elements in musical semiosis, as when he suggests that "analysis engages with signifier and signified together, and thus reveals the musical text, which is a great deal more than merely the score" (pp. 10-11). However, he also argues for a seemingly decontextualized form of neutral analysis. …

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