- Privacy And Pleasure: Edward Said on Music
Edward Said’s 1989 Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory at the University of California at Irvine, published as Musical Elaborations, are meditations on classical music in the Western tradition. They confront a sharp antinomy: on one hand, music is an intensely solitary and subjective experience for the performer or listener; on the other hand, music is also public occurrence, fully implicated in the social and cultural world. Said sets out to resolve the antinomy; he intends to show that, however private the experience of music may seem, it never escapes social context and functions. But as Said pursues that resolution, difficulties arise. He often moves from the private to the public dimensions by modulations that are themselves more musical than logical. Some of the most assured passages in the book assert the solitary, not the social, pleasures and powers of music. Said is often more successful at describing the ways in music eludes social appropriation than he is at demonstrating how it serves social ends. As a result, the argument of Musical Elaborations is strangely, powerfully at odds with itself: it wants to hold that classical music is a fully social enterprise, but it cannot help celebrating music in solitude. But while these lectures tend to undermine their own conclusions, they also succeed in a way that Said did not intend. His case for the socially determined nature of music actually serves to diagnose weaknesses in current, socially-oriented cultural analysis.
Musical Elaborations is a richly varied book. It mixes theoretical speculations in both musicology and literary theory with autobiography. Foucault and Adorno mingle with Brahms and Wagner. Music criticism, sometimes technical and sometimes impressionistic, joins with literary criticism, and both intertwine with narrative and remembrance. These are personal essays, loose in structure, unapologetic in their subjectivity. While Said calls himself an amateur in musicology, he is clearly among the most expert amateurs. His columns on music have appeared for several years in The Nation, and, as he delivered these lectures, he played brief passages on the piano to illustrate his points.
At issue throughout the book is the postmodern insistence, exemplified by Foucault, on the social construction of art and individuality. Ostensibly nonrepresentational and highly formal, highly individualized in its composition and its performance, classical music offers the most challenging test case for social analysis. Said notes that music writing, governed by the assumption that classical music develops according to its own internal and formal logic, independently of social history, has been relatively untouched by recent developments in literary and cultural theory. His goal is to treat music as a cultural field and to see (or hear) music as always implicated in social distinctions and roles, in questions of national and regional identity, in its own institutions, in the dispositions of cultural power. For Said, music is marked by the fluidity of its affiliations: it always has a social setting and role, but settings and roles are always changing, always temporally and spatially variable. What Said calls the “transgressive” character of music—“that faculty music has to travel, to cross over, drift from place to place in a society, even though many institutions have sought to confine it” (xix)—is its ability constantly to re-affiliate itself and establish new connections. Music plays a central role in the constitution or, in a term Said borrows from Gramsci, “elaboration” of a social order, and as such it normally works to preserve social power and relations. But it does so through its transgressive ability to break from its social context and function in other contexts.
For Said, the essential, and most paradoxical, instance of music is the performance. Said points out repeatedly how rare moments of musical transcendence take place only in one of the most socially ritualized, unchanging, often stultifyingly conservative institutions imaginable: the concert itself, with its highly restricted performance repertory, with its absolute separation of roles (performers are not composers, listeners are usually not performers themselves, and composers are not performers, in part because they are, almost as a rule, dead), and with the...