Departing from the traditional German school of music theorists, Michael Klein injects a unique French critical theory perspective into the framework of music and meaning. Using primarily Lacanian notions of the symptom, that unnamable jouissance located in the unconscious, and the registers of subjectivity (the Imaginary, the Symbolic Order, and the Real), Klein explores how we understand music as both an artistic form created by "the subject" and an artistic expression of a culture that imposes its history on this modern subject. By creatively navigating from critical theory to music, film, fiction, and back to music, Klein distills the kinds of meaning that we have been missing when we perform, listen to, think about, and write about music without the insights of Lacan and others into formulations of modern subjectivity.
About the Author
Michael Klein is Professor of Music Studies at Temple University. He is author of Intertextuality in Western Art Music (IUP, 2004) and editor (with Nicholas Reyland), of Music and Narrative since 1900 (IUP, 2012).
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Music and the Crises of the Modern Subject
By Michael L. Klein
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Michael L. Klein
All rights reserved.
Music and the Symptom
The subject's personality is structured like a symptom. — Jacques Lacan, "Variations on the Standard Treatment"
How Did Edward T. Cone Invent the Symptom?
Early in The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek writes that according to Lacan it was Karl Marx who invented the symptom (1989: 3). Zizek's claim is a willful one, given that Lacan never professed an allegiance to Marxist thought, and that references to Marx appear only sporadically in Lacan's writings (see Valente 2003). But the point is that if Marx did invent the symptom, it was qualitatively different from the ancient Greek semeiotikos (observation of signs), which formed part of the reading of symptoms in medical practice (see Sebeok 1994: 10–14). For Marx, in Zizek's formulation, the symptom begins with the discovery of a hidden content beneath the form of socioeconomic relations: Marx invented the social symptom. And if knowledge of the content behind the form is a necessary prerequisite for such an invention, then we might claim that Edward T. Cone (1982) invented the musical symptom with his famous study of the promissory note in Schubert's Moment musical no. 6. Although the word symptom never appears in this celebrated article, when Cone whispers the words syphilis, desolation, and dread at the end of his study, it becomes evident that his analysis of Schubert's piece has uncovered a social pathology (240).
As we now know, thanks to Cone, the promissory note in Schubert's Moment musical is an E? that first appears in m. 12 and stands out for a failure to discharge its conventional voice-leading (Example 1.1). Cone tells us promissory notes appear early in a movement and that their reappearances bring the sections of a piece "into more intimate and more interesting connection" (236). A promissory note (symptom) is a "troubling element" that arouses an expectation that a later section will "legitimize" its disturbing features (237). Cone looks briefly at a foil to the Moment musical, the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in F major, op. 10, no. 2, where a promissory chord is left hanging in the exposition only to find its proper resolution in the development (236). By implication, Beethoven's sonata happily overcomes its symptom (though there was probably no doubt that the hijinks of the opening would lead to a felicitous end). By contrast, Schubert's Moment musical never finds a cure for its symptom. Instead, a late phrase in the music "is terrifying in its intensity," lending the final section a "devastating effect" (239).
Cone focuses primarily on the Allegretto of this composite form (Allegretto-Trio-Allegretto), beginning with a structural analysis filtered through the problematic E? and its consequences. As such, this part of Cone's study plays within a long and still important tradition of tracing the generative impact of early musical features on later ones (see Réti 1961; Rosen 1972: 115–16, 120–29; Kerman 1982; Agawu 1987; McCreless 1991; Spitzer 1996). Cone's notion of the promissory note, a pitch or chord that withholds its voice-leading obligations until a later passage, has a place in analyses focused primarily on harmonic, contrapuntal, or formal structures (see, for example, Burstein 1997: 53). More particularly, since Cone focuses on a chromatic pitch, his study involves what many theorists, starting with Steven Laitz (1992), have called a pitch-class motive. Reviewing the history of the pitch-class motive, Patrick McCreless writes that because the technique of tracing a chromatic pitch through a piece is so well known, a colleague of his calls it "an easy game to play" (2011: 65–66). As we will see, though, from a Lacanian perspective the game is easy because theorists have played it by the wrong rules.
Despite his strategy of beginning with a review of structural details, Cone really had a hermeneutic impulse from the start, which powerfully directed the kinds of features he was looking for and the ways he would account for them. Cone lets us in on the game later in the article: "An astute reader will have noticed that my analysis has not been wholly objective. I have insinuated a few leading phrases to suggest to him the kind of expression I find in the work, and to encourage him to hear it the same way" (239). Because of his focus on an expressive interpretation, Cone's promissory note is what we would now call a hermeneutic window (Kramer 1990: 12). But in 1982, before the hermeneutic impulse had entered the mainstream of American musicology, Cone needed to proceed cautiously, lending an aura of authority to the expressive meaning he would draw from Schubert's music. He began, then, with the accepted scholarly discourse of the period: a structural analysis. Only after reminding us that he is adept at this discourse does Cone edge more openly toward a hermeneutic analysis.
But hermeneutics does not work this way; one does not begin with a structure and move out to a meaning. The meaning is already evident even to a listener who has no knowledge of keys, or phrases, or chromatic pitches breaking their promises. Cone's tentative move from structure to meaning reveals what Lawrence Kramer calls ekphrastic fear: the sense that "verbal paraphrase works too well, that it threatens to engross and supplant the representation that it describes" (2002: 18). Ekphrastic fear is still common in music studies, partly because musicologists, theorists, and performers tend to view the otherness of music as sacrosanct. Ironically, from Lacan's point of view, it is language itself that is Other. Music's otherness is a symptom of the very language that the fearful curtail in their approaches to music. We have no choice but to speak. Once we do, much of human experience becomes strange as language falters in signifying the particularity of being. But our only other choice is to remain silent about what compels us to speak in the first place. Our impulses serve us better if we err on the side of ekphrastic hope, which aims to overcome the putative otherness of music and rise to a form of eloquence in verbal representations of it (Kramer 2002). One does not need to know about the E# to understand the two most striking passages of the Moment musical: the utopian vision that materializes unexpectedly in the middle section, and the ominous passage near the conclusion of the Allegretto, where we hear an intimation of a lonely death. Cone surely understood the meanings of these passages long before he looked for their connections via the pitch-class E. Structural analysis as the first step toward hermeneutics is a hopeless methodology because it only reinforces the idea that meaning works like an equation in which a structural detail here is equivalent to an extra-musical meaning there.
But the larger point is that the promissory note is more than a voice-leading oddity; the voice leading is only secondary. The promissory note is a symptom with a pathology. Cone helps us understand this way of thinking in the second part of the article, where he invokes a metaphor at least as old as the nineteenth century: music is analogous to a "human activity or state of mind" (239). Like Schenker and others before him, Cone views music as a model of human agency, whether construed as a series of bodily actions or psychological ones. Music as psychology, or what Daniel Chua calls the "I-pod" of the modern self, "closed off from the outside like a sonic monad" (2011: 345), is the metaphor that Cone develops into a narrative for Schubert's piece. Likening the disquieting E? to an "injection of a strange, unsettling moment in an otherwise peaceful situation," Cone argues that the promissory note is "at first ignored or suppressed," but it persistently returns until "it bursts out with even greater force, revealing itself as basically inimical to its surroundings, which it proceeds to demolish" (239–40). The narrative takes on an overtly human potency in the final pages of the article, where Cone imagines a person (Schubert) facing something "repressed [that] eventually returns and rises in the end to overwhelm him" (239–40). The promissory note, then, is a symptom of a psychological problem — an unsettling thought that the music-as-agent fails to repress.
More precisely, Cone's narrative for the symptom bears uncanny resemblance to Freud's famous definition of the unheimlich as that "class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us," whose pathology is linked to "something repressed which recurs" (Freud 1958: 369–70, 394). Freud's essay also features references to strange and unsettling thoughts — notions that find resonance in Cone's analysis. As such, it is tempting to read Schubert's piece in terms of the musical uncanny as theorized separately by Richard Cohn (2004), this writer (Klein 2005: 78–95), and others (Cherlin 1993; Kerman 2001–02; and Kramer 2002: 258–87). Cohn's discussion of the musical uncanny focuses primarily on the unsettling psychology arising from harmonic motion through hexatonic poles(chords of opposite mode whose roots are a major third apart, like C major/A[??] minor). The Allegretto would seem to qualify in this regard, because the middle section features a melodic idea presented first in A? minor (mm. 21ff.) and then in E-major (mm. 29), the key of the promissory note. A small problem, though, is that the move between the two keys is so smooth that it mitigates any unsettling effect that would come from their direct juxtaposition. In contrast to Cohn's work, my view of the musical uncanny focuses on the implicit narrative of Freud's conception of the unheimlich:a once familiar thought is transformed into an uncanny one through cycles of repression. From this point of view, we could hear the late passage notated in E (m. 65ff.) as a transformation through repression of the more gracious E-major passage in the middle section. The unheimlich moment arrives when the A-major chord of m. 68 (enharmonic to the Neapolitan) moves to an A? minor 64 chord in m. 69. A small problem here is finding a plausible argument for repression (pace Cone): is it that E is repressed, or is it that E just goes away for a while? In addition, musical narratives of the uncanny (like Chopin's Sonata in B? Minor, or the last movement of Schubert's Sonata in C Minor) tend to have strong musical signs of obsessive compulsion (Klein 2005: 91–95). Although the Allegretto is compulsive, worrying over the suspension figures throughout, the repetitions give the music what Kramer calls a "beset" quality (2002: 22). It is not that the musical agent is trying to escape an unpleasant thought through compulsive behavior but that the music is mulling over a bad situation. The listener must decide if the suspensions are blocking out an unwelcome thought, or if they are a species of jouissance that perversely enjoys replaying the scene of some past pain.
Even if we hear the suspensions as beset instead of unheimlich, the possibility of a Freudian reading does nudge a corrective swerve on Cone's interpretation, which takes the symptomatic E as a sign for vice. In this narrative, Cone argues that vice is like an enticing suggestion that the agent (Schubert) indulges first with fascination (the utopian E-major section) until it dominates him in a "fearful form" (the final passage, beginning in m. 65) (240). Thus Schubert's psychological symptom (vice) brings on a physical symptom (syphilis), accounting for the terrifying collapse of mind and body. The reading has a high moral tone, despite Cone's assertion to the contrary (240). The upshot is that Schubert writes his moral failing into the fabric of the music as a disquieting and unlikely E, making the Moment musical a morality tale.
But there is something wrong here. Syphilis is a medical condition, not a moral one; and this confusion has a historical dimension to which I will return. For now, Cone helps us develop an outline of how to deal with the symptom in music. Despite Cone's appeal to musical structure, the symptom is a demand for interpretation of the hermeneutic variety. The musical symptom involves hearing a piece's progress as analogous to a human agency along a psychological or bodily path. Finally, the musical symptom appears more than once, suggesting cycles of repression, during which the musical agent attempts to work out a problem. This outline is a good start, but before we can take the implications of Cone's work further, we need to know more about symptoms outside of their musical manifestations. And before we can understand symptoms, we must turn to a model of subjectivity. That model comes from Lacan.
What Are the Three Orders of Subjectivity?
Lacan's three orders — the Imaginary (the other), the Symbolic (the Other), and the Real — are famously thorny and often misunderstood. It doesn't help that Lacan rarely gives his readers simple definitions: an easy concept is prey to the emptiness of convention. The reader should take what follows, then, as a first sketch of the three orders. Before understanding them, we must realize that for Lacan the development of the subject involves a series of crises, the first of which is birth, since the young infant cannot care for itself in any way. From birth, the subject moves through the Imaginary, which involves thinking in images, to the Symbolic, which involves thinking in language. With the entry into these two orders of subjectivity, though, the subject discovers that they are radically decentered, which may compel a lifelong search to recover a lost oneness and power that they never really had in the first place.
About one year after the crisis of birth, the subject enters the Imaginary, often associated with the other or the (m)other, which involves the so-called mirror stage, when the young child first recognizes itself in the mother's gaze or a mirror's reflection. As such, the subject discovers that he is separate from the mother. Further, while the young subject's image in the mirror is whole, he realizes that he is uncoordinated, powerless, and alone. At this stage, the subject begins to think in images, which parents might recognize as the child's rapid eye-movement during sleep, indicating dreams. The subject also begins to search for acceptable substitutes for the loss of oneness with the mother. Lacan called any such substitute the objet petit a, or the other. Desire fuels the search for the objet petit a, which can never deliver the fulfillment it promises. Like the ring in Wagner's tetralogy, the search for the objet petit a drives the subject, though it cannot fulfill the promise of power, satisfaction, and wholeness. Closing the circuit of desire for the objet petit a, on the contrary, leads to death or madness.
In the movie Inception, for example, Dominick Cobb commits acts of espionage by entering his victim's dreams to extract information. He takes a particularly difficult assignment, involving multiple levels of his victim's dream world, under the promise that if he is successful, his powerful client will reunite him with his children. Because of various flashbacks and images in the dreams that Cobb enters, the viewer realizes that the children are substitutes for a reunion with his wife, who has committed suicide. His children are the objet petit a, standing in for his wife who, in turn, stands in for a lost sense of satisfied contentment. Cobb catches various glimpses of his children in his dreams, but he can never quite see their faces and recapture lost time. At the end of the movie, he is reunited with his children, but a small spinning top that helps him keep his grip on reality suggests that he may still be in a dream. The movie leaves the question open: the final scene ends before we can see if the top continues to spin (indicating a dream world) or if it comes to a stop (indicating the real world). But from a Lacanian point of view, there can be only one answer. Cobb's reunion with his children must be a false one, and he has lost his grip on reality, because we can never close the circuit of desire around the objet petit a. Like those dreams in which you wake up just before opening a long anticipated gift, the objet petit a disappears as we get too close. The Imaginary, then, is where dreams are born and desire is unleashed.
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Table of Contents
1. Music and the Symptom
2. The Acoustic Mirror as Formative of Auditory Pleasure and Fantasy: Chopin's Berceuse, Brahms's Romanze, and Saariaho's "Parfum de l’instant"
3. Debussy and the Three Machines of the Proustian Narrative
4. Chopin Dreams: the Mazurka in C# Minor as Sinthome
Intermezzo: On Agency
5. Postmodern Quotation, the Signifying Chain, and the Erasure of History
6. Lutosawski, Molar and Molecular
What People are Saying About This
In this scintillating, endlessly thought-provoking book, Michael Klein amplifies musical understanding in fundamental waysnothing less.He shows, beyond question or cavil, how advanced thinking about subjectivity and language can fold into the interpretation of music, and more, how such thinking resonates with the experience of music.His primary resources are Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze, whose musical pertinence he establishes decisively in a series of readings in which philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature, movies, and musicamong other thingscontinually comment on each other.The results are fresh, unexpected, and revealing.And there is nothing the least bit arcane about any of this.This book is wholly down to earth, inimitably so.No matter how challenging the ideasand they should be challengingthey never lose touch with nor fail to illuminate the ways in which we and music together struggle to ground the sense of being an actual person in an actual world.
This volume offers a remarkably perceptive, virtuosic reading of the current culture of Western art music in the light of the psychological and critical work of Lacan and other contemporary theorists. Michael Klein is at the top of the field in the degree to which he has absorbed and internalized all this work, so that he can move effortlessly from Theory to music, to novels, to psychology, back to music, to movies, and on and on, all the while writing with a unique voice and a flair for the pithy turn of phrase, that keeps us engaged and hungry for more, all the way to the end.