John Zorn
John Cage
J-S Bach


Of New Musicology

[1] Are there traces of deconstruction in contemporary musical thought? Traces of post-structuralism? Although it is important to note at the outset that they are not fully related terms, deconstruction and post-structuralism are often bracketed (cf. Culler, p.28). According to Culler, deconstruction can be read as either a precursor of a post-structural situation or a subset of post-structuralism. (Nevertheless, the term 'post-structuralism' sits oddly with deconstruction. Derrida does not refute the structuralist claim that binary oppositions are the predominant principle of meaning. In this sense, his philosophy is structuralistic and not post-structuralistic. Maybe Derrida offers a structuralist critique of structuralism: what separates him from structuralism is his concern to bring to light the play of differences in structure, the experience of temporality, a critique on the static concept of the sign.)

[2] Post-structuralism has proved pivotal in refashioning our image of society and knowledge. It has done so by proposing alternatives that urge a shift in focus, from issues of class, individualism and materialism, to a focus on discourses, identities (differences) and cultural codes. Nevertheless, reflection upon music has been minimally affected by post-structuralism up until now. While post-structuralism stands out as one of the most important intellectual developments that has occurred within the humanities since the late 1950's, musicology, music theory and music analysis have neither been affected by, nor contributed to this philosophical enterprise (cf. Shepherd and Wicke; cf. Seidman). (According to Steve Sweeney-Turner, the reason the reception of deconstruction within musicology has been hampered is probably due to its philosophical complexity (cf. Sweeney-Turner, 1995, p.183.) In his review essay 'Disciplining Deconstruction (For Musical Analysis)', Adam Krims indicates that musicologists who are writing about deconstruction are often ignoring its radical implications.)
According  to Edward Said, however, the first actual post-structuralist tremors finaly began to be felt in musicology in the 1990's, even if the work of post-structuralist musicologists is at a relatively early stage and occupies a minority if not marginal status (cf. Said, p.xvi.). (Christopher Norris (cf. Norris, 1999, p.116) and Adam Krims (Krims, p.298-9) agree with him in more recent essays.) Since the late 1980's, a small group of thinkers on music has sought alliance with post-structuralist philosophy and humanities. As a result, a positivistic and formalistic approach of music is abandoned in favor of the view that before anything, music is a socially caused phenomenon. At the same time, the attention is shifted to the intertextual dimensions and the performative aspects of music. (German musicologist Ulrich Dibelius calls this a post-modern shift from the characteristics of music 'itself' to its 'modes of action'. The new (post-structuralist or post-modern) musicology is based on a criticism and deconstruction of musicological objectivism, the general idea of the autonomy of (the theory of) music. In other words, a shift to contextuality.)

[3] Especially in the USA during the 1990's, a (small) number of essays have been published in which music and deconstruction are interrelated. Authors that have published work on this subject include Rose Subotnik, Lawrence Kramer, and Susan McClary. Here, I am primarily interested in the arguments to to deal with deconstruction and music. This 'emergent desire' (Sweeney-Turner) for musicology to finally engage with contemporary critical discourse in general and deconstruction in particular is commonly regarded as a bare necessity. Accordingly, its formulation springs from a certain negativity. The need is incited by a twofold observation from these (and other) musicologists. First of all, they detect an increasing isolation of classical music in particular. Secondly, musicological discourse threatens to enter a similar isolation as well. By engaging  in a more general cultural debate, they try to prevent both from happening.
In his book, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge, Kramer expresses worry about the limited social basis for classical music. 'The lack of a viable public discourse about 'classical' music is one reason why the music, cherishable though it is, is losing cultural ground at an alarming rate' (Kramer, p.xiv). Kramer speaks of a 'scholastic isolation of music'. By returning music to its place in general cultural discourse, Kramer aspires to set classical music free from its isolated situation. 'For those who care about 'classical' music, the possibility of tapping new sources of cultural and intellectual energy may come not a moment too soon. It is no secret that, in the United States anyway, this music is in trouble' (Kramer, p.3).
Next to these alarming notes regarding the position of classical music in modern Western society, many thinkers on music point out an increasing isolation of musicology as well. From outside the field of musicology, Edward Said calls for an end to 'the generally cloistral and reverential, not to say deeply insular, habits in writing about music' (Said, p.58).
Susan McClary establishes that the crucial critical debates are 'almost entirely absent from traditional musicology' (McClary, p.54. cf. also p.20). She objects against the highly formalistic character of musicology. According to McClary, music is a discursive practice in which (a) social reality is constituted. (This does not mean that music is only an epiphenomenon that can be explained by way of social determinism. Music does not simply reflect a social reality that exists outside of it; rather, social reality itself is constituted within music (cf. McClary, p.21).) 'Given its centrality in the manipulation of affect, social formation, and the constitution of identity, music is far too important to be passed over, even if the most important questions cannot be definitively settled by means of objective, positivistic methodologies' (McClary, p.26). Thinking and writing about music should be better integrated to other discourses about social reality. This would benefit both music and musicology.
Richard Leppert states that musicologists have proved themselves incapable of keeping abreast of contemporary cultural theories. It is necessary to break with the historical tradition of musicology because it continues to use a paradigm that not many people outside academic parameters experience as real. He considers most musicology to be isolated from the rest of society and from post-modernism in particular (cf. Leppert, p. 244).

[4] Such thinkers as Kramer, McClary and Leppert specifically denounce the hermetic musicological discourse and emphasize the necessity to try to join a broader cultural discourse. Meanwhile, other musicologists and music sociologists warn against yet another danger that this may conjure; namely, that music 'itself' will not be written about at all anymore. In Deconstructive Variations, Rose Subotnik observes that thinking on music is going through some rough times. 'As I see things, generally speaking, Western art music is beginning to go out of fashion as a topic of study ... Certainly in the world of pop music today, writing about music usually means writing about everything except music' (Subotnik, p.xx and p.xxiv). Music sociologists John Shepherd and Peter Wicke subscribe to these remarks. With regard to prevalent sociological studies on popular music, they write: 'It is not music that is being discussed. The object of study is often the linguistic discourses that are constructed around musical practices' (Shepherd and Wicke, p.1. cf. also p.103). Alf Björnberg discussed the conflict between musicologists and mass media theorists. While the former have focused on the music, the latter have regularly ignored the musical structure, concentrating instead on extra-musical aspects. According to Björnberg, this is largely due to 'the expert status of music-analytical discourse and the concomitant reluctance on the part of 'non-experts' to regard such analysis as relevant to a context-oriented understanding of music and its cultural significance' (cf. Edström, p.58).
Where (the old or traditional) musicologists hold on to a rather closed and inaccessible discourse that often features a 'close reading' of a score, music sociologists normally write about everything but music. The supporters of a 'new musicology' try to join a more general cultural debate; for example, by bringing in post-structuralism and deconstruction in order to free traditional musicology from its isolation, with the hope of simultaneously lifting classical music from its increasingly marginal position as well. No doubt, this motivation is noble and valid. I agree with it and I hope this site will be a positive contribution. However, I want to call forth another 'necessity', another reason, for dealing with deconstruction and music. In Music, Deconstruction, and Ethics, I argue how deconstructive strategies - always already at work within music - have an important ethical component as well.

[5] After this survey of reasons as to why several 'new musicology' authors want to open music to post-modern and deconstructive readings, I now propose to focus attention as to how they have done so. Out of necessity, I must restrict myself to two (perhaps non-representative) examples: Susan McClary's remarks on the sonata form, and Rose Subotnik's double reading of Chopin's A-Major Prelude.

[6] In Feminine Endings. Music, Gender, and Sexuality, Susan McClary wants to read the musical repertoire 'against the grain'. Although an explicit reference to Derrida's work appears only once - in an end note - occurs, her work may be regarded as deconstructive. In discussing works of music, composers and musicians, she aims to undermine binary oppositions and to bring 'the other', the subordinate, the marginal, the secondary, to the fore (cf. Hierarchical Oppositions) . For example, by a deconstruction of the sonata form. Usually two themes are exposed in the first part of the sonata, the exposition. The first or principal theme is set in the main key or tonic, while the second theme appears in a different key. Opposite the harmonically stable principal theme is the unstable second theme. It becomes immediately clear from this that the second theme is subordinate to the principal theme (according to classic harmony). It is a supplementary theme, hierarchically subordinate to the principal theme, subordinate to the tonic. Now, McClary shows that this hierarchical relation is being undermined in and through the sonata itself. She cites the following passage from the New Grove Dictionary: 'The 'sonata principle' requires that the most important ideas and the strongest cadential passages from the second group reappear in the recapitulation' (McClary, p.15). The recapitulation. The concluding third part of the sonata form. This part that should take care of a good outcome, i.e., where the triumph of the 'self' over the 'other' would have to take shape, is, in a sense, 'fouled' by the material from the subordinate second theme. Still, the hierarchical relation is maintained here. The self seems to defeat the other. Why? Because the second theme is played here in the principal key, which results in the disappearing of the initial unstable character. More important, therefore, is McClary's observation that the second theme and its key are necessary to the sonata or tonal plot. 'Without this foil or obstacle, there is no story' (McClary, p.15). The second theme presents a threat to the principal theme, both thematically and harmonically, as far as preserving its own identity is concerned. But, McClary writes, '... the self [the principal theme, MC] cannot truly be a self unless it acts: it must leave the cozy nest of its tonic, risk the confrontation' (McClary, p.69). The identity of the one (theme), the self, is confirmed and enhanced in the difference with the other, the other. This other, the supplementary or secondary, becomes a necessary condition for the existence of the primary, the self. The initial hierarchy seems reversed. Incidentally, this does not mean that the secondary theme now becomes the central theme. Rather, it can be explained as a subversion of the distinctions between the essential and the inessential, the central and the marginal.
In brief, this is what the deconstruction of the traditional hierarchy within a sonata form as revealed by McClary comes down to.

[7] Deconstruction at work within music. One deconstructive strategy. Within music. A deconstruction of music by music. A deconstruction of (traditional) music theory by music. McClary's work is an important contribution towards the rethinking of (imposed) hierarchical relations in music. Nevertheless, I also object to her method of working. McClary thinks not only from the music, the text, 'itself'. In striving to connect music and musicology to other discourses, she reads the music from a feminist point of view. 'Most of the essays in this collection seek to identify and analyze the ways in which music is shaped by constructions of gender and sexuality' (McClary, p.9). McClary admits that the convention of simply designating themes as masculine or feminine has been repudiated in musicology for a long time. However, this does not mean that musical pieces are free of gender marking. 'The gender connotations of the opening 'Mannheim rockets' or 'hammerstrokes' and the sighing second themes in Stamitz symphonies are so obvious as to border on the cartoonish, even if neither he nor his contemporaries actually called the respective themes 'masculine' and 'feminine'' (McClary, p.14). Thus, she holds on to an old tradition that marks the principal theme of the sonata, masculine, and the secondary theme, feminine: the sonata is the musical manifestation of a cultural paradigm that features binary oppositions such as strong-weak, active-passive, masculine-feminine. (Incidentally, a similar view can also be found in Subotnik's work. cf. Subotnik, p.34-5). Moreover, McClary continues to say that before we can address questions concerning gender and sexuality, 'it is necessary to construct an entire theory of musical signification' (McClary, p.20). And this is indeed exactly what McClary does. She employs a pre-constructed, external model in order to assess and analyze music; in this case, a kind of feministic determinism. Deconstruction is put into action as a newly attained model for interpretation. It is no longer a strategy that works on the inside of the text - that is to say, with the vocabulary of the text 'itself'. It seems insufficient to show how hierarchically ordered binary oppositions in music are undermined by music. McClary uses deconstruction. She uses it for the project of 'questioning the claims to universality by the 'master narratives' of Western culture, revealing the agendas behind traditional 'value-free' procedures' (McClary, p.123). This appears to be more of an agenda of demystification than of deconstruction per se. In other words, McClary's lexis suggests that deconstruction is a form of analysis that uncovers an ideological sub-structure beneath an obfuscating surface: essentialism. Deconstruction (in its 'proper' mode) would immediately set about interrogating the opposition between surface and sub-structure (cf. Sweeney-Turner It appears McClary attempts to expose some deeper truth about music. However, deconstruction has no better theory of truth. '[Deconstruction] is a practice of reading and writing attuned to the aporias that arise in attempts to tell us the truth. It does not develop a new philosophical framework or solution but moves back and forth, with a nimbleness it hopes will prove strategic, between non-synthesizable moments of a [text]' (Culler, p.155). In contrast to Derrida, who works from the vocabulary of the text 'itself', McClary departs from a self-discovered system of meaning that she lays over the music as a meta-concept. Derrida's work, on the contrary, is an attack on the abstracting of containable meanings from concrete texts.

[8] Sweeney-Turner notes that in musical academia 'the term deconstruction is often misused as a more impressive (and supposedly trendy) way of saying analysis' (Sweeney-Turner). This critical comment seems to apply to Rose Subotnik when she writes, 'Deconstruction was now available for me as a model for making multiple readings of a single text' (Subotnik, p.xxxv). She describes her most widely elaborated essay in Deconstructive Variations, 'How Could Chopin’s A-Major Prelude, op.28, no.7 Be Deconstructed?' as a 'testing out deconstructionist method' on this composition (cf. Subotnik, p.82). Derrida assumes a text that deconstructs itself and takes care to not reduce deconstruction to a reading method: 'I am wary of the idea of methods of reading. The laws of reading are determined by the particular text that is being read ... It means that we must remain faithful ... to the injunctions of the text. These injunctions will differ from one text to the next so that one cannot prescribe one general method of reading. In this sense, deconstruction is not a method' (Kearney, p.124). Subotnik, however, does not seem to recognize these basic principles, in spite of the fact that she is one of the few musicologists to begin with an elaborate introduction to deconstruction (cf. Subotnik, p.39-84).
Like McClary, Subotnik stays close to the musical text on many instances, and starts from the specific vocabulary of the prelude in A-major. She begins her reading with a typical deconstructive focus on a secondary, supplemental, marginal moment in the prelude, the F#7-chord in bar 12. Subotnik calls this chord secondary because it is the only chord in the entire prelude that does not belong to the tonality of A major. A matter of tonal instability. Consequently, Subotnik classifies those musical elements as primary that by traditional Western tonal standards tend toward a condition of stability and unity, toward an affirmation of the original key. However, Subotnik says, '... one feels comfortable speaking of structural unity in Western music only in situations that present something to be unified' (Subotnik, p.91). In order to experience something as a unity, elements are needed that jeopardize the unity. The dichotomy of stability-instability is needed in order to arrive at (the experience of) a unity. What seems additional and marginal - the F#7 chord - proves to be necessary and elementary. Moreover, the F#7 chord proves to be secondary only in a functional harmonic respect. In 'physical terms', it is not secondary at all. It is the loudest moment in the prelude. Several symmetrical patterns are disrupted here. The top line reaches its highest point, and nowhere else in the prelude are there so many notes to be played simultaneously. Finally, because of the wide spread, this chord becomes the dominating element, especially to small-handed players. In short, the harmonically most unstable moment coincides with the (physical) climax of the piece.
The two readings by Subotnik on this prelude focus on the question of whether this F#7-chord, which may be called secondary, enhances or undermines the stability of the entire prelude. Her first reading concludes that the unstable, alienating elements of this prelude are subordinate to a more stable, higher structural order. Better yet, it says that every instability ultimately enhances this order. (Moving away from the tonic, and then returning to it only enhances the tonic.) The climax on the F#7-chord exudes confidence in the existence of a framework that is able to manage its instability. Subotnik regards this first reading as a metaphor for subjectivity or individuality that is adopted into a higher order, a rational order of necessity. 'Projecting itself as unified to the point where every structural choice seems necessary, the prelude evokes an image of each life as a structure that is not only meaningful, but necessary. This it does mainly by successfully subsuming the contingent aspects of individuality under a universal principle of reason' (Subotnik, p.142).
In her second reading, Subotnik assumes that the secondary, marginal, ornamental or supplementary characteristics are essential to the work in themselves. With that, the hierarchy between the stable and the unstable can be reversed. 'The primary function of the climactic chord is not to reaffirm the governing power of tonality, but to project a condition of strength that is unsettling and disruptive in as many ways as possible (even tonally)' (Subotnik, p.113). Gradually, she points to more musical instabilities that confirm her view that a shift can take place from 'closing toward opening gestures', a weakening of the basis for perceiving unity in the prelude. Subotnik now emphasizes the contingent character of the prelude. The differences, conflicts, and absences presented by the prelude call our attention to a simultaneous possibility of 'otherness'. The prelude cannot exclude the idea that a change in its structure can lead to another unity (cf. Subotnik, p.132). In her first reading, the prelude could be thought of as a metaphor for individual human life based on rationality. In her second reading, she regards the prelude as nothing more than a contingent structure, open to many pressures and possibilities in the course of its construction. The prelude turns into a metaphor for a life that is characterized by coincidence. 'The prelude, in this reading, recognizes the possibility that the course of every human life may be nothing more than an aggregation of contingent circumstances, conditions and events' (Subotnik, p.142).

[9] It is exactly in the principle of the double reading that Subotnik locates the deconstructive moment. To apply a second interpretation to the central maxim as a basis for analyzing the heterogeneity is to propose a deconstruction: the alternative reading threatens to unravel all that appeared true in the previous reading (cf. Subotnik, p.22).
Subotnik convincingly demonstrates the means by which the prelude deconstructs itself, i.e., by employing the 'undecidable' F#7 chord. Moreover, the undecidability of this chord disrupts certain musicological assumptions. However, it is precisely her comments on 'a powerful metaphor for the individual human life' that make her deconstructive reading become a model for interpretation, a method of reading from a preconceived framework. By her own admission, she applies 'deconstruction as a method of musicological analysis' (Subotnik, p.xxxv). I subscribe to Jonathan Culler's criticism that sees deconstruction as a model of analysis. He criticizes this assimilation of deconstruction to interpretation and denounces the deep presupposition of American criticism that the goal of analysis is to produce enriching elucidations of individual works (cf. Culler, p.221). From the outset of her essay, Subotnik makes clear that she wants to read the prelude from the oppositions order versus freedom, determinism versus contingency, and pre-existing musical strategies as control mechanisms versus the concept of subjective freedom. By doing so, she abandons the specific character and idiom of Chopin's prelude in order to strike up a more general discourse in which the prelude functions as a mere example. Her deconstructive reading is not only a model of interpretation, but even before that, a model of representation similar to the way Adorno regarded music as a blueprint of social processes. Subotnik's deconstruction can be seen as a continuation of Adorno's critical project in which he argues against an aesthetic ideology that promotes a confusion between art and life, or that elevates art to a transcendental realm. (One possible alternative for this model of representation is presented on the page entitled Interactionist Sociology.)

[10] Two examples of 'new musicology'. Two examples of deconstruction in music, in musicology. Two deconstructions of musicologist essentialism. But also, two examples of a cultural essentialism or determinism. In both readings, deconstruction appears to function as a theoretical model, a method by which a musical piece can be reinterpreted. Both are very specific readings that seem to exclude other encounters. Deconstruction as a tool for revealing the existence of 'deep structures' beneath the signifying surfaces of musical texts. Derrida would certainly object. I object; in short, because it is not the purpose of this site to criticize.
But what about my project? What about my relation to this new musicology? What about Deconstruction In Music? I hope this site will provide an answer. Using caution. Hesitating. Groping. Partly relying on the work of McClary, Subotnik, et al., partly trying to take other directions, trying to avoid employing deconstruction as a scientific model or method of analysis.
Other directions. This is my proposal. I am not primarily interested in a deconstruction of texts on music (although this site contains some pages dealing with this). I do not want to concentrate on the sphere of verbal utterances on music. My attention is first directed to the question of how music, while reading itself, realizes this in ways that could be called deconstructive. No longer do we have a mere discursive deconstruction of music, but a deconstruction of music by music, by musicians. A deconstruction in music. According to Veselinovic-Hofman, deconstruction can be recognized as a strategy inherent to the very nature of music - a hopeful and stimulating thought. 'If the development of music is considered a process in which music continuously 'reads' itself, it follows that it is necessary to clarify the mechanism of this type of reading. By identifying the deconstructive procedure as a phenomenon inherent to music, it can be demonstrated that this mechanism is, in its essence, quite conceivable as deconstructive' (Veselinovic-Hofman in Suvakovic, p.12). (This is an important statement in terms of this project although I object to the use of such terms as 'procedure', 'phenomenon' and 'essence'.)
My intention is to reveal how (certain) musicians and composers (re-)read, (re-)write, perform, and interpret (previous) music in ways that can be considered deconstructive (without their necessarily using this terminology when referring to their work). It is my intent to shift from a (musicological) writing on deconstruction and music to a deconstruction within a musical practice. Not (only) to speak of music, but to let music speak (for) itself. Deconstruction as a musical practice, each time appearing in a different way. A transformation from writing on music to a strategy of deconstruction with and within music. But problems occur; for example problems concerning limits. What is the inside of music? What is 'within' music and what stays outside? Furthermore, I am aware of the fact that I attempt to bring these deconstructions in music to the open in an extra-musical, i.e. discursive, way. But then, just how extra-musical is discursivity? These thoughts will (have to) follow us. Like specters. And we should not avoid them. We cannot avoid them, although we might not be able to resolve them either.