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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 130-133

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Book Review

Untwisting the Serpent:
Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts

Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts. By Daniel Albright. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 395 pp.

Daniel Albright's Untwisting the Serpent takes as its subject that "stream of Modernism" in which "the arts seem endlessly interpermeable, a set of fluid systems of construing and reinterpreting, in which the quest for meaning engages all our senses at once" (6-7). Specifically, Albright examines a selection of modernist mixed-media ventures, almost always involving music, to bring to light the complex, now consonant, now dissonant interactions among their component arts. His purpose is both analytic and historical. He wishes to "develop a method for describing the aesthetic hybrids and chimeras that come into being through artistic collaborations, and to investigate how the artists of one age happened to fight a battle raging through all ages, the warfare among artistic media" (32). To accomplish both ends, he sets about elucidating a few rhetorical "figures"--among them the hieroglyph, the ideogram, the gestus, and the loop--that the artists in question deployed to articulate the variable relationships among distinct media (5-7). Albright ranges widely in quest of these rhetorical figures, moving swiftly and unpredictably between London, Paris, New York, Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. En route he discusses a large and diverse cast of characters, including George Antheil, Guillaume Apollinaire, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, André Breton, Paul Hindemith, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Sergei Prokofiev, Erik Satie, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, and W. B. Yeats.

Albright frames his study by placing it in dialogue with a series of canonical texts on aesthetics, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Laokoon, Clement Greenberg's "Towards a Newer Laöcoon," and Theodor W. Adorno's Philosophy of New Music. He contrasts his interest in cross- and multimedia art to the purism characteristic of these three thinkers. Although readers schooled in art history may find his opening arguments predictable--there are few more battered, tattered straw men in that field than Greenberg's teleological view of modern art--Albright's larger project demands this careful recapitulation. He aspires, quite nobly, to advance the study of hybrid art forms by speaking to musicologists in terms that they can understand. He deliberately covers ground well traveled in other disciplines ("I had to rehearse a number of old tales" [xiii]) so as to mount a comprehensive, [End Page 130] well-supported challenge to the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy that has kept musicology nearly insular for decades, hardly touched by the theory wave that has coursed through the other humanities, let alone the subsequent move toward cultural studies.

When, for instance, Albright criticizes Adorno's overheated response to Stravinsky's efforts at "spatializing" music (14-17), the polemical target is less Adorno himself than the dogma that music is, at base, an inviolably temporal art--a stereotypically modernist way of defining an art form by way of its medium's specificity. This idea, propounded by Adorno's hero, Arnold Schönberg, has become, of course, a veritable creed, not only among influential composers such as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen but also among academics who specialize in twentieth-century European art music. Throughout Untwisting the Serpent Albright covertly opposes this and every other ossified offspring of Lessing's dictum, "The arts of time must remain pure, distinct from the arts of space" (18). He repeatedly dips into his chosen "stream" of modernist music in search of evidence capable of unsettling hegemonic musicological presumptions derived from the rhetoric and practice of the second Viennese school. For example, as if seeking to contradict the concept of musical autoreferentiality, so prized by Schönberg's heirs and admirers, Albright catalogs concrete ways in which music can meaningfully comment more or less directly on the external world through such devices as parody, pastiche, and outright imitation of "nonmusical" sounds, like sirens and car horns. In addition--and this is crucial...


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