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Society for Music Theory

In Memory
Author(s): Joseph Dubiel
Source: Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring 2012), pp. 9-10
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Society for Music Theory
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In Memory
joseph dubiel

Miltons music is designed as an all-over weave of exactly the

kind of connection he pointed out in Mozart, each moment
referring to, in a way quoting, one or more others that, in obvious ways, do not resemble it at all, and whose timing cannot be
predicted. Id say the same thing about Miltons cross-references
as about this one of Mozarts: theyre easy enough to hear, and
at the same time we arent directed to them. Theyre provided,
but not enforced.
In pointing this out, Im proposing to value it in contrast to
the stereotyped image of great music crowd-controlling us into
a common responseand, by the same token, in tension with
a scientized music theory that would look for uniform determinate relations between sounds and what they cause in us.
Miltons isnt the only music that leaves these notions behind,
of course (all music does sometimes); but it is astonishingly
radical in its independence of the need to make us hear what it
Notice that Im not speaking of anything as hidden, in Milton
or in Mozart. Im taking particular care not to (despite all the
reasons to think about cleverness and astonishment). Instead of
a contrast between the hidden and the apparent, Im thinking of
one between the available and the insisted-uponthese latter
relating as set and subset, not dichotomously.
This is an aspect of Miltons music to which I feel Ive never
done justice in my writing. Its hard to pin down as an aspect of
the music, in the ways that we theorists usually talk about.
Rather than as a structural feature, it might better be described
as an attitudinal one: a curious stance of unguardedness coexisting with elusiveness.
Or perhaps I should talk about an attitude solicited in a listener, a mode of engagement with the music. I wouldnt mind
calling it an affect, even though my effort to characterize it is
still going to be very much by way of perception and thought.
To get closer to this mode of engagement, I want to talk
about something in Miltons music quite different from the intricate-cross reference that has been so much discussed (and
that resembles what he pointed out in Mozart)that is, a moment of exaggerated simplicity. Here were dealing with very
simple sonic facts, so that unguarded and elusive might not
seem like exactly the right concepts. But the music is still notably undirectiveespecially undirective toward anything, though
it has a habit of disrupting impressions that it has previously
invited us to form; and in this it still does expose itself to quite
a risk, the risk of not sounding like much unless we pay close
To wit: at the beginning of Around the Horn, nothing obliges
us to hear the loopy circulation of three oddly spaced pitches

psychological objection! Im going to remember you said that. Not psychological, Id have said:
my issue was motivation, not feasibility. Why
anticipate a seventh as the interval to be filled by the bass in the
Bb-major outburst near the beginning of Mozarts G-minor
Symphony (as Schenker proposed)? And motivation eventually
was what Milton offered, suggesting that some people might
consider a motivic connection between that B b -to-C descent
and the one in the first theme.
I had to wonder (not for the first time), how does he think of
these things? Augenmusik isnt an answer. Could it be any easier
to preconceive something like this, look for it, and have it turn
up, than just to hear it?
No matter: however I learned of the connection, I certainly
hear it now. Its not even difficult, whatever I might have
thought in the moment of dazzlement by Miltons observational
But the passage could hardly be said to project this relationship. The connection is on offer; we are not driven toward it. To
put it in a contrary way, the music, in this respect at least, is not
When the percept in question is as outlandish as this, perhaps it cant be. The very improbability of the one scale inhabiting the other, so different, might rule out any way of making us
notice it. In this case, for example, the descending thirds that
inhabit the two scales, out of line with their tonicswhich,
once we think of it, does make a connection between them
more plausiblelikewise represent an experience whose possibility I might well have dismissed (on grounds psychological or
otherwise) before I found myself having it. (Exactly my point,
Milton would say.) More often than we let on, the experiential
consequences of analyzable connection include mind-boggling
peculiarity, made matter-of-fact. This comes unbidden and unforeseen. It may therefore seem to have been caused by the
musicobviously it depends on something the composer did
but its meaningful presence depends on our involvement, and so
on our skill and disposition and luck.
Many of the moments in which Ive felt Miltons absence
have been ones when Ive come across a cute little thing like this
connection of scales, that I know hed like and that Id look forward to telling him. It was fun to have a context for showing off
that also counted as homage (because the game was so clearly
his game); and there was always an ostensible factual point to
the exchange. Thinking over it now, I see deeper significance in
the substance of these exchanges, with regard to Miltons music
and to music-theoretical habits of mind influenced by him
(which is to say, all of ours).

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music theory spectrum 34 (2012)

(Gb4, Eb3, D3, written Db5, Bb4, A4) as much more than doodling.
But if we go out to the music a littlelisten for figures, but (the
most important thing) dont over-invest in any of themthen
something happens. Quite a bit:
The first three notes form a pretty irresistible uniteven, to
a degree, against their uneven contouras the third note turns
out to last quite a bit longer than the first two.
But it doesnt stay that way. This note suddenly gets much
louder and whoops its way back to a reiteration of the first
pitchstarting over?
It is and it isnt. The line falls (counter-whoops, actually)
right back to the last pitch, so the new impulse produces less
than the first one didalmost no figure, certainly no oddity of
spacing; yet its a little loud for an echo. With so little added so
emphatically, the clearest thing now is that the extent of the first
figure is no longer so clear.
What are we to think when the omitted pitch comes back?
That the three pitches have been rearranged into a new figure
after all? Yes; but its still divided by dynamics and slurring. All
rightthen that this pitch is making a new start, quietly, on a
par with the first one, after obtrusive marginalia?
Sure, that too. But when the lowest pitch comes back again,
we can hear a different partial repetition of the first figure in
these two notes; and we can construct a new, elaborated repetition by taking (loud) GbD and (quiet) EbD together.
But not only that, because the last pitch gets loud again (before it has been there very long), undermining the latest boundary . . . .
And its like this all the time. Never unclear, yet also never
stable. Each passing sense of it, simple enough in itself, is open
to revision. This process and this feeling, in my opinion, are a
lot of what there is to like in this music. If you demand conclusiveness as a reward for your participation, you probably arent
going to be very happy. You can decline to invest in the detail,
step back and hear unpatterned variety. Then the music goes
gray, or silly, or both.
A lot is offered, but we have to play along, actively and skillfully, to get it. Not it, actually: theres multiplicity (including
choice, not excluding catch-as-catch-can variation) between
occasion and occasion, person and person.
This is not exactly the view of Miltons work that his discourse most suggestedneither his focus on the observable
nor his display of rigor in inference. But when someones
achievement is as great as Miltons and has come to mean so
much to so many people, then he no longer has the only say in
what it means. I get more out of the statement that has come to
be known as Who Cares If You Listen? by reading it as an
explanation of why the (substantially undescribed) experience of
music like Miltons is always going to have a peculiar character
rather than as an explanation of why the (substantially undescribed) right sort of experience of it is going to be hard to get.
The one thing Milton never was articulate about was how he
hoped for his music to be heard. The structures he put there
like the structures he showed us how to find in other music
are left hanging as the facts potentially explanatory of something,

only no one is saying for what. Music theory has picked up the
elliptical character of Miltons empiricism, dealing as much as
possible with the sonic facts that must explain our experiences,
not so much with the experiences themselveslet alone with
the nature of our contribution to these experiences.
Thats one of the reasons Im trying to describe (or have
fallen into describing) the musics contribution to us: the attitude it solicits, one of constant interest in forming conceptions
of the passing show without excessive commitment to any of
them, one of a composed-out sense of ones fallibility and resourcefulness in the same strokes, one in which youre sharp and
quick and know how to take a hint, one in which taking on a
fresh perspective is fun, and changing your mind not a point of
resistance. Its this with which I identify Miltons music, even
more than with fluidity, inclusiveness, startling prettiness, oddly
perfect setting of words (certainly more than with rows or
After all this, what about Milton? Im not going to claim
that the music was the man. (Unguarded!) But neither will I
completely disavow resemblance between my thoughts about
the one and the other. Ive been elaborating the image of an
encounter with a very peculiar presence, carrying on in an almost unbelievably idiosyncratic manner and eliciting something
in you that could only happen in response to, yet somehow isnt
determined by, that manner. Whats elicited is yourself, but inflected by the encounter in a direction youd hope to go.
Thats one of the ways I remember Milton. Or hardly have
to remember him, because hes here all the time: I cant very well
imagine what Id be doing, or even, beyond a certain point, what
Id be like, if it werent for him. I dont know how to say how
encouraging he was, even at his most skeptical, how welcoming,
even at his most challenging, how reassuring, even at his most
crotchety; generous in so many good causes, of course; brilliant
enough to give the word meaning. More of what I cant say is
how fortunate I feel to have known him, and how much I hope
now and then to do something worthy of my good fortune. Its
a comfort at least to say this much.

Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 34, Issue 1, pp. 910, ISSN 0195-6167, electronic ISSN 1533-8339. 2012 by The Society for Music Theory. All
rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or
reproduce article content through the University of California Presss
Rights and Permissions website, at
reprintinfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/mts.2012.34.1.9

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