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Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History

Overview

Lawrence Kramer has been a pivotal figure in the development of the controversial new musicology, integrating the study of music with social and cultural issues. This accessible and eloquently written book continues and deepens the trajectory of Kramer's thinking as it boldly argues that humanistic, not just technical, meaning is a basic force in music history and an indispensable factor in how, where, and when music is heard. Kramer draws on a broad range of music and theory to show that the problem of musical ...

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Overview

Lawrence Kramer has been a pivotal figure in the development of the controversial new musicology, integrating the study of music with social and cultural issues. This accessible and eloquently written book continues and deepens the trajectory of Kramer's thinking as it boldly argues that humanistic, not just technical, meaning is a basic force in music history and an indispensable factor in how, where, and when music is heard. Kramer draws on a broad range of music and theory to show that the problem of musical meaning is not just an intellectual puzzle, but a musical phenomenon in its own right.

How have romantic narratives involving Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata affected how we hear this famous piece, and what do they reveal about its music? How does John Coltrane's African American identity affect the way we hear him perform a relatively "white" pop standard like "My Favorite Things"? Why does music requiring great virtuosity have different cultural meanings than music that is not particularly virtuosic? Focusing on the classical repertoire from Beethoven to Shostakovich and also discussing jazz, popular music, and film and television music, Musical Meaning uncovers the historical importance of asking about meaning in the lived experience of musical works, styles, and performances. Kramer's writing, clear and full of memorable formulations, demonstrates that thinking about music can become a vital means of thinking about general questions of meaning, subjectivity, and value.
In addition to providing theoretical advances and insights on particular pieces and repertoires, Musical Meaning will be provocative reading for those interested in issues of identity, gender, and cultural theory. This book includes a CD of Kramer's own composition, Revenants: 32 Variations in C Minor, which he discusses in his final chapter.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520232723
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 12/3/2001
  • Edition description: BOOK & CD
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence Kramer is Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and the coeditor of 19th Century Music. He is author of six books, including After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture (California 1997), Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (California 1995), and Music as Cultural Practice, 1800–1900 (California 1990).

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt


Notes on "Revenants: 32 Variations in C Minor"


Re Sources. "Revenants" is a set of variations for piano that willfully mirrors the past in two distinct ways. It is an extended riff on a "minor" piano piece, Beethoven's "32 Variations in C Minor," which might be considered too old to serve as a viable model, and it is a procession of little piecelets, most of which allude to familiar expressive devices from the past two centuries of (mostly classical) music. I wrote these variations as a literally hands-on way of questioning familiar ideas about the relation of the past to the present in art, particularly the modernist notion that true art should be measured by its originality. That notion had long come to seem shopworn to me. It was too inclined to foster hero-worship and a mandarin preoccupation with technique; it was too insensitive to the embeddedness of the work of art in a densely plural cultural world which, ideally speaking, the artwork was meant in part to commemorate, in part to critique, in part to transmit as a legacy.

Since most art is meant to survive the present in which it is made, art harbors a curious desire to become part of the past, and so to form a conduit between the past and present. If that desire is to serve anything more serious than a kind of costume drama, the artwork must convey something of the fullness of the past that it represents, something otherwise unrecapturable. But if that is so, does it really make any sense to uphold a romantic ideal of original genius whose authenticity lies precisely in a dramatic rupture with the past, arupture that may be exaggerated or even invented by the very idealism that calls for it? If not, can we somehow revive the neoclassic or Renaissance ideals of imitation and emulation? Things don't seem quite that simple. How can art reflect the understanding of itself and of human subjectivity that fully recognizes the basis of all experience in shared resources?

In musical terms, one might put the question this way. If Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata had never been written, and someone wrote it yesterday (not me, mind; I stuck with a piece more my speed), would it still be a great work? A Yes answer assumes that the music's sweep, intensity, and impressive design are sufficient to insert it at any point on the time line as great music. A No answer assumes that, if Beethoven had not written the work, it could only, if written later, be an imitation of Beethoven and could therefore not be heard with naive ears. It would not be the "Appassionata" we have, even if every note were the same. I found myself inclined to both answers, and in order to find some middle ground between them decided to look into the phenomenon of spectralization—the return of the past as a haunting or haunted presence—as a means of redefining the interrelations of new music and old.

Davidsbündler Revisited. Like many others today, I cross my fingers, take a deep breath, and try absolutely not to be modern. I try to write as a revenant would, if revenants could write. My variations called "Revenants" accordingly refuse to be original. ("Exactly," I can imagine someone jibing. "That's what's wrong with them.") Many (but not all) consist of little chips of the musical past—stripped down, simplified, mere phantasmagoria, nothing so grand as the representations of actual styles—that quickly flit in and out of hearing. Neither in form nor technique do these variations court a display of difference, nor are they particularly difficult to play or to follow. Yet they are, or claim to be, anything but merely conventional, or merely regressive, or any of the other "mere"-traits decried by the lingering shibboleths of modernist aesthetics. The variations reaffirm the past by inhabiting it in a way that it did not, because it could not, inhabit itself, and they do so because they could hardly do otherwise. Their value, if they have any, lies not in their claims to technical or espistemic rupture, but in the particularity of their expressive life, which is compounded of their historicity and their discursivity as well as of their form and invention. If they seek an accolade, it is not originality but indelibility. They literally want to leave a mark. They do not want to be a monument, but simply something that leaves memory traces.

Melodic Strains. Melodic relationships, as opposed to motivic ones, are by definition not permutational; they make sense only if a certain contour, a certain basic order of notes and rhythmic gestures, is followed at least roughly. Scrambled melody is unrecognizable, or recognizable only as parody. In my set of variations, however, the opposite holds true. The variations typically elaborate on each degree of the C-minor scale, with an equivocation likely on the seventh, and the scale degrees are associated with specific note-profiles and rhythmic gestures that recur often enough to act as signatures. But there is no order requirement; some variations preserve the scalar order, some modify it, some scramble it. The melodic principle is arithmetical rather than geometrical, an ars combinatoria of the scale degrees based on permutational rotation.

A limit is placed on this quasi-aleatory mechanism by the fact that most of the variations begin with the first degree. Most, in this case, means precisely not all: the fact that most of the variations begin this way seems to give the variation process a melodic and even a harmonic anchor, but the fact that this most is not all reveals the seeming anchor as precisely that, a seeming, an illusion of essential design that can be suspended at any moment. Similarly, the majority of the variations end with the raised seventh degree, but not all. The melodic illusion thus springs up between the points of greatest stability, the beginning and the end, which prove to be flimsy as pasteboard, the supports for a house of cards. Eventually, a sense of weightlessness becomes pervasive; the music, revealing itself as pure appearance, becomes apparitional.

Ceci ne pas . . . It's funny, though. Despite this simulacral indeterminacy, despite the uncanny quality that should be produced by this tip-of-the-tongue state of being recognized but unnameable, the effect of hearing or playing the variations is curiously user-friendly, free of heavy baggage, neither flattened into a chip-thin irony nor nostalgically burdened with ominous depth. In other words it offers a pleasure free—meant to be free, anyway—from the need either to escape the past or retreat to it. The final variation, a double variation, even forms an apotheosis of this quality, though an apotheosis without the trumpets of prophecy. "Revenants" is a small piece with no delusions of grandeur, but for precisely that reason it affirms the continuity of memory in what may be a viable way. It's small enough to keep, and large enough to have some hope of not being thrown away during a housecleaning.


Excerpted from Musical Meaning by Lawrence Kramer. Copyright © 2001 by the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction. Sounding Out: Musical Meaning and Modern Experience 1
1 Hermeneutics and Musical History: A Primer without Rules, an Exercise with Schubert 11
2 Hands On, Lights Off: The "Moonlight" Sonata and the Birth of Sex at the Piano 29
3 Beyond Words and Music: An Essay on Songfulness 51
4 Franz Liszt and the Virtuoso Public Sphere: Sight and Sound in the Rise of Mass Entertainment 68
5 Rethinking Schumann's Carnaval: Identity, Meaning, and the Social Order 100
6 Glottis Envy: The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera 133
7 Hercules' Hautboys: Mixed Media and Musical Meaning 145
8 The Voice of Persephone: Musical Meaning and Mixed Media 173
9 Powers of Blackness: Jazz and the Blues in Modern Concert Music 194
10 Long Ride in a Slow Machine: The Alienation Effect from Weill to Shostakovich 216
11 Chiaroscuro: Coltrane's American Songbook 242
12 Ghost Stories: Cultural Memory, Mourning, and the Myth of Originality 258
Notes 289
Index 327
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