Review of Agawu's Playing with Signs


1.After class on Tuesday I decided to take a furhter look at Agawu's book, Playing with Signs, in order to clarify our uncertainties..

2.Agawu draws his evidence of topics from Eighteenth Century writings on topics by theorists such as Mattheson, Kirnberger, and Koch (as Teresa mentioned in class). Agawu believes that topics provide character as well as a source of unity for Classical Music. Further, it is the contrasts in character which provide interest in the music. Agawu lists twenty-seven topics which he will draw from in future analysis within the book. They include: alla breve, alla zoppa, amoroso, aria, bouree, brilliant style, cadenza, sensibility, fanfare, fantasy, French overture, gavotte, hunt style, learned style, Manheim rocket, march, minuet, musette, ombra, opera buffa, pastoral, recitative, sarabande, sigh motif, singing style, Sturm und Drang, and Turkish music.

3.Topic identities lie in the surface texture of a piece. Agawu states, "topics are a point of departure, but never total identities." (pg. 34) Topics are specifically a musical sign consisting of a signifier (certain disposition of musical dimentions) and signified (conventional stylistic unit.) What Agawu fails to clearly outline is the make up of the signifier of a particular topic.

4. Agawu states several times that, "it is important to realize how musical process itself subsumes topical discourse in a higher level rhythm." (for example see pg. 37) Unfortunately, I never get a clear sense of what he means by "higher level rhythm" or "structural rhythm" and how it relates to topics..

5. In Chapter Three, Agawu deals with introversive semiosis, in other words the structure of a piece of music. Here Agawu relies heavily on Schenker, Schenker's Ursatz, and the idea of beginning - middle - end. Agawu argues that Schenker's structure is necessarily an instance of rhetorical strategy. (pg. 54) When reading this chapter, I assumed Agawu would explain how each topic would fit into a specific category of beginning, middle or end, however, he did not. As well he discussed the middle of a piece of music as a place where commentary is provided on previously exposed ideas. If this is so, how are we to differentiate between where topics belong in the structure. For example, if a march is a beginning type feature what happens if a march like topic occurs in the middle?

6. In looking at his final example in Chapter Three which is assumably the idea of playing with signs, it seems as though Agawu has simply done a Schenker reduction and then labelled the topics without any explanation to how the topics relate to the structure.

7. I hate to criticizer Agawu for this shortcoming because, as I have found in my own research, topics seem to be merely surface constructs. It is extremely difficult to relate them to large scale structure. I don't believe however, that this belittles the importance of topics in Classical music. Is the idea of topics in music just a matter of fact, or is it a viable form of rigorous analysis for theorists to undertake?

8. Finally, with regards to the narrative which we were trying to construct from one of Agawu's examples - Agawu states, "sometimes a combination of topical sequences enables the analyst to construct a plot for a work or movement." (pg. 31) However, he goes on to say that this is optioinal not obligatory.

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