John Cage
John Zorn
J-S Bach


Music Is a Text

[1] Practice shows that post-structuralism and deconstruction graft primarily onto texts, onto writings: a constitutive feature of a deconstructive strategy involves the reading of texts (cf. Silverman, p.58). When I propose a way to indicate how deconstruction is at work within music, I take the view that music, too, can be regarded as text. This implies the expansion of the concept of text. Derrida emphatically asserts that there cannot be anything that is not textualized in the sense he gives to the word 'text' - which goes beyond the purely discursive. (In Post-structuralist Social Theory, the consequences of this line of thought are shown for the hierarchical opposition between the real and its representation.) Text in this usage can no longer be reduced to the idea of a collection of printed pages (cf. Positions, p.60). The broader concept of text that Derrida advocates has to do with the idea he develops concerning the concept of writing.

[2] Traditionally, writing is considered a tertiary function that follows thought and speech, respectively. The ideal would be to communicate thought directly. Since this cannot be, language should be as transparent as possible. The spoken word represents thought. Speech is seen as having direct contact with meaning (which is most clearly in Husserl's idea of the voice in an interior soliloquy): words issue from the speaker as the spontaneous and nearly transparent signs of his present thought. The danger of non-transparency is that, instead of permitting direct contemplation of thought, linguistic signs might affect or infect the thought by interposing their material form (cf. Culler, p.91). Writing: '... That dangerous supplement'...! Writing is a means of expression, which is at best irrelevant to the thought it expresses and at worst a barrier to that thought. It is considered a representation of speech, a secondary substitute, a supplement. Writing consists of physical marks that are divorced from the thought that may have produced them. Furthermore, it may indicate a double absence, the absence of both author and reader. The hierarchic relation in which speech prevails over writing is based on the association of speech with presence, origin, truth. Writing, on the contrary, is connected with distance, absence, misunderstanding and ambiguity.

[3] Derrida's criticism is now well-known. He emphasizes that the very possibility of opposing speech and writing on the basis of presence versus absence or immediacy versus representation is an illusion. Speech is structured by difference and distance to the same extent as writing. Both the written and the spoken word replace something to which they refer. Both are a presence that refer to something absent. Speech and writing as irrepressible references to an alterity which cannot be grasped. The sign of which the spoken and the written word make use is a supplement: it is an addition to, or a filling in of an absence. Thus, the sign evokes a desire for the nearing of the thing it replaces. At the same time, however, the sign puts presence on hold, creating distance. The effect of the sign is one of time and space. This effect cannot be undone, even though the sign suggests it can; it is a precondition for speech and writing. The sign suggests an ideal of a presence without signs while making this impossible at the same time. This principle applies to both the spoken and the written word. Spoken language is made up of sound and meaning, and both sound and meaning of speech are systems of difference just as in writing. The sound 'cat' is different from that of 'fat' or 'hat'. Additionally, the meaning of 'cat' is different from that of 'rabbit' or 'camel'. It is the play of difference that makes the sounds and meanings; this play is similar to the play of difference in writing (cf. Positions, p.27-8). In writing, an 'r' means nothing in of itself; it is what it is because it is different from a 't' or an 'h'. It becomes 'itself' only as an element in a system of differences. Therefore, its present meaning depends upon its relationship to what it is not. 'To mean' automatically means 'non-being'. As soon as there is meaning, there is difference. 'Whether in written or in spoken discourse, no element can function as a sign without relating to another element which is itself not simply present. This linkage means that each 'element' - phoneme or grapheme - is constituted with reference to the trace of the other elements of the sequence or system it contains. This linkage, this weaving, is the text, which is produced only through the transformation of another text. Nothing, either in the elements or in the system, is anywhere simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces' (Positions, p.26).

[4] Aside from empirical variations of tone, voice, accent, etc., one must be able to recognize the identity of a signifying form. This identity only constitutes itself by virtue of its iterability, by the possibility of its being repeated in the absence of its 'referent', the intention of actual signification, and the intention of present communication (cf. Limited Inc., p.10). Writing is often set aside as merely a technique for recording speech in inscriptions that can be repeated and circulated in the absence of the one that speaks. But this iterability is the condition of every sign. A sequence of sounds can function as a signifier only if it is repeatable. And when speech is a sequence of signifiers, as is writing, it is similarly open to the process of iterability.

[5] Based on this, Derrida changes the meaning of writing. Writing, to Derrida, no longer means 'words on a page'; rather, it is any differential trace structure, a structure that includes spoken language as well. A new concept of writing: a generalized writing. The condition both of speech (vocal writing) and writing (graphic writing). Arche-writing (cf. Culler, p.101). Arche-writing makes possible the play of differences.
However, Derrida assesses that arche-writing is not limited to the spoken and written word only. In Of Grammatology, he writes: 'And thus we say 'writing' for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural 'writing'' (Of Grammatology, p.9).

[7] Writing as an economy of difference. Arche-writing as the movement in which every referral system constitutes itself as a weave of differences. Through this notion of 'writing', Derrida realizes that 'there has never been anything but writing' (Of Grammatology, p.159). This means that reading cannot transgress a text toward a signified outside the text, i.e., outside of writing in general. 'There is nothing outside the text' [il n'y a pas de hors-texte, there is no outside-text] (Of Grammatology, p.158). Or: 'There is nothing before the text; there is no pretext that is not already a text' (Dissemination, p.328). After a rethinking of 'writing', a transformation of 'text'. Text: any system of marks, traces, referrals. Not an extension of a familiar concept, but a displacement or re-inscription of it. 'Il n'y a pas de hors-texte' does not mean that there is nothing outside of words, or that everything can be reduced to linguistic concepts. Says Derrida: 'I never ceased to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above else the search for the 'other' and 'the other of language'' (Kearney, p.123). In his epilogue to Limited Inc., published in 1988, Derrida once again resumes his definition of text: 'I wanted to recall that the concept of text I propose is limited neither to the graphic, nor to the book, nor even to discourse, and even less to the semantic, representational, symbolic, ideal, or ideological sphere. What I call 'text' implies all the structures called 'real', 'economic', 'historical', 'socio-institutional', in short: all possible referents. Another way of recalling once again that 'there is nothing outside the text' ... It does mean that every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace, and that one cannot refer to this 'real' except in an interpretive experience. The latter neither yields meaning nor assumes it except in a movement of differential referring' (Limited Inc., p.148).
Writing - text - context. When there is nothing outside the text, it means that the context is also part of the text. Context remains other than the text, is not part of the text, is external to the text, but, at the same time, context belongs to it. Contextual features accompany the text and are 'texted' in that they are the con-text for the text in question. Insofar as they are 'texted', they are also intrinsic to the text. (Some musical examples are: religion is 'musicalized' (texted) in many of Bach's compositions, the American society is reflected in the music of Frank Zappa, and in John Zorn's music we can hear Jewish culture.) Although separate and other, the context is on the inside of the text as well, without necessarily thematization and specific identification. Context. In French it can be heard as 'qu'on texte', that which one texts, that which is rendered text (cf: context) .

[8] What does this mean for art in general, and for music in particular? As for works of art, Derrida notes that they definitely have a dimension in which 'words find their limit'. However, at the same time, these 'silent works' are in fact talkative, full of virtual discourses. 'There is text because there is always a little discourse somewhere in the visual arts, and also because even if there is no discourse, the effect of spacing already implies a textualization ... The works of art ... cannot help to be caught within a network of differences and references that give them a textual structure' (Brunette and Wills, p.15).
Music, too, as a sounding or notated phenomenon, is as a system of signs inscribed in the play of differences. So, by looking at music as text, I do not mean an equivalent of (written) language in a narrow sense. Music is not organized according to utilitarian language. Starting with Derrida's disseminated idea of text, music can be regarded as a text on three, interrelated, plateaus. First, the discursive institutions, constitutive orders of knowledge and power that identify music as art, as culture, and as a 'social field' are textual. Second, the representation of music, of listening to music, in language is (of course) textual. And third, music as sound, music as a spatial, temporal, and sense event, is a text (cf. Veselinovic-Hofman, p.29). I consider the activity of performance, the experience of audition, and sound itself texts to the same extent as the notational text of the score. Furthermore, a musical text involves the possibility of other versions with similar structures (for example, any performance or interpretation), intertextual elements from other (musical) texts that are co-present with the musical text, and a general musical language in which the musical text participates.

[9] Intertextual elements. Intertextuality. I return once again to Derrida's early works. According to structuralist thinking, the meanings of a text are determined by its inner order. A text is a closed order of signs. In contrast, Derrida takes the view that its relation with other texts determine the meanings of a text; it is not a closed order. In 'Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', a text from 1966, Derrida exposes the weak spots of structuralism, the most important philosophical tendency of that time (Writing and Difference, p.278-293). Structuralism depends upon structures, and structures depend upon centers. Derrida calls into question the very idea of a stable center (the idea of decentering). While he agrees to the structuralist position that reality is always perceived via a matrix of meanings, he rejects that this matrix would have an unchangeable and unambiguous order. To Derrida, all Western thought is based on the idea of a center - an Origin, a Truth, an Ideal Form, an Essence, a God, a Presence that guarantees meaning. The problem with centers is that they attempt to exclude, ignore, repress, marginalize 'the other'. Furthermore, centers want to fix or freeze the play of differences. Deconstruction appears as a critique of structuralism pointing to the fact that texts are not built on a central, exclusive center. They are more like ambiguous figures. Every text is woven from an endless number of fragments, phrases, forms, expressions. There is no original text, no center. A text is made from other texts. Intertextuality. Any element-sign or sub-text, by being placed into a 'new' text, adopts meanings that are different from its primary meanings or meanings in other texts.

[10] Textuality is the open production of meanings. Meaning - the product of differences, i.e., references - becomes a virtually infinite process. The option of repetition in other contexts incapacitates the retrieval of unambiguous meaning; it becomes unstable and intangible. The iterability of signs, their connections with other signs and contexts and the extendibility of context preclude the rigorous circumscription of meaning. Textuality, this dissemination or dispersal of meanings, this play of differences in writing, in and between texts, is an irresistible force. It cannot be repressed. Textuality, intertextual interweaving, is a dynamic process. (Additionally, post-structuralism does not base itself on the assumption of a linear concept of time, but rather, on time as a space of infinite repetition.) Within a structure, there is always a non-structure functioning at the same time as well, 'something' which prevents the structure from closing up.
The condition of the text is not one of autonomy from a general textual system, but of intertextuality. Texts have intertexts. They are included within texts in that they become part of a complex of texts that constitute the text in question. All texts cross-refer endlessly (and not necessarily only in the simple sense of quotation or citation). Texts have intertexts. Texts are intertexts in the sense of an 'internal' textual multiplicity. For each text, there are many textualities. Each text is considered divisible into other texts, indefinitely. The text is difference itself. Textuality is the movement of the texts' differing from itself, making itself different.
Deconstruction is concerned with texts and their inscribed interrelations. It requires that the text be examined for its differences from other texts and deferrals into other texts. Deconstruction examines textual traces, marks, traits, signatures, and differences as they occur in writing. It connects into a text, which is already in circulation, whether this text is philosophical, historical, political, musical, etc.

[11] I return to music. It follows from the above that music is not a closed text. Any musical 'element' functions as a sign, which means that it refers to another element that is simply not present. This connecting chain makes every element of music a constituted beginning with 'traces' of other elements of the chain or system within it. This chain is the text, produced only by the way of a transformation of other texts. In other words, a musical work is not identified as the final result of the practice of 'creating' music, but as a 'mediator' in establishing the chain pointing and indexing events, meanings, senses, and values in relation to other texts (cf. Veselinovic-Hofman, p.33).
Intertextuality. Intermusicality. In following with Misko Suvakovic, I sketch three possible meanings of intermusicality: (a) A relation between 'extra-musical' (linguistic) texts and musical texts; (b) the relation between a musical text and music as a cultural, historic institution; and (c) the exchanges, referentialities, (dis)placements, inscriptions, or mutual coverings of two (or more) musical texts (cf. Suvakovic, p.36). In particular, (b) and (c) point to the fact that there is no musical text that exists autonomously. A musical text always exists only through its relationship with other musical texts, as well as with other (artistic) texts in a cultural field. From the outset, every text is 'different from itself' in the sense that every text, even at the moment it comes into physical existence, is a translation of countless impulses into a commonly accessible, rather than personally controlled medium. Thus, every text is always already, on a multiplicity of levels, preformed by innumerable physically absent, yet historically generative traces: 'A text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture' (Barthes, p.146). The boundary, the limit of each text is always already provisional due to the endless cross-referencing of all levels of signification. Textuality effectively deconstructs the limits of identity, the limits of what belongs to music and what does not (the extra-musical), the limits between music and non-music. A musical text is not an autonomous object.

[12] The notion of intertextuality posits a lack of fixed boundaries. It is very difficult, if not impossible to determine what is inside the musical text and what is outside. Restricting, for a moment, my focus of attention to a musical score, the following questions may be asked: Is the title of a piece of music inside or outside the music? Are the spaces between the different notes or the staves inside or outside the music? Alternatively, should the score as a whole perhaps be thought to be outside the music? (But what is 'as a whole'? Again, here the problem of demarcation arises.) The musical text is neither a composition, nor a series of notes, neither a score, nor the content of its pages. On the other hand, it contains all of them. It only cannot be restricted to these ingredients.
The musical text is off-center, located where the intra-musical meets the extra-musical and de-defines its borders. Its textuality is the condition of not setting clear lines of demarcation between the inside and the outside of music, between what counts as part of the musical text and what does not. For an understanding of textuality in a musical context, the question of the scope and limits of music must be raised: What is the space of music? If music is equivalent to the musical object, how is the musical object different from other objects such as literature, paintings, and human beings? If music is a form of expression, how is it different from other types of expression, such as ideas, images, pictures, and gestures? If music is a language, how is it different from other languages such as corporeality, sight and fashion?
Longing for an answer? A short and unelaborated, incomplete and always provisional answer would come down to this: musical space is determined according to the different ways in which it is known, read, and studied. Music history is of great importance here: historical studies tend to define music, tend to define periods, styles and movements (cf. Silverman, p.70-1; cf. also Danto and Dickie).

[13] Deconstruction is (also) a reading practice. As a reading identifies the textuality of a musical work, the reading deconstructs the text. In structuralism and semiotics, the attempt to describe structures and codes responsible for the production of meaning focuses attention on the reading process. However, when a text is in principle subject to an unbridled number of meanings, it may be asked whether this concerns a quality of the text 'itself' or the liberty of a reader to continually assign new meanings to a text. Is a text so rich a plenitude that no reader can ever grasp it all, or is it a set of marks on which the reader confers structure and meaning? In the former case, the reader gives expression to the text that itself asserts the interpretation. In other words, the reader provides a multiplicity of meaningful significations that are already there. The text's indecidability does not result from an indeterminacy of reference or a simple multiplicity of references. It lies in its textuality through which the text establishes its identity as a text. The text is always something more than what is there (cf. Silverman, p.80). In the latter case, reading means producing a text. Through the associations followed up and the connections established, each reader constructs a different text out of each work. Reading a text can be considered a writing practice, and in this lies the possibility of a rewriting of texts. In every reading practice, in every interpretation or performance, a text is also rewritten. Deconstruction is a reading strategy, a writing strategy, of transformation (cf. Game, p.x-xii).
However, text and reader easily switch places: a story of the reader structuring the text easily becomes a story of the text actively controlling the reader (cf. Culler, p.70). Similarly, we can detect a continual going back and forth in Derrida's work from reader to text and vice versa. In one case, this is said as '... any act of reading is besieged and delivered by the precariousness of intertextuality' (Of Grammatology, p.lxxxvi). In another, Derrida writes that reading is something more than simply reproducing. Reading must not be content with doubling the text, although our reading must be intrinsic and remain within the text (cf. Of Grammatology, p.158 ff.). This shifting back and forth between reader's actions and reader's responses is not a mistake that could be corrected, but an essential structural feature of the situation. If we say that the meaning of a work is the reader's response, we nevertheless show that interpretation is an attempt to discover meaning in a text. If we propose some other decisive determinant of meaning, we discover that the factors deemed crucial are subject to interpretation in the same way as the text itself and thus defer the meaning they determine (cf. Culler, p.73 and p.133). It is a using and a being used by language that is shifting and unstable so that each (re)reading of a text produces another text. Such strategies as deconstruction demonstrate the impossibility of establishing well-grounded distinctions between what can be read in the text and what is read into it. On one hand, the text is already complete and inexhaustible - one can read and reread without ever grasping completely what has already been written. On the other hand, the reader has to create the text in the process of reading, without which it is only black marks on paper (cf. Culler, p.76).

[14] The result of this thinking is not a new foundation, but stories of reading in which two aspects become clear. First, it is impossible to derive any definitive meaning or 'truth' from a text. With every reading, a reader discloses new information, but other information is lost in that same movement. Reading is not simply a way of coming to know the work, but a series of events. This automatically leads to the second point: the active role of the reader. Reading has lost its status as a passive consumption of a product to performance. Perhaps this becomes very clear with regard to notated music. Musical identity, sometimes centered in a score, appears to be decentered into infinite sound differences or musical interpretations and performances of which every single one tends to come near to this notated, but never attainable 'essence' (cf. Veselinovic, 1998, p.13). Explicitly more than in written texts, it is grounded in musical practice that a score only receives meaning through an active reading (which can be both kept in silence or realized in sound) and that a definitive version is an illusion.