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The social factor of music


How to write about music, how to verbalize an art form that is not verbal, which does not say anything "in itself"? What is the place of music in the social and political field? These are questions the Palestinian-born American literary theorist and journalist Edward W. Said (1935-2003) dealt with.

amateur Musician

Said was a professor of literary science at Columbia University in New York, and has been of great importance for the establishment of postcolonial studies as an academic discipline. Postcolonial studies deal with literature and spiritual life within the former colonies, and try to see the world from their perspective, as an alternative to the western, "Eurocentric" worldview. Said is primarily known for one of the main works of postcolonialism, Orientalism (1978)

In addition to this, however, he was also a skilled amateur pianist and longtime music critic in The Nation. He co-founded the West-East Divan Orchestra with his close friend, Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim. This is an orchestra made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians, and intended to act as a bridge builder between the two peoples.

In 1989, Said Wellek lectures in critical theory at the University of California, Irvine, gave lectures that were collected and published in 1991 under the title Musical Elaborations. These have now been published in Norwegian in the Pax 'Artes series as Musical considerations, translated by Agnete Øye.

The lectures are not intended to be a contribution to systematic musicology or literary essays on the relationship between music and literature. Said's goal is to discuss three aspects of Western classical music that he finds interesting, aspects that have to do with the social factor of music and the individual experience.

The practice as a bridge builder

The three aspects are discussed in three separate chapters. The first of these is about the fact that particular performance is far more important in the musical work of art than in other art. One can, as he writes, "read a book several times, or go to an exhibition one more time, but one cannot in the same way go to a concert 'one more time'" (p. 20). This has the consequence that the concert is an "extreme event", a unique point where the artwork is located, so to speak. (However, he makes the reservation that this has changed with the fact that it became possible to record music and thus hear a performance several times.) He points to the contemporary social and personal character of the concert experience and believes that the performance is a bridge-builder, a "point of convergence" between the social and cultural spheres and the secluded nature of music. As examples in this essay, he uses the eccentric Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. He believes that Gould, together with the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini – whose "dry and irreconcilable" performances he believes make the concert stage "a public event, and nothing but that»-, illuminates and dramatizes the fate of music and musical performance at a time when the concert event has displaced the contemporary composer.

The music in society

The second aspect describes the music's "transcendent" elements. By that, Said means the fact that music has always been linked to specific social contexts: it has "almost always been linked to, and sought out by, various rulers and rulers of civil society – at court, in the clergy, and so on." He contrasts this with what he believes is the totalizing ideology of music autonomy. He believes that "the closer one goes to Western culture and the place of music within it," the more "compromised […] and socially participatory" it turns out to be – but that its social forces are hidden under technically specialized expressions. He mentions Wagners The master singers as a metamusical manifestation of the fusion between music and the social.

From this type of cultural critique, of course, also comes a canon critique. Said, of course, does not deny that the canon includes the foremost that is thought or written – it would then also be untrustworthy if he did. However, he criticizes canon thinking for being too strict and hierarchical and for trying to "forget" or downplay that the canon is constructed. It seems to me misunderstood, not to say banal, to criticize the canon for being hierarchical; is not the hierarchy precisely its point, its raison d'être? Is not the canon a statement that given the limited time one should pay attention to said cultural artifacts rather than them, and thus an implicit quality assessment? His second point, that the canon's degree of social construction is undercommunicated, is easier to agree with. Here I miss a more reflective discussion from Said.

He points out that the musical expression cannot exist without "the great corpus of what constitutes canonical music, with all its formalities, rules, structures and styles", and that listening to a work of music involves bringing forth (one's knowledge of) other pieces of music and musical forms one has heard. But the fact that works of art refer to each other is not a new insight. On the contrary, it has been one of the main points in the theory of intertextuality, and there is nothing that requires a specific social approach to art.

Music as utopia

Said's last point is that music can act as an alternative, a protest against the social mainstream. Here the key words are loneliness, remembrance and confirmation. In contrast to Theodor Adorno, he believes that not all music "can be experienced as ruled by dominance and supremacy", that music can be experienced as utopia. Here he spends a lot of time on literary descriptions of music, especially from Marcel Prousts On the trail of lost time. Here are also detailed descriptions of personal concert experiences, descriptions that can be perceived as idiosyncratic and unsuitable to illuminate his points. He also acknowledges in the introduction that this is his most superficial chapter. Here he is at his most opaque.


Said spends a lot of space on Adorno, with whom he defines his position in many ways and has an ambivalent relationship. Adorno was one of the 20th century's most important music sociologists, in addition to being a composer himself. Like Adorno, Said accepts that there is something that can be called "western classical music". He is inspired by Adorno's historical approach to musical development, the "dramatic line" in music, as well as his thoughts on the regression of listening ability. But he does not accept Adorno's Hegelian historical teleology (telos means "goal"), which means that music history develops with an almost deterministic necessity, and which also has as a difficult-to-accept consequence that musical works have a life, that their ontological (being-related) status is changed, so to speak, by the reception.

Said also makes an interesting historicalization of Adorno – he claims that although his descriptions "are true for the period he wrote in", they become insufficient for music after the second Viennese school peak in the 1920s (ie primarily the composers Schoenberg, Berg and Webern). A selection of Adorno's music essays can also be found in the Pax 'Artes series, with an exemplary afterword by one of the translators, Arnfinn Bø-Rygg.

Criticism of musicology

Said criticizes musicology for being too positivistic; he believes it has not absorbed insights from other hermeneutic disciplines and sticks to borders and closed spaces. (He points out, however, that he is not out on a "crusade" against musicology.) He finds music more interesting when it is considered as something that takes place within a social and cultural context. It does not seem to have struck him that musicology is "restricted" because it focuses on music in the capacity of music, and not as a social phenomenon. I think the focus of musicology is understandable, considering the non-linguistic nature of music. For it is an open question about Saids, and for that matter Adornos, socio-historical approach is better suited to "capture" the "whiteness" of music (I use this term to avoid the charged word "essence", a term Said takes distance from).

I do not think I am left with a greater understanding of music after reading this book. However, it is both interesting and largely well-written, although Said has the same annoying tendency as Adorno to opacity.

The lectures were held with auditory examples. For lack of this, the book is equipped with note examples. It is a pity that these note facsimiles in the Norwegian edition due to the series' format are so small that they are almost illegible. However, the scores are not essential to be able to understand the text, so there is no major drawback. The translation is generally good, even if it is marred by some minor errors and carelessness.

Despite the objections, this is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in music. In particular, it can be a good alternative for those who are interested in the place of music in the social space, and who think Adorno is unbearably obscure.

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