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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: Straus, Joseph N.
TITLE: Post-structuralism and Music Theory (A Response to Adam Krims)
KEYWORDS: post-structuralism, postmodernism, Bloom, Krims
REFERENCE: mto.94.0.11.krims.art
Joseph N. Straus
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Music Department
33 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
ABSTRACT: In a recent article in this journal,
Adam Krims has argued that mainstream music
theory, with its organicist bias, is
fundamentally incompatible with post-
structuralist thought.  This comentary is a
defense of theory-based analysis in a postmodern
[1] Adam Krims's recent article in this journal,
"Bloom, Post-Structuralism(s), and Music
Theory," raises a fundamental issue facing our
field, namely the troubled relationship between
our familiar analytical methodologies and the
post-structuralist aesthetic now so prevalent
throughout the humanities: "The very premises of
our field--inventing models of musical structure
and analyzing pieces as exemplars of structure--
dissonate with that which recent critical theory
has to teach us."  Krims adduces my recent book,
*Remaking the Past: Musical Modernism and the
Influence of the Tonal Tradition* (Straus 1990)
as a case study, and an object lesson, of this
dissonance: "Creating, then, a work (a book, an
article, a course) of music theory that draws on
post-structuralist theory always creates a
conflict of which that work will be a trace.  In
the case of Straus, organicist premises must
return in order for music-theoretical discourse
to take place.  This is not Straus's fault, if
one wants to consider it a fault at all: it is
an uneasy confrontation between ideological
systems that offer their own resistances to each
[2] Rather than respond to Krims's detailed and
perceptive critique of the role of Harold
Bloom's theory of influence in my book, I would
like to launch a brief defense of theory-based
analysis in a postmodern world in order to ease
the "confrontation between ideological systems"
that Krims describes.
[3] It is true that analytical studies during
the past thirty years have often been directed
toward the demonstration of organic coherence. 
It is not true, however, as Krims suggests, that
this has always been the case or that it need be
the case.  In my book *Remaking the Past*, for
example, I frequently describe a kind of musical
coherence that is fraught with unresolvable
tensions and is thus decidedly anti-organic in
nature:  "While the best twentieth-century works
are certainly coherent, they are not necessarily
organically so.  Their coherence is won throught
a struggle...Traditional elements are
incorporated and reinterpreted, but not effaced. 
Rather, the past remains a living, forceful
presence" (Straus 1990, 184-85).  Musical works
may be understood as coherent in different ways-
-the organicist model is only one among many. 
In works that can be understood to bespeak an
irreconcilable structural conflict, as with
works that can be conceived more organically,
analysis remains our crucial, indispensable tool
for describing musical relationships. 
[4] Even in the presence of an explicit and
thoroughgoing post-structuralist ideology, one
committed to tracing discontinuities and
resistance to totalizing explanations, analysis
remains and must remain an essential part of the
enterprise.  In exemplary works of "new
musicologists" like Abbate and Kramer,
traditional analytical categories like
subdominant harmonies and sonata form play a
central role, as indeed they must.  One cannot
talk about musical structures without analyzing
them, without invoking theoretical categories. 
Whatever one's ideology then, the question is
not whether or not to analyze, but simply how
and toward what end.   
[5] Krims argues that the analytical methodology
of my book, generally pitch-class set theory
broadly construed, is "steeped in the tradition
of 'organic coherence,'" that it is "extremely
traditional--in other words, highly
structuralist and organicist," and is thus
incapable of mapping a post-structuralist world
of disruption and discontinuity.  But I do not
believe that there is anything inherently
modernist, structuralist, formalist, or
positivist (those four dark horsemen of recent
critical theory) about pitch-class
transposition, for example, any more than there
is something inherently French Baroque about the
subdominant harmony.  The subdominant harmony
was first described as such under certain
cultural, geographical, historical, and
biographical circumstances.   Nonetheless that
concept has proved protean enough to play a
useful role in many different contexts.  If it
maintains a trace of its origin, it is not a
trace that prevents its successful adaptation. 
Similarly, to observe that two collections of
pitch classes are related by transposition in no
way requires one to assume the entire burden of
modernist ideology and culture.  Like the
subdominant harmony, the concept of
transposition, while not a transcedental or
neutral term, can nonetheless be appropriated
toward a variety of critical and theoretical
[6] Just as there is a long history of musical
scholarship lagging behind trends in other
fields, there is an equally long and parallel
history of musical scholars envying the
achievements in other fields.  Certainly we have
much to learn from post-structuralist thinking
in other fields, and much recent work in our own
field shows that we have begun to do so (see,
for example, McCreless 1988 and Littlefield and
Neumeyer 1992).   At the same time, I hope we
will not abandon the powerful and sophisticated
analytical technologies we have developed
through thirty years of intensive communal
effort.  We might temper our envy with the
realization that our colleagues across the
disciplinary fence have nothing like the ability
we do to describe the elements of their art,
nothing comparable to our intervals (ordered and
unordered), our unfoldings and reachings-over,
our transformational networks.  Instead of
leaving these precision tools to rust from
disuse, let's learn to employ them whatever the
critical enterprise.  Post-structuralist thought
has placed a great emphasis on the disruptions
and discontinuities of all kinds.  If analysis
is to play its necessary role in serving a post-
structuralist ideology, let us insist, then, on
analytically precise, and theoretically grounded
"contextual definitions of unrelatedness," in
Agawu's phrase (Agawu 1993; see also Burnham
1992 and Whittall 1993).  
[7] Methodological self-reflection is good for
our field, and we all have reason to be grateful
to "new musicologists" like Abbate, Kramer, and
McClary, and Tomlinson and to "new theorists"
like Krims for forcing us to question our habits
of thought.  At the same time, we should not
forget what led us to become musicians and music
theorists in the first place.  Most of us
entered this field and remain in it because we
take deep pleasure from close engagement with
musical works we care about.  We enjoy
explaining to ourselves and others how musical
works are put together, how their parts relate
to each other and to the larger wholes they
comprise.  We like imagining and describing
musical structures.  I know that the concepts of
a "work," a "larger whole," and "structure" are
hotly contested in contemporary critical theory. 
Nonetheless, until it can be shown that our
pleasures and enjoyments are immoral or harmful
to others, I hope we may continue to indulge
them.  In Stephen Blum's words, "Musicologists
can learn to tolerate many varieties of love--
including some that may strike guardians of our
morals as fetishism, idolatry, or some other
'perversion'" (Blum 1993).
[8] Our traditional analytical modes, including
pitch-class set theory and Schenkerian theory,
have proven their effectiveness.   I hope we
will not abandon them on the false grounds that
they suffer some ineradicable stain of their
origin.  I do not wish to see us put either our
analytical methodologies, or each other, to some
kind of postmodern loyalty test. (1)
1. Gary Tomlinson (Tomlinson 1993) and Lawrence
Kramer (Kramer 1993) have provided an
instructive recent example of judging and
censuring work based on ideological purity.  For
Tomlinson, Kramer's work "reveals patterns of
thought that not only already threaten to harden
into new orthodoxies of postmodern musicology
but that have, at the deepest level, moved
little from the putative truths they aim to
leave behind (18)...He substitutes modernist
internalism and aestheticism, both carrying
still the potent charge of nineteenth-century
transcendentalism, for postmodern contingency
and localism (20)...Instead of postmodern doubt,
play, and problematizing of the communicative
relation, Kramer offers a too-familiar modernist
mastery" (21).  For Kramer, "Despite his
sophisticated talk about metasubjectivity and
the plural construction of knowledge,
Tomlinson's version of musical ethnography is at
bottom positivistic...There are no clear means
by which to distinguish this program from what
Donna Haraway tartly calls the god-trick of
modern epistemology" (32).
[9] Too often, our traditional methodologies
have encouraged us to insist on exclusive
meanings in the works we study, to claim that we
know how the music really goes, and to condemn
"wrong" or "incorrect" interpretations.  This
sort of authoritarian posturing in the guise of
neutral, objective, transcendental description
has been rightfully criticized throughout post-
structuralist thought.  Is it too much to hope,
then, that post-structuralists will take
seriously their own celebration of openness,
diversity, and eclecticism and will thus refrain
from enacting a similar ban on traditional
analytical methodologies or on analysis itself?  
I would hope rather that the post-structuralist
music theory that Krims alludes to but does not
describe or exemplify would have a place for
close engagement with musical structures, for
precise analytical assertions grounded in
systematic theory, and thus for the traditional
pleasures and rewards of music theory.
Agawu, Kofi. 1993. "Does Music Theory Need
Musicology?"  *Current Musicology 53*, 89-98.
Blum, Stephen. 1993. "In Defense of Close
Reading and Close Listening," *Current
Musicology 53*, 41-54.
Burnham, Scott. 1992. "The Criticism of Analysis
and the Analysis of Criticism," *19th Century
Music* 16.1, 70-79.
Kramer, Lawrence. 1993. "Music Criticism and the
Postmodernist Turn: In Contrary Motion with Gary
Tomlinson," *Current Musicology 53*, 25-35.
Littlefield, Richard 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. 
Straus, Joseph. 1990. *Remaking the Past:
Musical Modernism and the Influence of the Tonal
Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Tomlinson, Gary. 1993. "Musical Pasts and
Postmodern Musicologies: A Response to Lawrence
Kramer," *Current Musicology* 53, 18-24.
Whittall, Arnold. 1993. "Experience, Thought and
Musicology," *Musical Times* 134, No. 1804, 318-
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