- The Thought of Music by Lawrence Kramer
“It’s disgraceful,” said Donald Trump of a piece of sculpture modelled on him, “[that] they take your tax dollars to make this filth” (Philip Kennicott, “Would Donald Trump Make Art Great Again?,” Washington Post, August 19, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/would-donald-trump-make-art-great-again/2016/08/17/0c7300a2-60d1-11e6-af8e-54aa2e849447_story.html; accessed 5 January 2017). It is no secret that in today’s society there is a constant fear of the arts being undervalued and side-lined. This threat seems all the more ominous given the recent victory of Trump—a man who is known for deriding artists as being “lazy” or “losers”—as President-Elect (ibid.). It is in light of these circumstances that Lawrence Kramer’s recent book The Thought of Music (2016)—an epistemic study into the essence (and as such, the worth) of music—seems so utterly important.
The Thought of Music forms the last part of Kramer’s epic trilogy on hermeneutics, which also includes Interpreting Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010) and Expression and Truth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). This series seeks to challenge models of music as inexpressible and to search for a new vocabulary to describe the multitude of ways in which music communicates. Kramer, a veritable elder statesman of (New) Musicology, approaches this monumental task with trademark flair and precision. He casts this book in seven chapters, the first three of which discuss issues of representation and language. The central fourth chapter explores the relationship between pleasure, entertainment, and value, and the final three chapters discuss extra-musical elements including context, authorship and performance. Unusually perhaps for New Musicology, there is a strong undertone here of an almost Adornian desire to seek objective meaning in the music, although such a desire is tempered by the main body of the book, which unpacks and extends the well-rehearsed argument of musical meaning as subjective, imparted by the broader sociocultural context of musicking rather than from the music itself (see for example Nicholas Cook, Beyond the Score: Music as Performance [New York: Ox ford University Press, 2013], 30–37).
There is a lot to like in Kramer’s book. Particularly compelling is his discussion of the relationship between language, perception, and cultural expectation. Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Kramer dedicates a substantial amount of space to a detailed discussion of the nature of music’s perceived ineffability, positing that the sociocultural context of the music “opens up” the ability of music to express linguistically (compare this with Kofi Agawu’s seminal work on the relationship or “play” between introversive and extroversive levels in Playing with Signs [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991], 12–25). Discussions like this form the basis of a powerful central chapter that examines the sensory force of music. In this chapter, Kramer masterfully balances discussions of beauty, desire (via Jacques Lacan), pleasure, and gratification, concluding that David Hume’s notion of “reason as the servant of passion” is still, to some extent, useful (pp. 74–5), and drives the formation of the multiple sensations of pleasure that music (and particularly musical narrative) offers (pp. 85–7). Work like this on musical sensation is still underrepresented in both musicology and philosophy, and it would be particularly interesting to see Kramer’s discussions extended into the realm of non-Western and popular music. [End Page 710]
Central to many of Kramer’s arguments here are analyses—or perhaps “close readings”—of canonical works of Western art music, including pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt. This typifies Kramer’s trademark approach of thinking “through” the music and certainly provides a rich palette to contextualise the more subjective elements of the discussion. One such example is the opening of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto, which becomes the focus of an illuminating discussion on belonging. Kramer concentrates on two areas, the unsettled D♭ introduction...