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Music: Drastic or Gnostic?

Author(s): Carolyn Abbate

Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring, 2004), pp. 505-536
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Music-Drastic or Gnostic?


What does it mean to write about performed music? About an opera live
and unfolding in time and not an operatic work?Shouldn't this be what we
do, since we love music for its reality,for voices and sounds that linger long
after they are no longer there? Love is not based on great works as unper-
formed abstractions or even as subtended by an imagined or hypothetical
performance. But would considering actual performances simply involve
concert or record reviews?And would musicology-which generally by-
passes performance, seeking meanings or formal designs in the immortal
musical work itself-find itself a wallflower at the ball?
More than forty years ago, Vladimir Jankelevitchmade what is still one
of the most passionate philosophical arguments for performance, insisting
that real music is music that exists in time, the material acoustic phenom-
enon. Metaphysical mania encourages us to retreatfrom real music to the
abstraction of the work and, furthermore,alwaysto see, as he put it, "some-
thing else," something behind or beyond or next to this mental object. Yet,
as he wrote, "composing music, playing it, and singing it; or even hearing
it in recreatingit-are these not three modes of doing, three attitudes that
are drastic, not gnostic, not of the hermeneutic order of knowledge?"'Mu-
sical sounds are made by labor. And it is in the irreversibleexperience of
playing, singing, or listening that any meanings summoned by music come
into being. Retreatingto the work displaces that experience, and dissecting
the work's technical features or saying what it represents reflects the wish

1. VladimirJankdl1vitch,
Musicand theIneffable,trans.CarolynAbbate(Princeton,N.J.,2003),
p. 77;hereafterabbreviatedMI.A similaremphasison doing characterizesChristopherSmall's
ethnographyof music making,Musicking:TheMeaningsofPerformingand Listening(Hanover,
N.H., 1998).

CriticalInquiry30 (Spring2oo4)
Sz2oo4 by The Universityof Chicago. oo93-1896/o4/3oo3-oooo$10.oo.
All rightsreserved.

506 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
notto be transported bythestatethattheperformance hasengendered in
us.Themusicalwork-the thingwescrutinize forsupra-audible import-
in lessseveretermsis a souvenir,one of the thingstakenawayfromthe
experience of playingorlistening,to be "put... in a drawer" andcontem-
platedasa wayof domesticating thatexperience.2
Ratherthanbringingoutthesouvenirs andsingingtheirpraisesorex-
plaining meanings one more time, I want to testtheconviction that
whatcountsis not a work,not,forexample,Richard Wagner's Die Meis-
tersingervonNiirnberg in theabstract, buta material, presentevent.This
entailsseeking practicethat at its most radicalallowsanactualliveper-
formance(andnota recording, evenof a liveperformance) to becomean
objectof absorption, whichmeansgoingbackfora momentto a certain
forkin theroadandseeingwhatwasabandoned there.Inthe198os,Joseph
Kerman fora
argued disciplinary revolution in musicology, urginga focus
on musicalworksandtheirmeaning.Thisnewmusiccriticismwasnot
musiccriticismas usual,andwewouldnotbejournalists, anartisanclass
excludedfromacademia. Transcending thequotidian, howBartolisangor
Rossini'sLaCenerentola orRavel's Gaspard delanuit.3 WhileKerman's aim
wasto divertmusicologytowardscriticismandhermeneutics andaway
fromcomposerbiography, archivalhistory,andstrictformalism, some-
thingimportant was foreclosed when old music criticismbecame new
musiccriticism. Andthesomething wasnotjustCeciliaBartoliorMartha
Argerich butrealmusic:theperformances thatwereto remaininlargepart
as marginal to criticismor hermeneutics as theyhadbeento formalism,
biography, or
history, theory. Even forscholars likeSuzanneCusick,com-
mittedin principle to an"embodied criticism" thatdealswithmusic'sma-
terialityratherthanwith disembodied "texts,"writingaboutan actual
performance proved to be the unusual option.4
2. Abbate,In Searchof Opera(Princeton,N.J.,2001), p. 51;hereafterabbreviatedISO.
3. SeeJosephKerman,Contemplating Music:Challengesto Musicology(Cambridge,Mass.,
1985), PP. 113-54.
4. See SuzanneCusick,"OnMusicalPerformancesof Genderand Sex,"in AudibleTraces:
Gender,Identity,andMusic,ed. ElaineRadoffBarkinand LydiaHamessley(Zurich,1999), pp. 25-
48. Cusick,developingJudithButler'sthesisthat genderis performedand not essential,callsfor
musicologyto contemplateperformanceitself.Yetwith few exceptions,notablyher analysesof

CARO LY N AB BATE is professorof musicat PrincetonUniversity.Sheis the

author of Unsung Voices(1991),published in French as Voixhors chant (2004),
and of In Searchof Opera(2001); she is alsotranslatorof VladimirJankdlvitch's
Music and the Ineffable(2003). Most recently, she worked as dramaturgon the
MetropolitanOpera'snew productionof Don Giovanni,whichpremieredin
March 2004.
CriticalInquiry / Spring2004 507
This does not mean that academia has neglected classical-musicperfor-
mance. Farfrom it. The relationship (or lack of one) between musicological
dicta and musical praxishas haunted the historical performancemovement
and the debates about it.5There are music historians who write about per-
formers of past eras and literary critics or art historians who write on per-
formance art. There arephilosophical argumentsabout performance,made
with particular verve.6There are ever more frequent references to favorite
recordings and analyses of opera staging, not to mention theperformative
as catchword and object of scrutiny. Nicholas Cook, imagining a perfor-
mance analyst, makes an exhaustive list that downplays only certain
conventional music-historical approaches (early music performance, per-
former biographies).' His typology includes "performanceinterpretation"
(the performance becomes the means to bring out structural features), a
staple in music theory.8Under the rubric of the performative there is the
"functioning of the performing body" and the restrictions culture imposes
on it, which indeed reduces the body to another text to be analyzed, but
might include ways in which a specific performance satirizes or travesties
the script ("B").9The performativeas umbrella concept could shape a post-
modern approach (via Bakhtin and the dialogic) that sees the performance
event as a polysemic text to be analyzed in its many conflicting domains.
Cook discusses a quasi-ethnographic or sociological approach, where an
authoritativeobserver synthesizes the performancewithin the culturalcon-
text of its production. He notes that "analyzingmusic as performance does

actualperformancesin "Genderand the CulturalWorkof a ClassicalMusic Performance,"

Repercussions 3 (Spring 1994): 77-110, Cusick herself adheres to the work-centered musicological
norm or documentsperformativeelementslike femalevocalityas they wereunderstoodin earlier
5. Twocriticalgold standardsareRichardTaruskin'sTextandAct:Essayson Musicand
Performance (New York,1995),and JohnButt,reviewof Authenticities:
MusicalPerformance, by PeterKivy,Journalof theAmericanMusicologicalSociety53(Summer
2000): 159-64as well as PlayingwithHistory:TheHistoricalApproachto MusicalPerformance
(Cambridge, 2002).
6. See LydiaGoehr,TheQuestforVoice:On Music,Politics,and theLimitsofPhilosophjy(Oxford,
1998),and Naomi Cumming, TheSonicSelf-MusicalSubjectivity and Signification(Bloomington,
Ind., 2000).
7. See NicholasCook, "BetweenProcessand Product:Music and/asPerformance,"Music
TheoryOnline7 (Apr.2001):
0l.7.2.cook.html;hereafterabbreviated"B."As JonathanDunsbywrites,"PerformanceStudiesis a
burgeoningarea. .. in the book and articleliterature"(JonathanDunsby,"Actsof Recall,"The
Musical Times 138 [Jan. 19971:12).
8. As is typical,for instance,in argumentsin EdwardCone'sMusicalFormandMusical
Performance(New York,1968),or EdwardSaid'sMusicalElaborations (New York,1991),two of
manybooks by scholar-performers.
9. One instanceis Lindaand MichaelHutcheon,BodilyCharm:LivingOpera(Lincoln,Nebr.,
508 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
not necessarilymeananalyzing specificperformances or recordings atall,"
butconsidering insteadthewayinwhichperformance asaphenomenon has
been"scripted" intothework("B").'Inotherwords,musicalworksthem-
selvestakeheedofthe"performance network"-thechannels between com-
poser, notation,performer, material realization, and listener(ISO, p. 5).
Meticulous asit canbe,muchof thiswritingnonetheless missesa mark
notso easyto define.Andwhatever itsvagueouterlimits,thatmarkhasa
densecenterthathasto dowithmusicalperformance's strangeness, itsun-
earthly as wellas its earthyqualities, and its resemblance to magicshows
andcircuses. Because instrumental or
virtuosity operatic singing,likemagic
itself,canappearto be theaccomplishment of theimpossible, performers
atthatlevelappearsuperhuman to theiraudiences andinspireworshipor
hysteria.Yetmusicalperformance challenges notionsofautonomy bystag-
ing performer's even
servitude, automatism, andupendsassumptions
abouthumansubjectivity byinvoking mechanism: humanbodieswiredto
notational prescriptions.And,despiteallthat,it hasbeendiscussed asif it
wereanunremarkable factof civilizedlife,andneitherlovenorfearisgiven
muchplay."Operacriticismoffersa strikingexception, yetitsfocusis not
on performances perse buton operasingers'voicesaseroticobjects,with
listenerrapturesubsequently transcribed as prose,in a styleDavidLevin
has dubbedacademic"Neo-Lyricism."'2 Musicalperformance on the
whole,however, hasbeen and
seen,analyzed, acknowledged, but not always
listenedto, andif thepleasuregivenby operaticsinginghashada sharp
profile,theconsolations anddisturbances attendant uponmusicalperfor-
manceingeneral havenot.Maybetheuntroubled prosestylesareanalogous
to ritualbehavior whileconcert-oroperagoing a formof command
is and
a defensivestance.Butthereis somethingabouttheobjective modethat
seemsto protesttoomuch,bypassing theuncannyqualities thatarealways
waitingnearbyin tryingto domesticate whatremainsnonetheless wild.

10. On musicalworksthat stareperformancein the face,see ISO,pp. xii-iv, and Elisabeth

LeGuin,"'OneSaysThatOne Weeps,but One Does Not Weep':Sensible,Grotesque,and
MechanicalEmbodimentsin Boccherini'sChamberMusic,"Journalof theAmericanMusicological
Society55 (Summer 2002): 207-54.
11. Thereareexceptions;Goehrand Cummingareexemplaryin this regard.In "Actsof Recall"
on the other hand, Dunsbyusesless objective"poeticised"languageonly at the end (p. 16). In this
case,the veryself-consciousnessthatbracketsthatlanguageas "poeticised"-that worriesabout
the changein tone, callsit a fantasy--showshow ingrainedthe clinicalvoice can be, as the only
12. DavidJ.Levin,"IsTherea Textin This Libido?Diva and the Rhetoricof Contemporary
OperaCriticism,"in BetweenOperaand Cinema,ed. JeongwonJoeand RoseTheresa(New York,
2002), p. 122.Lindaand MichaelHutcheon,in BodilyCharm,strikean admirablemiddleground
by alternatelyinvestigatingrapturefrom afarand respondingwith raptureto performedopera's
Critical Inquiry/ Spring 2004 509
Actuallive,unrecorded performances areforthesamereasonalmostuni-
versally excluded from performance studies;they,too,remainwild.
Performance hasbeensubsidiary aswellin thesensethatwhenrealper-
formances (invariably recordings) citedtheyareoftenbeingsummoned
foranendorsement. Thussomeperformer's rendition, somedirector's stag-
ing, is deemed revelatory when it corresponds to one's ownor somehis-
toricallysanctioned readingof thework,butill-conceived oroffbeatwhen
failing to do so. Ask these questions when musical performances aredis-
cussed:Isa sonicandvisualreality, allitsphysical forceandsensualpower,
beinghauledin to providea pedigreefora conclusionaboutmeaningor
form,withtheabstraction-the musicalworkperse-being thetrueobject
of interestandacclaim? Areperformances treatedaswaystationsin a total
receptionhistory, sonic inscriptions of the work'smeaningoverhistorical
time?Adoptingmoregenerous terms,hasa performance orstagingbeena
goadto probeassumptions aboutthework'smeaning,suggestothers,with
the workof coursestillineradicable fromthe calculus?Werktreue as an
ideal, never presupposing one ideal performance, means that every actual
performance is nonetheless measuredagainsta monumentwhosenon-
materiality saysnothingaboutits capacityto inspireawe (Beethoven's
fourthpianoconcerto,DonCarlos, theSchumann pianoquintet,LaMer-
oneneedonlysayorwritethewords).Perhaps, asLydiaGoehrhasnoted,
contemplating musicalperformance beyondtheimmortal workmeansun-
derstanding a performance as an
simultaneously exemplification of the
workandas theater,an actin whichan "expression of spontaneity, im-
and of
mediacy, freedom, feeling breathing, and of conviction and com-
mitment" is conveyed bymuteactor-musicians.'3 Musical performance, as
Elisabeth LeGuinputsit, is alwaysalsoa performance of sensibility.14
AnescapefromKerman's utopiawouldmeanturningawayfrommusical
worksasabstractions to be scrutinized forsupra-audible meanings, orsa-
lutedin prosedescriptions, andturningtowardsevents.Becauseallthose
whoare"parties to theclassical musicesthetic," according to Richard Ta-
ruskin, "have been imbued with loyalty to thenotion of the 'musical work,'"
it couldbe a formof infidelity.'5 Butthisescapemaybe an impossibility
contingent uponnotturningperformances orperformers intoyetanother
captured text to be examined for import via a performance science.Jan-
kelevitch's distinction between drastic and gnostic involves more thana
conventional opposition between in
music practiceandmusicin theory

13. Goehr,TheQuestforVoice,p. 148.

14. See LeGuin,"'OneSaysThatOne Weeps,but One Does Not Weep,'"pp. 209-12.
15. Taruskin,"LastThoughtsFirst,"TextandAct, p. 11.
510 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
because drastic connotes physicality, but also desperation and peril, in-
volving a category of knowledge that flows from drastic actions or experi-
ences and not from verbally mediated reasoning. Gnostic as its antithesis
implies not just knowledge per se but making the opaque transparent,
knowledge based on semiosis and disclosed secrets, reserved for the elite
and hidden from others. Jankdlvitch explored this distinction decades be-
fore it became a commonplace in writings that describe performance as a
"site of resistance to text" or as something so contingent upon present hu-
man bodies that it remains opaque ("B").16
In Janke1dvitch'sterms, fixing upon actual live performances would
mean embracing the drastic, a radical step. There is no a priori theoretical
armor. In practical terms, it would mean avoiding the tactile monuments
in music's necropolis-recordings and scores and graphic musical exam-
ples-and in the classroom this is nearly impossible. In some larger sense
it might even mean falling silent, and this is difficult to accept because si-
lence is not our business, and loquacity is our professional deformation.
Is the gnostic attitude precluded by performed music? This is a personal
matter;thus it can be put to an individual test. Here is mine: on 27 Novem-
ber 2001, I was accompanying a singer in a lecture-recital that included
Idamante'saria "Non temer, amato bene" from Mozart'sIdomeneo,and this
performance allowed me to play out the two attitudes as an experiment.
"Non temer" is a bravuraariawith fast runs for the pianist, calling for strict
attention to the singer's tempi.'7 While playing, however, I decided to ask
myself some distracting questions. They were along these lines: Where ex-
actly is the Enlightenment subjectivity in these notes? Is the regime of ab-
solute monarchy reflected exactly there, in this phrase?Does this arpeggio
represent Idamante'ssecret sexual agitation, and exactly how?
My mental inquiries were consciously bizarre. It is virtually impossible
to sustain such speculations while playing or absorbed in listening to mu-
sic that is materially present. But the questions are no parody. Musical
hermeneutics settles such matters, as evinced by the briefest sample of
celebrated domestic varieties: Susan McClary has described Schubert's
Unfinished Symphony as "drift[ing] freely through enharmonic and
oblique modulations rather than establishing a clear tonic ... in this un-

16. See JoseGil, "TheBody,Transducerof Signs,"Metamorphoses of theBody,trans.Stephen

Muecke(Minneapolis,1998),pp. 106-14,esp. p. 106:"Thefloatingsignifierrelatesto the body,this
crucibleof energymutations.But what goes on thereremainsunknown-and will remainso until
an adequatesemiology(one that can takeaccountoftranssemioticfields)is established."
17. This ariaand its precedingrecitative(K.490)wereaddedfor a performanceof Idomeneoin
Viennain 1786.The singerwas male sopranoAnthonyRoth Costanzo.
CriticalInquiry/ Spring2004 511
cannilyresembl[ing] thenarrativestructures thatgaywritersandcriticsare
exploring today";thusmusicreportsSchubert's homosexuality." Lawrence
Kramer, describingcertain rhythmic and harmonic duplicationsbetween
the "Chiarina" and"Estrella" movement of Schumann's Carnaval, writes:
"IwillshortlyproposethatCarnaval setsupmusicalmirrorrelations that
belongto a largerfamilyofmirrortropescurrentduringmuchofthenine-
Yet,as longas I wasdealingwithrealmusicin realtime,I couldnot
establish themetaphysical distancerepresented bysucharguments. When
realmusicispresent,thegnosticcanbeintroduced. Yetwhileplaying"Non
temer,"theprocedure havingbeenperformed, thequestionsbecameab-
surd,as if theywerebeingaskedat the wrongmomentandplaceabout
something otherthantherealityathand.What,I asked,amIactually think-
ing about thismusic? Clearing mymind, I realizedthatwords connected
to whatwasgoingon didflowin,albeitrarely, butthesewordshadnothing
to do withsignification, beinginsteaddoingthisreallyfastisfun or here
comesa bigjump.A musicologist fordecades,havingmademany,many
statements aboutmusic'smeaningoverthattime,I acknowledged thatdur-
ing experience of real music-by this I mean both playing listen-
ing-thoughtsaboutwhatmusicsignifiesor aboutits formalfeaturesdo
not crossmymind.Theycancrossit, asin thisforcedtestcase,onlyto be
dismissedas ludicrous.Whilemusicology's businessinvolvesreflecting
upon musical their
works,describing configurations eitherin technical
termsor assigns,thisis, I decided,almostimpossible andgenerally unin-
teresting aslongasrealmusicispresent-whileoneiscaughtupinitstem-
poralwakeanditsphysical demandsoreffects.
Therearedifferences betweenlisteningandperforming thatshouldnot
be ignored; theformerhardlyinvolvesthesameresponsibilities andanxi-
etiesasthelatter.Onecanmorereadily departmentally fromhearing music
thanfromperforming it,thoughmullingoverthebankbalancewhileyour
handscontinuethesonatabythemselves is notunheardof. Butthat,per-
haps, is thepoint:to reflect,mustone in some sensedepart? Splita drastic
selffroma gnosticself?20 Admitting the schism is certainly
preferable to
of Subjectivity
in Schubert's
Music,"in Queering
TheNewGayandLesbian ed.PhilipBrett,Elizabeth
Musicology, Wood,andGaryC.Thomas
(New York,1994), p. 223.
19.LawrenceKramer,MusicalMeaning:Toward a Critical
History(Berkeley, 2002),p. 116;
arguments aboutperformance involvetheradicalshockof accepting thisschism.
Thedemandthatperformers besubjectto ordinaryscientificorscholarlystandards of
accountability limitations on theirfreedom... and
512 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
futile arguing for musical scholarship's relevance to performance.21Yet if
performing is a case weighted towards the drastic, moving to listening al-
lows no vastly greater reflective distance or safer haven from the presence
of musical sound. Listening as a phenomenon takes place under music's
thumb, and acoustic presence may transfix or bewilder; it frees the listener
from the sanctioned neatness of the hermeneutic.22In more practicalterms,
the experience of listening to a live performance solicits attention more for
the performers and the event and far less for the work than is perhaps gen-
erally admitted. Even recordings as technologically constructed hyperper-
formances, which we can arrest and control, are not quite safe as long as
they are raining sound down on our heads.
The gnostic moment, in the presence of a performance, can become both
absurd and instantaneous, going by in a flash, and, I would add, there is
nothing necessarilybad about absurdityor not enduring past the moment.
But the "Non temer" episode must give pause. It may offer no answers
to the dilemma what to do? Perhaps we should simply acknowledge once
more that both formalist and hermeneutic approaches to musical works
mean dealing in abstractionsand constructs under the aspect of eternity,as
activities that will have little to do with real music-the performance pro-

placesarbitraryobstaclesin the performer'spath that can frustratethe goal of performance...

that of pleasingthe audiencein the hereand now. [Taruskin,"LastThoughtsFirst,"pp. 22-231
Performerscan and should overruleor ignore"theoracle"(intention,historicalevidence).
Musicologistsshould consultit; that is theirbusiness.Musicologicaland performerattitudesare
separableand not melded into a single,naturalact, like "exhalingand inhaling"(Taruskin,"On
Lettingthe MusicSpeakfor Itself,"TextandAct,pp. 55,52).
21. FredMaus (echoingTaruskin)arguesthat technicalmusic analysis,whose relevanceto
performancehasbeen recommendedin manymusic-theoreticalwritings,in factseems uselessfor
the purposeof performingsomethingwell, concludingthat this is becauseperformanceitselfis
not an analyticalbut a compositionalact;see FredMaus,"MusicalPerformanceas Analytical
Communication,"in Performance andAuthenticityin theArts,ed. SalimKemaland IvanGaskell
(Cambridge,1999),pp. 129-53.This argumentdoes, however,certifyperformance'svalueby
smugglingsome bigwigs-composer creativityand the immortalworksit produces--back in
througha side door.
22. RolandBarthesand RolandHavasfamouslyassociateone form of listeningwith the
hermeneuticand the religiousinjunctionto heed oracularspeech,in "Listening,"The
ResponsibilityofForms,trans.RichardHoward(New York,1985),pp. 245-60. Immediatelyafter
the separationof the human speciesfrom the animal,humanlisteningentailed"deciphering:what
the eartriesto interceptarecertainsigns"and thus listeningwas "henceforthlinked... to a
hermeneutics:to listen is to adoptan attitudeof decodingwhat is obscure"(p. 245). Yet"modern"
human listeningtransducesthe semiotic,"doesnot aim at--or await--certaindetermined,
classifiedsigns:not what is said or emitted,but who speaks,who emits"(p. 246). This form of
listening,alongwith its attentivenessto corporealityand presenceboth in the listeningsubjectand
the sound source,does not produce"theadventof a signified,objectof a recognitionor
deciphering,but the verydispersion,the shimmeringofsignifiers"(p. 259).Barthes'sdebts to
Janke16vitch areeverywhereevidentin his writing,with this-a distinctionbetweengnosticand
more drasticlistening-being only one minor example.
CriticalInquiry / Spring2004 513
duced and absorbed, which then disappears. And continue as usual. But
musicology's ancillary credo that its insights are relevant to musical per-
formance, as a basis for producing or judging a good performance,will not
be abandoned, even in part, without certain agonies.
What the minor personal anecdote signals, however, is not that musi-
cology has misplaced its proper object but that performances themselves
could give rise to engagement and need not remain a protected half-hour,
something beyond social determination or human limitations about which
one can either say, "bliss!"or remain mute. A taste for the drastic need not
dictate silence. Yetperformances with all their allure need not become just
another object awaiting decipherment, a recordable text subject to some
analytical method yet to come. To treat them this way would be to transfer
the professional deformations proper to hermeneutics to a phenomenon
or event where those habits become alien and perhaps useless. If speaking
of live performances and thus embracing classical music as drastic means
dissecting the gnostic attitude, this is not to dismiss hermeneutics or for-
malism but rather to say that a great deal remains to be thought about
performance, which, with infrequent exceptions, is inaudible to both in
Becauselive performancesgive us pause, we must consider the exclusions
and stratagems entailed in reverting to souvenirs, to musical works in the
abstractand their forms or meanings. It is to askwhy the academicdiscourse
devoted to music, whether hermeneutics' search for musical traces of, say,
post-Kantian subjectivity or formalism's search for tonal patterns, is com-
fortable with the metaphysicaland abstractand uninterested in the delivery
systems that bring music into ephemeral phenomenal being.23Turningto-
wards performance means scrutinizing the clandestine mysticism involved
in musical hermeneutics (more on this below) because clandestine mysti-
cism could itself be seen as a reaction to forces in play during musical per-
formance. That, at least, is Jankdl1vitch'sdiagnosis. Music's effects upon
performers and listeners can be devastating, physicallybrutal, mysterious,
erotic, moving, boring, pleasing, enervating, or uncomfortable, generally

23. Thesedeliverysystemsincludenot just live professionalperformancebut amateur

performances(often of transcriptionsor reductions),practicingand rehearsing,playingin the
studio while the machinesarelistening,as well as mechanicalmusicaldevices,and of course
recordingand sound technologyas acousticdeliverysystems.JeffreyMasten,PeterStallybrass,
and NancyVickerspoint out that similarexclusionswork even in the receptionof unperformed
artslike literarytextsand in languageitselfbecause"theidealisttraditionhasconstantly
attemptedto separatelanguagefrom its machines... from the adulterationsof materiality,and
consequentlyfrom writingitself,which, as the workof the hand, is seen as a debasedactivity"
(JeffreyMasten,PeterStallybrass,andNancy Vickers,introductionto LanguageMachines:
Technologies of Literaryand CulturalProduction[NewYork,1997],p. 2).
514 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
embarrassing, subjective, and resistant to the gnostic. In musical herme-
neutics, these effectsin the here and now areillicitly relocatedto the beyond,
through a passionate metaphysics that postulates the others for which mu-
sical gestures or forms, with the sounds they stand for, are media.24Turning
towards performance means considering music's ability to inspire talk of
inscription devices, deciphering, and hieroglyphic traces, a metaphorical
language that relocates the labor and carnalityof performance in the physi-
cal motion and materialproducts of machines. Finally,above all, embracing
the drastic is to react to being given pause by finding out what might follow
the resolve to write about vanished live performances, musicology's per-
petually absent objects.
One great merit attached to musical hermeneutics, to the sociological
approach to music in general, does need to be paid full due. That high clas-
sical music was shaped by social and cultural forces, by national ethoses,
and that musical works were molded by their maker'spsychic individuality
are all truisms. In those terms music's social contingency and nonauton-
omous messiness arepatent. Werethis not the case, as has often been noted,
then why would earlyWagnersound like earlyWagnerand not Schumann,
why would nineteenth-century music not be the same as seventeenth-
century music, and why would German music not be the same as Italian
music? So let us take the broad social formation of musical composition as
incontestable. Let us also take it as given that individual composers may aim
to convey a discrete sense via musical configurations (for instance, by using
musical topoi) and may aspire to affect their audience's beliefs or percep-
tions by such means. Or may not. Having dealt with Richard Wagner, I
have close-up experience with a composer for whom ideology and politics,
poetry, philosophy, and theories about theatrical representation were pre-
conditions for efficacious musical results and have lingered over such con-
nections, both in Wagner'smusic and in opera in general.
But musical hermeneutics refines these unremarkableprecepts. Seeking
the marks that intention or social formation leave within musical works,
we requirefaith in specificity and legibility and above all the conviction that
music's value is defined by connections between individual musical gestures
or forms and what they reflect, with a concomitant resistance, sometimes

A metaphysicsof music that claimsto transmitmessagesfrom the otherworld retracesthe
incantatoryaction of enchantmentupon the enchantedin the form of an illicitrelocationof
the here-and-nowto the Beyond.Sophismgets extendedby meansof a swindle.... I would
conclude,therefore,that music is not aboveall lawsand not exemptfrom the limitationsand
servitudeinherentin the human condition. [MI,p. 151
CriticalInquiry / Spring2004 515

nobly overcome, to leftovers beyond this imposed limit. Faith in specificity

and legibility means believing that musical artifacts at later points can be
read for exact localizable traces, that once upon a time something left a
mark, and that reading such traces for the facts they reflect accesses the
proper meaning that one should attach to musical sounds. Only in its crud-
est forms does hermeneutics treat music as strictly analogous to discursive
language or musical works as tantamount to other art forms and minimize
the differences. To claim that musical configurations express or paint was
common coin in Europe in the eighteenth century, when doctrines of mi-
mesis and representation governed aesthetic production. To say the same
thing now, however, without any historical awareness,as JanetWolff does
in writing that music does not present "special problems" as a decodable
representationallanguage, is not just quaint.25 It shows that contemporary
music-hermeneutic writings can present their faith as a truth that termi-
nates history by deeming it wrong, permanently false to think, for instance,
that musical works are neither ciphered media nor decipherabletext or that
music's beauty is an aspect of its humane value. Yet the forms assumed by
hermeneutic faith are culturally and historically contingent and, because
the historical pendulum of musical aesthetics has swung between embrac-
ing mimesis and barricading music from signification, this motion, this
state of unrest, should tell us that music presents some very "specialprob-
lems." Preciselybecause music presents specialproblems, not least of which
is live aural presence, it remains philosophically engrossing.
Musical hermeneutics right now is culturallycontingent, for instance, in
the sense that it could be seen as one minor byproduct of classicalmusic's
slow-motion death in the twentieth century.To the very degree that musical
hermeneutics is promulgated as growth hormone, something that can re-
vive the classical music industry, its consequence upon classical music's
moribund status is made more evident. Classicalmusic, packagedas a trans-
parent social text, will no longer seem a pernicious object that encourages
detachment from the world. Realizingthis, buyerswill be enticed to the cash
registers.26In cold light, such claims seem naive at best. Utopian longing

25. JanetWolff,"Foreword: TheIdeologyof Autonomous Art,"in MusicandSociety: The

PoliticsofComposition,Performance,andReception,ed.Richard Leppart andMcClary
(Cambridge, 1987),p. 12.
26. Kramer, reactingto formalist
CharlesRosen,writesthatthereis no "permanent separation
betweenwhatis musicalandwhatis culturalorhistorical," that"denying musicdiscursive
meaningmystifies ratherthanenhances it,"andthat"thisattitudehasincreasingly encouraged
peopleto believethatclassical
musichasnothingto sayto them"(Kramer, letterto theeditor,New
YorkReviewofBooks, 22Sept.1994,p. 75).Cusickwrotealongsimilarlinesthatwearefacedwith
the"dissolutionof musicology asa discipline"
dueto a "globalcrisisof authority"andwaning
appreciationof high-artmusicin theU.S.,butthatfreshattentionto music'ssocialimplications
516 CarolynAbbate / Music--Drasticor Gnostic?
runs deep within the nostalgia that would bring back, in some new form,
the lost delights of a bourgeois era when this now-ossified and marginal
repertory was still alive and nearer the center. The aggrandizement of ac-
ademic musicology, imagined as a major player in the music industry, is
painful to behold. What would executives at Sony Classical say?Fresh au-
diences for opera and classicalmusic will not be conjured up via disciplinary
upheavals in elite universities. If they can be conjured up at all at this point,
it will be as a fringe benefit of things like the Three Tenors or Andrea
Bocelli-middling singer, avid horseman, and tireless recording artist.
Claims for hermeneutics as classical music's savior are shared by what
might be called low hermeneuticsand soft hermeneutics.This distinction
separatesa musical hermeneutics cravingthe blessing of history or the dead
and seeing immanent supra-audible content in musical artifactsfrom the
past (low) from that which acknowledges such content as a product born
in messy collisions between interpreting subject and musical object (soft).
In soft hermeneutics, where trickle-downs from skepticism and postmod-
ernism have had their effect, correspondences between musical configu-
rations and their attributedmeanings arerecognized as having been created
by a particularsubject'sbehavior towards music, not embedded or encoded
in musical configurations per se-that is another truism, but it does bear
repetition. Penumbrae like intention and belief are paid their due, as is
music's not being a language. The vocabulary characteristic of low her-
meneutics on the other hand includes words like traceor mark, implying
the indelible inscriptions left by cultural data upon a permanent recording
medium. But, in fact, soft hermeneutics inevitably becomes low as well;
hermeneutics' fundamental gesture is determining and summoning au-
thority, not leaving open or withdrawing.
Leaving things open is in fact difficult to do in practice without com-
promise or backpedaling. For Jankelvitch, music unleashes potential
meanings in high multiples, and its promise is that of a "vastfuture that has
been given to us" (MI, p. 72). Music, he writes, has "broad shoulders" to
bear whatever specific meaning we ascribe to it and "will [never] give us the
lie" (MI, p. 11).Jankd16vitchdefines music's ineffability (for some, an un-
comfortable word) at times rather neutrally as music's indeterminacy,its
mutability when submitted for contemplation, its range of effects, which
include seeming to be strange or beautiful noise as well as firing up social
or poetic or visual or other associations. It is this that frees us. A coherent

and its specificlinksto gender,class,and race,alongwith consciousnessof our colonizingposition

as historiansor critics,could addresssuch malaise;see Cusick,"Response,"in Musicologyand
Sister Disciplines Past, Present, Future, ed. David Greer (New York, 2001), p. 195.
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 517
stance towards the situation would involve not taking advantage of it, hes-
itating before articulating a terminus, or restricting music to any determi-
nate meaning within any declarativesentence. And, perhaps, drawingback.
At least, a coherent stance might mean not saying what musical configu-
rations mean without simultaneously signaling a deficit in seriousness or
without proposing too many alternative meanings at the same time. Why
repay the freedom we are given by putting the gift-giver in a cage, doing so
continuously or without regrets,without wondering what this activitymay
say?Such statements anthropomorphize musical works, making them into
living things towards which we must develop an ethical position. They are
not, of course, but the way we cope with them may reflect choices about
how to cope with real human others or how not to. Intersections between
the philosophy of music and moral philosophy were Jankdlvitch's lifelong
preoccupation, and these intersections may well seem inscrutableor worth-
less to Anglo-American scholarship.
Yet musical works are of course alwaysbeing used or exploited; realones
are used in film and advertising because they are good at doing certain
things, sometimes subliminal things, and as unperformed abstractionsthey
are conscripted in scholarship for similar duties. Though musical herme-
neutics emphasizes the social contingency of musical works and "hence"
(although the one does not at all in fact necessitate the other) delegitimizes
mystery and ineffability,hermeneutics itself often involves a profound but
clandestine mysticism.
In what sense? Any argument that discovers legible meanings or signi-
fications within music is granting music certain grandiose powers. Ironi-
cally, music is granted these powers at the very moment that it is delimited,
perhaps as compensation for captivity. Behind every hermeneutic act is a
sense that when musical configurations are said to carrymessagesor express
cultural facts or release a specific association or construct a particularsub-
jectivity,these become more authoritative-more signallyimportant, more
persuasive-than the same culturalfacts or associations or constructedobj-
ects as conveyed or releasedby any other media. When I wrote of TheMagic
Flute, "[Mozart'smusic] imagines what the stage drama does not: the pos-
sibility of a nocturnal sun," I was trying to guarantee that the "nocturnal
sun" idea (doubts about Enlightenment) would be convincing (ISO,p. 103).
And saying that the idea was there in music and not the happy-end libretto
ensures just that. Such logic depends on what could be called an opera or
soundtrack gambit. Music is being used in exactly the same way as operatic
music and film music in operas and films themselves. Music's correspon-
dence to, or relationship with, certain words or ideas or images takesthings
that might in themselves seem unremarkable (whether doubts about En-
518 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
lightenment or GeneTierney walkingon thebeachin TheGhostandMrs.
Muir)and,bydecking them out withacousticauraandsonicgiftwrap-
in thecaseof thehermeneutic argument, bylocatingthemwithinmusic-
making them lessbanal than they are by themselves. Theordinary becomes
a revelation.
Ascribing revelatory forceto musicis a legacyfromnineteenth-century
musicalaesthetics, but it foundone outletin twentieth-century psycho-
analytic theories, which wholeheartedly embrace romanticism's hyposta-
tizationof musicalsounds,paradoxically seen as at once transcendent
(therefore all-powerful) andnicelydecodable. Perhapsthistackis so fa-
miliarthatnotinghowits operagambitworkswillseemunnecessary, but
marking its clandestine mysticism is nonetheless stillworthwhile. Thisis,
forinstance,thepathPhilippeLacoue-Labarthe followswhen,afteriden-
tifyingapreference in "theory ofthesubject" forvisualmetaphors andmir-
rors,he challenges suchpreferences byaddressing the"hitherside"of the
subject. implicitly deeper, more a priori "side" to subjectivity
itselfinacousticmetaphors; it isthe"pre-specular" domaintowhichmusic
belongs.27 Nietzsche,who spokeof listeningto language"'withthethird
ear,'"ofgettingtothefundamental musicality oflanguage andwhatisabove
orbelowwords,isprogenitor towhatinpsychoanalysis becomesthesound
of theunconscious. Anda goodanalystlistenstransverbally, forthephonic
or musicalelementin the analysand's speechandnarratives revealsthe
"substructures of the soul."28Lacoue-Labarthe carefully laysout thisge-
nealogywithoutbecoming allthatsuspicious aboutthewayinwhichmusic
hasbeenexploited arguments thathave dubious "substructures" tospare.
Because themusicalelementis so opento interpretation, so unableto con-
testwhatever supra-audible import it is assigned, conceptionsaboutthe
psychic ill drawn from outside themusical domain become what themusic
is sayingor revealing.
Butspecifying theexactrevelation madebymusicandbringing musical
configurations into concord with the social world can assume manydiffer-
entguises.InthecaseofRichard Wagner, a beliefin legiblecorrespondences
betweenworksof musicandthecultural phenomena theyencodeandex-
poseis thebasisforhismostnotoriouspoliticalessay,"Judaism inMusic"

27. PhilippeLacoue-Labarthe, "TheEchoof the Subject,"trans.BarbaraHarlow,Typography:

Mimesis,Philosophy,Poetics,trans.ChristopherFynsket al., ed. Fynsk(Stanford,Calif.,1998),
p. 145.
28. Ibid.,pp. 161,162;the phrase"substructuresof the soul"is quotedfrom TheodorReik,who,
as Lacoue-Labarthe points out, sawthe grainymusicalcomponent in speechand narrativeas that
which betrays,being more true.Barthesand Havasalso rehearsethe musicalaestheticsof
psychoanalysis;see Barthesand Havas,"Listening,"pp. 252-57.
Inquiry/ Spring2oo4 519
(1850).Whatexactlyseparates thisscurrilous documentfrommusicalher-
meneutics right here and now? is
Wagner playingmusicologist (asheoften
did)byreadingcertainformalconventions in musicbyMendelssohn and
Meyerbeer as ineradicablesigns,and truths by thebasketful
are discovered
embodiedin musicalconfigurations. Thatthese"truths" areanti-Semitic
slanders,and the socialor psychologicaltruths Mendelssohn'smusicmight
be saidto revealnowadays wouldbe somethingmorepalatable, doesnot
erasea kinship.Wagner's is simplymusicalhermeneutics onthesideofthe
devil,and,to theextentthatweremainliberalandunprejudiced, wearethe
Yetanyargument thatgivesmusicalconfigurations thepowerto reveal
something concrete about human nature, the human subject,nations,
races,orcultures is embracing oratleast
Germanic mysticism thatWagner himself,loathedprogenitor of musical-
ideologicalevil,didsoverywell.LeoTreitler hasmadethispointwithregard
to Richard Eichenauer's MusikundRasse(1932),a bookthat
comments is;it isneverconcrete
howlimitedmusic'srepresentation but
is connected
to stirrings
of thehumansoulandto moodsandchanges in
mood.Wecancertainly agreewithhimaboutthisimportant condition
andliterary arts.Butthenhe
bodiedlinesofa musicalworkthefaceofaparticular racialcharacter?"
Treitler arguesthatthe"question [ofrace]itself...deservesanswers
of [low]
quality," butthisdoesnot go farenough.29Implicitin hisexampleis the
radicalpointthatwhileone candistinguish devilsfromangelsbasedon
liking loathing the socialconclusions theyhavedrawnout of musical
works, the hermeneuticprocess is thesame onbothsides.Neitherthepro-
cessnortheglobalconviction aboutmusicallegibility it supports
ratethescurrilous orlowqualityanswerfromtheacceptable answer.
Tojuxtaposean argumenton the sideof the angelswithWagner's is
hardly to discounta of
multitude differences, butratherto putpressure on
thehermeneutic processperse.Taruskin haswrittenthatStravinsky'smusic
is the sonictraceof a "stripdown" fromhumanismto biologismin early
twentieth-centuryEurope.30TheRite of Spring(1913)and Svadebka(Les

29. LeoTreitler,"Genderand OtherDualitiesof MusicHistory,"in Musicologyand Difference:

Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 40-41; see also
pp. 33-35on other sociologicalreadingsof artin Nazi Germany.
30. Taruskin,"Stravinskyand the Subhuman,"DefiningRussiaMusically:Historicaland
HermeneuticalEssays(Princeton,N.J.,1997),p. 382;hereafterabbreviated"SS."
520 CarolynAbbate / Music--Drasticor Gnostic?
Noces,1923)reflectthe composer's"lifelongantihumanism" and anti-
Semitism,a "celebration of the unquestioned subjection of humanper-
sonality to an implacably demanding . . . social order-one important
precondition fortotalitarian states("SS," p. 391).Musicalconfigurations
themselves aremustered in theargument, alongside biographical facts,po-
liticalhistory,andscenarioanalysis.Butmusicis best:"Rigorous music
of a
analysis professional caliber must have a place of honor in anysuch
investigation,forthe music the
plays primary role in carrying whatever clus-
ter valuesandideasTheRiteor anyotherStravinsky composition may
embodyto ourmindsandhearts"("SS," pp.387-88).
Thequestionis notwhethertheculture-to-music highway runsstraight
andtrueor whethertheargument is suasiveor thedocumentation over-
whelming. Whatinterests me is oncemorea sensethatthehistorical pat-
terns(theemergence of fasciststates)andculturalforcefields(biologism
andutopianism) andbiographical data(Stravinsky's anti-Semitism) will
seemlessmundaneandmoresecurely affirmed whenmusicis seento ex-
pressthem.Again,thepointis notthatmusicalworksarebeingexplained
asreflecting culturalvaluesorbiographical facts.Itisnoteventhatmusical
worksarebeingsaidto revealsomething inaccessible, somesocialtruthnot
conveyedby any other medium,though this is an idea wellworthscruti-
nizingin greaterdetail.Thepointis thattheseideasandtruthsarebeing
mademonumental andgivenaurabymusic.
role"in delivering ideas,appears in a preparatory reference to theuncon-
scious.Taruskin writes,"Composers wereresponding to circumstances
that,onecanonlypresume,laybelowthethreshold of theirconsciousin-
tending."31 Freudian romanticism? Thepoliticalcircumstances speakdi-
rectlythrough theunconscious to the musical imagination, which conceives
thesecircumstances in soundandgetsthehandto inscribethestaffpaper.
Associating musicwiththeunconscious hasthatrichhistory,andassoci-
ating theunconscious with occulted truth anevenricherone.Atissue,how-
ever, not eventhe psychoanalytic moment in the argument. Thatis a
specificinstanceof the genericnorm,the implication thatmusicknows
best.Thissameassumption canbefoundin GreilMarcus's accountofrock
music,Lipstick Traces,subtitledA Secret History ofthe Twentieth Century-
in music,of course,thoughthishistory,wereit not beingdiscovered in
disguiseasmusicalsound,wouldseemlessremarkable.32 GaryTomlinson
31. Taruskin,"Others:A Mythologyand a Demurrer(byWayof Preface),"DefiningRussia
Musically,p. xxxi;hereafterabbreviated"O."
32. See GreilMarcus,LipstickTraces: A SecretHistoryof the TwentiethCentury(Cambridge,
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 521
writes about operatic music tracing "the deepest shifting of envoiced hidden
worlds" over historical time.33In JacquesAttali's Bruits, the original dust-
jacket blurb says as much: "Tounderstand the history of societies in terms
of the history of their music. The West itself here submitted to analysis.Or,
how the matrix of sounds explains the structures of power."34
What seems important and worth noting, what does matter, and what
characterizesdevils and angels alike, is the paradox at work in the system.
Hermeneutics argues for music's efficacyin a particularway,seeing musical
configurations either as sonic media for embedded signification or, more
subtly, as points of departure wherein cultural or poetic associations are
releasedin listeners during their contemplation of the work, upending their
sense of self in the process. And yet hermeneutics relies upon music's aura
and strangeness, its great multiplicity of potential meanings, the fact that
music is not a discursivelanguage, that musical sounds arevery bad at con-
tradicting or resisting what is ascribed to them, that they shed associations
and hence connotations so very easily,and absorb them, too. Hermeneutics
fundamentally relies on music as mysterium, for mystery is the very thing
that makes the cultural facts and processes that music is said to inscribe or
release (therein becoming a nonmystery) seem so savory and interesting.
Music's ineffability-its broad shoulder-is relied upon so thoroughly and
yet denied any value and even denied existence. This is the mysticism that
will demonize mystery at every turn.35
Juxtaposingthe politically infamous Wagnerwith liberalacademiain the
here and now does not suggest that the differences are not obvious or do
not matter. Not every writer who makes music speak a supra-audiblemes-
sage is doing so to harm or to mock, and it could well be argued that there
is an insuperablespecies differencebetween scrupulous documentation and
mere assertion. If clandestine mysticism is hermeneutics' involuntary re-
action to music as performed, then even if it does involve illicit relocations
into the metaphysicalor unexamined convictions that music holds the high-
est cards, it nonetheless has that sympathetic point of origin. But I am con-
vinced that as long as the genealogies are underplayed and embarrassing

33. GaryTomlinson,MetaphysicalSong:An Essayon Opera(Princeton,N.J.,1999),p. 6.

34. JacquesAttali,Bruits(Paris,1977),dustjacket;translationmine.
35. Allergiesto the word mysteryareendemicto musicalhermeneutics:
Formalistthinking... offersa comfortingsense of mysteryto those (mereamateursor non-
initiates)who know verywell how music can influencetheir deepestfeelingsand convictions,
but who don't want to think that such effectscan be obtainedthroughanykind of conscious
or social-manipulativegrasp.... Puttingmusicfirmlybackinto its socio-politicalcontext
[means]resistinganyformof thatmystifiedappealto its supposedlymetaphysical,transcendent
or timelesscharacter.[ChristopherNorris,introductionto Musicand thePoliticsof Culture,ed.
Norris(New York,1989),pp. 8-9]
522 Carolyn Abbate/ Music-Drastic orGnostic?
ancestorsput aside,all thosefantasiesaboutracialessenceembodiedin
musicortheromanticism thatgenuflects whenever music"speaks," aslong
as its mysticismis unacknowledged, thenmusicalhermeneutics is being
practiced onquicksand. Conjuring authority out of beautifulnoise involves
a ruse,andgivingmusicthe capacityto conveythebesttruthremainsa
Forinstance, itwouldberareto findanoperaanalysis thatdoesnottreat
musicasa signorexpressive boluswhosedecodedsignificance, understood
asgoingbeyondlibrettoordrama,servesin turnto determine theirsense.
TociteKatherine Bergeron's discussion of "clues"in Debussy's musicfor
PelleasetMdlisande, which"solvetheproblem" of M6lisande's character,is
to alludeto anelegantexampleof a pervasive assumption thatcan assume
inelegant forms.36Butthisis theoperagambitrightatthesource,andmu-
sicalstatements ariseinlessenticingways.WhentheCountess pardons the
Countin act4 of TheMarriage ofFigaro, it is not thatMozart's musicsi-
multaneously givesvoiceto somemoreprofoundstatementof or about
forgiveness.Rather,it is thefactthatthereis a Countess, a Count,aspecific
dramatic situation,andordinary wordslike"Contessa, perdono" sungout
loudthathasin quiteprecisewayspredetermined themeaningto attachto
Mozart's musicalmoment.Thesemundane, visiblethingsfeedaconviction
thattransfigured forgiveness-that specifically-isbeingconveyed bysome
verybeautifulnoise.Hermeneutic faithdoesnotariseinavacuum,andjust
asits clandestine mysticism has roots in romanticideologiesmusicalher-
meneuticsperse hasrootsin operaticaesthetics. In thatoperabothpre-
attaching musicalgestures tospecifichumansituations orpassions, itmight
be seenasa veryeffective meansto groundmusicalsoundin sensibledis-
InAnalysing Musical Multimedia, Cookputsthispointdifferently: there
musicalworkthatis notinevitably
is no classical a coproduct, alliedto an
albumcover,or a particular concertandthe experience, the situationin
whichwe hearit, to a TVcommercial, an imagetrack.37 Thesecannotbe
winnowedaway.Butit is necessary to go further, andnotjustforthepur-
poseof remarking thatmediaarenot transparent andthatmultimedia
shouldnot implysomeneutralassemblage of musicplusotherarts,asif,
oncemore,thedelivery systemswereunimportant. Beyondopera,contem-
porary mediarefresh the oldoperatic idea that supra-audible othersshim-
36. KatherineBergeron,"Mdlisande'sHair,or the Troublein Allemonde:A Postmodern
Allegoryat the Opera-Comique,"in SirenSongs:Representationsof Genderand Sexualityin Opera,
ed. MaryAnn Smart(Princeton,N.J.,2ooo), p. 161.
37. See Cook,AnalysingMusicalMultimedia(New York,1998),pp. 81-82.
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 523
mer within musical shapes. That idea, with its many postscripts-that these
things were branded as those shapes were composed, preformingtheir com-
position, immanent for good, hanging on for centuries thereafter,subject
to perpetual rediscovery-is also consequent upon a hundred years' ex-
perience with another total work of art, the movies. One must thus raise
the possibility that a saturation of such total works of art, along with the
effects of their technologies, has itself produced and fortified contemporary
academic hermeneutic faith. And if rhapsodiesto music's autonomy or pure
abstractnessdeny that music gets sticky out of sheer fear of stickiness, one
would have to say that rhapsodies to, say, the Enlightenment reflect con-
cerns of another sort. Perhapsa Citroen commercial, where a speedy goal-
directed sports car zips down the road to music from TheMarriageofFigaro,
inspired or affirmed one's ideas about a breathless new telos in music
around 1786.38To exclude this as a possibility,to flourish serious documents
and music-tracing-the-French-Revolution at every turn, is to demonstrate
the glum hegemony of the respectable.
Consuming a diet rich in cinema with musical accompaniment and, no
less importantly, being exposed to the technological delivery systems
whereby film brings music into being continues to nourish a deep convic-
tion that musical configurations convey information; this along with the
softer view that music unleashes proliferating semiotic explosions derives
at least in part from both operatic and cinematic experience. Contemporary
sensoria have been re-formed by modern technological multimedia, and
this leads to amplified convictions about correspondences. The original
sensorial transformation-with attendant new multimedia competence,
new mastery of polysemic situations-is projected onto pretechnological
high art objects (like symphonies), with correspondence becoming those
works' raison d'etre and the only legitimate diagnosis of their import. Per-
haps hermeneutics was reborn of cinematic kitsch and manipulation, with
the academic platform, like our still-powerful emotions upon hearing sub-
lime classical works, now being in part a Hollywood by-product. Is there
anything wrong with that?
Standing back from all genuflecting, one might say that music is stickier
and less important than the romantics-including the many still with us-
want to imagine. It is at once ineffable and sticky; that is its fundamental
incongruity. Words stick to it, as anyone who has tried to get the "lyrics"
for Schubert's Unfinished Symphony out of his head knows all too well.
Images and corporeal gestures stick as well. Thus claims for music's abso-
luteness or autonomy, which recur throughout the history of musical aes-

38. On Mozartin the Citroencommercial,see ibid., pp. 6-9.

524 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
thetics,denyouroculocentric andlogocentric nature,denythatphysical
grounding and visualsymbolism and verbalcontent changemusicalsounds
byrecommending they how are to beunderstood. This capacityisexploited
by musiccomposers writingoremploying so-called anempathic music,
whichcandependupontheimagefield'sabilityto makesoundironic,to
writeoverthe moodor significance thatthe musicsuggestson its own.
During the torture scenesin LilianaCavani'sTheNightPorter (1974),Magic
Fluteisbeingplayedon a gramophone. Theimagesarenotjustantithetical
to Mozart's beautifulmusicor to MagicFlute'senlightened sentiments.
Theycorrupt the music,and willcontinue to do so long afterthe movieis
over, because the beautifulmusic cannot assuage or erasethe violence we
see,andtheviolence,in memory,becomesa partof themusic.Suchphe-
nomenaundermine romantic notionsaboutmusic'soverriding force,seen
asthepowerto do morethantheverbalandthevisible,conveysomething
beyondthem,to transcend andsurvivetheirlimits.Theunromantic view
wouldbethatmusicexistsin a stateof unresolved andsubservient alterity
inrelation tothevisibleworld,ortolanguage andwords,asitdoestoculture
or society.
Butmysticismvis-a-vismusicmanifestsitselfin directways,andthe
clandestine aspectcanevaporate almostentirely. Suppose musicreallydoes
knowbest("thematrixof soundsexplainsthestructures of power")and
gives access to otherwise lostinformation, revelations abouthumankind or
its societiesthatno otherartcantransmit.Supposemusichasimportant
secretspouringfromit andourenigmamachinewiththecorrectcylinder
merelyneedsto beputin place;thatis a temptingvision.
Sotempting,in fact,thatit deserves a name:musicalworksinducethe
cryptographic sublime.Themoreimpenetrable orcomplexthemechanism
by which it is assumed somethingimportant beenencodedby a me-
dium, deeper thefascination commanded bythatmediumbecomesand
thestronger theemotionalanderoticcharges it exerts.39Eitheryou"drink
in thecryptogram" andsuspenddesire(MI,p. 151),or,becausedisclosing
secretsis a potentgesture, yougivein andproceedasusual.40

39. Objectsthat arepresentbut lackor resistmeaningarefundamentallyerotic,as PeterBrooks

has argued.Erosproducesthe desireto comprehendthese objects,despitetheirresistance,as
signifiers.Humanbodies arethus semioticizedby the desireto know their assumedsecrets;see
PeterBrooks,BodyWork:Objectsof Desirein ModernNarrative(Cambridge,Mass.,1993),pp. 8,
40. ForBrooks,thisabilityto disclosestandsin foreroticconquest.Butit canalsobethepower
of a religiouselite to revealGod'sintentions,as indicatedby FrankKermodein TheGenesisof
Secrecy:On theInterpretation of Narrative(Cambridge,Mass.,1979).
Inquiry/ Spring
Critical 2004 525
Whilemusicalhermeneutics seemsby andlargeunawarethatit is in
thrallto thecryptographic sublime,popularmoviesregularly exploitand
poke fun atthis of
melange mysticism and information science thatassigns
musica starring role.JosefvonSternberg's Dishonored (1931), whichdeals
satiricallywithmusicasa codeforRussianinvasionplans,is oneearlyin-
stanceof a genrethatincludesHitchcock's TheLadyVanishes (1938),where
a melodybearsa messagethatfoilsGerman deviltry,41andeven TheMatrix
(1999),wherea character namedCypher, withamusicological penchant for
seeing concrete information behind beautiful cryptograms, turns out to
bea lascivious villain.Musicological preferences forcode metaphors have
theiramusements, not leastof themwonderingwhyhumanistsharbor
suchaffectionfortechnological andinscription
artifacts systemsthatim-
ply inhuman and or
objectivity accuracy perfecttranslatability. Thetypical
prelude, the softdisclaimer about music's indeterminacy cedesto a
nonetheless thatcallsforcodesto be cracked, is theadmirable remnantof
doubtanduneasiness. InAdorno'sIntroduction totheSociology ofMusic,
whoseauthorityis biblical,thisis quitea leitmotif:
Themethodof deciphering thespecificsocialcharacteristics of music
Hewhowoulddecipher thecentralcontentof musiccannotusetoo
delicatea touch.
Ina sociological deciphering of musicitsdefinition[asmime]should
notbeneglected; vernacular language, inwhichtheword"play" is used
to definethemime'sworkaswellastheinstrumentalist's, recallsthat
Butwhatthesociologyof musicpromises to theunbiased, whatno
singleinquiryfulfilsandthesynthesis thatkeepsgettingpostponed is
notlikelyto fulfilleither-thiswouldbethesocialdeciphering of musi-
calphenomena assuch.
Socialreception is notonewithmusicalcontent,notevenwiththe
social[content]forwhichthemusical[content]servesasa code.

41. Both movies may be alludingto a genuinemusicalcode language,Solresol,inventedby

music teacherJean-FrangoisSudreduringthe 1820sand 1830s.Solresolallowedverballanguageto
be translatedvia elaboratemappingsinto musicalconfigurations.In the 1830s,Sudretoured
Francedemonstratinghis languageon musicalinstrumentsand interestedthe Frenchmilitaryin
its potentialintelligenceapplications.One particularprocedure,in which complex strategic
commandsweretrumpetedvia music acrossgreatdistances,was dubbed tcliphoniemusicale.On
Sudre,see DavidWhitwell,La T6liphonieand the UniversalMusicLanguage(Northridge,Calif.,
526 Abbate/ Music-Drastic
Carolyn orGnostic?
deciphering[ofthehistoryofideas]in musicis anessential
taskof musicalsociology.42
Followingupon this pasticcioany boxedassortmentwill seem bland:
McClary's "meansof deciphering agendasin apparently
self-contained music"(praising Attali);43RoseSubotnik's "Chopin's oeu-
vreitselfwas... an extremein whichtheculturalvaluesatworkcanbe
most clearlydeciphered";44 RichardDellamoraand DanielFischlinon
operathat"encodes homosociality andhomosexuality" throughits"mu-
sicalsignifiers";45or RaymondKnappwritingwithapproval aboutbird-
callsin the PastoralSymphony as "cryptic"prophecies havebeen
"partly deciphered."46 Therearethedistinctverbalsignatures produced by
clandestine mysticism-musicrevealsthings"below...consciousintend-
ing"("0,"p.xxxi),"deeply hiddenthings,""secrets,"
"genuine socialknowl-
edge."47Words likecode and and
cryptogram decipher usher thischthonic
discourse intobroaddaylight because areatoncematerial
hieroglyphs obj-
ectsvisibleto thenakedeyeandtheenigmatheseobjectspromiseso per-
suasivelyas a hiddensecretbeyondtheirsurface.But the wordsare
objectivistset dressingthatoccludethe mysticismtheynonetheless help
Perhaps subjectivity ariseswhenone "decipher [s]"oneselfasanamal-
gam recognized knowledge.48Yet as RolandBarthes putit, decipherers
anddisentanglers belongto verydifferentsubjectspecies,onewishingfor
anend,theothertolerantofimpermanence, evennescience.49 Andthusthe
42. TheodorW. Adorno,Introductionto theSociologyofMusic,trans.E. B. Ashton (New York,
1976), pp. 62, 69, l09, 194, 204, 209. In his exegesis of Adorno's writings on music, Richard Leppart
notes thatAdorno acknowledgesmusic as something"distinctlymystical"while "atthe same
time, it is a concrete,materialpractice,"stressingAdorno'spoint that "musicis not constitutedby
a sign system"but a syntacticalone. Againand again,as Leppartindicates,Adornomust reconcile
his belief in music as cryptogram(whichimpliessignification,in that musicalgestures,syntax,
forms,or proceduresreferencetheirsupra-audiblesocialtruthsand revealthem) with his
knowledgeof music'sindeterminacyand its differencesfrom language(Leppart,"Commentary,"
in Adorno,Essayson Music,trans.SusanH. Gillespie,ed. Leppart[Berkeley,2002], pp. 85,86).
43. McClary,speakingof Attali,in "TheBlasphemyof TalkingPoliticsduringthe BachYear,"in
Musicand Society,p. 17.
44. RoseRosengardSubotnik,"OnGroundingChopin,"in Musicand Society,p. 129.
45. RichardDellamoraand DanielFischlin,introductionto TheWorkof Opera:Genre,
Nationhood, and Sexual Difference, ed. Dellamora and Fischlin (New York, 1997), pp. 1o, 12.
46. RaymondKnapp,"ATaleof TwoSymphonies:ConvergingNarrativesof Divine
Reconciliationin Beethoven'sFifthand Sixth,"TheJournaloftheAmericanMusicologicalSociety
53 (Summer 2000): 292.
47. Adorno,SociologyofMusic,p. 62;ElizabethWood, "LesbianFugue:EthylSmith's
ContrapuntalArts,"in Musicologyand Difference,p. 164;and McClary,ConventionalWisdom
(Berkeley, 2001), p. 5, italics mine.
48. MichelFoucault,TheUseofPleasure,vol. 2 of TheHistoryofSexuality,trans.RobertHurley
(New York, 1990), p. 5.
49. See Barthes,"TheDeathof the Author,"Image-Music-Text,
trans.StephenHeath (New
York, 1977), p. 147.
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 527
distinction between low and soft hermeneutics disappears.Soft hermeneu-
tics makes disclaimers, acknowledges epistemological limitations, or re-
peats the truism that meaning is produced by and within the subject and is
not immanent in the object and is thus variable and contingent. But-and
this cannot be overstressed-the decipherer's habit is ineradicable from
musical hermeneutics. Neither dialectical foreplay,nor the soft caveatthat,
as Kramer puts it, "meaning is not the cause of the interpretation, but its
effect" or that "what is objectively 'present' in the work ... is not a specific
meaning but the availabilityor potentiality of meanings," can compensate
for statements wherein a specific import is indeed ascribed to some aspect
of or configuration within the work, in acts of academic authority (MM,
p. 118).In other words, you cannot hide the nature of the hermeneutic act,
no matter how eloquent and well-meant your framingdisclaimers.It is built
into the very bone, into the moment when the notes are said to be some-
thing other (a "nocturnal sun," perhaps?).One could say it is built into the
business, untranscendable, and one must decide whether to make peace
with that or not.
Musical hermeneutics' specifically technological swerve, its embrace of
codes and mechanisms, has a mixed ancestrybased partlyin linguistics and
in jargon like semiotic code. Historically, however, the move from musical
hermeneutics as silly frivolity or alluring jeu d'esprit (as in the nineteenth
century) to musical hermeneutics with laboratory standards should once
again be credited to Adorno.50Janke1evitch,sardonically,imagines the her-
meneutical stethoscope, a scientific instrument to be placed on a musical
work in the right place in order to hear important information. But when
(in 1928) Adorno described Schubert's music as a seismograph, an exem-
plary move was made towards the technomysticism that is now common-
place.5' That technology, codes, inscription metaphors, and mechanisms
flow into musical hermeneutics is not, however,just an entertaining foible.
They representthe excluded presence of real music, the materialand carnal
as displaced onto technology.
Consider the seismograph, a suave metaphor. Stethoscopes amplify

50. Severalsuch hermeneuticjeux d'espritarediscussedin MusicTheoryin theAge of

Romanticism,ed. Ian Bent (Cambridge,1996).When Germanmusicalhermeneuticsbecamethe
sociologyof music, however,the name changesignaledrespectability.Sociologydifferentiated
Adorno from such fringefiguresor seemingeccentricsas ArnoldScheringand Hermann
Kretschmar,who popularizedthe term musikalischeHermeneutikin the 1920s,fittingpoetic texts
underthe melodiesin Beethovenpiano sonatasor discoveringconcretenarrativeexplanationsfor
his symphonies.In partto differentiatehimselffrom them, in partto markhis lineage,Adorno
chose Soziologie.And still, despiteimmense personaldifferencesbetweenthese figures,therewere
severaldomainsin which theirbeliefsand tacticsconverged.
51. SeeAdorno,"Schubert"(1928),MusikalischeSchriften,4 vols., ed. RolfTiedemann
(Frankfurtam Main, 1982),4:18-33.
528 Carolyn Abbate/ Music-Drastic orGnostic?
nearlyinaudible soundintoloudersound,withoutcrossover fromoneme-
diumor phenomenon intoanother. Whatwassoundremainssound,just
closeror moreclearlyheard.Seismographs measureearthquakes, yetalso
recordthe earth'smurmured groansandimperceptible shiftsbelowthe
thresholdof perception withacuitythatfaroutdoesthehumansenses.But
morethanthis,theirproduct-thetracetheyleaveon paper,theproduct
perceptibleto oursenses-is no amplification ordirecttransportation, not
simplymotionformotion.Theproductis motiontranslated intoanother
medium: graphic inscriptionsonpaperthatwillremainabstract orillegible
Thisis whatmakesthe metaphorso good.In anymusic-sociological
project,music'slinesor contours,the soundsthatremaininscrutable in
merematerial-acoustic form,arethusdeclared to be theincorruptible re-
cordingmediumforsomeother.Withtheseismograph, a strongsymbolic
nexusgoesto work;seismograph equalsbelow,buried,underground, tec-
tonicvastness,thedansemacabre of archeological time,inscribed asif by
magic,andlegibleto privileged eyesonly.Suchnotionsresonate acrosssev-
eraldecadesandacademic cultureswithstructuralist orFoucauldian givens
thatwhatis leasttransparent to individual consciousness, leastintendedor
is bothmostimportant
calculated, abouta givencultural orhistoricalbio-
sphere and most likelyto leave fingerprintson cultural artifacts.
Theallureofmeasuring devicesisthattheytellthetruthwithouthuman
bias;sayingthatmusicisthem(oris likethem)impliesthatmusicisamea-
suringdevice,too,andfromthereit is a shortleapto readingit forresults.
Adornoanticipates thisfault,thefaultof seemingdefinitive, sayingthough
musicis a seismograph, thecipherit placesbeforeoureyescannotyetbe
readbecauseoureyesarestillfloodedbythetearsit hasinspired.52 Because
hisoeuvreisrichindecryptions ofmusicaltexts,thebelletristiclegerdemain
mayseemeitherirritating orscrupulously honest.Thereisasubversive note
soundednonetheless: whatif musicwerea machine, butonewhosemech-
anismandproductsremainpermanently inscrutable? ThatAdornomakes
theflanking move,citingthestill-incapable eye,is atoncea symptom ofhis
reservationsaboutthe music-sociological project's or
premises potential
weakness anda preemptive strikefromhisJudaic side,whichrejects vulgar
representation andembraces technomysticism asantidote.
Whyallthemachines? Whytherepressive andexclusionary regimeof
thesecret?Thegnostichabitaimsto exposesomething imperceptible tothe

52.Seeibid.,p.33,translationmine:"Inirregular Schubert's
jerks,likea seismograph, music
changein humankind
a qualitative
transcribes ... wecannotreadit,butit setsciphersof the
reconciliation eyes."
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 529
untutored or uninitiated, hidden from the profane. The machines, codes,
inscription devices, and anything that sounds like a science fair should thus
give pause. Adorno's seismograph is ancestor to Attali's magnetic tape:
music "reflectsthe fabrication of society; it is the audible tape of the vibra-
tions and signs that constitute society ... prompting us to decipher what is
a sonorous form of knowledge,"53 as it is to my photographic "double-
exposure" (ISO,p. 96), where music is both what it is and the ghostlyhidden
truth captured simultaneously by an apparatus.Yetif invoking mechanical
devices constitutes blatant self-endorsement-music qua machine traces
what is there without subjective bias, thus when music and my argument
run along the same lines my argument cannot be assailed-there is a less
obvious benefit as well.
And this less obvious benefit returns us to the initial quandary:where
are material presence and carnality,where has live performancegone, when
it produced our love for music to begin with? One answer is that techno-
logical images act as their surrogates. According to Jean-FrangoisLyotard,
techne-the action and labor of machines, the material reality implicit in
technology, and the temporality attached to that action-carries implica-
tions of concreteness, physicality,and embodiment.54When hermeneutics
invokes technology, it reaps those implications of physicality and labor as
diversions from its concern with bodiless musical works whose mute value
lies in their social or cultural import. Music induces the cryptographicsub-
lime. But reacting to that sublimity by rushing to technological metaphors
means relying on false Eros and synthetic carnalityfor persuasive impact.
The carnal and the material are, it would seem, immensely desirable,
even in their displaced form as mechanisms and inscription machines. Yet
the carnal and material in their evident and common form, as actual live
performances, seem somehow too hot to handle. Music in performance
affects us physically,but, as Jankdlvitch points out, its physical action can
engender spiritual conditions, grace, humility, reticence. Anyone with al-
lergies to words like spiritualwill rejectthis point like a bad transfusion. For
Jankdlvitch, however, the relationship between real music and its action
upon performers and listeners-at a nonrepeatable moment and place, in
a context that will exist only once and not again-becomes so fundamental,
so viscerally powerful and ephemeral, so personal, contingent, fugitive to
understanding, that it elicits the unfashionable. Embarrassingreversions
may be necessary,to Neoplatonic philosophy, for instance, or its stepchild,

53. Attali,Bruits,p. 13;translationmine.

54. See Jean-FrancoisLyotard,"Oikos(1988),"PoliticalWritings(Minneapolis,199o),pp. 96-
107;see also Hans UlrichGumbrecht,"Formwithout Mattervs. Formas Event,"Modern
530 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
apophatic theology (see MI, pp. 111-19,130-55). Embarrassmentand rever-
sion are difficult and, like understatement and silence, to be entertainedfor
precisely that reason. Jankd16vitch'sargument acknowledges music's pre-
cious humanity and social reality,not by insisting that musical works trace
historical facts or release specific sanctioned cultural associations, but by
emphasizing an engagement with music as tantamount to an engagement
with the phenomenal world and its inhabitants. For instance, playing or
hearing music can produce a state where resistingthe flawofloquaciousness
represents a moral ideal, marking human subjects who have been remade
in an encounter with an other.
One can react to performed music not just by imagining machines or
mechanical processes as forms of explanation but by translating the rela-
tionship between sounds and performer or listener into safe forms, as con-
nections between the musical notes and human facts:sexuality,subjectivity,
the body, political faiths, cultural habits. The heat added when the human
factor is adduced masks a sanitizing impulse in the enterprise,but to point
this out does not mean that the impulse to retreat or translate is without
appeal. But it does indicate that, in the case of music, formalism (music
theory and analysis) and hermeneutics should not be glaring at each other
because they are twins.55Formalism and hermeneutics are not simply two
celestial bodies occupying an otherwise empty discursive universe. Rather,
their trajectorieshave been determined by a powerful object, the antagonist
visible in the very distortions its presence has engendered. This antagonist
is performed music's action, as opposed to an abstractmusical work's for-
mal shapes or representationalimplications.
Moreover, music theory and formal analysis, while they have solid mer-
its, do not get at what used to be called the music itself, though this has been
both touted as their advantage and condemned as their flaw. On the con-
demning side, Ruth Solie argues that formalism's affection for technical
musical detail among other things pays homage to immediacy as an intel-
lectual placeholderfor an unmediated musical experience,which, one could
imagine, is tantamount to a performance. And immediacy as a category is
to be suspected because it can become a pretext for excluding certain po-
litical understandings of music.56 One can fully agree with her diagnosis of

55. A synthesisbetweenthe two attitudescan be arranged,as it has been by Taruskin,who relies

"on close technicalanalysispreciselybecausehermeneuticsand musicalanalysishaveso often and
so complacentlybeen declared,fromboth sidesof the presumeddivide,to be antagonistic"("0,"
p. xxx). The synthesisis smooth becausethe attitudesarenot antithetical,and it is logicalthat they
marryin a globalexplicationde texte.
56. See Solie, "WhatDo FeministsWant:A Replyto Pietervan den Toorn,"Journalof
Musicology 9 (Fall 1991):399-410.
Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004 531

formalism's ideological aims without at all agreeingthat formalism deserves

the one backhanded compliment it is being paid. Formalism'srush to de-
scriptive taxonomies or technical analyses is just as distancing as herme-
neutics' rush to metaphysical signifieds, tandem flights from music as
performed. A resistanceto taking performance and performancesseriously
should thus be disentangled from distaste for formalism and its ideologies
because formalism, though it may cite immediacy and the music itself, has
no business doing so. Like hermeneutics, it is routinely fixated upon works
and inattentive to actual performances. And because neither camp talks all
that much about real performances, there is no basis for deciding that one
or the other is reacting more (or less) powerfully to real music.
Adopting a deconstructive apparatusand scoffing at presence like a man
can truly seem perverse when real music is at issue. Unlike another aural
phenomena-language or literaturein oral form-real music does not pro-
pose a "simultaneity of sound and sense" that in thus positing a signifier
and signified can itself be "convincingly deconstruct[ed]."7 Real music is
a temporal event with material presence that can be held by no hand. So
why assume that musical sound made in time by the labor of performance
is well served by recourse to a philosophical tradition that indeed decon-
structs presence, but does so easily because it traffics exclusively in meta-
physical objects? This is not to say that metaphysics has no relevance to
music as a philosophical concept. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has nonetheless
pointed out that phenomena that are events may not be particularlysus-
ceptible to a philosophical tradition in which the metaphysicsof the subject
or insights of Saussurean linguistics are basic sustenance. For such phe-
nomena, philosophies of action, labor, and techne,as he puts it (elaborating
upon Jean-LucNancy), and a critical discourse accounting for the "move-
ment, immediacy, and violence" in events being "born to presence"prove
more fertile.58What Gumbrecht calls meaning culture and presence culture
do not gain legitimacy by excluding each other. One of them is perpetually
in danger of appearing illegitimate in the academy-presence culture. Yet
meaning culture-scholarship's privileged culture-is inadequate to deal
with certain aesthetic phenomena, events like performed music in partic-

57.HenryM.Sayre,TheObject ofPerformance:TheAmerican Avant-Gardesince1970(Chicago,

1989),p. 15.Thisisthebasisonwhich,forinstance,Sayrearguesthatverbalperformances are
deconstructable: oralpoetryrelocates
"meaningful to the"vernacular
signification" moment,the
voicedutterance." Hearguesthat"inthisschemeexperiential presence textual
presence, andoralpoetryfallsvictimto ... thenotionof s'entendreparler
convincingly deconstructsin OfGrammatology" (ibid.).
58.Gumbrecht, "FormwithoutMattervs.FormasEvent," pp.586-87.Heretoo,asin
Janke1lvitch,a hintof medievaltheologymakesanappearance.
532 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
If immediate auralpresencehasgottensomevotesof no confidence in
contemporary musicological discourse, thismay reflect unspoken uneasi-
nessaboutperformed musicas an ephemeral object,subjectto instanta-
neousloss,but equallyimportantly as somethingthatactsuponus and
changesus.Whenit ispresent,it canbanlogosormoveourbodieswithout
ourconscious will.Thisuneasiness leadstowhatJankel"vitch calls"bearing
a grudgeagainstmusic,"theintellectual's grudgepar excellence (MI,p.7).
Forhim,thisis thegrudgeoffalsemoralists, reflectingcertainantihedonist
pathologies. Thisgrudgerejectsthe ideathatforcesunleashed in perfor-
mancecountmorethanimmortal worksandtheelaborate readings orfor-
maldescriptions thatmusicology assignssuchabstractions. Prescribing a
criticaldistancefromtheperformance experience, eversinceBrechtian es-
trangement, hasseemedto guarantee liberalcredentials.Yetthiscanfore-
closemuchthatisofvalue,bothintellectually andmorally, inencountering
a presentotheratpoint-blank range.
Thusgeneralsuspicions ofauralpresence needthemselves toberesisted.
Presence canbe demonized forreasonsthatseemprogrammed, fornotall
thosewhoargueforits wortharevulgar.Andreflexive scornformusic's
ineffabilityisequally contestable.Ignoring realmusic-themusicalevent-
andscorningineffability go hand in hand because theyareinterdependent.
It is realmusic,music-as-performed, thatengenders physical andspiritual
conditionswhereinsoundmightsuggestmultipleconcretemeanings and
associations, conflictingandinterchangeable ones,oralsononeatall,doing
something elseentirely.Realmusic,theeventitself,in encouraging orde-
manding drastic, is what damps down thegnostic. And some floridan-
tiariasto gnosticproscriptions are
againstthedrasticattitude very much in
order.Freeing oneselffromthe"devastating hegemony of theword"in ex-
periencing performed music does not mean that the human subjecthas
lapsed intosensual idiocy(MI,p.140). Aesthetic the
pleasure, apprehension
of beauty,is not evil,noris it justa hedonistconsolation.59 Doubtingthat
musicalworksspelloutcultural dataorsimplymullingoverthemysticism
inherentin arguments thattheydo is notnaturally appalling. Musical her-
meneutics' mostcoercive is
aspect exemplified in claims that acknowledging
orvaluingmusic'sineffability constitute, asKramer hasputit,a"destructive

59. In On BeautyandBeingJust(Princeton,N.J.,1999),ElaineScarrywrites,"Thebanishingof
beautyfrom the humanitiesin the lasttwo decadeshasbeen carriedout by a set of political
complaintsagainstit. But ... these politicalcomplaintsagainstbeautyarethemselvesincoherent"
(p. 57). Beautyneithermakesus inattentivetowardsinjustice(because,farfrom distractingus
from the phenomenalworld,it makesus more aware),nor, in being staredat, or listenedto, does
it wreakdamageeitherupon the beautifulobjector the individualwho apprehendsit; see ibid.,
pp. 58-68.
CriticalInquiry / Spring2004 533
irrationalism"typicalof thosewho"justify unspeakable things"(MM,p.5).
Notetheslippage, whichmustnot go unrebuked. Somehow, philosophers
likeStanleyCavell,Lydia Goehr, andNaomiCumming, whosuggest (echoing
Jankelevitch)thatmusic'simplications proliferate
against discipline,orwho
point performed music's as a
presence promise of life,are suddenly out
therewithunnamed villainsandunspeakable historicalcrimes.60
So,afterbeinggivenpause,whynottakeintellectual pleasure frommusic
not as a workbutas an event?Whynot disentangle somevirtuesfroma
situationwhereinthewordsexplaining musicarethese:doingthisreally fast
isfun.Between thescoreasa script,themusicalworkasavirtualconstruct,
andus, thereliesa hugephenomenal explosion,a performance thatde-
mandseffortandexpenseandrecruits humanparticipants, takesuptime,
andleavespeopledrainedortiredorelatedorrelieved. Philosophical trea-
tises, Bible,novels,memoirs,paintings, poems, these texts (andeven
plays,consumedon paper)lackthatreallybigmiddleterm,thatelephant
in theroom.Anyargument thatthrowsmusic'sexceptional phenomenal
existenceintosomeconvenient oubliettein orderto getoverdistinctions
anddifficultiesis madein badfaith.
Wouldattendingto performances entirelydampdownthegnostic,as
my performance of the aria from Idomeneo seemedto suggest? No. The
experience of musical is
performancegenerous, above allin opera music
simultaneous groundunderthesoniccircus,thegroundwheretheseother
stratashapeone'ssenseof a musicthatcannotbedetached fromthem.For
thisreason-butmoreimportant, to seewhatfollowsupontheresolveto
speakof ephemera-Iwantto turnto threeoperaticperformances, firstto
LaurieAndersonin herperformance pieceHappiness on 15 March 2002.
Thatperformance raisedquestionsaboutsecretknowledge-theobjectof
hermeneutics-andits loss.And,withmysecondinstance-twoperfor-
mancesofMeistersingerin 2001-it suggests thatagnosticmomentcanarise
in unexpected ways.
At onepointin Happiness, Anderson puton eyeglasses withtinybuilt-
in microphones, whichamplified nothervoicebuttheanatomical sounds
madebyherhead.Whensheclickedherteethtogether, therewasa loud
boomwithno reverberation. Itwasanuncanny moment.Guidedbyearlier
referencesto theWorldTradeCenter's destruction,I marked thatsoundas
a musicaltranslation. Theoriginalof thistranslation wasrecorded in the
Naudetbrothers' documentary aboutthedisaster, thesoundofbodieshit-

60. See StanleyCavell,A PitchofPhilosophy:Autobiographical

1994);Goehr,TheQuestfor Voice;and Cumming, TheSonicSelf
534 CarolynAbbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?
tingthegroundfromgreatheights.61 Noonewhohasseenthedocumentary
forgetsthesound,whichthefilmmakers chosenot to censoror cut.An-
dersonimitatedit. Mysecretknowledge of thehiddensignified(because I
hadseenthedocumentary) is whattriggered realterroratthatmomentin
Weso oftendealhermeneutically withthepastanditsartifacts, yetsel-
domdowereflectuponartifacts wehaverightnowandwhattheywillmean
in thefuture.Hereis a chance.Willsomeaudience yearshenceseeapirate
videotape Happiness and hear the sound and, without the secret,find
themselves perplexed? And,evenif somespectator weretoldbya musicol-
ogistofthefuturewhatthehistorical reading ofthesoundshouldbe,would
he or she findthatknowingno longermeanswhatit did in 2002?That
knowingmeanslossof the perhapsequallyterribleaurathe soundnow
engenders onlyaslongasitremains undefined? Theveryfactofrecording-
as anyfutureaudiencecanexperience thiseventthatcameintopresence
(toechoGumbrecht) onlyviaitsrepeatable surrogate-doesthatnotalter
a basicalchemy, making the event an artifact, handheld andundercontrol,
encouraging distanceandreflection? Gnosticsatisfactions canbecomepale.
Whatmaybeleftin LaurieAnderson's recorded soundis a remnant whose
forceapproaches theforceoncepredicated on a rareamalgam-livepres-
enceandsecretknowledge-butdo so precisely becausethesecretknowl-
edgehasbeenlost,as haswhatwasoncealive.Tobelievethatoriginal
significationcanbecomequasi-permanent, or to valuenondetermination
forthe freedomthatallowsalternatives to ariseandto exist?Thatis the
choicewhenconfronting artifactsfromthepastaswell,andperhapsthat
choicedependson whichlossis regretted moredeeply.
Music's cryptographic isa
sublimity contributing forceintheclandestine
that as a
mysticism appears bystander in musical hermeneutics, justasmu-
is whatallowsmusicalhermeneutics
sic'sineffability to exist.Musicis in-
effablein allowingmultiplepotentialmeaningsanddemanding nonein
particular,above allin itsmaterial form asreal music, the socialevent that
hascarnaleffects. The state engendered real
by music, the drastic state,is
unintellectualandcommon,familiarin performers andmusicloversand
annoyingnonmusicologists, and it has value. When wecannotstaresuch
embarrassing possibilities in the face and find some sympathy forthem,
whenwe denythatcertaineventsor statesareimpenetrable to gnostic
habits,hencemaketheminvisibleandinaudible, wearevulnerable. For,
denyingmystery,the perplexingevent,the reticencesuchthingsmay

61. See 9/11, DVD, dir. Jules and Ged6on Naudet (Paramount, 2002).
CriticalInquiry / Spring2004 535
engender,meansbeingpreyto something
thatcomesto callatitsnocturnal
Wordslike"coercivemysticismandmorbidgrandiloquence" do bring
Richard Wagner back to mind and with him my two Meistersingersat the
Met in December 2001, which, like Happiness,put drastic and gnostic at-
titudes on a collision course. At the first performance, on a Wednesday
night, Ben Heppner lost his voice spectacularly.This became evident when
he cracked on the high Gs and As while singing the first strophe in the first
verse in the preliminary version of the Prize Song, and at that point I made
a quick calculation that he had five more strophes in two full verses in the
preliminary version, and nine strophes in three verses in the final version
in the last scene, in short lots more high Gs and As not even counting the
act 3 quintet. This was when my eyes closed in despair.But I told myself to
open my eyes and pay attention because what we were witnessing was ex-
traordinary raw courage and sangfroid. Heppner would go on singing
knowing what lay ahead. Now the other performersseemed, somewhat psy-
chotically, still to inhabit their roles in Wagner'sjolly Nuremberg, while
Heppner became a unique human being in a singularplace and time, falling
from the high wire again and again.
I was transfixed not by Wagner'sopera but by Heppner's heroism, and
what was important was not the apperception of concealed meaning
through hermeneutic alchemy (as in Happiness) but the singular demon-
stration of moral courage, which, indeed, produces knowledge of some-
thing fundamentally different and of a fundamentally different kind.
Perhaps one could call it drastic knowledge. But the schism on 5 Decem-
ber-essentially, a split where the performance drowned out the work-
caused something to happen in the second performance three days later,
when Heppner had recoveredhis voice. What happened followed upon the
scene-change music in act 3, a passage full of candy-store delights:the cur-
tain flies up, the sunny meadow is revealed,the bannerswave, onstage trum-
pets are unmuffled, and the male chorus sings Guild theme songs at the top
of its lungs. But when the curtain went up on 8 December 2001, I experi-
enced a momentary optical hallucination, a genuine neurological misfire.
I saw stage figures not as they were, in Technicolor Germanic finery, but
shrouded in black with white faces and tragic eyes under bright white lights.
On one level what had happened was that secret knowledge had decided
to restage the performance for me. I know the literature on Meistersinger.
I know the unspoken anti-Semitic underside to the comedy. I know Wag-
ner's essays, and I know the opera's reception history in twentieth-century
Germany.Finally,I know the claims that above all in the music, in the non-
signifying discourse whose secrets are for that reason so much more im-
536 Abbate/ Music-Drastic
Carolyn orGnostic?
portant, something appallingis given voice.62 But what triggeredthe
neurological restaging,thenecessary conditionforthegnosticmentality to
as a
appear hallucinatory symbol, was the earlier
performance, where, in
someoneobsessed byHeppner's courage, thedrasticattitudehad prevailed.
Thesecondperformance wouldnot havefractured hadmyexperience of
the firstnot beenso radicallyattentiveto whatwastakingplace,so inat-
tentiveto Wagner's Meistersingerandwhatitsmusicmeansor conceals.
Butthereistheproblem. Thisfirstperson,thisIwhoisn'tgoingtoforget,
mustbe willingto walkonstageoncewhatcountsis theliveperformance
thatoncetookplace,experienced onlybythosewhowerepresent.Thatis
the reasonwhycastingone'slot withperformance andthe drastichas
seemedsodifficult;there isno the
placetohide.Thereis ironythat,however
responsive andattentive wearetothepresentness ofperformance, thepres-
entpastnessit musthaveto makepossibleanyactof writingis notnego-
tiable.Thereis no hideawayin the universalizing endemicin academic
discourse.Forhereis a finalquestion:Oncethe autobiographical tidbits
havebeenpassedaround,howlongandhowhardis historyor intention
usedto erasetheirtaste,whichis thehumbleandunadulterated tasteofthe
subjective? Thereis no placeto hide behind formalism's structuralobser-
vationsaboutworksor texts.Andnot evenbehindacademic majesty,be-
causeonceabsorbed bythings thatare no we
present longer acknowledge
thatourownlaborisephemeral aswellandwillnotendure.Aperformance
doesnotconceala cryptictruthto belaidbare.Butaccepting itsmortality,
refusingto lookaway,maynevertheless be someformof wisdom.

62. See MarcA. Weiner,RichardWagnerand theAnti-SemiticImagination

1995), PP. 117-35.

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