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THE NEW MUSICAL IMAGINARY: DESCRIPTION AS DISTRACTION IN NEW MUSIC

  • Ian Power

Abstract

In her book The Philosophical Imaginary, Michèle Le Doeuff claims philosophers use imagery precisely where their argument is at its weakest in order to provide an indistinct rhetorical space which cannot be clearly judged or criticised. Using Le Doeuff's framework, I examine programme notes: descriptive writing from programmes and grant applications that often tie the music to an extra-musical source of meaning. I point out instances where what is at stake in the work shifts from place to place, performing a determined meaning for the genre's outsiders, but indicating semantic superfluity to insiders who will tangibly judge the music on search committees and grant panels. After discussing genre theory and the history of new music, I argue that this imagery has a deeper social function: to gain social capital by performing diversity while maintaining the cultural power afforded by the genre's roots in hegemonic formalism.

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1 Doeuff, Michèle Le, trans. Gordon, Colin, The Philosophical Imaginary (London: Athlone Press, 1989 [1980]), p. 9.

2 Anonymous programme note 1.

3 Doeuff, Michèle Le, trans. Gordon, Colin, The Philosophical Imaginary (London: Athlone Press, 1989 [1980]), p. 3.

4 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 19.

5 Programme notes are taken from the following festivals and grants: MATA 2017; MATA 2016; New Music Gathering 2017; New Music Gathering 2016; New Music Gathering 2015; Darmstadt Ferienkurse 2016; Darmstadt Ferienkurse 2014; Darmstadt Ferienkurse 2012; New Music USA Project Grants Spring 2017; Northwestern University New Music Conference 2015; Several other concerts in the United States in 2016–2017.

6 When I gave this article as a talk at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, I included some programme notes of my own to implicate myself as a composer as a way of showing that I believe what I describe is symptomatic of the genre as a whole rather than a practice of individuals.

7 Anonymous note 2.

8 Anonymous note 3.

9 Anonymous note 4.

10 Anonymous note 5.

11 Anonymous note 6.

12 Anonymous note 7.

13 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 45.

14 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 47.

15 Anonymous note 8.

16 Anonymous note 9.

17 Anonymous note 10.

18 Anonymous note 11.

19 Agamben, Giorgio, trans. Albert, Georgia, The Man Without Content (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 [1970]), pp. 65–6.

20 Lochhead, Judith, Reconceiving Structure in Contemporary Music (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 26.

21 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 141.

22 Anonymous note 12.

23 Anonymous note 13.

24 Anonymous note 14.

25 Anonymous note 15.

26 Anonymous note 16.

27 ‘Research and teaching’, here, obviously mirrors the requirements for a musician to gain tenure in an academic department; in many departments, composition is substituted for research, but it is ambiguous what, if any, relationship the two have.

28 Anonymous note 17.

29 Grosz, Elizabeth, Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 1989), p. 186.

30 James, Robin, ‘Is the Post- in Post-Identity the Post- in Post-Genre?’, in Popular Music 36/1 (2016), p. 25.

31 James, ‘Is the Post- in Post-Identity the Post- in Post-Genre?’, p. 24

32 Fiske, John, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 24.

33 ‘The Composer as Specialist’ was Milton Babbitt's original title for his notorious article that would be renamed ‘Who Cares If You Listen?’ by an editor.

34 Lochhead, Reconceiving Structure in Contemporary Music, p. 18.

35 Rutherford-Johnson, Timothy, Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), p. 22.

36 Gottschalk, Jennie, Experimental Music since 1970 (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), p. 1.

37 Miller, Carolyn R., ‘Genre as Social Action’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70/2 (1984), p. 162.

38 See Daniel Visconti, ‘Program Notes’, 14 January 2010, on New Music Box (accessed 7 November 2018), https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Program-Notes/.

39 The Wayne State University guide to writing programme notes begins, ‘While many program notes aim to inform audiences comprised mostly of musical amateurs, these program notes should aim at a more musically educated audience. However, you should not go into long discussions of form or involved descriptions of harmonic events. Try to treat a middle ground’. See ‘A Guide to Writing Program Notes’, on Department of Music – Wayne State University (accessed 7 November 2018), https://music.wayne.edu/students/guide_to_writing_program_notes.pdf.

40 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 6.

41 Anonymous notes 18, 19, 20, and 11.

42 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 7.

43 Grosz, Sexual Subversions, p. 189.

44 Grosz, Sexual Subversions, p. 189.

45 Ian Power, ‘Beauty as Privilege: Contemporary Music and Trump Anxiety’, on Foci Arts (accessed 7 November 2018), https://fociarts.com/beauty-as-privilege-contemporary-music-during-trump/.

46 Le Doeuff, The Philosophical Imaginary, p. 19.

47 According to National Science Foundation data, 88 per cent of US Citizen Music Theory & Composition PhD recipients in 2015 were white, 73 per cent of all PhD recipients in those subjects were male. See ‘Table 22: Doctorate Recipients, by subfield of study, citizenship status, ethnicity, and race: 2015’, on National Science Foundation (accessed 7 November 2018), www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsf18304/data/tab22.xlsx.

THE NEW MUSICAL IMAGINARY: DESCRIPTION AS DISTRACTION IN NEW MUSIC

  • Ian Power

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