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The Inarticulate in Pursuit of the Indescribable

Music After Postmodernism
Edited by Simon Miller
Manchester University Press

In an academic collection designed to subject musicology to postmodernist perspectives, it's typical that only one of the seven contributors teaches music. Editor Simon Miller is an art historian whose special interest in art-music interfaces jibes with his attraction to "the new art history," and his contributors list fields like economics, communications, and cultural studies. As Miller asserts forthwith, this is because "the study of music has been perhaps even more `conservative and orthodox'" than the study of art. Miller might feel more cheerful about musicology were he more familiar with Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Robert Walser, and preeminently Susan McClary, whose essays are cited in Derek Scott's piece on sexuality, and whose ground-breaking Feminine Endings finally shows up in the bibliography to Paul Théberge's "Random access: music, technology, postmodernism." (Since more than one strain of myopia afflicts academia, it's significant that Subotnik, Walser, and McClary are American--and that Théberge's job at Concordia University in Montreal makes him the only non-European contributor.) Nevertheless, and despite the relative vitality of musicology's country cousin ethnomusicology, the decontexualized "classical" canon remains so ensconced that the postmodernistically inclined continue to take their musical interests to cultural studies and such, where they zoom in on non-Euro-American genres, mass phenomena, or what might be called subcultural pop.

Miller and University of Liverpool music lecturer Robin Hartwell attempt to right this tendency, which they regard as an imbalance if not an injustice. In the course of an intermittently illuminating account of music theory through the ages, Miller argues sanely that the mystifying belief that pieces of music aren't objects greatly contributes to the general failure to conceptualize them. But it's harder to credit his suggestion that the situation would improve were it not for "the avoidance of the teaching of the basic vocabulary of music in cultural studies"--unless it's granted that the telling element in such a formulation is cultural studies' conceptualizing propensity rather than the "basic vocabulary" (not necessarily notation, Miller claims), which obviously has small hermeneutic effect within musicology itself. Parsing the varying attitudes toward history in the "classical" tradition, Hartwell analyzes "the close relationship between modernism and the avant-garde," criticizes "authentic" performance, and distinguishes usefully between the postmodernist and the neoclassical. Note, however, that both these would-be resuscitators of what Hartwell blithely calls "art music" remain highly suspicious of the postmodernist idea. One need not applaud the semantic busywork that passes for theory among young academic careerists, or agree that self-referentiality and infinite regression define the aesthetic, to look askance when somebody who likes old culture goes on about the "nihilism" of the new.

One paradoxical shortcoming of these two honest attempts to make a space for the principled elegance of another time's musical languages is the authors' relationship to verbal language. Hartwell is a competent academic stylist, his rhythm and phrasing harking back to belletristic concepts of grace he doesn't have the will or skill to replicate. And Miller is rather less agile. Pay close attention and struggle with the occasional vague referent and you'll understand most of his points. But no one who begins a sentence "As well as the political motivation for this interest, an important factor driving this concern . . ." is likely to be of much editorial use to writers as inept as Peter Jowers and Amon Saba Saakana, whose articles, on WOMAD and African influences respectively, are so clumsily rendered as to prove impenetrable to anyone not professionally obliged to labor through them.

Within limits, this is regrettable. Much of what Saakana has to say will have a familiar ring to anyone who's read many Afrocentric scholars, but Saakana is one of the few to apply the parameter to music, and while his essay is beset by the usual defensiveness and overgeneralization (you'd never know from him how prominent Roman slaves became in Roman commerce, for instance), its perspective is welcome. He may be overestimating the direct impact of black players on British jazz, but it's good to have them all in one place, and his section on 18th-century janissary music (unearthed from an obscure 1954 history of the Royal Artillery Band by the late musicologist Henry Farmer, whose specialty was the Middle East) is a worthy addition to the array of stories about white people drawn to African canons of percussion and display. Jowers's information is of more limited value, but unlike Saakana, he does at least attempt to link his subject to the collection's premise. In fact, by insisting on a politicized model derived from Alberto Melucci (he calls it "organic," I'd prefer "postaesthetic"), he does his damnedest to turn off postmodernism's self-destruct button--the ineluctable tendency of deconstructionist analysis to undermine its own claims to truth value. Unfortunately, the self-critical style of activism and engagement he describes so warmly boils down to identity politics hell, in which life consists of struggling through conflicts with your natural allies because the enemy is out of reach.

The rather wooden and Latinate clarity of Alexander Laski's "The politics of dancing--gay disco music and postmodernism" comes as a relief after Jowers and Saakana, but to talk of "[s]tyle and image over content and meaning" in such prose is risible. And however unacceptable Jowers's vision of meaningful engagement may be, his essay has established the limitations of Laski's notion of cultural "politics." Anyone who's given any thought to the production and consumption of dance music will find little new in his description of disco's intertextuality, multiple authorship, and so forth. Although clearly indebted to McClary, Derek Scott's contribution is far more original than Laski's. You needn't agree that concepts of gender and the erotic are as mutable as he claims to learn from his examples of evolving conventions in sexual representation in opera, parlor ballads, and pre-World War II pop.

Climaxing a sequence that, when you think about it, reduces to two articles on "art music," two on race, and two on sexuality, Paul Théberge provides a kind of overview that focuses on one of the few themes capable of subsuming them all--technology. Théberge declines to deal much with so-called art music, because, he says, its use of technology has been modernist rather than postmodernist. In general, his referents--Benjamin and Huyssen, Laurie Anderson and Milli Vanilli--are predictable enough. His ideas are solid rather than eye-opening; sometimes, I'd argue, they're wrong. But the unfailing aptness, occasional eloquence, and overall structural clarity of his essay imparts to it a kind of utility rare in academic hodgepodges of this sort and absent elsewhere here. That is, it is possible to imagine an inquisitive, intelligent nonspecialist, just a lay person who cares about music and wonders about its place in the world, reading it with interest and coming away with understanding. Perhaps it is naive or impractical to expect such a thing from this sort of enterprise. But if the deconstructive rhetoric of postmodernism is to prove more than a pretentious fad, academic culture cannot be exempted from any meaningful critique of its own built-in snobbishness and insularity. You needn't be a philistine, a capitalist tool, or a reactionary in disguise to prefer that politically progressive analysis be accessible beyond a coterie of feckless toilers in the outlands of Publish-or-Perish.

Popular Music and Society, 1995