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University of California Press
Interpreting Music / Edition 1

Interpreting Music / Edition 1

by Lawrence Kramer
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Interpreting Music
is a comprehensive essay on understanding musical meaning and performing music meaningfully—“interpreting music” in both senses of the term. Synthesizing and advancing two decades of highly influential work, Lawrence Kramer fundamentally rethinks the concepts of work, score, performance, performativity, interpretation, and meaning—even the very concept of music—while breaking down conventional wisdom and received ideas. Kramer argues that music, far from being closed to interpretation, is ideally open to it, and that musical interpretation is the paradigm of interpretation in general. The book illustrates the many dimensions of interpreting music through a series of case studies drawn from the classical repertoire, but its methods and principles carry over to other repertoires just as they carry beyond music by working through music to wider philosophical and cultural questions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520267060
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/02/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Kramer is Professor of Music and English at Fordham University. He is the author of many books, including Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History; Opera and Modern Culture; and Why Classical Music Still Matters, all from UC Press.

Read an Excerpt

Interpreting Music

By Lawrence Kramer


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94736-8



This is a book about musical hermeneutics. A generation ago, no one would have wanted to write it. Music by nature seemed to rule it out. Music did not seem to mean the way other things do if it seemed to mean at all. This book tries to show why and how that situation has changed—changed dramatically. Each chapter examines a different concept or practice associated with the deceptively simple phrase interpreting music. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation. What do we do when we interpret music? What do we learn by doing it? What is at stake? Why should we care?

To begin answering, we need to reconsider hermeneutics generally. For this book about what hermeneutics can do for music is also about what music can do for hermeneutics, which needs some redoing. So this first chapter takes interpreting music as a means to reexamine the activity of interpreting any- and everything, and to sketch the implicit worldview involved.

Music first. In everyday parlance, music is interpreted by being performed. The performer's actions both reproduce the music and produce an understanding of it. But this understanding is mute, bodily, sometimes visceral and sometimes gestural; it is communicated to the listener as a mutual understanding might be by a nod, a gaze, or a facial expression. Musical hermeneutics adds an option. It seeks to show how music works in the world by interpreting both music and musical performances in language. To interpret music verbally is to give it a legible place in the conduct of life.

Then any- and everything. In everyday parlance interpretation refers to the expression of a viewpoint based on a fixed predisposition—either a personal inclination or a system of belief. The first case produces a statement of opinion, the second a statement of orthodoxy. Both follow an implicit narrative that ends at its point of origin. The interpretation absorbs the specific matter it addresses into a generic order. It assumes that a certain meaning is transparently present in both the expressive form of the thing interpreted and in the language of the interpreter.

Interpretation in this sense has no independent cognitive value; it is merely the mirror of a settled understanding. Its conclusions lie in its premises.

Interpretation in the hermeneutic sense—call it open interpretation—is very different. Open interpretation aims not to reproduce its premises but to produce something from them. It depends on prior knowledge but expects that knowledge to be transformed in being used. Open interpretation concerns itself with phenomena in their singularity, not their generality. It treats the object of interpretation more as event than as structure and always as the performance of a human subject, not as a fixed form independent of concrete human agency.

Unlike the expression of a viewpoint, open interpretation is a relatively rare and specialized practice. It is analytical, articulate, and reflective. It brings the interpreter as subject into contact, and sometimes conflict, with the subject(s)—both the agents and the topics—of what is interpreted. Although open interpretation can occur in any expressive medium, including musical performance, its primary form and model is verbal. It both addresses and employs all the connotative richness, symbolic resonance, and ambiguity that language creates—and creates whether we like it or not.

Interpretation in this enriched hermeneutic sense is important for at least two reasons. First, open interpretation represents an alternative to both empiricism and dogmatism as sources of knowledge. When we interpret hermeneutically we can neither stick to the facts nor adhere to fixed assumptions. If we don't go forward we go nowhere. Second, open interpretation is the essential vehicle of subjectivity in the strong sense, not of private sensation or idiosyncrasy, but of intelligent agency in its concrete historical being. Subjectivity, the capacity to be in being knowing, is fundamentally the capacity to interpret.

Although an ancient practice, interpretation is also both the medium and the foundation of a more recent world-historical legacy that still remains to be worked out. The legacy, seriously imperiled at the start of the twenty-first century, is that of the European Enlightenment, and one of its key features is the mutual dependency and antagonism of knowing and being.

The Enlightenment concept of the human subject as a unique being endowed with certain rights can be said to have transposed the soul from the sacred to a secular register. The result—to oversimplify greatly but not fatally—was that the subject acquired an unprecedented mandate, both burden and license, to interpret. The subject's nature could no longer be settled by dogma or tradition, nor could its freedom be reduced to empirical determinations. Interpretation was the compass by which the subject navigated between these shoals, a task complicated by the fact that most historical attempts to theorize interpretation ended up yielding to one shoal or the other.

To the extent that interpretation thrived, subjectivity could claim its Enlightened identity as free, responsible, and singular human agency, deserving, in Kant's great formulation, to be treated never only as a means but always also as an end. To practice interpretation is to align oneself with the ideals underlying this principle. It is to embrace the Enlightenment model that endows subjectivity with certain rights and dignities based precisely on its singularity, its irreplaceability, its finitude—even its opacity to itselfe. In the diversity of its results and its striving to maintain its own openness—no easy thing—open interpretation as a cultural practice continually reanimates this conception.

And so does music, insofar as we link music to feeling, sensation, emotion, memory, and desire, as we all do constantly. Those linkages animate this book, which not only deals with how and what music might mean but also asks, reflectively, what it means to engage with musical meaning. The book shuttles between interpreting musical works and showing how music, like interpretation, has acted as a basic formative medium of modern subjectivity. Has acted: for interpretation, subjectivity, and the music where they meet all face historical changes that put their continued possibility at stake. Interpretation is caught between extremes of resurgent dogmatism and overambitious empiricism. Subjectivity, perhaps even consciousness as we have known it, is threatened with dispersal into the flow of digital information. Music, increasingly channeled through iPod-like devices and subject to endless remixing, may become little more than the soundtrack to these developments.

I will neither dwell on this dilemma here nor propose a quixotic effort to turn back the clock. But the need to find a place for the interpreting subject in what is sometimes called a "posthuman" world should be understood as the horizon of my more focused concern with musical hermeneutics. As I intimated earlier, theories of hermeneutics have been too timid about interpretation. Most have been unwilling or conceptually unable to recognize the hermeneutic as the third term of cognition along with the dogmatic and the empirical. This book can be read as an attempt to right the balance. That the attempt goes through music is not simply an accident of my professional involvement with musical meaning. On the contrary: hermeneutics needs to be musicalized if it is to work free of the self-imposed restraints that have hobbled its historical development. We will see why shortly.


Subjects make interpretations; interpretations make subjects. On what terms? To address this issue we need to revisit two of the founding texts of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher's "The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures" and Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method (1960). The summa of the latter depends in part on a retreat from the inaugurating gesture of the former.

Gadamer is best known for his defense of prejudgment—Vorurteil, prejudice—as an essential element in interpretation. The basic idea has become almost proverbial. It is impossible to escape the historical character of understanding. Any understanding of a text from the past involves a fusion of the text's conceptual horizon with the reader's. In reading I produce the fusion by both acting on my prejudgments and letting the text put them at risk.

The conceptual underpinning of this celebrated argument is less well known, however, and less attractive. The argument incorporates subjective agency with a big proviso. The interpreting subject is enjoined to transcend itself on behalf of the foreordained fusion. Assent to the outcome is mandatory. And the outcome is lopsided because it always preserves the authority of tradition. Just beneath the surface, Gadamer is as suspicious of subjectivity as the partisans of objective science he constantly attacks. His depersonalized mode of interpretation overvalues authority, fetishizes tradition, and idealizes consensus while giving no place to dissent or divergence. His remarks on the subject sometimes sound like a wicked satire on the figure of the German Professor—except that he means them.

The result is an unwitting parody of the famous hermeneutic circle. Authority, "properly understood, has nothing to do with blind obedience to commands" but rather with the superior "judgment and insight" of the person in charge. We do obey this person, but our obedience "proceeds only from the authority that the person has." We obey because the authority is legitimate, and we know the authority is legitimate because we obey. Our obedience confirms that "what the authority says is not irrational or arbitrary but can, in principle, be discovered to be true" (280).

The subtexts of this jaw-dropping credulity range from the comical to the sinister; perhaps it is best (and it is certainly kindest) to let them lie. Nonetheless, Gadamer's best insights need to be rescued from their author. This is especially true with respect to classical music, where an iconic, overidealized tradition and a cult of analytic expertise have had all too much authority. Before we can bring Gadamerian hermeneutics to music or anything else we have to take a risk that Gadamer himself, for whom risk is a first principle, consistently refused to take. We have to risk acting as subjects both confounded and inspired by a singularity that no simple fusion of horizons, no forced compromise of perspectives, can encompass. We will see later what specific form this risk needs to assume.

Meanwhile, consider Gadamer's "correction" of Schleiermacher's notion of psychological understanding: "When we try to understand a text, we do not try to transpose ourselves into the author's mind but ... to understand how what he is saying might be right.... [We move] in a dimension of meaning that is intelligible in itself and as such offers no reason for going back to the subjectivity of the author. The task of hermeneutics is to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not a mysterious communion of souls, but sharing in a common meaning" (292). The dismissive phrase about "mysterious communion" rejects subjectivity as pseudospirit; its sarcasm loftily declares that understanding is simply not subjective in any respect. But despite the rhetorical sleight of hand that shifts the dubious mystery onto misguided subjectivity, the "miracle" of understanding does involve a communion. The participants share meaning in language as they might share a festive or sacred meal.

The subject has no place at this table. Subjectivity would individualize even agreement too much to admit of truly common meaning. The modern loss of communal understanding haunts Gadamer's text, recalling the loss of "aura" that preoccupied Walter Benjamin. But Gadamer clings to the lost object as Benjamin never would. He may well be right that subjectivity interferes with consensus, or at least with foreordained consensus. But that is precisely what is valuable about subjectivity, and the reason why interpretation without subjectivity is not worth having—or would not be worth having if we could have it, which we can't.

Still, if we go back to Schleiermacher, don't we find ourselves stuck hunting phantoms we can never grasp in a place we can never inhabit—the ideas in the author's mind? Not really, for Schleiermacher does have an incipient idea of subjectivity as an activity, not a biographical contingency. The idea is implicit in his description of interpretation as a movement from text to discourse (Rede). The discourse does correspond to the author's thought, but this thought is not purely individual nor even, implicitly, specific to the author's biography. Instead it embraces the range of perspectives available to a thinker in the author's historical position. Schleiermacher's metaphor for this perspectival framework anticipates its counterpart in Gadamer: "Every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon." There is no firm boundary between the author's discourse and the "contextualizations" (Vorkenntnissen, prior recognitions) that inform it and help make it possible.

Subjectivity arises in the passages (corridors, voyages, routes) between Schleiermacher's text and discourse, Gadamer's prejudgment and understanding. It is not a state of mind but a mode of performance. It is not something one has or is but something one does. It is both a constantly mutating practice of negotiation between internal perceptions and worldly conditions and the style and rhythm of that practice. It is private only insofar as it is also public and historically conditioned; it depends on the power of a symbolic order that in principle it continually seeks to evade.

Similarly, the interpretation produced by the person qua subject is neither arbitrary nor prescriptive. It does not claim to represent the thoughts in anyone's head, nor does it make a claim of supersensuous intuition or gnostic illumination, nor does it have a kind of abstract existence demanding, like a Homeric shade, to be given the blood of credulity in order to rise up as "the" meaning of a work. Interpretation is textual. It exists, and exists only, in a certain textual space and survives as discourse when other texts are composed in response to it, perhaps in speech, perhaps in writing. It is not shared, as Gadamer would have it; it is only, and precisely, read. An interpretation is a "reading" not only in a figurative sense but also in a literal one. Like any other text, it opens out into a discourse that can be paraphrased and discussed, but like any other text it cannot be detached from the particulars of its own textuality.

This embeddedness in the nexus of text and discourse leads to a conclusion that I would like to call inescapable, but which no one has ever quite been willing to draw. The need for a substrate of certainty, or rather, perhaps, the need to preserve the assumed kinship of truth and certainty, has been just too strong.

Between the text and its discourse lies a gap that can never, in principle, be closed. This gap cannot be accounted for even by classic deconstructive terms like différance and dissemination; the interpreter as agent must intervene between the text and discourse before the activity named by such terms can be activated. We must intervene interpretively before we can either enjoy or understand. Meaning in discourse always arises concretely from a speech act that enters the discourse from outside. This speech act arises at the point where the interpreter stops reading the signs from within.

This result is a leap from system to subject, which is also the movement in which the interpreted—the artwork, the musical work, the historical or fictional narrative—enacts the transition from text to discourse and in that enactment comes to life.


But is it "real" life? The idea of interpretation as a primary mode of cognition has historically had to struggle against the suspicion that it is a systematic promotion of illusion, if not delusion. The interpreter either departs irresponsibly from what is knowable for reasons grounded in fancy or fantasy, or else claims to decipher a hidden meaning that reduces, explains, and appropriates the item interpreted on behalf of an unacknowledged ideology or dogma. Hermeneutics at its best is an effort to circumvent the dogmas of empiricism and the empiricity of dogma, and precisely for that reason it has suffered from critiques, not to say dismissals—we will come to those—from both flanks. For that reason too, if we want to grasp what interpretation is or may be, our path may have to lead through a grasp of what interpretation is not and should not be. The idea is to dispel a variety of misconceptions about interpretation that are still widely current even though their intellectual foundations have long since crumbled.


Excerpted from Interpreting Music by Lawrence Kramer. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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 Musical Examples

1. Hermeneutics
2. Language
3. Subjectivity
4. Meaning
5. Metaphor
6. History
8. Deconstruction
9. Analysis
10. Resemblance
11. Things
12. Classical
13. Modern
14. Works
15. Performance
16. Musicology



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