Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

Some Hot New Music Theories
One of the hottest new music theories is so-called Transformation Theory, a brainchild of David Lewin. As my friend Josh Mailman (he doesn’t look a bit like Gollum either) who is at Eastman describes it: “A transformational analysis of a piece of music typically develops a ‘network’—actually, a network of networks—portraying various motions between pitches, collections of pitches, or other events. The appeal of a transformational analysis is that it portrays the piece as a dynamic system rather than as a static object.”

There have been all kinds of other new theories introduced into the music scene, namely queer theory and feminist theory. While I have trouble with Susan McClary‘s “feminine cadences” in describing Franz Schubert‘s gay-inflected music (as it seems to rely on homosexual stereotypes, inversions of a different kind, in order to produce it’s analysis), as Charles Rosen pointed out in a New York Review of Books piece, this has enlivened the discourse about music, and gives people another way to talk about music, expanding the boundaries of the stodgy, dusty Big Boys’ Club. I’m all for that. I also recommend Scott Burnham‘s Beethoven Hero, a great read with great insights.

It’s also fruitful to generate whole theories suggested by those working in other disciplines and fields. For instance, in his mind-blowing Poetics of Cinema, Chilean-born, Paris-based filmmaker Raul Ruiz (who is best known for his Proust adaptation Time Regained, although his best film remains City of Pirates) writes: “Every film is always the bearer of another, a secret film, and that to discover the secret the viewer would have to develop the gift of double vision that we all possess. This gift, which Dalí could have dubbed ‘the paranoid-critical method,’ consists simply in seeing, not the narrative sequence actually shown in a film, but the symbolic potential of the images and sounds in isolation from their context. A secret film almost never appears at first viewing; and even if it is clear that a very bad film (but what is a very bad film?) is overloaded with clandestine films, it is also true that being very bad is still not enough for a film to be fascinating…The superstition that we only see—or only make—one single film is transformed within each of us to this: from film to film we are in pursuit of a secret film, hidden because its desire is not to be seen. My theses: without such a secret film there is no cinematographic emotion.” This is fun and useful because it speaks to the inherent messiness of images and their ordering in a narrative, the multi-valence of signs and signifiers, and, therefore, the staggering multiplicity of narratives and readings. (I just wish he’d spend some time discussing the secret films he’s discovered in his multiple viewings.) This could be applied to music somehow—go for it!

There’s also the great French literary theorist Gerard Genette who wrote a wonderful book called Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree in which he examines the manifold relationships a text may have with prior texts. Genette describes the multiple ways a later text asks readers to read or remember an earlier one. In this regard, he treats the history and nature of parody, antinovels, pastiches, caricatures, commentary, allusion, imitations, and other textual relations. One could see transferring these ideas to music, taking, say, The Rite of Spring as the Urtext, and show it as the palimpsest for Szymanowski‘s Harnasie, Varèse‘s Amériques, Malcolm Arnold‘s A Sussex Overture, and Silvestre RevueltasSensemaya, plus several other works. That would sure beat getting through Allen Forte‘s pitch-class analysis (although this is a lot better than his analysis of American pop tunes).

And I would like to see a Theory of Disunity, germane unto itself but also as a foil the organicist boys who have a pretense of explaining everything in a piece of music. That is, a theory to recognize and expose those elements in the great unified masterpieces that do not necessarily fit into the unfolding and elaboration of the organic cell; and a theory to explain why works which are not necessarily unified “works,” sometimes qualify as unadulterated masterpieces.

From Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory
by Robert Hilferty
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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