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  • Deconstructing the Grammatologies of MusicA Tool for Composing
  • Fabien Lévy (bio)
    Translated by Christopher Swithinbank (bio)

The relationship between the analytical structures of composition and their perception has always been central to my work and my musical thought. I am a member of the generation that rebelled against the excesses of structuralism and against a blind faith in structure that was at times to the detriment of perception. However, I have also never accepted the existence of a universal and natural perception, such as that advocated by my teachers from the so-called spectral school, nor a music of surfaces and effects without depth or double cognitive meanings—as one sees too often today. For me, perception is both cognitive and cultural.

An artist is neither his or her own musicologist, nor his or her own psychoanalyst, and it is only after many years that I have begun to be able to understand and explain the extramusical influences that have impacted upon me, [End Page 99] from my personal and family background, to my musical obsessions and aesthetic positions. I would like to cite three of these:

  1. 1. Graduate studies in mathematics, a discipline that is not without its aesthetic qualities (certain proofs are more beautiful than others). In particular, an interest in paradoxes and nonreal worlds (my favorite area was topology) as well as in epistemology.

  2. 2. Paradoxically, a very early rejection of the overly analytic, a rejection that can probably be traced back to a family education influenced by the upheavals of the war and that gave priority to "the intelligence of the heart," to "the regard of the face," and to the "presque rien and je ne sais quoi," concepts I would later find verbalized by the philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas (1982) and Vladimir Jankélévitch (1957), respectively. At the age of 11, I dedicated one of my compositions to a Schubert idealized for his intuition in opposition to a more cerebral Beethoven (it is, of course, not so simple); at 14, I turned toward jazz and improvisation; and as a 19-year-old student of mathematics, I was shocked by the spurious scientism of certain composers during my first visit to the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music. It is also no accident that I chose the spectralists as teachers at the Conservatoire of Paris and that the relationships between grammatological and apperceptive complexities in music became the subject for my doctoral thesis.1

  3. 3. A particular interest in other cultures and in the relativization of Western culture. My parents were active members in France of the nongovernmental organization Terre des Hommes, caring for children from third-world countries in particular, and themselves adopting three children from Asia and offering foster care to others. Our house was cosmopolitan, and we spent all our summers with a Vietnamese family.

My first important philosophical encounter was with the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who verbalized the musical concepts that had influenced me, in particular the notion of the "ineffable" (1961) and that of "je-ne-sais-quoi and presque-rien" (1957). His position on Germany, however, dismayed me and was the starting point for my piece Après tout (2008).

As mentioned above, my doctoral thesis focused on the relationship between analytical and perceptual complexity in music and was initially influenced by scientific theories of complexity.2 It was in working on the idea of [End Page 100] cultural apperception3 that I understood that the listener did not perceive music as a signal4 but as a cognitive and interpretative scheme (Piaget 1975), and that one could only understand the implicit and unconscious representations of music in a given culture by deconstructing the explicit representations of music in that same culture, such as notations, concepts, instruments, interfaces, and theories. Conversely, verbalized representations, for example, notations, are not solely means of transcription or what linguists call graphémologies (graphemics) but also tools for conceptualizing their object, grammatologies. Indeed, one would not think in the same way when writing with an alphabet of discrete phonemes as one would when writing with ideograms, and one would not compose in the same way when working...


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