The Quest for Voice: Resituating Musical Autonomy

  • Goehr L
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Music finds its freedom within the life of society when it expresses itself independently at a critical distance. At the heart of the Rousseauian view, singing or vocal expression is the shared source of human community and of music's significance. It says that the inexpressible moral or passional basis of expression that inspires acts of singing is commensurate with the inspiration behind public speaking within which lies the potential for human freedom. In this century's writings of Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and Derrida, a project has emered to keep the aesthetic and political connected via passion-inspired acts of voiced and embodied expression. This project has found support in recent French and French-inspired feminist and musicological thinking about the repressed political voice, thinking that finds in embodied and often in artistic expression the source and site for the liberation of that otherwise silent voice. What older and more contemporary arguments apparently share is a powerful misgiving that 'modern' institutions have severed, or at least overly concealed, their connection to the full range or potential of human expression. Goehr favors viewing the connection between work and expression, or act and expession as doubled, or paradoxical, to avoid a potentially regressive commitment to origins. She wants to focus on the crucial part of the argument for musical autonomy that shifts our emphasis away from music's formed content (should music be made up of instrumentalized sound patterns alone?) to its literal and metaphorical use of the human voice. Shifting the priority from content to use enables us to think about autonomy as an attribute first of persons and their acts and secondarily, of their products. Rule: music is expressive because and when human beings are expressive, or the content or product of music - the work - is properly autonomous when it draws on the autonomy of the voice that performs it, and for this to happen the relation between product and voice (work and performance) must be preserved. Where and when the relation (or doubleness of content and expression) is severed, the claimed autonomy of the product is a false one. For the formalists, music achieves its beautiful form in the radical separation of its language of tones from any outside element; for the transcendentalists, the language of tones achieves its sublime expression in its profound metaphysical connection to everything else. Genearlly, when musicians feared that something corrupt was happening in musical practice, and criticized their colleagues for encourageing that corruption, they pretended that they were acting on theoretical reasons alone. Could Hanslick not see that Wagner was trying to accomodate the formalist's desire to capture what is specifically musical about the empirical language or art of tones within a larger cultural project to understand the purely musical in its 'inspired', 'expanded', or 'extra' connection to autonomous human community? We should. Wagner's predecessor was Rousseau. Rousseau argued that a language is serviel or its speakers unfree when their mode of communication is severed from its origin. Vocal utterances may have existed in the pre-political state, but the necessity for them sprang from social attachment, from moral need, from sympathetic passions of pity and care. We might well call this origin the 'moral' or passional' origin of language. This led Rousseau to claim that the first language would have been 'figurative' or allegorical' rather than literal, corresponding to our passions rather than our ideas. As the 'signs' of language achieved literal meanings by being attached to 'ideas', the original figurative meanings were increasingly relegated to the domain of the metaphorical. A strict relegation would eventually prove ruinous to the language. Rousseau wanted to show that languages differentiate 'one nation from another' and that this differentiation has moral import. The best language (Athens 500BCE) was inherently musical. Rousseau would later mark the decline of languages by their need to be set to music; the need itself suggested that they had lost their inherent melody. Rationalization in the academic age of science marked a separation of 'heart and mind'. Rousseau argued that in the process of separating instrumental music from song, melody from word, both sides, metaphorically speaking, had lost their melody. Rameau's error, according to Rousseau, was to substitute harmony for melody. Rousseau held writing largely repsonsible for languages' decline. To preserve the vigour of language people should try to read as they speak rather than speak as they read. It is the passions that music expresses (not its sounds) that arouse the passions of the listeners (imitation). Communication through sight is always distanced or detached in so far as the image produced belongs to the object or spatial world. Communication through the ear is immediate and connected; it turns our attention inward. The voice, Rousseau concluded, is an organ of the soul. Wagner showed that his aim was not so much to give music back its speech by reuniting the now separated arts but, more fundamentally, to give music back its expressive voice - whatever music's content. Wagner saw music's emancipation as a process of abstraction in which a literal concept of music was gradually abstracted out of an ancient metaphor of songlike expression. When Wagner announced that his intention was to restore to the concept of music its metaphysical fullness, what he therefore meant was that he intended to reconnect its literal meaning to its formerly metaphorical, and now extramusical, meaning. According to Wagner, Beethoven 9 achieved its full drama, not just because it was composed by a complete musician, but also because it was composed for complete musicians. Content would depend for its fullness of meaning on its connection to the expressive voice. Because music's origin in expression is inexpressible, it must be expressed through content so content matters. Wagner equated Schopenhauer with the Betthoven of the Fifth and regarded them as having jointly symbolized only the first stop in music's emancipation. The composer must give to the inner image its most appropriate outer form. Restoring the outer form fully, in a way that neither Schopenhauer had urged nor Beethoven had done, would be Wagner's contribution to reconnection music's 'lyrical voicing' of the inexpressible to its original dramatic deed. Opera as dramatic deed synthesized Beethoven and Shakespeare: it fulfilled both the literal and metaphorical demand that music be fully dramatic as well as purely (musically) expressive. There are two different claims at hand: first, that instrumental music should approximate to the condition of song; secondly, that instrumental playing should approximate to the condition of singing. Theorists generally understood the condition of singing to be a condition to which instrumental players and singers equally had to aspire. Here, the condition of singing referred straingforwardly to qualities associated with being musical. For Hahn, as for Wagner, as indeed for Rousseau, the singing out of words and the breathing out of spirit constituted an act of human expression that could not be reduced to 'deadening accounts' of the physiology of hearing or of the formal properties of sound. Whether theorists emphasized breathing (or bodily gesture more generally) as the carrier of expression, they shared a resistance to accounting for the value of singing in terms either of the mechanics of the voice or of the sound produced. If it could be shown that an instrumentalist could sing as a singer could sing, then instrumental music could sing, metaphorically speaking, as vocal music could sing. An even stronger claim soon beckoned, that instrumental music might meet the expressive conditions of singing better than song itself, because, unike song, it was unhampered by the cognitive interference of words. Performers seem to feel about their instruments as they do about their bodies and their voices, that they haave both an inner and an outer aspect. Externally, they seen their instruments as objects belonging to the world upon which they, as intentional beings, act; internally, they hear their instruments from the inside as imposing musical sound upon their world. When performers speak of pulling the nergy or soul out of their instrument, what I think they really mean is that they are putting their energy into it. People who voice their freedom often sing in and through song. That singing is both a musical and a political act. This starts with the performance and production of music understood within the scope of particular communities. It shifts our thinking away from the nature of the work to the freedom of expression exhibited in the act of performing that work. The advantage of linking music back to expressive acts is that it allows us to claim that, in the broadest sense of 'political', musical practice is already political whterh or not one finds in any given arrangment of notes an explicit ideological message. Music is political laready in virtue of the fact that music is a practice of human expression or performance working itself out in the world, in particular communities, through the medium of melody. To maintain a gap between judgement and argument has two advantages. First, practices can remain open, critical, and historical. Secondly, we can release ourselves fro the pressure to establish a substantive content once and for all for the ideal, say of being musical.

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  • Lydia Goehr

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