Totalities and Fragments

Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Walt Whitman compares Whitman’s unique American project of fragmentation with that of European sensibility that thrived off of unity:

“…we should recall the difference Hölderlin discovered between the Greeks and the Europeans: what is natal or innate in the first must be acquired or conquered by the second, and vice-versa. In a different manner, this is how things stand with the Europeans and the Americans. Europeans have an innate sense of organic totality, or composition, but they have to acquire the sense of the fragment, and can only do so through a tragic reflection or an experience of disaster”.

-“Walt Whitman”

Think of the organic totality of European music. A European composer is working within a vast and deep rooted history. There is an innate sense of tradition.

Now take a composer like Claude Debussy whose music pushes away from this. He is attempting to grasp the fragmentary. In Deleuze’s words, he is piecing musics together “not by virtue of the totality of a situation but as a function of particular traits, emotional circumstances, and the ‘interiority’ of the relevant fragments”.

Though what is strange is that there is a characteristic Debussy sound and style. Many music people adopted his style around his time and were thought of as ‘Debussyistes’. A totality is formed from fragmentation.

On the other end we have a music like jazz. It is rooted on the fragmentary: using European instruments, pulling from American idioms like blues, and adopting an improvisatory emphasis.

There is a turn of phrase whose origin escapes me but it goes like this: “Jazz is America’s classical music”. Whether it is valid or not, the phrase has implications. Some jazz musicians and critics have tried to put jazz within an organic totality; that there is a grounding tradition and style to this seemingly fragmented music.

And yet there is free jazz and Miles Davis going electric, things which many in the aforementioned camp decried as not what they considered to be jazz. Are these examples not a part of jazz’s fragmentary nature? Is jazz’s totality not made of fragments?

Debussy and jazz highlight something perplexing. Can there ever be a transition from totality to fragmentation and vice versa?

Or, and this might be more convincing, does music exist in a wash of fragments making totalities and totalities being made of fragments?

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