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Music: Drastic or Gnostic? Author(s): Carolyn Abbate Source: Critical In q uir y, Vol. 30

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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Carolyn Abbate

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'tthis be what we do, since we love music for its reality, for voices and sounds that lingerlong

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

passes performance, seeking meanings or formal designs in the immortal

musical work itself-find


itself a wallflowerat the ball?

More than

forty years ago, Vladimir Jankelevitch made what is still one

of the most passionate philosophical arguments for performance,insisting that real music is music that exists in time, the materialacoustic phenom-

enon. Metaphysical mania encourages us to retreatfrom realmusic to the abstractionof the work and, furthermore, always to see, ashe 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

these not three modes of doing, three attitudesthat

it in recreating it-are

are drastic, not gnostic, not of the hermeneutic orderof knowledge?"' Mu- sical sounds are made by labor. And it is in the irreversible experience of

playing, singing, or listening that any meanings summoned by music come into being. Retreating to the work displaces that experience, and dissecting the work's technical features or saying what it represents reflectsthe wish

1. Vladimir Jankdl1vitch, Musicandthe Ineffable, trans. Carolyn Abbate (Princeton,N.J.,2003),

p. 77; hereafterabbreviated MI. A similar emphasis on doing characterizes Christopher Small's

ethnography of music making,Musicking: The MeaningsofPerforming and Listening(Hanover, N.H., 1998).

Critical Inquiry30 (Spring2oo4)

Sz2oo4 by The University of Chicago.oo93-1896/o4/3oo3-oooo$10.oo. All rights reserved.


506 Carolyn Abbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?

nottobe transportedby thestatethatthe performance


in lessseveretermsis a souvenir,oneof the things taken away fromthe

experience of playing or listening, tobe "put

plated asa way of domesticating that experience.2

Ratherthan bringing outthesouvenirsand singing their praises orex-

has engendered


thing wescrutinizefor supra-audibleimport-


plaining their meanings onemoretime, I wantto testtheconvictionthat

whatcountsis nota

tersinger von Niirnberg in theabstract,buta material,present event.This

practice thatatitsmostradicalallowsanactuallive per-

example, Richard Wagner's DieMeis-


entails seeking a

formance (and nota recording, evenofalive performance) tobecomean

object of

forkintheroadand seeing whatwasabandonedthere.Inthe

Kerman argued fora

on musicalworksandtheir meaning. Thisnewmusiccriticismwasnot musiccriticismas usual, andwewouldnotbe journalists, anartisanclass

excludedfromacademia. Transcending the

whether Argerich seemednervous, musicology woulddealinsteadwith

Rossini'sLaCenerentolaorRavel's Gaspard dela nuit. 3WhileKerman'saim

wasto divert musicology towardscriticismandhermeneuticsand

from composerbiography, archival history, andstrictformalism,some- thingimportant wasforeclosedwhenold musiccriticismbecamenew musiccriticism.Andthe something wasnot just CeciliaBartoliorMartha

Argerich butrealmusic:the performances thatweretoremainin

as marginal to criticismorhermeneuticsas they hadbeento formalism,

biography,history, or

mittedin principle toan"embodiedcriticism"thatdealswithmusic'sma- teriality ratherthanwithdisembodied"texts,"writing aboutan actual

performance has proved tobetheunusual option.4

absorption, whichmeans going backfora momentto a certain



revolutionin musicology,urging afocus

quotidian, howBartoli sang or



theory. EvenforscholarslikeSuzanneCusick,com-

2. Abbate, In Search ofOpera(Princeton,N.J.,2001), p. 51; hereafterabbreviatedISO.

3. See Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology(Cambridge, Mass.,

1985), PP. 113-54.

4. SeeSuzanneCusick, "OnMusicalPerformancesof Genderand Sex," in AudibleTraces:

Gender, Identity, andMusic,ed. ElaineRadoffBarkinand LydiaHamessley(Zurich,1999), pp. 25- 48. Cusick, developing Judith Butler'sthesisthat gender is performed andnot essential,callsfor musicology to contemplateperformance itself. Yetwithfew exceptions,notably her analyses of


is professor of musicatPrinceton University. Sheis the

author of Unsung Voices (1991),published in Frenchas Voixhorschant (2004),

andof In Search ofOpera (2001); sheis alsotranslatorof Vladimir Jankdlvitch's

Music and the Ineffable(2003). Most recently, she worked as dramaturg on the

MetropolitanOpera's new production of DonGiovanni,which premiered in

March 2004.

Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004


This does not mean that academiahas neglected classical-music perfor- mance. Farfrom it. The relationship (or lackof one) between musicological dicta and musical praxis has haunted the historical performance movement and the debates about it.5 There are music historians who write about per- formers of past eras and literary critics or art historians who write on per-

formance art.Thereare philosophical arguments about performance, made with particular verve.6 There are ever more frequent referencesto favorite

recordings and analyses of opera staging, not to mention the performative 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.8 Under the rubric of the performative there is the

"functioning of

on it, which indeed reduces the body

might include ways in which a specific performance satirizesor travesties

the script ("B").9 The performative as umbrella concept could shape a post- modern approach (via Bakhtinand 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 performance within the culturalcon- text of its production. He notes that "analyzing music as performance does

the performing body" and the restrictionsculture imposes

to another text to be analyzed, but

actual performances in "Genderandthe CulturalWorkof a ClassicalMusic Performance,"

Repercussions3 (Spring 1994): 77-110, Cusick herself adheres to the work-centered musicological

normor documents performative elementslikefemale vocality as they wereunderstoodin earlier historicaleras.

5. Twocritical gold standardsareRichardTaruskin'sTextand Act: Essays onMusicand

Performance(NewYork,1995), and JohnButt,reviewof Authenticities: PhilosophicalReflections on Musical Performance,by Peter Kivy,Journalof theAmerican MusicologicalSociety53(Summer 2000): 159-64 aswellas Playing with History: TheHistorical Approach toMusical Performance

(Cambridge, 2002).

6. See LydiaGoehr, The Questfor Voice:OnMusic,Politics, andtheLimits ofPhilosophjy(Oxford,

1998), andNaomi Cumming, TheSonic Self- Musical Subjectivity and Signification(Bloomington,

Ind., 2000).

7. SeeNicholasCook, "BetweenProcessandProduct:Musicand/asPerformance," Music

Theory Online 7 (Apr.2001): 0l.7.2.cook.html; hereafterabbreviated"B."As Jonathan Dunsby writes,"PerformanceStudiesis a


in thebook and articleliterature" (JonathanDunsby, "Actsof Recall," The

Musical Times 138 [Jan. 19971:12).

8. As is typical, for instance, in arguments in EdwardCone'sMusicalFormandMusical

Performance(NewYork,1968), or EdwardSaid'sMusicalElaborations (New York,1991), two of

many books by scholar-performers.

9. One instanceis LindaandMichael Hutcheon, Bodily Charm: LivingOpera(Lincoln,Nebr.,


508 Carolyn Abbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?


not necessarily

but considering insteadthe way inwhich performance asa phenomenon has

been "scripted" intothework ("B").' Inother words,musicalworksthem-

selvestakeheedofthe "performance network"-thechannelsbetweencom-

mean analyzingspecificperformances

or recordings


Meticulousasitcan be, muchofthis writing nonethelessmissesamark

notso easy to define.Andwhateverits vague outerlimits,thatmarkhasa

densecenterthathastodowithmusical performance'sstrangeness, itsun-

earthly aswellasits earthyqualities, anditsresemblanceto magic shows andcircuses.Becauseinstrumental virtuosity or operaticsinging, likemagic

material realization,

andlistener (ISO,p.5).

itself,can appear tobethe accomplishment

atthatlevel appearsuperhuman totheiraudiencesand inspireworship or

ofthe impossible,performers

hysteria. Yetmusical performancechallenges


abouthuman subjectivitybyinvoking mechanism:humanbodieswiredto

notational prescriptions.And,despite allthat, ithasbeendiscussedasifit

wereanunremarkablefactofcivilizedlife, andneitherlovenorfearis

much play."Opera criticismoffersa


listener rapturesubsequently transcribedas

has dubbedacademic "Neo-Lyricism."'2 Musical performance on the

notionsof autonomybystag-


performer'sservitude, evenautomatism,and upendsassumptions


strikingexception,yet itsfocusisnot

operasingers' voicesaserotic objects, with

prose, in a style DavidLevin

performancesper sebuton

whole,however, hasbeen seen,analyzed,

listenedto, andif the

profile, theconsolations anddisturbancesattendant upon musical perfor-


butnot always

and acknowledged,

pleasuregivenbyoperaticsinging hashada sharp

general havenot. Maybe theuntroubled prosestyles are analogous

protest toomuch, bypassing the uncannyqualities thatare always

toritualbehaviorwhileconcert-or operagoing isaformofcommandand

a defensivestance.Butthereis

something aboutthe objective modethat


waitingnearby in trying to domesticatewhatremainsnonethelesswild.

10.On musicalworksthatstare performance in the face,see ISO,pp. xii-iv, andElisabeth LeGuin, "'One Says ThatOne Weeps, but One Does Not Weep': Sensible, Grotesque, and MechanicalEmbodimentsin Boccherini'sChamberMusic,"Journal of theAmerican Musicological

Society55 (Summer 2002): 207-54.

11.Thereare exceptions; Goehrand Cumming are exemplary in this regard. In "Actsof Recall" on the other hand, Dunsby usesless objective"poeticised"languageonly atthe end (p. 16). In this case,the very self-consciousnessthatbracketsthat language as "poeticised"-that worriesabout the change in tone, callsit a fantasy--shows how ingrained the clinicalvoicecanbe, asthe only proper voice. 12. DavidJ.Levin,"IsThereaTextin ThisLibido?Divaandthe Rhetoric of Contemporary Opera Criticism,"in Between Opera andCinema, ed. Jeongwon Joe andRoseTheresa (NewYork, 2002),p. 122.LindaandMichaelHutcheon, in Bodily Charm,strikean admirablemiddle ground byalternatelyinvestigatingrapture fromafarand responding with rapture to performedopera's force.

Critical Inquiry /





versally excludedfrom performance studies;they, too,remainwild.

Performancehasbeen subsidiary aswellinthesensethatwhenreal per-

is deemed revelatory

rendition, somedirector's


to one'sownorsomehis-

so.Askthese questions whenmusical performances aredis-

formances (invariablyrecordings) arecited they areoften being summoned

foranendorsement.Thussome performer's


whenit corresponds

torically sanctioned reading ofthework,butill-conceivedoroffbeatwhen

failing to do

cussed:Isasonicandvisual reality, allits physical forceandsensual power,

being hauledin to provide a pedigree fora conclusionabout meaning or

form,withtheabstraction-themusicalwork perse-being

thetrue object

ofinterestandacclaim?Are performances treatedas way stationsinatotal

receptionhistory, sonic inscriptions ofthework's meaning overhistorical

time? Adopting more generous terms,hasa performance

goad to probeassumptions aboutthework's meaning,suggest others,with

theworkof coursestillineradicablefromthecalculus?Werktreueasan

or staging beena

ideal,never presupposing

performance is

materialitysaysnothing aboutits capacity to inspire awe (Beethoven's

fourth pianoconcerto, DonCarlos,theSchumann pianoquintet, LaMer-

oneneed onlysay orwritethe words).Perhaps, as

contemplating musical performancebeyond theimmortalworkmeansun-

of the

workandas theater, anactin whichan

mediacy, andfreedom,of feeling and breathing, of convictionandcom-

mitment"is conveyedby muteactor-musicians.'3Musical performance, as

ElisabethLeGuin putsit, is


derstanding a performancesimultaneously

oneideal performance,

meansthat every actual

nonethelessmeasured against a monumentwhosenon-

Lydia Goehrhasnoted,

as an exemplification


of spontaneity,

always alsoa performance of


An escape fromKerman's utopia wouldmean turningaway frommusical

worksasabstractionstobescrutinizedfor supra-audiblemeanings, orsa-

lutedin prosedescriptions, and turning towardsevents.Becauseallthose

whoare "parties to theclassicalmusicesthetic," according toRichardTa-

ruskin,"havebeenimbuedwith loyalty tothenotionofthe'musical work,'"

it couldbea formof infidelity.'5 Butthis escapemay bean impossibility

contingentupon not turningperformances or

captured textto be examinedfor

kelevitch'sdistinctionbetweendrasticand gnostic involvesmorethana conventional opposition betweenmusicin practice andmusicin theory

performers into yet another

import viaa performance science. Jan-


13. Goehr,The Questfor Voice, p. 148.

14. SeeLeGuin,"'One Says ThatOne Weeps, but One Does Not Weep,'"pp. 209-12.

510 Carolyn Abbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?

because drastic connotes physicality, but also desperation and peril, in- volving a category of knowledge that flows from drasticactions 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 decadesbe-

fore it became a commonplace in writings that describe performance as a "site of resistanceto text" or as something so contingent upon present hu- man bodies that it remains opaque ("B").16

In Janke1dvitch's terms, fixing upon actual live performances would

mean embracing the drastic, a radical step. There is no

armor. In practical terms, it would mean avoiding the

in music's necropolis-recordings and scores and graphic musical exam-

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 precludedby performed music?This is a personal matter; thus it can be put to an individualtest. 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's Idomeneo, andthis


a priori theoretical tactile monuments

performance allowed me to play out the two attitudes as an experiment. "Non temer"is a bravuraariawith fastruns for the pianist, calling forstrict

attention to the singer'stempi.'7 While playing, however, I decided to ask myself some distractingquestions. They were along these lines: Where ex-

actly is the Enlightenment subjectivity in these 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 virtuallyimpossible 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 ratherthan establishing a clear tonic

notes? Is the regime of ab-

in this un-

16.See JoseGil,"The Body, Transducerof

Signs,"Metamorphosesof the Body, trans. Stephen

Muecke (Minneapolis,1998),pp. 106-14,esp.p. 106:"The floatingsignifier relatesto the body, this crucibleof energy mutations.Butwhat goes on thereremainsunknown-and willremainso until

an adequatesemiology(one thatcantakeaccount oftranssemioticfields) is established." 17.Thisariaandits preceding recitative (K.490) wereaddedfora performance of Idomeneo in Viennain 1786. The singer wasmale sopranoAnthony RothCostanzo.

Critical Inquiry / Spring2004

cannilyresembl[ing] thenarrativestructuresthat gay writersandcriticsare exploringtoday"; thusmusic reports Schubert's homosexuality." Lawrence

Kramer, describing certain rhythmic andharmonic duplications between

the"Chiarina"and"Estrella"movementof Schumann'sCarnaval,writes:

"Iwill shortlypropose thatCarnavalsets up musicalmirrorrelationsthat

belong toa largerfamily ofmirror tropes current during muchofthenine- teenth century."19

Yet,as long

as I was dealing withrealmusicin realtime, I couldnot


distance representedby such arguments.


procedurehaving been performed, the questions becameab-

place about


realmusicis present, the gnostic canbeintroduced.Yetwhile playing "Non


surd,asif they were being askedatthe wrong momentand

something otherthanthe reality athand.What,I asked, amI actually think-


towhatwas going ondidflowin,albeit rarely, butthesewordshad nothing

to do with


statementsaboutmusic's meaning overthattime,I


ing-thoughts aboutwhatmusic signifies oraboutitsformalfeaturesdo notcross my mind. They cancrossit,asinthisforcedtestcase, only tobe dismissedas ludicrous.While musicology's businessinvolves reflecting

upon musical works, describing their configurations eitherin

termsoras signs, thisis,I

teresting as long asrealmusicis

poral wakeandits physical demandsoreffects. Therearedifferencesbetween listening and performing thatshouldnot


etiesasthelatter.Onecanmore readilydepartmentally from hearing music

thanfrom performingit,

handscontinuethesonata by themselvesisnotunheardof.Butthat, per-

haps, isthe point: toreflect,mustoneinsomesense depart?Split adrastic

selffroma gnostic self?20

aboutthismusic? Clearingmymind, I realizedthatwordsconnected


signification,being instead doing this reallyfast is fun

or here

bigjump. A musicologist fordecades, having made many,many

acknowledged thatdur-

thisI meanboth playing andlisten-

experience of real music-by


decided,almost impossible and generally unin-


present-while oneis caughtup

ignored; theformer hardly involvesthesame responsibilities andanxi-

thoughmulling overthebankbalancewhile your

Admitting theschismis certainlypreferable


18.Susan McClary,

"Constructionsof Subjectivity

inSchubert'sMusic,"in Queering


TheNew Gay andLesbian Musicology,

ed. PhilipBrett,ElizabethWood,and Gary C.Thomas

(New York,1994), p. 223.

19.Lawrence Kramer,Musical Meaning: Towarda Critical History(Berkeley,2002),p. 116; hereafterabbreviatedMM.


He writes,


about performance

involvetheradicalshockof accepting thisschism.

Thedemandthat performers be subject to ordinary scientificor scholarly standardsof

accountabilityplaces not only onerousbutirrelevantlimitationsontheirfreedom



512 Carolyn Abbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?

futile arguing for musical scholarship's relevance to performance.21 Yetif performing is a case weighted towards the drastic, moving to listening al- lows no vastly greater reflectivedistance or saferhaven from the presence

of musical sound. Listening as a phenomenon takes place under music's thumb, and acoustic presence may transfixor bewilder; it freesthe listener from the sanctioned neatnessof the hermeneutic.22In more practical terms,


the performers and the event and farless for the work than is perhapsgen-

erally admitted. Even recordings as technologically constructed hyperper- formances, which we can arrestand 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, canbecome both absurd and instantaneous, going by in a flash, and, I would add, there is nothing necessarily bad about absurdity or 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 constructsunder the aspect of eternity, as activities that will have little to do with realmusic-the performancepro-

experience of listening to a live performance solicits attention more for

placesarbitrary obstaclesin the performer'spath thatcanfrustratethe goal of performance thatof pleasing the audiencein the hereandnow. [Taruskin, "Last Thoughts First," pp. 22-231

Performerscanandshouldoverruleor ignore "theoracle" (intention, historical evidence). Musicologists shouldconsult it; thatis theirbusiness. Musicological and performer attitudesare

separable andnot

Letting the Music Speak for Itself," Textand Act, pp. 55,52).

meldedinto a single, natural act, like "exhaling and inhaling"(Taruskin, "On

21. FredMaus (echoingTaruskin)argues thattechnicalmusic analysis, whoserelevanceto

performance hasbeen recommendedin many music-theoretical writings, in factseemsuselessfor

the purpose of performingsomething well, concluding thatthisis because performance itselfis


Communication," in Performance and Authenticity in the Arts, ed. SalimKemalandIvanGaskell

(Cambridge,1999),pp. 129-53. This argument does,however, certifyperformance's value by smuggling some bigwigs-composer creativity andthe immortalworksit produces--back in through a sidedoor.

22. RolandBarthesandRolandHavas famously associateone formof listening with the

an analytical but a compositional act; see Fred Maus, "MusicalPerformanceas Analytical

hermeneuticandthe religiousinjunction to heedoracular speech, in "Listening," The

ResponsibilityofForms, trans.RichardHoward (NewYork,1985),pp. 245-60.Immediately after


the eartriesto intercept arecertain signs" andthus listening was"henceforthlinked

hermeneutics:to listenis to adopt an attitudeof decoding whatis obscure" (p. 245). Yet"modern"

human listening transducesthe semiotic, "doesnot aimat--or await--certain determined, classified signs: not whatis saidor emitted, butwho speaks, who emits" (p. 246). Thisformof listening,along with itsattentivenessto corporeality and presence both in the listeningsubject and the soundsource,doesnot produce "theadventof a signified,object of a recognition or deciphering, but the verydispersion, the shimmeringofsignifiers"(p. 259). Barthes'sdebtsto

separation of thehuman species fromthe animal, human listening entailed "deciphering: what

to a


are everywhere evidentin his writing, with this-a

distinctionbetween gnostic and

moredrastic listening-being only one minor example.

Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004

duced and absorbed, which then

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 aboutwhich one can either say, "bliss!"or remain mute. A taste for the drasticneed not

dictate silence. Yet performances with all their allureneed

another object awaiting decipherment, a recordabletext subject to some analytical method yet to come. To treatthem 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 practice. Becauselive performancesgive us pause, we must considertheexclusions and stratagems entailed in reverting to souvenirs, to musical works in the abstractand theirforms or meanings. Itis to ask why the academicdiscourse devoted to music, whether hermeneutics' searchfor musical traces of, say, post-Kantian subjectivity or formalism'ssearchfor tonal patterns, is com- fortablewith the metaphysical and abstractand uninterestedin the delivery

systems that bring music into ephemeralphenomenal being.23Turning to- 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's diagnosis. Music's effects upon performers and listeners can be devastating,physically brutal, mysterious, erotic, moving, boring, pleasing, enervating, or uncomfortable, generally

disappears. And continue as usual. But

not become just


23. These deliverysystems includenot just live professionalperformance but amateur

performances(often of transcriptions or reductions),practicing and rehearsing,playing in the studiowhilethe machinesare listening, aswellasmechanicalmusical devices,andof course

recording andsound technology asacoustic deliverysystems.Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy Vickers point out thatsimilarexclusionsworkevenin the reception of unperformed artslike literary textsand in language itselfbecause"theidealisttraditionhas constantly

attempted to separatelanguage fromits machines

consequently from writing itself,which, astheworkof the hand, is seenasa debased activity"

(Jeffrey Masten,Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy Vickers, introductionto Language Machines:

fromthe adulterationsof materiality, and

514 Carolyn Abbate / Music-Drastic or Gnostic?

embarrassing,subjective, and resistant to the gnostic. In musical herme-

neutics, these effectsin the

through a passionate metaphysics that postulates the others for which mu- sical gestures or forms, with the sounds they stand for, aremedia.24 Turning

towards performance means considering music's ability to inspire talk of inscription devices, deciphering, and hieroglyphic traces, a metaphorical

language that relocatesthe labor and carnality of performance in the physi-

calmotion and

material products of machines. Finally, above all, embracing

the drasticis to reactto being given pauseby 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 workswere molded by their maker's psychicindividuality are all truisms. In those terms music's social contingency and nonauton- omous messiness are patent. Werethis not the case, ashas often been noted, then why would earlyWagner sound like earlyWagner and 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 takethe broad social formation of musical composition as incontestable.Letus also takeit as given that individual composers may aim

to convey a discretesense 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's music and in opera in general. But musical hermeneutics refinesthese unremarkable precepts.Seeking the marks that intention or social formation leave within musical works, we require faith in specificity and legibility and aboveallthe conviction that music'svalue is defined by connections between individualmusical gestures or forms and what they reflect, with a concomitant resistance, sometimes


are illicitly relocatedto the beyond,


A metaphysics of musicthatclaimsto transmit messages fromtheotherworldretracesthe

incantatory actionof enchantment upon the enchantedin the formof an illicitrelocationof

the here-and-nowto the Beyond.Sophismgets extended by conclude,therefore, thatmusicis not abovealllawsandnot servitudeinherentin thehumancondition. [MI,p. 151

meansof aswindle

I would

exempt fromthelimitationsand

Critical Inquiry / Spring 2004

nobly overcome, to leftovers beyond this imposed limit. Faithin specificity and legibility means believing that musical artifactsat 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 attachto musical sounds. Only in its crud- est forms does hermeneutics treat music as strictlyanalogous to discursive language or musical works as tantamount to other artforms and minimize the differences. To claim that musical configurations express or paint was

common coin in Europe in the eighteenth century, when doctrines of

mesis and representation governed aesthetic production. To say the same thing now, however, without any historical awareness, as Janet Wolff does

in writing that music does not present "specialproblems" 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 falseto

that musicalworks areneither ciphered media nor decipherable text or that music's beauty is an aspect of its humane value. Yetthe forms assumed by hermeneutic faith are culturally and historically contingent and, because the historical pendulum of musical aestheticshas 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." Precisely becausemusic presentsspecialproblems, not leastof which is live aural presence, it remains philosophically engrossing.


think, for instance,

culturallycontingent, for instance, in

the sense that it could be seen as one minor byproduct of classical music's

slow-motion death in the

hermeneutics is promulgated as growth hormone, something that can re- vive the classical music industry, its consequence upon classical music's moribund statusis made more evident. Classical music, packaged asatrans-

twentieth century. Tothe verydegree thatmusical

Musical hermeneutics right now is


parent social text, will no longer seem a pernicious object that encourages detachment from the world. Realizing this, buyers willbe enticedto the cash

registers.26In cold light, such claims seem naive at best. Utopian longing

25.JanetWolff,"Foreword:The Ideology ofAutonomousArt,"inMusicand Society: The

Politics ofComposition,Performance,


and Reception,

ed.Richard Leppart and McClary



reacting toformalistCharlesRosen,writesthatthereisno



meaningmystifies ratherthanenhancesit,"andthat"thisattitudehas increasinglyencouraged

people tobelievethatclassicalmusichas nothing to say tothem" (Kramer, lettertotheeditor,New

YorkReview ofBooks, 22 Sept.1994, p. the"dissolutionof

appreciation of high-art musicinthe U.S.,butthatfreshattentiontomusic'ssocial implications

historical,"that "denying musicdiscursive

75). Cusickwrote along similarlinesthatwearefacedwith

duetoa "global crisisof authority" and waning

musicology asa discipline"

516 Carolyn Abbate / Music--Drastic or 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 nearerthe center. The aggrandizement of ac-

ademic musicology, imagined as a major player in the music industry, is


diences for opera and classicalmusic will not be conjuredup via disciplinary upheavals in elite universities.If they can be conjuredup at all at this point,

it will be as a fringe benefit of things like the Three Tenors or Andrea


Claims for hermeneutics as classical music's savior are shared by what might be called low hermeneuticsand soft hermeneutics.This distinction separates a musical hermeneutics craving the 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 interpretingsubject 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 attributed meanings are recognized as having been created by a particularsubject's behaviortowards music, not embeddedor 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 characteristicof low her- meneutics on the other hand includes words like traceor mark, implying

the indelible inscriptions left by culturaldata 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. Leavingthings 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 "vastfuturethathas been given to us" (MI, p. 72). Music, he writes, has "broadshoulders"to

bearwhatever specific meaning we ascribeto lie" (MI, p. 11). Jankd16vitch defines music's

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

to behold. What would executives at Sony Classical say? Freshau-

singer, avid horseman, and tireless recording artist.

it and "will [never]give us the

ineffability (for some, an un-

andits specific linksto gender, class, and race, along withconsciousnessof our colonizingposition as historiansor critics,couldaddresssuchmalaise; see Cusick, "Response," in Musicology and

Sister Disciplines Past, Present, Future, ed. David Greer (New York, 2001),

p. 195.

Critical Inquiry /

Spring 2004

stance towards the situation would involve not taking advantage of it, hes-

itating before

nate meaning within any declarativesentence. And, perhaps,drawing back. 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

say? Such statements anthropomorphize musical works, making them into living things towardswhich 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 realhuman others or how not to. Intersectionsbetween

the philosophy

preoccupation, and these intersections may well seem inscrutableor worth-

less to Anglo-American scholarship. Yetmusical works areof 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 abstractions they 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 necessitatethe other) delegitimizes

mystery and ineffability, hermeneutics itself often involves a profound but clandestine mysticism.

articulating a terminus, or restricting music to any determi-

wondering what this activitymay


music and moral philosophy were Jankdl vitch's lifelong

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