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Babbitt and Guck in Modern and Postmodern Paradigms
A Discursive Essay

originally written for MUSC699T, Univ. of MD, Prof. Dora Hanninen



PREFACE: Apprehensions and Approaches

At what point does a scholar have the academic experience and awareness to form strong intellectual convictions and opinions? How should those convictions be conveyed? These are questions that I have been grappling with this entire semester, particularly in a class that focuses on close, critical examinations of articles that address the issues surrounding music theory and analysis. Many of the articles do not directly involve personal opinions, but nevertheless, opinions are implied-- in putting forth a theory, metatheory, framework, or explanation, it is always implied that what is put forth will work in application. These implied opinions are advanced by scholars with firmly established academic experience and awareness, and it can be intimidating to a novice like me.

Another factor of my scholarly apprehension is that of avoidance. Outside of the class, I come in contact with many young (and sometimes not so young) thinkers who tend to put forth compelling intellectual or aesthetic opinions that are convincing not in logic or awareness, but in brashness and force. At the risk of seeming ignorant or disinterested, I try to avoid the informal debates involve these kinds of polemics. At the risk of being ignorant, I try to avoid expressing strong opinions except on topics that involve personal experience and awareness. The reason for this is that at my stage in life (and perhaps at any stage!), the only topics on which I think I am the foremost authority are those that directly and wholly (or at least almost wholly) involve me or my experiences.

Nevertheless, a scholar needs to have some convictions, opinions, or at least interests to focus her work. Informed, assured, civil, and fair forums to offer those convictions are an important part of a scholar's education. When I participate in these forums, I usually find myself taking one of three general approaches. These approaches are not mutually exclusive-- in fact, I usually take each approach at different points in the course of discourse. The first approach is dichotomous, usually as part of a debate-style forum or in response to a dichotomous opinion. I feel the least comfortable taking this approach since I think it often leads me to misrepresent myself, expressing opinions that I don't entirely agree with or care about. In my experience, dichotomies rarely exist, though it is sometimes seductively easy to use them as organizational models. I do think that seemingly opposing concepts usually represented as dichotomies often make more sense when they are represented as two extremes on a spectrum. However, I find this representation more difficult to express, since it requires an acknowledgement of or even an explanation for the multitude of cases that lie on the spectrum between the two extremes.

The second approach consists of narrowing the discourse, also as part of a debate-style forum or in response to a strong opinion that is so broadly constructed it strikes me as incoherent or flimsy. I think that this narrowing approach can be helpful, especially if I don't understand the opinion or the topic that the opinion addresses. However, depending on the dynamics of the forum, I find that this approach sometimes leads to a trivial level of discourse that too focused on minutia. On the other hand, it could be argued that extreme detail- orientation is what helps to strengthen a broader opinion. This argument especially applies to me since I tend to think in broad strokes, and my scholarly opinions sometimes border on incoherence or flimsiness. If I became a professional theorist-- and right now, I am strongly considering it for later in my future-- I think that this sort of weakness would be something to work on.

While I tend to take the first two approaches in response to either the format of the forum or the dispositions of the forum's other participants, I tend to naturally take the third approach on my own initiative. This approach consists of steering the discourse towards inquiry, which I regard as more questioning in tone, rather than debate, which I regard as more declarative in tone. I am most comfortable with this approach since it allows me to think broadly without binding myself too strongly to opinions that might be misinformed or malformed. Sometimes the third approach can be excessively speculative and may lead to the problems that prompt me to use Approach 2. But the third approach still appeals to me since it is the most heuristic-- it privileges the question and allows it to be much bigger than the answer (or answers). At this point, it is the only realistic way to deal with significant issues in a personally satisfying manner.

Though I will use all three approaches, I hope to emphasize the third approach in this essay. I have not been able to use it much in class, which is part of why this explanatory preface is relatively lengthy. This essay stands in extreme contrast to the class's articles that put forth "testable" evidence. I want to be clear that the point of this essay is not to provide testable answers or even state a strong opinion. Instead, it asks a question, and provides some examples for how the answer to this question might be reached. But as I just mentioned, the question will be privileged over any tentative opinions or answers. My most ambitious hope for this essay is that after it has been read, the questions it will pose will be provocative enough to linger on.


INTRODUCTION: Why Modernity and Postmodernity?

In his overview article "Aspects of Musical Explanation," John Rahn defines and distinguishes between analog and digital modes of discourse:

An analog mode of discourse is characterized by use and invocation of qualitative rather than quantitative differentiation assuming continuous scales of measurement. A digital mode of discourse is characterized by quantitative differentiation assuming discontinuous scales of measurement. Analog discourse is associated with the humanities, digital discourse with the sciences; it is not surprising that both modes are found in music-theoretical discourse (Rahn, "Aspects," 205).

Most of the articles in this course mainly employ digital modes of musical discourse. Even many of the article titles show a digital orientation: "Segmentation as Process in Post-Tonal Music" (Hasty), "Music Theory as Cognitive Science" (Agmon), "Logic Theory, Set Theory, Music Theory" (Rahn), "The Scientific Image of Music Theory" (Brown and Dempster), etc.

Only in retrospect did I come to understand that the course readings generally employ digital modes of discourse. I had an inkling of this at the beginning of the course, and I was intrigued by it-- though I have a background in computer science and computers still figure dominantly in my work, I would characterize myself as a primarily "analogical" thinker. I thought that the course readings might add some rigor and systematization to my way of thinking. Though it is hard for me to tell if this has actually occurred, I do think that the course has been successful in adding a level of rigor and systematization to my reading.

I would like to give back to the course by imposing my own analogical predisposition on what has been a mainly digital mode of musical discourse. This is why, in this essay, I will cast the course readings in terms of principles that have been widely and diversely applied to many theoretical fields in the humanities: that of modernism and postmodernism.

In the following sections I will attempt each of the following:

1) to define these terms in ways that seem most applicable to the course readings;
2) to apply these definitions to two of our course authors: Babbitt and Guck. I choose these authors since they seem to lie on more extreme ends of the modern/postmodern spectrum, and will hopefully be simpler to analyze in terms of these paradigms.
3) to examine the implications of the application-- to see if there are aspects of music theory that are intrinsically modern or postmodern, and to discuss how this biases the entire application.
4) to reflect on the weaknesses and strengths in applying principles of modernism and postmodernism to music theory and discuss how this application might be refined in a more extensive research project.


PART ONE: Definitions

Defining the terms modernism and postmodernism is not a clear task since their definitions vary between and within each intellectual field. Both terms are used to refer to historical, aesthetic, and theoretic principles, though the use of each term overlaps in each principle area.

Since a few of the social and philosophical theories surrounding modernism and postmodernism have been applied in our course readings, I am primarily concerned with the terms' definitions in these areas of study. The characterizations of these definitions vary from author to author so I constructed a table to synthesize the characteristics of "modernity" and "postmodernity" that are found in each definition. This table owes a particular debt to Ben Agger's Critical Social Theories: An Introduction, which provided a very clear discussion of these terms (Agger, 36-51).

Characterization Modernity Postmodernity
global divisions strong divisions between "developed" and "underdeveloped" nations and regions. weak or nonexistent divisions
"end of history" a derivative of the Enlightenment-- modernity is the final stage, culminating in a postindustrial age in which everyone's basic needs are satisfied and ideological conflict disappears. postmodernity is the next stage after modernity (in some arguments) or an extension of modernity. In either case, neither modernity nor postmodernity is necessarily the last stage.
individualism a singular, stable subjectivity the self or subject does not exist-- people are not stable or singular entities, but occupants of shifting subject positions.
mode mode of production is the most relevant mode of information is the most relevant
reality reality is stable and able to be comprehended by scientific concepts (Marxism) reality is "simulated" in images and discourses that substitute for people's experience of a hard-and- fast reality.
language difference and deferral language bears a passive representational relationship to "reality" such that words can clearly describe the world language is an ambiguous medium that indefinitely defers clear understandings of the world
vocality there is a hierarchy of ways that a thing can be said, and methodical scientific modes of expression are given priority. everything can be said differently in ways that are not inherently superior or inferior to each other.
analytical polarities polarities like women/men, black/white exist polarities do not exist, especially in light of people's various and shifting subject positions
social movements the primary Marxian movement is determined by class conflict in addition to class, there are multiple grassroots movements determined by factors including race, gender, and sexual orientation.
grand narratives History and society can be described with Enlightenment-derived, Marxian "large stories." In light of pluralism and polyvocalism, large stories must be abandoned in favor of "small stories" told by subjects at the level of their local experience.
otherness an "exotic other" is a subject who cannot be adequately described in the context of the grand narrative the "exotic other" must be abdandoned since it leads to marginalization and subordination of groups and people

I had some reservations about using a table to organize this information since it might be setting up the dichotomies I am trying to avoid. However, I will try to use these characteristics of modernism and postmodernism as polarities-- ends of their own small spectrums-- that contribute to situating an author's work on a larger modern/postmodern spectrum.

Ager's book made a strong point that will be important to consider throughout this paper-- postmodernity is not a break from modernity. Rather, "postmodernity extrapolates modernity in ways unanticipated by the original modernists" (Ager 43). Certain subjects like behavior, social phenomena, and processes are intrinsically "postmodern" since they were not foreseen as part of the theories of earlier modernists. The idea of postmodernity as an extension of modernity will be used in examining how the later theories of Guck evolved from the earlier theories of Babbitt.


PART TWO: Applications

I. Milton Babbitt

In his articles "Past and Present," "Structure and Function," and "Contemporary Music composition, Milton Babbitt advocates the modernist principles that stem from the Enlightenment. By this, I refer to Babbitt's belief that scientific methods and language are necessary for clear and valuable discourse and in "Past and Present," Babbitt is very up front:

... it only need be insisted here that our concern is not whether music has been, can be, will be, or should be a "science"... but simply that statements about music must conform to those verbal and methodological requirements which attend the possibility of meaningful discourse in any domain(Babbitt, "Past and Present," 3)

Since a satisfactory theory is a satisfactory explanation of aspects of the empirical domain with which the theory is concerned, the contemporary dissatisfaction with the great body of pre-twentieth-century "theory" (and much twentieth- century "theory") is a fundamental one, stemming from the basic inadequacies of this theory in 1. stating its empirical domain and 2. choosing its primitives (Babbitt, "Past and Present, 5)

Babbitt goes on to discuss that the second of these inadequacies stem from the music theoretical practice of "ultimacy," the belief that a theory originating in "unprovable" protocol statements is arbitrary and therefore framing evidence must be sought from outside the formal system (Babbitt, "Past and Present," 5).

Since language is a theorist's primary mode of disseminating information, it follows that it is an overriding concern in many of our course readings. In this article, Babbitt is primarily concerned with a modernist treatment of language: he attributes dissatisfaction with previous theory not to the language itself, but to past theorists' inability to use language adequately (by stating empirical domain and primitives).

In requiring that a satisfactory theory must state its empirical domain, Babbitt implies that reality is stable enough for an empirical domain to be defined. He also addresses the characteristic of vocality-- the statements with the closest adherence to scientific language are weighted as more valuable.

In "Structure and Function," Babbitt primarily continues to take a modernist approach to the language that music theorists use. He seeks an "adequately constructed terminology" to provide models for "determinate and testable statements" (Babbitt, "Structure and Function," 10). He also includes the words of Quine, generally acknowledged as a modernist philosopher: "The "The less a science is advanced, the more its terminology tends to rest on an uncritical assumption of mutual understanding" (Babbitt, "Structure and Function," 12-- attributed to Quine). Quine's use of the word "advanced" adds, to my way of thinking, a subtly Western tinge to the discussion of music theory and music theory as science. It draws an implicit line between "advanced" and "not advanced" (crude, primitive) in a way that modernist thought tends to draw the line between "developed" and "underdeveloped" nations and regions. In this case of globality, the "developed" regions are most often of the First (Western) and Second (Soviet) world while "underdeveloped" regions are of the Third (many Asian and African) world.

Babbitt is primarily a modernist thinker, but later in "Structure and Function" he makes a small nod towards postmodernism. He says that music theory's problems cannot be solved by "merely embracing the latest formulations of the philosophy of science, for neither music nor the philosophy of science is that simple and static" (Babbitt, "Structure and Function, 13). This statement speaks to the characteristic of reality-- though Babbitt would generally argue that a musical reality is fixed and explainable by scientific language, he does acknowledge that neither science nor music is stable enough for the former to explain the latter. It might have been interesting to expand on this statement, for just as the climate of music theory underwent major changes in the 1960's and 1970's, the climate of science also seemed to be incorporating elements of postmodern thought: weak divisions, shifting subjectivities, simulated reality, and local narratives or explanations.

In addressing the concept of reality, I would like to consider that music analysis is a predominantly text-based field-- not only texts in terms of music theoretical writings, but also texts in terms of the scores and spectrographs usually used as the starting point for analysis. Even music theory is often based on a text, for its theories often synthesize or incorporate one or more supporting analyses, which in turn are text-based. The perceptual experience of listening has become increasingly important, as I will discuss with the Guck articles-- this might be an example of postmodern approaches that evolved from Babbitt's modernist thought.

While clearly modernist in his invocation of scientific language, Babbitt opens the door for the postmodernist evolutions put forth by Guck in saying that "One cannot be at all certain that any concept is necessarily an absurd one" (Babbitt, "Structure and Function, 14). The no idea is necessarily absurd-- Guck takes this farther, with Guck discussing the idea no explanation is necessarily absurd.

But the problems of our time certainly cannot be expressed in or discussed in what has passed generally for the language of musical discourse, that language in which the incorrigible personal statement is granted the grammatical form of an attributive proposition (Babbitt, "Structure and Function," 11)

Marion Guck writes an entire article about the phrase "incorrigible personal statement." To me, this phrase globally develops the divide that Babbitt establishes between the testable and the non-testable (incorrigible). This ties back to Quine's use of the word "advanced"-- Babbitt's use of the words "testable" and "incorrigible," particularly in saying that the "incorrigible... is granted," allude to the modernist conception of "developed" and "underdeveloped" regions. Testable statements are given more weight while incorrigible statements are inherently less weightier or granted the value of testable statements.

If it is not clear by now, I should mention that my approach to theory and analysis has a postmodern bias; I will discuss this bias more extensively near the conclusion of this article. Nevertheless, I try to understand why modernist thought was an influential-- and even sensible-- introduction to the field of music theory and analysis. Though I was referring to a digital mode of discourse, I mentioned that one of the reasons this class appealed to me is that it might add rigor and systematization to my way of thinking. Babbitt's writings were widely influential, adding a missing level of rigor and systematization to the field of music theory and analysis-- from my perspective, they acted to reform the field and give it a new systematic basis from which many other theorists developed their own work. Babbitt's previous statement about the incorrigible personal statement is an example of his effort at reform-- while his writing style often strikes me as somewhat strident, it seems that it is the result of a strenuous effort to be clear-- in this example, to distinguish the personal from the attributive.

If Babbitt was indeed acted or was perceived as a reformer, then this strident tone is justifiable to me. Indeed, Babbitt implies that this is the position he aims for: "Empirical theory construction... serves not only the goal of clarity, precise communication, and efficiency, but of providing knowledge of general and necessary characteristics of the empirical system through the structure of the formal model" (Babbitt, "Structure and Function," 20).

One of the thrusts of this essay is to question whether music theory and analysis would be served by reconnecting to pervasive theoretical issues in other fields. In "Contemporary Music," this is an overriding concern of Babbitt's. He discusses the difficulty in formulating music theoretical questions, and he wonders whether these questions are able resolvable in the same way as theoretical questions outside of music (Babbitt, "Comtemporary Music," 162). He concludes that they are not resolvable in the same ways: These (twelve-tone issues) may not be explicitly the stuff of intellectual history, but the formulations of these problems, and the modes and implications of their solutions, are intimately such stuff, for that neither the formulations nor the solutions of these questions had ever before even been attempted suggests not only that the means of formulation had not been provided from outside of music, but that the ways of resolving the problems, of responding to the questions were inconceivable within music (Babbitt, "Contemporary Music," 173).

With his modernist approach to music, it seems that Babbitt looks to strengthen music theory as an individual field by developing its internal mode of discourse and making this discourse more scientific. Just as postmodernism is meant to be viewed an extension of modernism, Guck's more postmodernist approach is an extension of Babbitt's. Her approach acknowledges that boundaries between music theory and other theoretical fields exist, but it views the boundaries as unfixed and permeable.

II. Marion Guck

Guck's article "Rehabilitating the Incorrigible" is just as concerned with language as Babbitt's writings, but it takes a more expansive, less exacting view of language's ability to serve music theory's empirical requirements.

I argue that, when Babbitt is faced with the particularities of a musical work, empirical requirements-- "scientific" method'-- and pragmatic claims take precedence. This interpretation suggests that the discursive clarity Babbitt required of musical discourse can be achieved with a wider range of linguistic resources than he could have foreseen (Guck, 58)

Like Babbitt, Guck takes a modernist view of musical reality in that it is stable, and an emphasis on scientific method will help lead to its comprehension. Her conception of vocality, while less stringent than Babbitt's, nevertheless has roots in a modernist emphasis on clarity: "But if an observation like [Hans] David's is a report of hearing, can it be faulted? I think it can, because, although a hearing cannot be denied, the report of a hearing may be obscure or imprecise" (Guck 63).

Nevertheless, Guck makes expansive use of "linguistic resources" to show that the use of scientific language is not the only way-- or necessarily the most superior way-- to achieve clarity. Her use of the immigrant's tale and especially of the word portentous creates a simulated reality that plays on top of the modernist reality that she and Babbitt ascribe to. In this respect, Guck devises a hybrid modern/postmodern approach to musical reality-- there is a modernist concept operating underneath a shifting, postmodernist set of percepts. Guck creates a local narrative of the Cb acting as an immigrant in the second movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40. It is possible to combine this local narrative with other narratives of the same Cb, or with interpretations of other parts of the piece. Guck writes: "This description invites you to match your hearing with mine or to imagine a new hearing that could be described by you in the same terms; in this respect it is like [Hans] David's" (Guck 63).

Guck does not argue that her approach is inherently inferior or superior to Babbitt's use of scientific language, though she does support the use of narrative as a useful and satisfying analytical tool (Guck 68). One of the reasons that narrative and description satisfy Guck is because of their richness: "... to capture the intensities and interactions of the passage's qualities... along with its sources in patterns from the past and its intimation of future events... I needed a description as rich as 'portentous.'" (Guck 71).

The way that Guck uses the word "richness"-- in which one word can imply many sources, patterns, and meanings-- strikes me as a bit of a contradiction on Guck's part. Here she strikes me as a postmodernist using modernist language. She puts emphasis on scientific method and discursive clarity, but it seems that in needing a ‘rich' word like ‘portentous,' Guck is embracing discursive ambiguities. I think that this embracing is very refreshing amidst our course readings, and I was very engaged by the immigrant's tale. However, I wonder if its use and the ambiguities it implies can really support her argument emphasizing the importance of discursive clarity.

Guck continues to use ambiguous modes to serve scientific methods. Again, while I think that this is interesting and engaging, I am not entirely sure if it is non-contradictory. I admire that Guck is trying to incorporate a modern/postmodern hybrid of reality, but when it comes to the use of language, Guck's approach seems synthesized. Guck writes that "to explain how Cb inflects Eb major in terms of the immigrant's tale (or to describe how bar 53's Cbs are portentous) is to draw on a model just as surely as any scientist does" (Guck 72). Throughout her article, Guck speaks to the question of language difference and deferral. While she acknowledges the postmodern notion that language is an ambiguous medium, her emphasis on Babbitt's "scientific method" implies that she believes it is possible for the ambiguous medium of language to result in, not defer, clear understandings.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Guck takes this non-synthesizing approach to language is to avoid the use of language that Babbitt derides:

It should not be surprising that an individual so acutely aware that the subtle details of musical events create the contextual identity which is the musical work abhors language that serves only as a blanket and a sedative-- the musically soporific language of pat explanations and thoughtless labels (Guck 61).

It might also be the case that Guck emphasizes discursive clarity and scientific method with the purpose of encouraging intersubjectivity. Guck discusses that its important that a forum's participants be sure of the intersubjectivity of their descriptions in that those descriptions pick out the same feature of the piece for every participant. She advocates adherence "to the rules of intellectual courtesy that 'scientific' language and method codify" (Guck 65). Like I mentioned in the preface about the dangers of inquiring, broad discussion becoming too flimsy, Guck seems to be taking care to keep her narrative and narrative descriptions from going into the territory of "soporific language."


PART THREE: Reflections

Now that modernism and postmodernism have been applied to two of our most influential course writings, I would like to problematize the application and see if it is worth applying to other writings in the course.

First, let me discuss how I would strengthen this project if I had the time and space. In reference to the table at the beginning of the essay, I would eliminate certain elements of social theory (which I include for now to give a sense of the expansiveness of this theory). In place of these discarded elements, I would introduce elements of aesthetic and especially literary theory into the table-- thereby attempting to construct a tighter hybrid theory to apply to our course writings.

Previously, I discussed how music theory and analysis and a text-based field of inquiry. This text basis lends music theory to analytical comparisons with literary theory. Though a hearing of the text plays a huge role in music theory and an almost non-existent role in literary theory (particularly that of prose), I still think it would be useful to try introducing elements of deconstructionism to music metatheory. Again, the application of deconstructionism might not holdup after many attempts. Nevertheless, when I consider Babbitt's call to music theorists to formulate musical questions and answers from within the text, I think that elements of deconstructionism might be very useful in examining the methodology that Babbitt espouses.

I have only applied characteristics of modernism and postmodernism to two of our course authors, but if I had the time and space I would of course try this application on other course writings. First I would start with Lewin, then Boretz, as was suggested in class. I think Lewin is a particularly interesting case-- in his study of musical perception, he wrote one of the course's most systematic rigorous articles, but this article is very postmodern in two ways: it privileges the perception over the text, and it devotes a large amount of space to the notion of music theory and analysis as poetic acts-- thereby embracing the discursive ambiguity that Guck touches on.

One of the issues concerning me in writing this article is that I do not have an extensive background in any sort of modern or postmodern theory. Add to this the general confusion from field to field regarding how these terms are defined-- and I have the making for a rather nebulous, "soporific" study. This is one of the reasons that I exclusively focused on social theory to form working definitions of modernism and postmodernism-- while social theory is by no means a perfect fit to music theory, at least I have a starting point from which I can refine these definitions.

An aspect that deserves much more exploration is the extent to which music theory is inherently modern or postmodern. Something that already skews music towards inherent modernism is that music uses a digital language, namely the twelve tones of the musical scale. Even when these tones acquire meaning through organization and combination, a single note have the inherent, ambiguous, rich implications that a word does-- as Boretz discusses, a note does not point outside itself in the way that a word does.

I return to the question of whether the modern and postmodern paradigm is worth applying to other works of musical theory, analysis, and metatheory. Can this application work on a larger scale? I am certainly not sure how to answer this question, particularly since I would characterize myself as an amateur music theorist with no long-term claims on the development of the field. I offer one notion that might justify the use of these paradigms-- that of bring music theory closer to the general climate of contemporary intellectual history.

The paradigms of modernism and postmodernism are certainly applied in many humanities fields, but they are also being increasingly applied in the realm of scientific philosophy. Consequently, even for those theorists who are exclusively interested in the use of scientific language and method, modernism and postmodernism are almost unavoidable. By considering these paradigms as they make their own musical examinations, music theorists and analysts might make music theory more "properly a part of that activity as it is characterized by the most central, crucial, widely, and deeply discussed issues of our intellectual time" (Babbitt, "Contemporary Music," 157). | May 2002







Works Cited


Agger, Ben. Critical Social Theories: An Introduction. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.

Babbitt, Milton. "Contemporary Music Composition and Music Theory as Contemporary Intellectual History." In Perspectives in Musicology, ed. Barry S. Brook. New York: Norton, 1972.

_______. "Past and Present Concepts of the Nature and Limits of Music." In Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory. Edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone. New York: Norton, 1972.

_______. "The Structure and Function of Music Theory." In Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory. Edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone. New York: Norton, 1972.

Guck, Marion. "Rehabilitating the Incorrigible." In Theory, Analysis, and Meaning in Music. Edited by Anthony Pople. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1996.

Rahn, John. "Aspects of Musical Explanation." In Perspectives of New Music 17/2 (1979) 204-224.




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