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Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. (Book Reviews: Diverse Topics).

Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. By Lawrence Kramer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. [ix, 335 p. ISBN 0-520-22824-3. $55. (hbk.); ISBN 0-520-23272-0. $22.50 (pbk.).] Compact disc, music examples, index.

In Musical Meaning, Lawrence Kramer continues the trajectory of his contention (in Music as Cultural Practice [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990] and Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995]) that music's meaning exceeds the self-limiting concept of music's aesthetic autonomy. Kramer proposes to extend his critique of this historically constructed concept by examining the interplay of social contingency and the projection of autonomy, which he claims comprises the "higher-order" context and condition of intelligibility for most modern Western music. This higher-order context defines the "a priori ambiguity" (p. 2) that historically grounds music's meaning. By refraining questions of music's meaning within this higher-order context, Kramer ascribes semantic contents to music without, he contends, dismissing the historical, ideological, and functional importance of its autonomy. By identifying the contingencies of socially constructed meanings as the primary term, he reverses the inclination to value music s self-sufficiency in order to stress music's engagement with the world.

The critical history Kramer sketches in Musical Meaning tracks the way interplay of contingency and autonomy relate to the construction of musical, and social, subjectivities. Using music as a critical tool, he investigates the "intimate dynamics of culture and society, and the dynamics of intimacy in culture and society" (p. 6) across two centuries. Topics range from the "birth of sex at the piano" in Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata to John Coltrane's musical "debricolage" in his adaptation of George Gershwin's "Summertime" to Kramer's deconstruction of the cult of originality in his own Revenants (a compact disc is included). The book also includes essays on the virtuosity of Liszt's public performance, the "bisexuality" of Schumann's role as composer in his Carnaval, the Marx Brothers' comedic A Night at the Opera, and the sociomusical drama of infusions of African American jazz and blues. Through these essays, Kramer illustrates a critical history of musical meanings, which contextualizes the historical an d ideological features of music's semantic dimension.

The interpretive framework Kramer adopts identifies music's excesses with postmodernist constructions of subjectivity. By transvaluing music's projected autonomy, he identifies these excesses with music a immediacy, and with the irrationality of every experience of the unconditional's contingency. For Kramer, the sense of self "is poised between a unique and absolute self-presence and a contingent social constructedness" (p. 3). Correspondingly, music's a priori ambiguity articulates one of the core conditions of subjectivity. Kramer's postmodernist formulation of a musical subjectivity whose specific content elicits its excess draws on Jacques Derrida's notion of differance, "the continuous distinction and deferral of the same from itself" (p. 263). For Kramer, because music "forms the remainder of every experience it engages, music may act as a cultural trope for the self, the subject as self-moved agency that remains when all of its attributes and experiences have been subtracted" (p. 4). This musical rema inder accordingly signifies the supplement that exceeds the semantic content that produces it. As the sign of a pure excess, the musical remainder consequently signifies the site of pleasure and desire beyond the confines of an ideal autonomy valued for its metaphysical transcendence.

Kramer's concept of music as the "art of collapsing distances" (p. 3) singles Out the musical remainder as the leitmotiv of his musical hermeneutics. Where instrumental music's emancipation from language supposedly alienated it from meaning, his hermeneutics contextualizes music in order to propose potential or virtual meanings through ascriptive interpretations of musical processes and devices. By reversing the supposition that music's meaning inheres in formal processes, Kramer's hermeneutics exploits the idea that "meaning resides in the context alone, [so that] the music can at best be a symptom or token of some contextual element (pp. 13-14). Consequently, this hermeneutics counters the equation of music's autonomy with the absence of a specific semantic content by supplying a "culturally sensitive interpretation" (p. 20) consistent with the sense the work could have made in its own cultural context.

This quest for a musical remainder animates Kramer's close readings of the cultural work music performs. For him, music contravenes the demiurgical claim Kramer believes Hans-Georg Gadamer voiced when he said that "Language is not just one of man's possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that man has a world at all" (p. 145). Kramer exploits the cultural trope of music as Other to reverse the historical inclination both of privileging language and of valuing aesthetic autonomy over socially contingent meanings. This cultural trope assigns the musical remainder its place within Kramer's hermeneutics. Since language forever fails to grasp the world it creates, it "cannot do without supplements" (p. 146). Music is aptly suited to this role. As a nonsemantic medium, it expresses drives, energies, desires, and pleasures that elude rationalization. Consequently, music recasts liminal zones of solidarity and transgression, identity and difference, by "subsuming the ethical category of purity under the a esthetic one of pleasure" (p. 188). Through music, the "law-based antithesis of purity and danger becomes the pleasure-based ambivalence of autonomy and contingency" (p. 188). Coextensive with this ethics of pleasure, the a priori ambiguity of autonomy and contingency abandons the arrogance of identity for the postmodern simulacrum of subjectivity.

The intellectual virtuosity Musical Meaning displays in engaging recent cultural theory with the debate over meaning in music expands the frontiers of the new musicology. Kramer's text weaves together his extensive command of a broad musical literature, literary references, and critical theory. The ascribed meanings, which the author argues give musical subjectivities their specific contents, infuse the music about which he writes with a semantic fullness. This fullness enables him to draw insights into the musical remainder that exceeds and supplements music's semantic content. The ascription of meaning drives Kramer's musical hermeneutics. Some readers will question his claim that instrumental music is the exception to music's primary form, which is a mixed media phenomenon. Yet, Kramer's postmodernist adoption of musical hermeneutics depends on this claim to legitimate his leitmotiv-like readings of the musical remainder's social meaning. His musical hermeneutics does not address the potential contribution s to understanding music made by Gadamer's philosophical, and Paul Ricoeur's phenomenological, hermeneutics. Kramer's text evinces the politics of contemporary music criticism in its (re)construction of music's potential or virtual semantic fullness through contextualizing interpretations. Perhaps Coltrane's "debricolage," which Kramer defines as adapting "old materials to new uses for reasons of desire, not of need" (p. 245) by dissembling norms and forms of a dominant culture, constitutes the principle trope and motivation for Kramer's interpretive strategy. The "deep postmodernity" he espouses is an archaic and timeless condition, where we are a part of a universal diaspora from nowhere "living in a whirligig of repetitions" (p.286). Hence for Kramer,

Everything postmodernity has emptied of substance is still there, only with a difference, a differance, the trace of the impossible but improbably successful effort to reanimate the sense of substance without its essence, to defer the endless irony of postmodern posteonsciousness in an interval of pleasure, of reflection, of absorption. (pp. 286-87)

Musical Meaning is a provocative and controversial addition to critical musicology. Its themes and arguments will interest a wide readership among professionals and advanced students in musicology, cultural studies, and literary criticism. Whether it helps anchor the future of musicology, as Richard Leppert in his note on the back cover suggests, is for history to decide. In an era of deep postmodernity, the irony of endless irony endlessly deferred is its own fitting rejoinder.
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Author:Savage, Roger W.H.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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