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       M U S I C          T H E O R Y         O N L I N E
                     A Publication of the
                   Society for Music Theory
          Copyright (c) 1995 Society for Music Theory
| Volume 1, Number 1     January, 1995     ISSN:  1067-3040   |
  All queries to: mto-editor@husc.harvard.edu
AUTHOR: Krims, Adam
TITLE: On the Fear of Losing Our Tools (A Response to Joseph N. Straus)
KEYWORDS: post-structuralism, postmodernism, Bloom, Straus, Krims
REFERENCE: mto.94.0.11.krims.art
Adam Paul Krims
Department of Music
Fine Arts Building
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada  T6G 2C9
ABSTRACT: In response to my recent article in
this journal, Joseph N. Straus has expressed
the concern that post-structuralist work will
cost music theorists the ability to perform
theory-based music analysis. This commentary
asserts that organicist ideology is not
necessarily for music theory, and that it is
possible to engage post-structuralist thought
and remain articulate and analytical about
[1] Responding to my critique of Harold Bloom's
work and his incorporation in music-theoretical
work, Joseph N. Straus has produced a defence
of music theory against what he evidently
perceives as a danger. While acknowledging that
"[m]ethodological self-reflection is good for
our field," Straus is concerned that we be able
to continue "explaining to ourselves and others
how musical works are put together." Among the
dangers that Straus cites is that of "leaving
[our] precision tools to rust from disuse."
[2] The central project of my article was to
separate Harold Bloom's work from some
important currents of post-structuralist
thought, and to observe that its adoption by
music theorists may not necessarily engage some
challenges post-structuralisms hold for us.
Secondarily, I point out that musical
adaptations tend to reinforce the more
traditional aspects both of Bloom's work and of
music scholarship. Straus does not seem
inclined to disagree with this; in fact, he and
I seem to be in agreement that music-
theoretical work is too often "directed toward
the demonstration of organic coherence"
(Straus' words). Rather, inferring (correctly)
that I advocate engagement of critical theory
on a large scale, he addresses post-
structuralisms and music theory in general.
Fair enough: though this broader topic is
peripheral to my article, it is certainly
crucial to our field, and I am happy to address
[3.1] Straus' response seems to be that
although post-structuralist critiques are
helpful for music theory, "new theorists" such
as I, with our critiques of traditional
methodologies, risk "enacting a ban on
traditional methodologies." A glance at recent
issues of the major music theory journals,
though, should be enough to convince the reader
that post-structuralist thought is far from
mainstream in our field, much less able to
enact a ban. Nor would I ever advocate a ban; I
would, however, advocate that music theorists
become acquainted enough with recent critical
theory to envision alternate ways of thinking
music theory.
[3.2] At the outset, we should realize that
engaging post-structuralism does not
necessarily entail losing our "tools." Although
some work informed by recent critical theory
may fail to satisfy us music-theoretically (1),
there is no reason to believe that post-
structuralist work *must* be this way. In fact,
of the "new musicologists" that Straus cites,
only Tomlinson refuses close reading on
ideological grounds; in that, he represents a
singular strain among post-structuralisms, most
of which engage close reading quite a bit.
Critical theory in the last twenty-five or so
years has not abandoned the practice of
theorizing about texts. In fact, the opposite
has generally been true: a consistent complaint
against post-structuralisms in literature has
been the *proliferation* of technical
1. Agawu (1993), for example, lodges this
complaint against Abbate.
[3.3] Nor is post-structuralist work ever
utterly discontinuous with traditional work.
Critical theory in other fields indicates the
great degree to which post-structuralisms
depend on earlier work for their articulation.
One can easily recognize Heidegger, Husserl,
Marx, Nietzsche, Saussure, and many others in
Derrida's writings. Freud and Saussure are
constantly present in the work of Kristeva and
[3.4] The impossibility of utter discontinuity
means that the "tools" we have developed in
structuralist times need not rust from disuse,
as Straus fears. It would not be possible to
begin post-structuralist work without them. The
work which I imagine Straus would designate as
"new theory" -- such as Littlefield and
Neumeyer (1992), Littlefield (1994),
Klumpenhouwer (1994), Krims (1994a, 1994b, and
1994c) -- shows no evidence of engaging
theoretical "tools" any less than traditional
structuralist work.(2) On the contrary, in each
of these cases methodologies and theories
developed in organicist contexts are engaged,
discussed, applied, reapplied, and examined in
2. I would differ with Straus in his referring
to McCreless (1988) as informed by post-
structuralist thought. True, McCreless refers
to Barthes' *S/Z*, but the methodology of the
article remains structuralist.
[4.1] "New theory" so far demonstrates that
detailed articulation about musical `structure'
need not rely on the ideological contexts
generally associated with the word "structure."
Tools survive in this work (even if the
metaphor of the tool is effaced); what may not
survive is the option of presenting tools as
unproblematic descriptions of properties that
are intrinsic to musical scores.
[4.2] In fact, Straus' own argument on this
issue is a good deal closer to my position:
namely, that if an analytical methodology
"maintains a trace of its origin, it is not a
trace that prevents its successful adaptation."
This is well put, and it is precisely the
reason that post-structuralisms do not threaten
to remove our tools. Littlefield and Neumeyer
(1992) correctly point out that ideology
remains attached to its products, and it would
seem farfetched to argue that a method could
outlive entirely its founding ideology. After
all, a tool is made out of materials, and in a
certain way, and for certain uses by certain
people. But tools can be refashioned and used
for different purposes; a methodology (such as
pitch-class set classification or Schenker
analysis) may originate in a highly
essentialist context but be set against itself,
used fragmentarily, or deployed to highlight
the places where its meanings and premises
break down . In other words, theories may be
discussed as theories, rather than as keys to
musical essences. This involves no loss of
musical articulation (or "information"); on the
contrary, one is generally forced to analyze
even more closely when looking for theoretical
[4.3] Post-structuralist approaches, rather,
enable us to point out how our tools are always
contingent and problematic instruments; how our
readings of musical pieces bear the mark of our
own interests and structurings; and how any
analytical system at some point relies on its
own negation, whether it be Schenker's
treatment of first-order neighbors or
Schoenberg's implicit admission of the
cadential six-four as a suspension. (3)
1. Krims (1994c) discusses Schenker's
problematic graphings of some first-order
neighbors in *Free Composition*. Schoenberg
treats the cadential six-four as a suspension
in Schoenberg (1983), 197-99, contrary to his
earlier comments on that chord.
[4.4] In closing, it is important to stress
that both Straus and I agree on the value of
post-structuralist critical theory for music
theorists. Straus worries that theory-based
analysis will disappear, and I do not; but I
hope readers of this journal take from this
exchange our agreement that (relatively) recent
critical theory will benefit all of us.
Agawu, Kofi. 1993. "Does Music Theory Need
Musicology?" *Current Musicology* 53, 89-98.
Klumpenhouwer, Henry. "Some Remarks on the Use
of Riemann Transformations," *Music Theory
Online* 0.9.
Krims, Adam. 1994a. "On Post-Structuralism and
Music Theory," paper delivered to the
International Association for Semiotic Studies,
17 June, 1994.
Krims, Adam. 1994b. "Gangsta Rap and the Ethics
of Form," paper delivered to the International
Association for Semiotic Studies, 18 June,
Krims, Adam. 1994c. "Music Theory as
Productivity," paper delivered to the
Colloquium Series, Harvard University, 9
December, 1994.
Littlefield, Patrick. 1994. "Listening,
Narrative, and Signification," paper delivered
to the International Association for Semiotic
Studies, 17 June, 1994.
Littlefield, Patrick, and Neumeyer, David.
1992. "Rewriting Schenker: Narrative -
History - Ideology," *Music Theory Spectrum*
14.1, 38-65.
McCreless, Patrick. 1988. "Roland Barthes's S/Z
from a Musical Point of View," *In Theory Only*
10.7, 1-29.
Schoenberg, Arnold. 1983. *Theory of Harmony*
(Berkeley: University of California Press),
trans. Roy E. Carter.
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