Listening Subjects: Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture

Listening Subjects: Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture

by David Schwarz

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In Listening Subjects, David Schwarz uses psychoanalytic techniques to probe the visceral experiences of music listeners. Using classical, popular, and avant-garde music as texts, Schwarz addresses intriguing questions: why do bodies develop goose bumps when listening to music and why does music sound so good when heard "all around?" By concentrating on music as cultural artifact, Listening Subjects shows how the historical conditions under which music is created affect the listening experience.
Schwarz applies the ideas of post-Lacanian psychoanalytic theorists Slavoj Zizek, Julia Kristeva, and Kaja Silverman to an analysis of diverse works. In a discussion of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China, he presents music listening as a fantasy of being enclosed in a second skin of enveloping sound. He looks at the song cycles of Franz Schubert as an examination and expression of epistemological doubts at the advent of modernism, and traverses fantasy "space" in his exploration of the white noise at the end of the Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)." Schwarz also considers the psychosexual undercurrent in Peter Gabriel’s "Intruder" and the textual and ideological structures of German Oi Musik. Concluding with a reading of two compositions by Diamanda Galás, he reveals how some performances can simultaneously produce terror and awe, abjection and rage, pleasure and displeasure. This multilayered study transcends other interventions in the field of musicology, particularly in its groundbreaking application of literary theory to popular and classical music.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399513
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/18/1997
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

David Schwarz is Valentine Professor of Music at Amherst College.

Read an Excerpt

Listening Subjects

Music, Psychoanalysis, Culture

By David Schwarz

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9951-3


Music as Sonorous Envelope and Acoustic Mirror

I have been curious about another simple phenomenon and my response to it for some time–how music sounds in the Musikhalle in Hamburg, Germany. The hall was built in the early twentieth century; it has plaster walls, gold ornaments, translucent glass ceilings, and wooden seats with velvet cushions. If you sit anywhere in the hall on the side, music comes at you, remains "in front." But, if you sit in the middle, from the first few seats of the orchestra all the way back to the gallery, even in seats behind pillars, music is "all around" and seems to embrace your entire body. I experienced this again during a recent performance of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony with Giuseppi Sinopoli conducting the Hamburger Philharmonisches Staatsorchester.

The all-around pleasure of listening to music is one of many "oceanic" fantasies (some pleasurable, displeasurable, or ambivalent) such as sleeping, swimming, having sex, being absorbed by a movie, by a religious experience, by a landscape, etc. Although these fantasies are quite different from one another in obvious ways, they share a common feature: the boundary separating the body from the external world seems dissolved or crossed in some way. What makes such fantasies possible? How and why can oceanic fantasies be pleasurable, displeasurable, or ambivalent? How does sound function in these structures? This chapter will attempt to answer some of these questions.

Recent film theory based on psychoanalytic research has related a wide variety of "oceanic" representations to "the sonorous envelope." The French writer Guy Rosolato says, for example: "The maternal voice helps to constitute for the infant the pleasurable milieu which surrounds, sustains, and cherishes him.... One could argue that it is the first model of auditory pleasure and that music finds its roots and its nostalgia in [this] original atmosphere which might be called a sonorous womb, a murmuring house." On an elementary level, then, the experience of being embraced by the all-around sound of music in Hamburg's Musikhalle was made possible by my experience of the sonorous envelope in the early stages of my developing subjectivity. But, even though the experience in the Musikhalle was visceral, it was a fantasy –a representation of an experience to which neither I nor anyone else can have direct access. Thus, representations of the sonorous envelope are always retrospective; they are produced by a wide variety of theoretical, historical, psychoanalytic, and personal contexts. Given its retrospective structure, the sonorous envelope can be described as a thing, an immanent experience whose features represent how we imagine the sonorous envelope might have sounded. The sonorous envelope can also produce threshold crossing –a crucial component of listening as space. In the experience described above, I crossed the threshold between my clearly marked-off adult body and a fantasy of a familiar but archaic body less distinctly marked off from the external world than its adult counterpart. Goose bumps at my skin marked the crossing of this sonorous threshold.

On the one hand, the sonorous envelope is a fantasy of a thing, a representation of having been at one with the touch, smell, and voice of the mother to which we do not have direct access; on the other hand, it is a space in which thresholds are crossed and enunciated. Music represents the sonorous envelope as a fantasy thing when there are one-to-one correspondences between musical details and an archaic, oceanic fantasy. Music represents the sonorous envelope as a fantasy space when attributes of the thing are related to other conventional registers in which the subject finds him/herself. The conventionality in my experience was my adult self-awareness and all the baggage associated with my social identity, knowledge of the music, status as a foreigner in Germany, etc.

This is an elementary introduction to the sonorous envelope as a fantasy of a thing and threshold-crossing space. Perhaps, as Rosolato suggests, the sonorous envelope supports all musical experience. But, beyond the universal claim, new minimal music in particular represents the sonorous envelope both as fantasy thing and as fantasy space. Much new minimal music relies on two structures that can easily sound "oceanic." The music often has familiar and simple rhythmic structures with small and large groupings of eighth or sixteenth notes pervading entire scores. And the music's pitch content often consists of drawn-out versions of traditional harmonies from the canon–particularly the semitonal voice leading of the German tradition of the mid-nineteenth century. It is precisely this familiar but archaic quality that makes "new" minimal music work so well as a representation of the sonorous envelope. The minimal rhythmic patterns are nothing more than an elevation to primacy of a common secondary feature of canonic music, particularly Lieder and sonatas–accompanying figuration. Consider the opening measures of John Adams's opera Nixon in China, shown in ex. 1 in piano-vocal arrangement.

The passage creates a fantasy of the sonorous envelope as thing through very repetitive and metrically regular fragments, on the one hand, and irregular entrances of sustained pitches, on the other. A predictable pattern of ascending A natural-minor scales fills each measure with eighth notes that fill in theoctave with "white notes." The piece sounds as if in A minor until the bass enters with an F in m. 6, making the piece sound as if in F Lydian. With the C in m. 31, Adams hints at a cycle of major thirds as an organizing principle. Each of these bass notes, A-F-C, thus shifts the perception of the harmonic organization of the music. These bass notes thus slowly open the music's sonorous space. Conventional materials emerge gradually during the first several hundred measures of the piece, as shown in ex. 2.

So far, I have described the musical representation of the sonorous envelope in two mutually dependent ways: music that is structured as a representation of the sonorous fantasy thing and music that articulates a crossing of thresholds, the sonorous fantasy space. Spaces also open when the stability of the text shifts at the emergence of half-formed quotes–not so much of specific pieces, but more an appropriation of a preexisting style. Since the turn of the nineteenth century, quoting in Western canonical works has become more and more self-conscious; Adams relies on this tradition in his music. Indirect quoting is thus another familiar technique that supports this "new" minimal music. There are many examples of self-referential quoting among movements of music ranging from Beethoven to Brahms and of quotes within a piece and to antecedents in the work of Gustav Mahler. A high modern master whose quoting can be heard as a forerunner of Adams is Alban Berg. At the outset of his Piano Sonata, op. 1, the first phrase moves from atonal material through an altered transposition of Richard Wagner's Tristan chord/progression down a half step to a dominant-tonic close on B minor. For a comparison between the two passages, see exx. 3 and 4.

In Berg's music, the quote is quite hidden but unmistakable. Wagner's ascending half step G#-Abecomes Berg's descending half step G#-G#; and, of course, Berg transposes the entire Tristan progression down a half step–a pun on Wagner's semitonal voice leading. Berg's wit can also be seen in the example's reversal of its own history: the tonal-chromatic-atonal sequence of music's tonal orientation from the classical period, through the nineteenth century, to the turn of the twentieth century is reversed, as if the music were listening back through its own past.

In Western art music written after the high modern period, quoting spans the continuum from minimal quotation at one "end" to saturation quotation at the other. Much of Philip Glass's music is an example of music with minimal explicit or implicit quotation. At the other "end" of the continuum, everything in the musical text points to previous styles, previous pieces, or clichés from other eras, as, for example, in much of the music of George Rochberg. In his Caprice Variations for Violin Solo, Rochberg juxtaposes fragments of a wide variety of masterpieces, including Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Brahms's Violin Concerto, and Paganini's solo violin works, along a single "red thread" of continuity–the pitch class A. The third movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia juxtaposes and superimposes a wide variety of direct quotations on a continuum of spoken text from Samuel Beckett. In John Adams's "pseudoquotes," the source rarely comes completely clear; his style of quotation occurs in a gray area in the middle of our continuum in which styles, orchestral colors, orchestration techniques, and harmonic progressions are appropriated without a clear tag pointing to the quote's origin. Like Berg's early altered and transposed Tristan progression, many of John Adams's quotes are indirect. Further on in Nixon in China, Adams indirectly quotes the opening of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold. Example 5 shows that the C-major triad (see mm. 297-325 of ex. 2 above) embodies new minimalism's style-specific rhythmic cliché of steady sixteenth notes. An upward arpeggiation of a C-major triad begins in the bass in m. 295 and sounds through m. 308. This upward arpeggiation of a major chord at the beginning of Nixon in China is reminiscent of the arpeggiation of an E-major triad at the beginning of Das Rheingold. See exx. 5 and 6.

Both Adams and Wagner superimpose an ascending arpeggiation of a major triad in dotted rhythm over a static arpeggiation of the same chord in the bass. Both prepare, as well, for vocal entries in their respective operas. In Nixon in China, the oceanic, undifferentiated texture of the opening gets charged with musical conventions that gradually pre-figure the "quote" from Wagner: the pitch class A is a nonfunctional axis of the cycle of major thirds in the bass from mm. 1-159; E- and A-major chords are juxtaposed from mm. 236-92; the oscillation between the C-major and E-minor chords from mm. 297325 embodies the style cliché of semitonal voice leading in new minimal music. The moment of our recognition of the quote from Wagner opens the space between John Adams the composer and the listener. We have the illusion that our listening has created an element of musical structure as we hear the difference between being enclosed by the music of the initial measures of the piece and being split from the music as it becomes marked by convention. Such threshold crossing is precisely a representation of the sonorous envelope as fantasy space.

But what does "threshold crossing" have to do with developing subjectivity? I have suggested that music as sonorous thing can "remind us of something we can only imagine; I have suggested that music as sonorous space can connect such fantasies to a wide variety of theoretical, historical, and personal contexts. But there is an additional structure that supports this connection between musical representations of a sonorous fantasy thing and space to other contexts as an emergence into conventionality. This is the development of the subject as mapped out in Lacanian and post-Lacanian theory. Although I will expand on this "sequence" of stages of developing subjectivity in the section on the acoustic mirror below and throughout this book, I offer a large-grain version below by way of introduction. As suggested above, the sonorous envelope represents our sense of having been at one with the touch, smell, and voice of the mother in the womb and shortly after birth. In the acoustic-mirror stage, the child "plays" with its voice in an attempt to match it to the mother's. The acoustic-mirror stage is the precursor of the visual mirror stage, in which the child "recognizes" itself in the mirror and face of the mother. The acoustic- and visual mirror stages are part of what Lacan calls the Imaginary Order; it is the division of the child's experience into binary oppositions of full/empty, presence/absence, etc. As will be shown below, the acoustic-mirror stage begins shortly after birth; the visual mirror stage occurs between the ages of six months and a year and a half. The child emerges from the mirror stage into language acquisition, or Lacan's Symbolic Order, at very roughly a year and a half. Indications of a clear threshold between the mirror stage and language acquisition will be discussed in subsequent chapters. For now, it is important to realize that, from birth to language acquisition, the subject experiences (and retrospectively represents to itself and others) a series of splits away from phenomenal experience, from the sonorous envelope, through the binaries of the Imaginary Order, and into the plural, dispersing signifiers of the Symbolic Order. Thus, symbolic reconstructions of moments from developing subjectivity in music are supported by threshold-crossing structures within developing subjectivity itself. The more blurred the threshold crossing in the music, the more it will sound like a representation of an event that took place early in developing subjectivity; the clearer the threshold crossing, the more it will sound like a representation of crossing the threshold into the Symbolic Order.

The examples above have shown how, in selected works of John Adams, music represents sonorous fantasy thing and space in which the emergence of conventionality reminds the listener of a moment in his/her developing subjectivity to which he/she does not have direct access. Selected examples from the music of Steve Reich represent sonorous space as regressive fantasy in which threshold crossing undermines the (apparent) stability of conventionality.

Reich's early piece "It's Gonna Rain" (1965) is based solely on manipulations of taped speech. The piece uses repetition obsessively to strip meaning just as it is about to take shape. "It's Gonna Rain" isin two parts. Part 1 begins with a thirteen-second taped passage from a street preacher's sermon. After a one-second pause, two tracks of the phrase it's gonna rain go out of phase with one another. As the tracks move out of phase, the language sounds as if it were being ripped apart through the violence of phase motion.

From 0:14 to 2:00, words and syllables also fade in and out. This gives sound a spatial impression–as if sounds were moving close (fading in) and receding (fading out). It is as if the listener must brace him/herself against approaching sounds and "let up" as sounds move away. Reich repeats the word gonna over and over again, cutting the word down to the syllable go. When severed from the other syllable of gonna, the syllable go becomes a verb in the imperative voice, calling to the listener. This shift in meaning represents a sonorous fantasy space in which the listener feels directly addressed by the music.

With the shift from heard gonna to "speaking" go, Reich produces what I would like to call a listening gaze. The look and the gaze differ as follows. The look is a conventional representation of one person seeing another in real or imagined social and/or personal space. He/she who looks is the sole agent of the look, and he/she who is looked at is the sole recipient of the agency. The gaze, on the other hand, always exceeds the look. The gaze carries an additional weight, and its source is often hidden or transposed. Thus, for example, objects can be represented as the source of a gaze; in such cases, the gaze represents the introjection of another's look. It is the structure of the gaze, for example, that supports the cliché in horror movies of a portrait gazing at a vulnerable subject through the cutout spaces through which horrifyingly "real" eyes peer. With the shift from the word gonna to the imperative syllable become word go, the listener can fantasize that he/she has been seen or heard. It is important to realize that this threshold represents a fantasy of sonorous space, not thing; it is impossible to tell at which repetition ofgo the shift occurs for different listeners; perhaps some listeners would never hear go repeated several times as the imperative voice of the infinitive to go.

Repetition makes such a moment of threshold crossing possible. Repetition multiplies the possible moments for the shift from gonna to go to take place; it opens the space for this threshold crossing. From 2:01 to 7:44, several tracks go out of and move back into phase in one gesture. Here, the phase process is audibly prefigured in the "unison" phrase with which the piece begins: it's gonna rain (2:01 ... ). The phrase it's gonna is doubled at the octave, while rain sounds like one voice, suddenly closer to the listener.

Part 1 of "It's Gonna Rain" ends abruptly with a line of taped, spoken speech that extends the text by one phrase: it's gonna rain after awhile. The piece is contained within the musical equivalent of a frame–the one-second pause of silence between 0:13 and 0:14 that sets off the thirteen seconds of taped speech from the rest of the piece and the return to taped speech at the end with the phrase it's gonna rain after awhile

Part 2 begins with an extended passage of taped speech–0:00-0:40. The rest of the section fragments and superimposes words and phrases from this excerpt, focusing on open the door, God, sure enough, and Hallelujah. Repetition tears meaning away from language by the end of this piece to reveal the disordered sounds that support the Symbolic Order. Through the mediated and conventional techniques of tape-recording, splicing, and phase motion, Reich represents the noise within the sonorous envelope.


Excerpted from Listening Subjects by David Schwarz. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Music as Sonorous Envelope and Acoustic Mirror 2. Scatting, the Acoustic Mirror, and the Real in the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" 3. Why Notes Always Reach Their Destination (at Least Once) in Schubert's Winterreise 4. Music and the Gaze: Schubert's "Der Doppelgänger" and "Ihr Bild" 5. Peter Gabriel's "Intruder," a Cover, and the Gaze 6. Oi: Music, Politics, and Violence 7. Lamentation, Abjection, and the Music of Diamanda Galás Notes Bibliography Index

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