The Thought of Music

The Thought of Music

by Lawrence Kramer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288805
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Kramer is Distinguished Professor of English and Music at Fordham University and the author of numerous books. His trilogy on musical understanding includes 
Interpreting Music,
 Expression and Truth, and The Thought of Music. He is also a prizewinning composer.

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The Thought of Music

By Lawrence Kramer


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96362-7


Music and the Forms of Thought

So: what do we know about music? What do we think we know? What kind of knowledge is that and what is its relationship to other kinds? As I write, thinking about music has passed through almost a quarter-century of intellectual ferment. Has anything been settled? What do we want to know? What should we be asking these days?

Much recent work, both pro and con, suggests that one thing we should be asking — still — is this: What does music have to do with ideas? The form of the question implies that the ideas at issue are not ideas about music, at least not primarily, but ideas about anything and everything else. More importantly, the question assumes that music and such ideas are capable of separation in the first place, that they begin from a condition of independence, indifference, or antagonism. One way to describe the ferment of recent decades is to say that after around 1990, too many people to ignore had become unwilling to grant that assumption. Ideas from all over the compass seemed to invite, or even demand, not only a hearing with music, but also the recognition that music had never been heard, could never be heard, without ideas. (What music? Any music. Take your pick. What ideas? Any and all; the question is what to do with them.)

One result of this push to ideation was a hermeneutic impulse that broke radically with the tradition of what, faute de mieux, I will call closed or weakly contextual hermeneutics — the essentially modernist practice of aesthetic paraphrase that, according to Gary Tomlinson, can be traced from Donald Tovey through Charles Rosen to Richard Taruskin. The turn from closed to open hermeneutics has had too many forms for easy summary, but most of them have seemed premised on the falsity of Kant's claim that music pleases us acutely but does not leave us much to think about — that it is "more pleasure than culture." Another result, probably inevitable, was a backlash that has tried to think of music in performance as a means of extinguishing thought — or, failing that, to preserve a precinct of difference in which music could find shelter from the ideas raging all around it.

This is not the place to expose — yet again — the emptiness of such claims. Suffice it to say, in passing, just two things in lieu of the fuller arguments that have been made elsewhere. On performance: even if performance did put the mind to sleep (but does it? Whose mind? And don't vivid performances actually wake us up?), there is nothing to prevent us from reflecting afterward on what we've heard. On the dream of rediscovering what James Currie calls "music after all": that insubstantial pageant dissolves the moment we say anything about music. One sentence is all it takes to open the door to language and the symbolic order. (Whereof one speaks, thereof one cannot be silent.) Autonomy becomes contingency the moment it allows any act of interpretation, however small. One touch of meaning saturates its bearer with heterogeneity.

If music were really the black hole (or rabbit hole) down which thought disappears, would we even be able to hear it? The persistent effort to situate music at some such vanishing point seems to suffer from a double dose of what W. J.T. Mitchell calls ekphrastic fear — the fear that representation will consume or hollow out what it represents. The dose is double because it involves both speaking about music and thinking about it — and if the words are bad enough (being metaphorical and such like), the ideas are worse. Words fail to capture music (or so we're told; did anyone ever expect them to?) but concepts kill it.

Well, no: not for me, anyway. Critical musicology, cultural musicology, New Musicology — call it what you will, and love or hate it — rose on the power of thinking precisely the contrary. That thought is its wager. This trend or temperament (it was never a doctrine) sees a rough but vital harmony among music, words, and ideas as they address, orbit, and collide with each other. Often this harmonia mundi happens in terms that should impel us to rethink not only the relationships among its elements but their very identities (for of course none has just one). Of course I would say so — I have a bet down, myself. My own work — call it what you will, and love it or hate it — has been an extended effort to share in and give further voice to that harmony, discords notably included. The wording here is important. Any notion that such an effort seeks to nail music down to some Aesopian signified is a caricature. Music is thinking in tones. Where have we heard that before?

But the impulse to confine or suspend thought where (and wherever?) music goes obviously exists for a reason, and although it may have to give ground, it is not likely to give up or give out. So it is a good idea to give it a sympathetic hearing on occasion, so as to test the limits and reexamine the conditions of possibility of thinking about music as thinking (about everything, music included) in tones. The premise of — let's call it the polyglot position — is that ideas saturate music, and music saturates ideas, and so does everything else (both ways). The ideas do not come with guarantees. Pursuing them often requires doing without the consolation or illusion of empirical or theoretical foundations, and it often demands some creative enterprise. (These requisites, of course, apply well beyond music.) But the contrary position — call it the monophonic — asks us, not unreasonably, to acknowledge that there are times when we want just music, to lose ourselves in music, and since it would be foolish to deny this (we are all monophonic sometimes), it would also be foolish not to ask about the kernel of truth in the monophonic position's ekphrastic fear. Perhaps ideas can do damage to music, or more exactly, to our experience of music; perhaps in denying a reductionist impulse in the polyglot attitude I have already acknowledged as much. So it behooves even the most ardent of polyglot thinkers to ask about when and how such damage may occur, and how its possibility should alter our thinking about thinking about music.


So just what is the thought of music, in all the ambiguity of that phrase? Working out answers to that question requires a series of test cases, single instances that can stand as paradigmatic "best examples." (The need for single, singular instances is general. The reasons why will appear below.) This book is itself such a series. Its first instance is Paul Harper-Scott's recent The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism, a book that raises the issue of music and ideas in a big way. The book is a sweeping indictment of musicology and a manifesto for its transformation. Its core thesis is that musicology today is mired in a neoliberal late-Capitalist swamp from which it blindly ignores "our most pressing present concern — to escape the horrors of the present by imagining the transformations of a coming society" (xiv). The argument draws, by its own account, and despite the book's Lacanian title, primarily on the philosophy of Alain Badiou, which it purports first to expound and then to apply to questions of musicology and music, particularly with reference to modernism and the proposal that modernist music, rightly understood, can help advance the pressing concern of utopian hope.

That last sentence is meant to be a neutral summary, but the innocent-seeming word apply is a loaded one. Application is precisely what I think we should not be doing. Similarly, the innocent-seeming phrase "musicology and music" is actually anything but. Harper-Scott subsumes both the method and the object of study under the same umbrella opened by (his) Badiou without reflecting on whether the difference matters, and without questioning whether Badiou's categories can be trusted to act as a universal conceptual solvent. Badiou's philosophy of the Event, which, full disclosure, I have called on sympathetically in some of my own recent work, here takes on the mantle of dogma, or what Harper-Scott himself might identify as a quilting point — Lacan's metaphor for a term that arrests the unruly motion of a body of signifiers to create a coherence at once potent and fictitious. Ideas endowed with that much power, if one adheres to them, can subsume music and musicology easily because they can subsume almost anything. But it is just this sort of power that I think we should deny to ideas by our ways of deploying them.

This chapter will sketch the project of that deployment with primary reference to music, though doing so will obviously continue to have implications for musicology. The practice of the latter does, after all, depend on one's conception of the former. Nonetheless, Harper-Scott's quarrels with Taruskin (whom he pillories mercilessly) and others are not my present concern. Neither is his account of modernism. And I have no interest in criticizing him except insofar as he encounters difficulties to which none of us is immune. My aim, to put it in terms that acknowledge a certain underlying irony, is to work up some ideas on the problem of ideas and their potential bearing on music, for good and ill. But the problem of application instanced by The Quilting Points in relation to music may also, mutatis mutandis, be understood to bear on what we take to be a tenable program for understanding music, or, more broadly, for the pursuit of humanistic knowledge in general, to which both music and our ways of understanding music have something to contribute.

For starters, then, let's try pinning a few things down via Harper-Scott. The Quilting Points is a stimulating book to argue with. It is quite provocative — admirably so — but also quite provoking. The book strikes me as tyrannical in its quest for liberation. It invites a critique that turns its own standpoint against it. Nonetheless, the book's ekphrastic fearlessness is bracing. To argue with it at all is to acknowledge that the kind of ideas it draws on are not the intrusions on music ab extra they are still sometimes thought to be. The Quilting Points can form a point of departure here (without becoming a quilting point itself) because of its exemplary insistence that ideas not specific to music are foundational to musical understanding. The trouble with that is not the appeal to ideas as such, something I am obviously glad to endorse. The problem is with the covert assumptions that the ideas are transparent and that they operate from the top down.

Harper-Scott is refreshingly candid about this:

Because the argument of this book depends on a fundamental critique of the forms of argument and the subject positions of scholars of modernism, it depends at every stage on an expansive philosophical interrogation of the ideas of truth, ideology, and the subject as they appear in the theory of Martin Heidegger, Alain Badiou, Jacques Lacan, and Giorgio Agamben (to name the most important influences on my argument). These ideas, which I draw on freely and extensively throughout the book, are introduced as they arise, and often re-presented later. ... They are given an exposition that presumes little familiarity with the theory (xiv).

The language of expansiveness, extensiveness, and freedom here shows a great deal of confidence in the ideas it recruits — whether misplaced or not readers will judge for themselves — but what does this language hide? Subject positions can be critiqued only from other subject positions, and this passage firmly stakes out an imaginary subject position of its own, that of the philosopher as first among tutors, the master who expounds philosophical truths for the disciple. In invoking this metaphor I have in mind not only the rhetorical form of medieval pedagogy but also Lacan's "discourse of the master," the attempt to organize a diversity of signifiers (here directed at understanding modernism) under a master signifier (here the compounded ideas of Heidegger, Badiou, etc.) while concealing the problem that every such effort produces a remainder that inevitably compromises its success and questions its possibility. Push that thought a step further and it leaves the master the first and last subject, in every sense of the term, of his own discourse.

Just for this reason, however, the position formulated here makes The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism paradigmatic of the problem of application and therefore a paradigmatic text to depart from (in both senses of "depart"). In what follows, I will continue to let philosophical ideas epitomize ideas in general, in part because the philosophical register helps bring out a key aspect of the problem — the aspect of otherness, of ideas about this applied to that — and in part because of the epistemic authority that philosophical ideas are still, often unreflectively, allowed to carry. That authority is the very reason they tempt us to "apply" them.


The metaphor of the quilting point provides an effective way to piece together the problem of application. As I use the term here, ideas are applied by becoming quilting points. The process presupposes the transparency and top-down authority I mentioned earlier, at least as a pretense. (This is a language-game; that is the uncanny — or bare life, or the coming community, or a rhizome, or. ... You get the idea.) If Lacan is right, we are all stuck with this process because otherwise we could not make our way through the swarm of signifiers among which we live. But that is not so certain. Signifiers and signifieds are capable of intricate and giddy dances, but ordinary life tends to proceed on the assumption that they have a good enough stability for most purposes. And meaning may not be a product of signification at all, a claim I have argued elsewhere; meaning uses signifiers in limited ways but it does not come from them. There is no imperative to pin ourselves down with ideas, and perhaps a strong imperative not to.

The problem with the quilting point is that the concept allows for nothing in between a discourse that is all buttoned up and a discourse that is all mobile signifiers. The problem with application is that it turns the second into the first; its mode of understanding is to stick the buttons on. Application does not use ideas; it reproduces them; it transforms phenomena into allegories. If we want something more, we have to find a way into that intermediate space where our discourse (assuming for the moment that signifiers are at issue) can avoid playing fast or loose and instead can sway or channel or in every sense conduct the flow of signifiers. There is currently no standard name for doing this. My inclination is to think of it as an extension of the open hermeneutics I alluded to earlier, a practice of open interpretation that includes creative activity, performance, and the reuse or reiteration of cultural products as well as the production of discourse.

Are there criteria for using ideas generatively in open interpretation, and, if so, what might they be? Clearly, they could not rely on any of the either/or distinctions that open interpretation puts in question. Divisions between history and criticism, or work and performance, or the empirical and the speculative, will be of no help because they, too, tend primarily to reproduce themselves; they seek application. In other words, we cannot set ratios between opposed terms to guide the desired practice. Instead of speaking of an intermediate space between fixity and flux (which turns out to be only a first approximation) we need to try imagining a space of continuous transformation and self-paraphrase in which all boundary terms are dead ends. The issue is complicated by the fact that no one such space is possible; there will be more to say later about the problem of the one, with particular reference to music.


Excerpted from The Thought of Music by Lawrence Kramer. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface: The Thought of Music

1 • Music and the Forms of Thought
2 • Speaking of Music:
In Search of an Idiom
3 • The Ineffable and How (Not) to Say It
4 • Pleasure and Valuation
5 • The Cultural Field: Beyond Context
6 • Virtuosity, Reading, Authorship: A Genealogy
7 • The Newer Musicology? Context, Performance, and the Musical Work

Postscript: Imagining the Score

Index of Names

Index of Concepts

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