Robert HATTEN: "The Opening Theme of Beethoven's 'Ghost' Trio" (8/10)


What is interesting about this theme is that both its stability and instability can be interpreted positively in terms of affective meaning. This would appear impossible if the binarism I espoused were the kind that Lawrence Kramer condemns in his recent book, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (1995: 34ff.). In the so-called "logic of alterity," which his postmodernist "new" musicology would deconstruct, the oppositions are between self and other, and that which is personally valued versus that which is excluded or defined by negation. Such oppositions are ideologically loaded, as we all know. I trust that the kinds of oppositions I have discussed here can be viewed in a different light, and it is from this standpoint that I would preserve the structuralist component, alongside the hermeneutic, in my model of music semiotics. While it is true that any opposition can be freighted with ideological baggage, we should nevertheless recognize that the mechanism of asymmetrical opposition is simply one of the fundamental ways in which cognition works. It is not an evil that must be rooted out, but rather a useful tool for helping us make those kinds of discriminations that move from perceptual categories to cognitive concepts.
In fairness to Lawrence Kramer, I share his regard for pluralism, if not complete eclecticism, in my theoretical approach. Our goals are quite different, however, despite what may appear on the surface to be a similar quest: to demonstrate how so-called extra-musical meaning is truly part of our musical understanding. As Kramer explains it, What postmodern knowledge offers classical music is the chance to acknowledge and explore, to de- and reconstruct, its relationship to modern subjectivity, and in so doing to form a different relationship to the postmodern subjectivities that may now be in the making (34). My goal, on the other hand, is to reconstruct the stylistic competency-- cultural practice in the historical sense-- that is presupposed by the musical work in its historical context. While recognizing that I can only do so from a present subjectivity, I nevertheless find that this kind of history is no more or less problematic than the kinds of history we have pursued in other arenas. We can never know with certainty, but we can come closer to stylistic understanding as a goal by pursuing a more rigorous course than Kramer would deem possible. His model of musical meaning is that of a communicative "economy" in which our own ideas have equal weight with the composer's as we fill out the missing elements in music's only "partly determinate subjectivity" (23). Under that regime, associations can float rather freely in unconstrained cultural contexts. In my approach, on the other hand, there is continual refinement of a model of style that serves to constrain my subjective interpretive fancies, or subject them to more compelling modes of argument and standards of evidence. Presumably, I am helping to build a basis for determining whether or not my own earlier interpretations are valid, while not limiting the potential for the kinds of personal and cultural free play that Kramer prizes as the goal of a more equal "dialogue" with music's potential meanings. Thus, in one sense the condition of the knowledge I am elaborating is like that of the trial lawyer who must make a case by creating a plausible generalization or narrative that accounts for all the available evidence.

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AS/SA Nº4, Article 2 : Page 8 / 10

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