Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Music as Performative Utterance: Towards a Unified Theory of Musical Meaning with Applications in 21st-Century Works and Social Life
by Chung, Andrew Jay, Ph.D., Yale University, 2019, 394; 13809225
Abstract (Summary)

Theorists and musicologists have asked what particular musical works mean, what particular musical objects represent, what they narrate or disclose, and how those meanings got there. Recently, some thinkers have jettisoned music-language parallels in favor of investigating music's ineffability, its sensuous effects, and the materialities of its performances. However, both routes of inquiry, whether sympathetic to the music-language analogy or not, rest on assumptions about the concept of meaning itself. Both typically ground the music-language analogy in the semantic aspects of language meaning—how language represents, refers to, or discloses the world. If meaning and semantic representation are conflated, music's efficacy—which exceeds its representational modalities—becomes, dissatisfyingly, the other of its meanings.

This project challenges the status of representation in conceptions of the music-language analogy, developing an alternative foundation for understanding musical meaning from philosopher J. L. Austin's concept of "performative utterances". Austin and other thinkers in a tradition now called "ordinary language philosophy" rejected the view that language meaning is chiefly a matter of how it represents states of affairs or states of mind—its constative dimension. The performative dimension of language, however, names the ways words and sentences are used to accomplish semiotic actions and produce effects. This concept grounds language meaning in the efficacy of language use in social praxis. In Chapter 1, I develop an analogous theory of musical meaning, grounded in the semiotic actions and effects produced by music as utterance. Music is often said to be, if anything, expressive; but expression—strictly speaking, the mapping of inner content to outer signifying form—is a weak conceptual basis for what we think of when describing music as expressive. Instead, conceiving of music's meaningfulness in terms of its efficacy as sonic utterance supplies the condition of possibility for musical expression, reference, and disclosure while also eliminating the false dichotomy between music's meanings and its effects.

In Chapters 2 through 4, drawing on fieldwork at European festivals of new music including the Darmstadt Summer Courses and Donaueschinger Musiktage, I explore works by four living composers and sound artists: Michael Beil, Peter Ablinger, Stefan Prins, and Ashley Fure. These works exemplify what I call an aesthetics of efficacy, and their meanings centrally involve the performance of communicative actions such as: the incitement of particular modes of listening, the construction of narrative identities, and the enactment of changed attitudes through musical sound and story. For instance, Ashley Fure's The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects (2016) is a musical engagement with the problems of the Anthropocene. Through the lens of performative utterance, I characterize it as an ecocritical intervention. Fure's work creates an abstract narrative that seeks to bring out a sense of the vibrancy and animacy of the non-human objects that star in the piece: vibrating speaker cones, percussion instruments, and elements of the mise-en-scène. Fure aims to incite listeners to leave the concert space with stronger senses of empathy and productive anxiety towards the vibrational events of the Anthropocene, including fracking-induced earthquakes or the calving of glaciers into warming oceans. The encouragement of empathies and incitement of anxieties towards the planetary ecosystem are highly salient aspects of the piece's meaning, and these are, fundamentally, semiotic actions performed by musical sound.

To fully probe performative utterance and understand its value for musical study, we must expand beyond the study of art music to investigate music in contemporary social life. Like scholars who have used Austin's work to investigate the injurious efficacy of hate speech, I turn to examine the ethico-political stakes of the performative utterance concept, theorizing music's potential to become injurious utterance. In Chapter 5, I critique tendencies to frame discussions concerning music as violence in materialist terms, and expose some shortcomings of this materialist, vibrational model. In Chapter 6, I conduct an observational cyber-ethnography of web forums for adult entertainers and their patrons, showing how both groups discuss strip club music's capacity to elicit erotic dance and facilitate forms of sex work that take place in adult entertainment establishments. I argue that, for victims trafficked into strip clubs, music's efficacy surpasses its prompting and facilitating functions, becoming the semiotic enactment of sexual violence. Music functions contextually to induce behaviors that promote precarity and rob victims of sexual agency, prompting striptease and lap dances as well as the forced solicitation of commercial sex within grossly uneven power differentials. The final chapters offer a corrective to the admittedly attractive view that music is inherently personally and socially therapeutic, arguing that such thinking is ideological and politically inefficacious.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McCreless, Patrick
Commitee: Kane, Brian, Figlerowicz, Marta
School: Yale University
Department: Music
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 81/4(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: Music theory, Music, Philosophy
Keywords: Continental philosophy, Linguistic pragmatics, Musical violence, New music, Ordinary language Philosophy, Performative utterance
Publication Number: 13809225
ISBN: 9781687910592
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