- Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History
American musicology has finally produced an Adorno—for better or worse. With his latest and most characteristic book, Lawrence Kramer has emerged as this country's only musical scholar with a higher intellectual profile outside the field than within it. Whether this achievement also heralds acceptance of the New Musicology, the controversial reform movement he leads (along with Susan McClary, Richard Leppert, and a few others), remains to be seen. But the force of his argumentation and the breadth of his audience undeniably make him a central player in musicology's ongoing identity crisis.
Like Adorno, Kramer has made it a mission to deepen music's contact with other disciplines: to show his musical colleagues that venturing outside familiar territory can be worth the inevitable sacrifices, and (perhaps more important) to convince non-musicians that scholarly thought about music can offer unique, generally applicable theoretical insights. The project began some two decades ago with a ground-breaking study of art-song (Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After [University of California Press, 1984]), then continued with a "hermeneutic" approach to nineteenth-century instrumental music (Music as Cultural Practice [California, 1990]) and a series of more broadly conceived investigations of the listener's experience of music (the most influential of which has been Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge [California, 1995]). Musical Meaning is the culmination of this series, for both audiences, but its reception is likely to be very different by one than by the other.
The principal argument of the book comes into focus slowly, due to a fair amount of retread not only of Kramer's own work but of twentieth-century theories of meaning. The early chapters, most of which contextualize the interpretive history of a single canonical work (Schubert's "Heidenröslein," Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, Schumann's Carnaval), collectively remind us that musical meaning does not reside in the artwork as a code waiting to be broken, but is constructed anew with each fresh interaction between a listener and a work. Historical analysis, no matter how thorough, can never fully delimit or stabilize the meaning of even the most famous pieces of music. Kramer reiterates this point liberally, but in the world of musicology it bears repeating. Literary readers, on the other hand, may find it tedious, and likewise the potted discussion of fragmented [End Page 117] subjectivity, presented through the mildly banal metaphor of a three-part dressing-room mirror and its "subjective polyphony." Still, in a field where much scholarship proceeds even today as though (for example) the interpretive relevance of creative artists' intentions had never become a problem, this kind of introductory survey can perform a real service.
This lengthy preparation is justified at the center of the book by a strikingly novel and meticulously argued thesis, namely that the creation of musical meaning actually models the process by which meaning is formed in any communicative act. Kramer advances this idea as a critical response to Gilles Deleuze and particularly to W. J. T. Mitchell, whose "imagetext" reduces meaning (according to Kramer) to an interaction between verbal and pictorial descriptions of reality. Because Mitchell's theory assumes a coextensive relationship between meaning and representation, it leaves no room for the fundamentally non-representational art of music. What has traditionally been taken as a weakness, however—the undeniable fact that all music is by nature semantically ambiguous—reveals for Kramer a fundamental truth: "the radically ascriptive nature of all interpretation" (170). In music, the listener's role in constructing meaning is highlighted by the fluidity of the art, but that role is fundamentally the same in any mode of communication.
Such ideas make the famously complicating disposition of Kramer's thought welcome, when it does not clutter his prose. In the chapter devoted to his own set of piano variations (a computer-generated recording of which is included on CD), he attacks the "ideal of originality" that has dominated scholarly music criticism for well over a century. The "transcendental subjectivity" underlying such an...