Stock Musical Phrases

The music theorist Robert Gjerdingen has been pushing his theory of schemata or stock musical phrases since the 1980s, but it was only with his delightful compendium in 2007 (Music in the Galant Style) that he truly became a household name for musicologists. While analyses of eighteenth-century masters like Haydn and Mozart can get away with avoiding specialized or complex theories, schemata hit a sweet spot of simplicity and specificity that makes them difficult to ignore. I’m bringing them up for two reasons here. They will be the first proper musical topic in my attempt to link musicology with Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. (Chapter 3, following two chapters introducing OOO ideas and methods.) I’ve also recently gotten stuck while working on the preceding chapter about how OOO pans out in methodology, and I’m hoping this post will help joggle me forward.

Schemata in galant music (such as Mozart) are basically just two-part progressions containing around four or so events and lasting for a fair chunk of a musical phrase (a few seconds). If we take Mozart’s famous “easy sonata” K. 545 as an example, the first two measures comprise what Gjerdingen would call an opening gambit. It has just three events. The top part goes from the first scale degree (the tonic or “1”) to the leading tone right below it and back again: 1-7-1. The bottom part goes 1-2-1. In the two bars right after that, Mozart presents the single most typical galant riposte to an opening gambit, which Gjerdingen calls the “Prinner.” Here, the top voice descends stepwise 6-5-4-3 and the bottom voice descends in parallel, 4-3-2-1. Then he simply repeats it in a stretched-out version (four bars) followed by a cadence on the dominant or fifth scale degree. So the opening phrase goes opening gambit, Prinner, Prinnnnnner, cadence.

Cadences have long been recognized as stock gestures, but Gjerdingen’s work is crucial for describing and labeling the vast occurrence of similar formulaic elements elsewhere in musical phrases. In the background to his project is a critique of the idealized view of the artist (or the good one anyway) as a savant who is “liberated” from practical and social imperatives, a view which often goes together with the old assumption that artistic ideas arise from a primordial access to noumena or a welling-up of subjectivity. If you associate this critique – plus the notion of conventionalized schemata – with the art historian Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion), then you win the prize! Gjerdingen’s earliest writings acknowledge Gombrich’s influence.

More foregrounded in Gjerdingen’s recent work (including his 2007 classic) is his critique of music theories that would, in his view, wrongly apply modern musical habits to the analysis of past music. He claims modern listeners have become “less sensitive” to the established models of galant music, and his not-so-subtle implication is that we can finally gain access to ancient ears with schemata. “[C]ognizance of the Prinner and other similar patterns need not be irretrievably lost. We can, through an archaeology of musical utterances, dust off the galant schemata and listen to what they have to tell us about this courtly mode of musical thought” (59).
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Eric Salem on Aristotle and Harman

I just read through Eric Salem’s contribution to the new book Contemporary Encounters with Ancient Metaphysics, a chapter titled “Object and Οὐσία: Harman and Aristotle on the Being of Things.” The book has a lot of Deleuze stuff going on, including a new translation of a Deleuze essay from the early ‘60s about Lucretius. While I mainly concentrated on Eric Salem’s chapter, I would certainly recommend Adriel M. Trott’s chapter, “Does It Matter?” She asks whether the difference between form and matter in Aristotle is itself to be conceived in material or formal terms, and links this problem to sexual difference. Trott arrives at the strange conclusion that material in Aristotle is “inscribed with form” insofar as it is capable of leading to distinctions such as sexual difference. It’s an interesting reading of a work by Aristotle that I’ve never read before, and seems to have a vital materialist aspect.

The Salem essay examines the connection between Aristotle and Graham Harman from the perspective of an ancient Greek scholar. In a brief aside, Salem mentions that the problem of how to distinguish arbitrary aggregates from genuine objects is a sticking point for him about Harman’s philosophy. This actually relates to what I consider a genuine blind spot in Salem’s understanding of Harman, explained in bullet points below. Overall, though, I find the essay refreshing and vividly executed. Within the context of speculative realism commentary, it’s like coming in from an unending Edge of Tomorrow war zone to play a game of chess and drink a smoothie. Continue reading “Eric Salem on Aristotle and Harman”

Brief thoughts on Bryant’s Origami

I’ve had the chance to briefly return to Levi Bryant, since the final published version of his article “The Interior of Things: The Origami of Being” has just become available. In my previous post about it, I end up defending Graham Harman’s OOO from Bryant’s critique. But that addresses just half of Bryant’s article. In the other half, he defends his own origami metaphysics against the possible charge of undermining. This can be seen as part of a larger conversation started in The Speculative Turn, where Harman proposes his two well-known polemical notions of undermining and overmining (“On the Undermining of Objects”). Philosophies of pre-individual processes fall into the former camp. Bryant hopes to avoid undermining, and thus reach common ground with OOO through an alternative conception of the object. I doubt he really believes it, though. He puts “object” in scare quotes.

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Object-Oriented Feminism at CUNY

On Wednesday (Dec. 7) there was a panel at the Graduate Center in NYC celebrating a thought-provoking new book of essays called Object-Oriented Feminism. The short event was framed by comments about the book by a guest responder, none other than Rebekah Sheldon who I mentioned (total coincidence, really!) in my last post. The panelists and the editor, Katherine Behar, gave themselves five or so minutes each to say something. It was one of those interdisciplinary panels where some of the technical details from each person’s specialization went over my head, and a couple perspectives came across as striking and novel.

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A Picture Postcard…plus Graham Harman and Bill Brown

A recent dissertation by Louise J. Boscacci caught my attention: an “object encounter” with an old postcard! It’s a cool idea. Boscacci smartly divides the encounter into three elements: the postcard, her experience, and the postcard’s changing environment over time. Her extensive research of the postcard’s history is just plain interesting. But some other stuff bothers me. Continue reading “A Picture Postcard…plus Graham Harman and Bill Brown”