Conjunctions, Prepositions, and Discursive Hierarchies: Music and/in Society
In common with all artistic and cultural activities, music is a fundamentally social practice. Hence, the value of music is to be found not solely in ‘the music itself’, but also in the contextual factors that frame the music. However, notwithstanding Raymond Williams’s cautionary remarks regarding analytical recourse to “the works of art themselves” (Williams, 1981: 119), there remains a tendency in much musical analysis to continue to privilege the supposed ‘autonomy’ of the musical work. In such analyses, the relationship tends to be conceptualized as that of ‘music and society’, with the linking ‘and’ – “that misleadingly innocent conjunction” (Wolff, 1992: 706) – implying related but ultimately independent spheres of activity. Here, ‘society’ functions as nothing other than a “painted backdrop” (Wolff, 1992: 706) to formalist analysis.
The substitution of the preposition ‘in’ for the conjunction ‘and’ – the approach adopted for the title of this conference, and of the associated journal – perhaps appears to hold out the prospect of a more thoroughgoing approach to this problematic relationship, with the formulation ‘music in society’ seeming to negate claims of aesthetic autonomy, suggesting a closer correlation between artistic practice and social process. In reality, however, claims of autonomy persist, and – despite provocative sociological and feminist interventions over the last decade or more – the study and teaching of Western art music remains primarily and resolutely formalist.
My objective in this paper is to begin to illuminate and clarify the discursively constructed nature of musical and cultural hierarchies, addressing the processes of canon formation that ascribe value and status to particular musical forms over others. I conclude by suggesting that the study of the various discourses that have served to shape contemporary understandings of musical meaning and cultural value is likely to offer new insights to the complex interrelationship between musical form and social context.
Keywords: Music, Society, Discourse, Autonomy, Cultural Hierarchies, Social Context
Dr. Alan Stanbridge
Assistant Professor, Visual and Performing Arts - Arts Management/Music, University of Toronto