AND NOW...AGAWU


[1.] Thankfully, I now feel that I have something to contribute to our discussion of Agawu's Playing With Signs - something that is not just a reiteration of everything else that has been said already...

[2.] Agawu's opening statement is a question: "How do composers reach their audiences?" At first I thought that Agawu didn't really go anywhere with it beyond the simple example (and answer) of the Mozart letter. However after some reflection on the book, and with the help of Melissa's review, I believe that Agawu says that composers reach their audiences by means of his concept of topical signs.

[3.] Agawu says as much in his description of the use of Turkish music in Mozart. "Mozart expected his audience to be able to identify Turkish music and its traditional associations and to react accordingly. And such a response was possible because among the communicative codes he shared with his audience was one constituted by elements of an eighteenth-century affinity with the exotic, of which ‘Turkish Music' formed a category." Notice the use of [the post-modern buzzword] code to distinguish categories- it would seem that these topics [of which "Turkish Music is one] are as much cultural tropes as anything else. The music that Mozart wrote was, in Agawu's view, the signifier to the code/trope/topic, which was (is) the signified

[4]. So when Agawu states that "The recurring question throughout these pages concerns meaning in Classical music - not what does this piece mean, but how does this piece mean?" he is advocating not the study of the signified, but of the signifier. He draws lines between expression and structure, the distinction extra-musical vs. inter-musical. Interesting - with these associations he suggests that meaning can is concieved as an extra-musical construct (which is, I suppose, fair enough considering that the audience he refers to are not music theorists). A conclusion drawn from this is that the expression is "what" (what the meaning is and the structure is "how" (how the piece achieves this meaning).

[5.] Alex and Sandra point out some of the problems in Agawu's seperation of the how from the what - how the piece means as opposed to what the piece means. This is somewhat troubling, for in order to proceed in this fashion, as Alex points out it is impossible to speak of how something means without reference to what it means.

[6.] The attempt to "provide an account of a piece in which the domains of expression (extroversive semiosis) are integrated with those of structure (interverive semiosis)" is proposed as a remedy to this. If one can achieve the (extremely nebulous) region of play between expression and structure, then the dichotomy between structure and expression can be dissolved. The how and the what are combined - music is not a signifier pointing to a signed extra-musical expression, but the expression determines the structure of the music as well. (As in Bahktin's utterance: an utterance is determined by past utterances and influences further utterances.)

[7.] This bears a similarity with the original Mozart example. As much as the music pre-determines the expression, the expression, as a cultural trophe specifically pre-determines the music.

[8.] Is it possible to achieve this free play? I'm not sure Agawu does. Paraphrasing Melissa, it often seems that he merely applies his topics arbitraily without making either the structure applicable to the expression, or the expression applicable to the structure. In other words he does not seem to connect the two attributes at all. But if the conception of meaning is entirely "extra-musical" (as it must be for a laymen audience), then one can claim that any particular ‘structural' collection of notes or harmonies or what-have-you is identified as an ‘expression' by means of the code that the composer shares with the audience.

[9.] I know that one could probably start a "chicken and the egg" argument here - what came first: the expression or the structure (the code or the music)? This is probably immaterial - if you could find it, what would it prove? A determinate meaning for the piece of music, most likely, but this is what was trying to be done away with in the first place.

[10.] Agawu's theories of topical signs, despite their shortcomings, at least bring the audience into the consideration of the analysis. Or rather, they acknowledge the multiplicity of the audience, and don't treat listening experiences as monolithic the way many analytical systems do (‘orthodox' Schenker, Reti, etc).

[11.] It is possible to conceive of the same piece of music having different topics for different audiences, although I'm not sure that this was Agawu's intention. This would lead to a wondeerful study of the multiplicity of meanings in a piece of music. For example, an 18th century Vienesse audience would probably experience different topics than, say an actual Turkish audience of the same century....

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