Faulty Footnotes

Trying to chart German music’s effect on Claude Debussy in class brought to mind a certain sense of frustration in discussing the nature of musical influence.

For something so tricky to handle, it is taken as a given by most of us. I am especially guilty of taking it for granted with the language I use to describe it. Take this musical analogue as an example:

“All of Western music is a footnote to Bach”.

Let’s explore the logic of musical influence by using this turn of phrase. Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, would have two problems with the statement above.

One, it implies that a timeline is a definitive hierarchy to determine influence. As Foucault mentions in The Archaeology of Knowledge, basing influence chronologically “presupposes, in effect, that one can establish a sort of single, great series in which every formulation would assume a date in accordance with homogenous chronological guidelines”.

Every musical utterance goes back to that magical time between 1685 and 1750. This moment is charged with being the center of influence, the genesis of Western music from which all precedes.

Foucault’s contention with such an approach is that it is too subjective: “The mapping of antecedents is not enough[.] [I]t is subordinated to the discourse that one is analyzing, at the level that one chooses, on the scale that one establishes”.

To choose J.S. Bach as the foci of influence is not an objective decision. There are imposed limitations, such as only discussing Western music and more specifically European music of a certain ilk, that take away from any sense of non-bias.

Two, as Foucault asks, “…[i]n what sense and in accordance with what criteria can one affirm: ‘this has been said’; ‘the same thing can already be found in this or that text’, etc.?”

How do we know that when Mozart does X, it refers back exactly to when Bach did X? What is the modus operandi for the assumption? Just because X is shared, it does not mean that Mozart intended to attribute the footnote to Bach. Like with the timeline, bias can make us believe that such a connection has objective validity.

Foucault again, to drive this point home:”The fact that two enunciations are exactly identical, that they are made up of the same words used with the same meaning, does not, as we know, mean that they are absolutely identical”.

After exploring both points, let’s put the emphasis on “as we know”. What is being expressed here is nothing new. Foucault wrote about all of this forty some years ago. That, however, does not mean that the narrative of origin and influence is dead.

Its pull remains strong. In that aforementioned class I found fellow students and myself slipping into the yearning for a center: “Was the origin of Debussy’s pull to German music Wagner? Could it have been Beethoven? I mean, if Wagner was directly influenced by Beethoven…”

Maybe we cannot escape this urge. Such a drive could be built into us as human beings. Perhaps we have to be hyper-aware of it. When it rises to the surface we have to remind ourselves to acknowledge this need as what it is, a subjective construction, and let it simmer down.

Like with toxic self talk, if we let it simmer down and do nothing else, it will return with a vengeance. So the real question, then, is that when we push the influence and origin talk aside, what are we going to replace it with?


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