Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Musical Analysis

“We have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.” — Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

My current analytical project (if I can be presumptuous for a moment) is based around understanding three pieces of music, which I consider to be in the pantheon of “the greatest pieces of orchestral music I’ve ever heard,” if such a statement means anything: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 9, Henri Dutilleux’s L’arbre des Songes, and Magnus Lindberg’s Aura in Memoriam Witold Lutoslawski.  

The opening quotation, laden with Lochean imagery, stuck out to me upon reading Sontag’s famous essay on the hermeneutics of artistic analysis and criticism.* I have conflicted feelings on the essay as a whole: one the one hand, I think it points quite rightly at a problem with artistic analysis and the arts in general who are more concerned for meaning and representation than with the experience of art. The obsession with meanings latent in art, hidden beneath the surface, can turn artistic interpretation into a puzzle of decoding or deciphering what the text is really saying, which can often be fruitless and lead the interpreter down paths of analysis that reveal nothing about the experience of the work of art. Methods of analysis must fall in line with the art: if an analytic method fails to find anything of note, it is more often a failure of the methodology than of the work of art. 

On the other hand, I don’t think her discussion of form and content really cohered into anything–she insists that the distinction is meaningless and arbitrary while continuing to use those terms in their colloquial sense, for instance. There is also the problem with the actual nature of this discussion. I do believe that art serves a social purpose and can carry meanings beyond its mere content. As she points out, Plato believed that the essential feature of art was its uselessness (we can’t urinate on a Duchamp, after all). Is she rejecting Plato’s assertion that art is mere representation without any function beyond that representation, or is she embracing it? I got the sense that she was in fact focusing on artistic content rather than form: artistic forms are by their nature abstracted from the artwork, so they can only be made apparent to us through analysis. 

Maybe it’s my background in music that informs this belief (notably Sontag rarely mentions music in Against Interpretation). The analyst and theorist most obsessed with form, Heinrich Schenker, doesn’t seem like the sort of figure Sontag is picturing when she is talking about emphasizing form over content. Many have made this criticism, including Charles Rosen, that Schenker’s methods essentially see all great music as expressions of the Urline, neglecting many salient aspects of our experience of music and judging a piece of music based on how it conforms to a Platonic ideal of music. That, his blatant racism, along with his narrow focus on mostly German composers of the Western Canon with a Pole, an Italian and a Frenchman thrown in for good measure, is why Schenker isn’t particularly highly regarded right now, and rightfully so. (We will have much to discuss about the Urline and Schenker with regards to Mahler’s 9th, since in some respects the Ninth represents a frustration or rejection of the resolution of the Urline, but that will have to wait for another time.) 

I guess I should be clear here about the difference between analysis and interpretation. Sontag says, “by interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation. Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work.” Music analysis isn’t quite the same sort of procedure, though it often does turn the phenomenal experience of music into a set of abstract structures and mathematical equations. Musical formalism is quite different from literary formalism, but there are similarities. More than anything, Sontag seems to be opposed to a sort of criticism that is less about the art and more about the author. There are a million reviews of this sort on RateYourMusic, and while I’m glad Vespertine made you feel a bit less lonely as a teenager, it hardly helps me formulate my opinions on Björk and her work. 

The point is, I don’t find these pieces invigorating because of any outside context or interpretation. I enjoy them because I think they’re masterful pieces that show off what the orchestra is capable of: the depth of tone color, the richness of the harmony and melody, the reach of its expressiveness, the layers of counterpoint and rhythms, the variety of textures, the staggering complexity of its thematic content and formal structures that only reveal themselves on repeated listens. All three pieces promote their own metaphorical interpretations: Mahler’s biography and the placement of the Ninth within the corpus of musical modernism; Dutilleux’s invocation of plant growth in the title (Tree of Dreams); and Lindberg’s subtitle and program notes’ mentions of Lutoslawski. But I hardly think about these things when listening to each piece because I’m utterly swept away by the incredible music. 

There are lots of other pieces for orchestra or large ensemble that I think approach those three in different directions, which I may also talk about: Saariaho’s Du Cristal.. al a Flume, much of Takemitsu’s orchestral music, Ligeti’s Atmospheres and Lontano, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and The Dream of Jacob, Ravel’s La Valse and Daphnis et Chloe, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Jeux, Boulez’ Notations pour Orchestra I-IV and Sur Incises, Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Adés’ Asyla, of course all the other orchestral music by Mahler, Dutilleux and Lindberg, Sibelius’ symphonies, Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan und Isolde, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D Minor, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and the Passions of St Matthew and St John, (no Beethoven since I think his best music is his Piano sonatas and late string quartets), Berg’s Violin Concerto, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra… I could go on. 

This has particularly been part of my struggle with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. First hearing the piece from Bernstein’s monologue in The Unanswered Question lecture series no doubt colored my perception of the music. Furthermore, I first heard the piece during a volatile time in my life, and I can’t help but feel those experiences colored my perception of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and made me more receptive to the grand narratives Bernstein spun, aided by his boundless charisma and his gravelly voice. Much of the music I first heard around that time holds a special place for me: Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift your Skinny Fists like Antennas to Heaven, Death Grips’ catalog and Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, about which I also have plenty to say. The point is, I have asked myself in the past, is this piece really as good as I think it is, or am I just overly sentimental? I think the answer clearly is that is in fact a brilliant piece of music, but I wouldn’t have become as interested in analyzing it had I not been enamored with the music in the first place.

But again, there is still value to metaphorical explanation to artistic criticism, especially with an artform as abstract as music (no wonder music theory tends to look a lot more like math than literary or film theory, though there are historical reasons for that going back to Boethius and Pythagorus). We often use these analogies to help explain what we’re talking about musically: tone color, timbres are bright or dark, for instance. I often think about texture like the textures of fabric or materials, or like food.

I don’t intend this to be a critique or explanation of Sontag’s thoughts in Against Interpretation, which is a very taut and dense essay at only ten pages or so. Reading the essay did clarify my thoughts on musical analysis, since I have had difficulties trying to understand these three pieces through the traditional means (uncovering underlying harmonic and rhythmic structures via Schenkerian or Lerdahlian analysis, for instance). Maybe that’s partially my own laziness in digging through the richness of their harmonic language, but also I think that’s missing the point. Music isn’t just a set of harmonic structures. Identifying that Mahler uses bitonality, common-tone chromatic mediant modulations and unresolved appoggiaturas is hardly useful without explaining what the effect of such harmonic techniques is on the listener (or at least on me, and I think I’m a pretty good listener). Lindberg may derive his melodies from large octave-spanning chords derived from overtone spectra and 12-note rows, but one hardly ever hears them: you hear instead a tangle of intricate counterpoint refracting around this unseen center. Same goes for Dutilleux, whose harmonies are an idiosyncratic blend of quartal and quintal chords, octatonic and whole tone scales, though there is an entire dissertation’s worth to discuss in his harmonies. 

I hope this gives at least a bit of a primer on my goals for Continuous Variations, or at least the analytical side of it. For now, I’m off to finish up my album and get ready for grad school. 

*This blog post helped me formulate my thoughts on Sontag’s essay. I found it particularly useful for framing her argument within an appropriate context. There are ways in which her arguments are useful to us for analyzing music, but here I am concerned with how it helped me clarify my analytical approach I ought to take with these pieces.

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