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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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McClary on analysis, historical conditions and rationality

Yesterday I read again Susan McClary’s chapter “Excess and Frame: The Musical Representation of Madwomen” in Feminine Endings. One of the subchapters in this book deals with Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg. During my recent research trip in Berlin I did not have time to read the whole chapter, so I returned to it now, and I was amazed by McClary’s virtuosity, her breath of knowledge in music and other contemporary theory, and the way she builds her arguments. This chapter is a good example to authoritative writing.

Due to some of the issues that I have spoke about in recent posts (such as The difference between a poor critic and a good scholar, Musicology, Science and Postmodernism, Performance and Analysis: a response to Zecharia, and Heinrich Schenker and his followers) I thought it would be useful to quote the following from McClary’s chapter:

“That analysis is an indispensable ingredient in out study of music is beyond question. Yet we need to supplement bare formal analysis with information concerning the historical conditions that give rise both to particular repertories and also to the metatheoretical discourses that serve and explain away the ‘problematic’ aspects of music. If – as clearly is the case – a fascination with madness and transgressive behavior motivates much of the music we care about, then surly we need to take that into account before we jump into our graphs. Otherwise, what precisely are we doing? Whose rationality are we attempting to establish, and why?” (109)

What I love about this passage is that is does not go against analysis. It states clearly that analysis is “an indispensable ingredient in out study of music”. However, it suggests that scholars must go beyond the score in order to reach a more comprehensive understanding of music.

Moreover, it suggests that some of the motivation behind formal analysis is to demonstrate a supposed rationality of music that is actually motivated by irrational things (such as madness and transgressive behavior). Western culture celebrates rationality as one of its highest values and goals. It is postmodern authors (such as Michel Foucault) that demonstrate that this is nothing but a myth.

This is one of the things that I find extremely attractive about the epoch after modernism. Irrational issues such as madness, gender, identity and religion can be discussed in the open. These are the things that touch most of us and make us, at least partly, obsessed about the music that we love.

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