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  • Escaping Meaning, Escaping Music
  • Claire Colebrook (bio)

How we read the present, and what counts as the present, has a great deal to do with how we understand music and the relationship between music and meaning. One might think of music as the origin of meaning, as a song of the earth and the living body from which language is derived; if this were so then one might see logic, abstraction, and reason as fallen and derivative modes of thinking. Alternatively, following the avant-garde, the task of music would be futural—releasing music from song, life, and the body to achieve sound as such (and this, in turn, would free human beings from the myth of "man" as an animal of the earth). In this essay, I want to accept, intensify, and challenge this opposition. Both these Romantic and avant-garde tendencies are present in what came to be known as "theory" in the twentieth century, and yet if one pays attention to the ways in which post-structuralism was constituted through its relation to avant-garde music, [End Page 9] there is a way in which one might chart a path beyond a Romantic vitalism that would situate music as the origin of life and meaning, and an avant-gardism that would see music properly as the destruction of meaning and the liberation of "man" from life. I will conclude by arguing that the very reason why a certain type of music was rejected—the commodified, inhuman, machinic repetition that began in jazz—provides a way to think beyond the problem of music in post-structuralism: if music is both an original rhythm from which order emerged and that which haunts fixed structures, it would appear that the task of music lies in negating the history of music, becoming-other than the centuries of Western tonality that have timed sonorous matters. The relation of theory to music becomes essentially ambivalent: music is at once a history of reification and the promise of a release of sonorous matters from fixed forms.

To cite just two philosophies who capture this double movement one might think of Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. For Lyotard, the twentieth century was marked by a "slackening"—a tendency to turn away from the radicalism of the avant-garde and back to a happy humanism and realism. The sublimity of the avant-garde (from which we should not turn away) lay in those aspects of sound that could not be captured by notation. Timbre and nuance would indicate a materiality not captured by form, or what Lyotard refers to as an "immaterial matter":

As the idea of a natural fit between matter and form declines (a decline already implied in Kant's analysis of the sublime (and one that for a century was both hidden and shown up by the esthetics of romanticism), the aim for the arts, especially of painting and music, can only be that of approaching matter. Which means approaching presence without recourse to the means of presentation. We can manage to determine a color or a sound in terms of vibrations, by specifying pitch, duration and frequency. But timbre and nuance (and both terms apply to the quality of colors as well as to sonorities) are precisely what escape this sort of determination.

(Lyotard 1992, 139)

… from Debussy to Boulez, Cage or Nono, via Webern or Varese, the attention of modern musicians has been turned toward this secret passibility to sound-timbre. And it is also this that makes jazz and electronic music important. [End Page 10] For with gongs and in general all percussion instruments, with synthesizers, musicians have access to an infinite continuum of sound-nuances. And I think that we'd need to reconsider from this angle, that of immaterial matter, certain Minimalist or arte povera works, and certain works called abstract expressionist or not (I'm thinking of certain pieces from the Cobra group).

(Lyotard 1992, 141)

Even more directly, Deleuze and Guattari's theorization of the "minor" has its foundation in music and is a deviation from Romanticism. The minor is neither lesser, nor outside, but a deflection from within the...


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