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Studio D • Friday afternoon, 2:00–5:00

What Does Music Theory Want? The Ethics of Musical Hermeneutics

Naomi Waltham-Smith (University of Pennsylvania), Chair
Seth Brodsky (University of Chicago), Respondent

Joanna Demers (University of Southern California)

Music and Disavowal

Dylan Principi (Princeton University)

A Hermeneutics of Recovery: Recovering Hermeneutics

David Bard-Schwarz (University of North Texas)

The Real Thing: New Music, Psychoanalysis, and Beat Furrer's “Voicelessness: The Snow has no Voice (1986)”

Clara Latham (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Rethinking the ‘Phonographic Unconscious’: Sonic Materiality and Psychoanalytic Technique

James R. Currie (State University of New York at Buffalo)

From Adaptation to Analysis: Music Theory, Psychoanalysis, and the Neo-Liberal Academy

Daniel Villegas Vélez (Bogotá, Colombia)

Don't Cage the Gift-Giver: Freedom, Subjectivity, and the Mastery Drive in Psychoanalysis and Musical Hermeneutics

Abstracts

The relation between musical hermeneutics and music theory is longstanding but not harmonious, shadowed by rivalries, disavowals, and breaks. There is no interpretation without desire, and no desire without subjects. Perhaps theory’s historical and recurring breaks with interpretation are also breaks with—or repressions of—the subject. This panel explores these relationships with the help of psychoanalysis.

Most fundamentally, we want to ask: what does music theory want? Psychoanalysis was from the start a hermeneutic practice and also a “science of desire,” an attempt to understand the foundations, and the limits, of any hermeneutic endeavor. This three-hour special session, sponsored by the Psychoanalysis Interest Group, addresses this topic via six twenty minute presentations, each followed by 5 minutes of Q & A, with a formal response by Professor Seth Brodsky (University of Chicago). The papers approach our topic from a range of different angles, so as to bridge a gap we often see between theoretical and analytical questions. The first three papers show how psychoanalysis illuminates the nature of the musical object by addressing issues of performance, work-ontology and music-text relationships. Turning from the musical object towards the listener and the discipline, the second half of the panel considers the practice of listening within clinical psychoanalysis in tandem with the listening we do in music theory. As a whole, the panel suggests that psychoanalysis can work within, through and alongside music theory to reimagine the place of the listener-subject and the futures of our discipline.

Music and Disavowal

Joanna Demers (University of Southern California)

In a 1983 Artforum essay on New York art-rock, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth writes, “People pay to see others believe in themselves.” Greil Marcus' punk history Lipstick Traces (1989) cites this statement to valorize punk musicians who dare what the rest of us only imagine. But a later sentence in Gordon's essay asks, “How long can someone continue to exert intensity before it becomes mannered and dishonest?” In fact, Gordon's essay plainly argues that punks perform belief in themselves as entertainment, and yet act as if their performance is not theater. And the audience performs its belief in that spectacle, acting as if the show provided true catharsis. The “as ifs” are crucial, for they reveal fault-lines separating belief from what Žižek (1989) terms “fetishistic disavowal.” For Gordon, the tragedy of punk rock is that the disjunction between sincere belief and disavowed belief becomes too demanding—too real—to maintain.

My paper argues that such instances of fetishistic disavowal in music are often misdiagnosed. Traditional music aesthetics (Cook 1990; Hamilton 2007; Scruton 1997) and legal studies (Fuller 1997) rationalize such disavowals as utilitarian metaphors offered for the sake of argument, but never actually believed. But a psychoanalytic approach illuminates the ambivalence that is central to the musical experience. Moments of disavowal in music can serve a role analogous to that of the chorus of an ancient Greek tragedy, which, Lacan (1992) argues, believes the requisite fantasies for us.

A Hermeneutics of Recovery: Recovering Hermeneutics

Dylan Principi (Princeton University)

This paper offers a narrative account of Darius Milhaud’s cantata Le Château du feu and draws from the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilles Deleuze, and Lawrence Kramer in order to critique the epistemological relation of description to music’s ontologies. The Lacanian notion that knowledge is mediated by language hearkens to Nietzsche, and fortifies Kramer’s assertion that “there is no such thing as music”—or, no such transcendental category. Instead, music emerges as a perceptual category as subjects circumnavigate their experiences with all kinds of description. Deleuze’s Bergsonism deconstructs the temporal distinction between past and present, asserting that consciousness emerges through the hermeneutic process of actualization, in which the subject recovers a recollection from the ontological past and re-perceives it in the psychological present. Through actualization, the descriptive associations that subjects ascribe to music determine the epistemological form of its knowable ontologies: music is the aggregate of its descriptions. In other words, where there is music, there is hermeneutics.

By invoking memories of Holocaust violence, the ontologies of Milhaud’s cantata reach beyond score and performance to encompass the re-perception of recalled atrocities. The cantata’s repeated, ascending glissando motive springs to life as the ferrous rasp of a death-camp crematorium door, while canons separated by semitone revive the weeping of bereaved mothers. Le Château du feu is a ritual of re-perception through which victims’ voices gain embodiment to speak once again, yielding meanings that are ontologically indissociable from “the music itself.”

The Real Thing: New Music, Psychoanalysis, and Beat Furrer's “Voicelessness: The Snow has no Voice (1986)”

David Bard-Schwarz (University of North Texas)

In this talk I will discuss Furrer’s piece for solo piano from three perspectives: 1) a musical representation of a poem by Sylvia Plath, 2) what the piece does with a single half step (B-natural/C-natural), and 3) how its approach to the Lacanian Real has cultural significance for early 21st-century subjectivity.

The poem: Furrer’s piece is a song without words for piano based on the “Munich Mannequins” by Sylvia Plath.

The Music: This piano work is written in such a way that after one system is played, the bass staff becomes the treble staff of the next system; that system then has a new bass staff. The new bass staff of the second system then becomes the treble staff of the next, etc.

The analyses will focus on what happens with pitch-classes B-natural and C-natural in relation to the images of voice and voicelessness that pervade Plath’s poem. I will conclude the musical-analytical portion of the talk by showing how Furrer obliterates the subordinate relationship inherent in the half step for centuries of common practice music making. In Furrer, the two pitch-classes are coordinated with one another, and subordination is (as it were) cracked open to reveal the Lacanian Real.

Rethinking the ‘Phonographic Unconscious’: Sonic Materiality and Psychoanalytic Technique

Clara Latham (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

A prevalent axiom of sound studies is the notion that the technological reproduction of sound has a claim to materiality that the ears do not. The propensity of sound studies scholars to focus on sound technologies is tied to an archival orientation towards the 20th century, as well as a turn toward materiality that is part of a larger backlash against the linguistic turn, the study of representation, and traditional conceptions of hermeneutics grounded in textuality. The adage that technological reproductions of sound render it more “thing like” ignores historicized concepts of sound as entangled with aesthetics and physiology, furnishing a technological authority over the real, and granting primacy to the technological reproduction of sound in the modern age.

This paper argues that the psychoanalytic technique itself is a technology of sound, asking in what ways does the practice of psychoanalysis, the speaking and listening that constitutes the method, depend on sound as part of the empirical world. I consider Freud’s famous comparison of the psychoanalytic method to a telephone, with the unconscious minds of analyst and analysand operating as transducers of the speech that constitutes the practice. I suggest that if we approach psychoanalysis as an instrument that can be understood both as a verification of subjective interior—via the speech that constitutes the method—and one of subjective imagination—via the fantasies that are spoken—we can use it as a means of dissolving the distinction between the material ear and its counterpart of music, sound, or speech.

From Adaptation to Analysis: Music Theory, Psychoanalysis, and the Neo-Liberal Academy

James R. Currie (State University of New York at Buffalo)

Neoliberal forces impinge upon academic research, forcing it towards instrumental and ideological adaptation to the existing economic and political reality. In this context Lacanian psychoanalysis is pertinent, for its analytic acts aim not to enable the patient to adapt to pre-existent reality, but rather to acknowledge that the repressed forces of the drive destabilize attempts at naturalizing such adaptations. Since ideological interpellation is also reliant on such naturalizing maneuvers, psychoanalysis is therefore a useful ally for helping music theory resist the forces that increasingly pressure it into accepting the ideological coordinates of the present. This paper thus proposes that music theorists relate to music in a fashion analogous to how psychoanalysts relate to patients: by desiring to illuminate how something always exceeds and destabilizes full adaptation to presiding discursive contexts. This would necessitate analytic and hermeneutic practice, for as in the talking-cure, where the specificity of the patient’s speech catches her out in relationship to the impossibility of her identifications, here the specificity of each music’s mode of non-alignment can most effectively be stumbled upon. Since in the scene of music theory such discursive contexts are created by music theorists themselves, analytic and hermeneutic practices would therefore also be as much self-reflexive interrogation of the music theorist as it would be musically illuminating. And through such self-reflection, the specificity of the theorist’s musical relations would once more find a route back to her discursive relations to the neo-liberal academy.

Don't Cage the Gift-Giver: Freedom, Subjectivity, and the Mastery Drive in Psychoanalysis and Musical Hermeneutics

Daniel Villegas Vélez (Bogotá, Colombia)

This paper considers a recent “ethical turn” in music theory and musicology through the following analogy: musical hermeneutics occupies the same place in music theory as psychoanalysis does in the human sciences. Both deal with desire and interpretation. Both find resistance from positivism and metaphysics. These resistances are matched by an autoimmune resistance, a denial to analyze themselves as disciplines which results from their dependence on a principle of sovereignty, a “mastery drive” (Bemächtigungstrieb) (Derrida 2002). Both, finally, assume an ethical position: for musical hermeneutics, music is a promise of freedom that parallels the psychoanalytic promise of happiness (Lacan 2008). The main wager of the ethical turn in musicology is to make musical works “into living things towards which we must develop an ethical position” (Abbate 2004). For Abbate, we cannot repay the gift of freedom that music offers by “putting the gift-giver in a cage,” that is, assigning a determinate meaning to the plurality offered by music. Lawrence Kramer (2016) holds that freedom is the condition for interpretation, while William Cheng (2016) associates musical autonomy and academic freedom as a condition that demands reparative care in response. Throughout these diverse cases, freedom depends on a metaphysics of sovereignty as autonomy and omnipotence of the (autoimmune) subject: to interpret, withhold interpretation, or replace interpretation with care. But, if the analogy still holds, as long as musical hermeneutics does not think its own mastery drive, its interpretations will remain the source of resistance from outside and from within.