Bach meets hip-hop as musicology plays new tune

November 07, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Twentieth-century music doesn't mean only concert music anymore.

And nowhere is that clearer than the itinerary of the American Musicological Society, which opens its annual meeting here today. Scholarly papers scheduled to be presented this week include such rather staid-sounding titles as "C.P.E. Bach's Paragraph on Modulation: A Defense of Improvisational Style" practically cheek-by-jowl with "Hendrix and Dylan: Two Versions of All Along the Watchtower"; "Jewish Influence on Early Christian Chant: A New Model" competes for attention with "Hip-Hop and the Commodification of Black Poverty."

Musicology, which can be simply defined as the scholarly study of music, has opened its doors to varieties of music that once had to enter the academy by the back door -- if at all -- including not only jazz, bluegrass and folk, but punk and rap.

Once primarily about texts, it's now just as likely to be about contexts. In the academic study of music, subjects such as feminism, homosexuality, race and class have come to assume the importance they have in literary studies.

"We're moving late onto the scene occupied by literary studies and trying to profit by its example," says Ralph Locke, an expert on French music, professor of musicology at the Eastman School of Music and a member of AMS's executive board.

Locke and others are quick to point out that literature and music are different expressive mediums.

"Music is a much less overtly representational medium," Locke says. "But that doesn't mean that music doesn't have an ideological content -- just that it's a lot harder to find it out."

Changes in musicology have been coming for years, but a watershed event was the publication more than 11 years ago in book form -- the essays collected in it had been appearing in journals for several years before 1985 -- of Joseph Kerman's "Contemplating Music."

In that book, the highly respected University of California at Berkeley professor of musicology, called for the study of music to open itself up to the ideas that were enlivening other studies in the humanities, such as literature and history.

Some of the recent work has proved somewhat controversial -- such as studies of Schubert and Tchaikovsky that purport to show how the composers' presumed homosexuality may have affected the composition of works as famous as the former's "Unfinished Symphony" or the latter's Symphony No. 4.

Musicology influenced by feminism has stirred up some of the biggest storms -- the assertion made a few years back by music historian Susan McClary, for example, that in the furious assault at the beginning of the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony "the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release."

McClary softened the wording in a later version of the essay. But what she wrote was not, at heart, very different from metaphors that mentioned Faustian thrust, and the like, which were once commonly used in 19th-century descriptions of the Ninth Symphony.

And for the most part, the new musicology seems more grounded in the work of art than the new literary history it seems to emulate.

"The whole field of music history is freer, more interdisciplinary and wilder than it was, and I think those are good things," Kerman says. "But I don't think the study of music will be subject to the kinds of excesses that sometimes seem to afflict literary study. The literary work is always somewhat abstract and subject to interpretation. The musical text is much more tangible. It doesn't exist unless it's performed, and when it is we know it's really there because we can resonate with it."

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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