Musicology graduate student Elizabeth Hoover's paper "The Archaeology of Musical Narrative: Indeterminate Music as Discursive Formation" is one of four papers selected for the City University of New York's Graduate Center symposium Representing Music—or—Music Representing. The symposium takes place April 25, and will be moderated by the distinguished musicologist Leo Treitler.
The Archaeology of Musical Narrative: Indeterminate Music as Discursive Formation
All too often in teaching the history of Western Art Music the term “story” is employed to relate musical narratives to students. According to literary theorist, Jonathan Culler, however, “the theory of narrative requires a distinction between…‘story’—a sequence of actions or events and…‘discourse,’ the discursive presentation or narration of events.” Following this literary model, constructions of musical narratives have surfaced in which musical forms based on tonality designate “story.” This story, the musical form, is contingent on the “discursive presentation” of “musical” events, or discourse. Although the translation of literary theory works well for nineteenth-century composition, as demonstrated by scholars such as Carolyn Abbate, Anthony Newcomb, and Leo Treitler, the musical interpretation of the story-discourse dichotomy does not translate in the analysis of twentieth-century indeterminate works.
Inspired by Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, the following paper sheds light on another meaning of discourse in an analysis of an indeterminate work by Earle Brown, Calder Piece. For this piece, a mobile by Alexander Calder, "Chef D' Orchestre,” determines the actions of the performers, and thus also the course of musical events. Instead of describing the narrative structure of Calder Piece, I consider the work through the lens of Foucault and demonstrate how it functions as a discursive formation—“the totality of all effective statements, in their dispersion as events and in the occurrence that is proper to them.” In this case I argue for a meaning of discourse that functions apart from the story-discourse dichotomy of narrative theory; a theory in which cultural context is ignored and meaning is restricted to the internal chemistry of sound alone. As a discursive formation, the musical (aural) and plastic (visual) elements of Brown’s Calder Piece may finally be united in one analysis.