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p. 125Conclusionlocked

  • Michael Cook

Abstract

The ‘Conclusion’ argues that both music and musicology are ways of creating meaning rather than just of representing it. If music can communicate across barriers of gender difference, it can do so over other barriers as well. One example is music therapy, where music communicates across the cultural barrier of mental illness. If we use music as a means of insight into other cultures, then equally we can see it as a means of negotiating cultural identity. This means that music becomes a way not only of gaining some understanding of the cultural other, but also of shifting your own position, constructing and reconstructing your own identity in the process.

In this book I have spoken of my cautious optimism about music: not just about music itself, but about our ability to understand it and use it as a means of personal and social transformation. As I see it, the way you become pessimistic is by assuming that music represents the world‐views of cultures from which we are cut off by time, space, or both; divorced as we are from those cultures (the argument goes), we can't recreate the context within which the music might be intelligible, and so the more we think we understand it, the more we really don't. But this is reminiscent of the philosophical position known as solipsism, according to which the only way we can know the world is through our own subjective experience, from which it ultimately follows that you are a figment of my imagination (and I of yours), so that we all inhabit parallel, sealed‐off universes. Once you accept that the only way you can know the world is through your own subjective experience, solipsism becomes the inevitable consequence; the way to avoid it is not to accept the premiss, but instead to regard human consciousness as something that is irreducibly public (or worldly, to borrow Lawrence Kramer's term again). Seen this way, the private experience on which solipsism is predicated is itself a social construction – an aspect, in fact, of the bourgeois subjectivity I have repeatedly spoken of. And my argument against musicological pessimism runs along similar lines.

If both music and musicology are ways of creating meaning rather than p. 126just of representing it, then we can see music as a means of gaining precisely the kind of insight into the cultural or historical other that a pessimistic musicology, like solipsism, proclaims to be impossible. In the previous chapter I described how music, and writing about music, can be seen as creating arenas for the negotiation of gender relations. But the principle is a much more general one; if music can communicate across barriers of gender difference, it can do so over other barriers as well. One example is music therapy, where music communicates across the cultural barrier of mental illness. But the most obvious example is the way we listen to the music of other cultures (or, perhaps even more significantly, the music of subcultures within our own broader culture). We do this not just for the good sounds, though there is that, but in order to gain some insight into those (sub)cultures. I have already quoted Philip Brett's description of music as ‘an unmediated form of communication that is only by imperfect analogy called a language, “the” language of feeling’; it is this lack of overt mediation, the absence of mutually unintelligible vocabularies as in real languages, that leads people (not ‘New’ musicologists, to be sure) to describe music as a universal language.

And if we use music as a means of insight into other cultures, then equally we can see it as a means of negotiating cultural identity. We saw something of this in the case of ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica’. But a more comprehensive example is postwar Australian music: composers like Peter Sculthorpe have drawn on native Australian and East Asian musics in such a way as to contribute towards the broader cultural and political repositioning of Australia as an integral part of the emerging region of the Pacific Rim, rather than a European culture on the wrong side of the world. A similar, though more conflicted, story might be told of the combination and separation of Chinese, other East Asian, and international styles of popular and ‘art’ music in postwar Hong Kong; music has given voice to the former colony's search for cultural identity, whether in its own right or, since 1997, as part of a larger entity. (It has not represented that search; it has been part of it.) If music did not p. 127enable some kind of cross‐cultural communication then it could not be used this way. And this means that music becomes a way not only of gaining some understanding of the cultural other, but also of shifting your own position, constructing and reconstructing your own identity in the process. Music, in short, represents a way out of cultural pessimism.

And yet, the pessimists are right too (and remember, I spoke of cautious optimism). Woolly‐minded optimism and modernist utopias pose their own perils. If music can be a means of cross‐cultural understanding, it can be a means of cross‐cultural misunderstanding, too; as Gary Tomlinson suggested, if we find the music of other times and places too easy to hear, too well adapted to our own modes of understanding and pleasure, then we are all too likely to assimilate it to our own values, to assume that we understand it in the same way that Western colonialists assumed they understood their subject peoples without ever seriously trying to find out what they had to say. Music may create the miraculous impression of going directly, as Beethoven wrote on the autograph of his Missa Solemnis, ‘from the heart … to the heart!’ But one person's miracle is another's illusion, and it is as true in a cultural as in a physical sense that there can be no music in a vacuum. To be sure, music can establish a point of connection between cultures. But it cannot abolish cultural difference at a stroke. At best it might be seen as a vantage point for becoming better aware of cultural difference; after all, differences stand out best against a background of similarity. Translated into terms of music, then, Bernard Shaw's dictum about Britain and America being separated by a common language might apply to the whole world.

‘The essence of music as a cultural system’, writes the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, ‘is both that it is not a … phenomenon of the natural world and also that it is experienced as though it were.’ And that is why, as I see it, both the optimistic and the pessimistic positions p. 128are right (even though I think the former is more right, or more importantly right, than the latter). If we don't experience music as though it were a phenomenon of the natural world – as ‘music’, as people say – then we cut ourselves off from a means of understanding the other and overcoming difference, in however limited and provisional a manner; in a world in which we struggle for understanding we cannot afford to overlook what music has to offer, and this means active engagement with it, not a fastidious and melancholy withdrawal. But at the same time we need to know, and indeed to go on telling ourselves as we listen to it, that music is not a phenomenon of the natural world but a human construction. It is, par excellence, the artifice which disguises itself as nature. That is what makes it not only a source of sensory pleasure and an object of intellectual speculation, but also the ultimate hidden persuader.

And here we come back to the beginning of this book, to the masters of hidden persuasion in today's society, that is to say the advertisers. The music in the Prudential commercial which I discussed in the opening chapter speaks to each listener/viewer personally and confidentially, playing on unspoken values of authenticity and self‐identity, whispering the message that, with Prudential, you can be what you want to be. As it does so, it effaces its own agency; you hear the advertiser's message, but you don't realize how much of it is coming from the music. In this way music naturalizes the message, makes it seem that – as I put it in Chapter 7 – it is just ‘the way things are’. No wonder, then, that so many stories warn against music's power to steal unawares into your mind and substitute its will for yours. Think of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, whose playing lured the children away from their homes, never to be seen again; think of the ubiquitous stories of mermaids, or the sirens of ancient Greece, whose singing so entranced mariners that they were lured on to the rocks. Or think of the ‘musical’ voice of Saruman in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, the model of the honey‐tongued demagogue whose speech captivates his listeners even as they struggle to reject what he has to say.

p. 129That is why, in the end, it is not just musicologists who need to acquire a critical orientation. As Adorno clearly understood, critical theory omits music at its peril; music has unique powers as an agent of ideology. We need to understand its working, its charms, both to protect ourselves against them and, paradoxically, to enjoy them to the full. And in order to do that, we need to be able not just to hear music but to read it too: not in literal, notational terms, to be sure, but for its significance as an intrinsic part of culture, of society, of you and me.