Reviews - What do customers think about Signs of Music: A Guide to Musical Semiotics (Approaches to Applied Semiotics, 3)?
Not much of a guide...but a decent introduction Dec 13, 2004
In staying faithful to the title of his new collection of essays on musical semiotics, Eero Tarasti attempts to provide for the reader not a comprehensive and critical examination of the science of musical signs but rather, a useful guide to its history, vocabulary, and various applications. Taken, then, as a sort of introductory text, the book begins practically with a brief history of the discipline, spotlighting the field's major actors and ideas before elaborating upon them in subsequent chapters through the lens of such germane topics as gender, musical organicism, and the social. Through these topical approaches, Tarasti is able to draw from impressive body of interdisciplinary literature, including literary theory, literature, semiotics, cultural studies, musicology, ethnomusicology, and music theory, to illuminate for the reader music's non-exemption from serving in the same communicative capacity as other cultural texts. Ultimately, however, while impressive in its scope, the book fails to achieve the goals set up by its very title.
In the foreword of the book, Tarasti states that his volume is intended to be a "practical guide" to the subject, one that might "encourage readers-be they students of music, musicology or semiotics-to learn more about musical semiotics" (v). If, by "practical guide, Tarasti means a useful tool which can be consulted repeatedly for the easy access to its ideas and terms, then Tarasti has not met his own goals. This mainly stems from the unfortunate lack of an index of terms, a device so crucial to studies within this discipline and its blitzkrieg of idiosyncratic vocabulary that such an exclusion is unthinkable. If semiotics has contributed anything to the discourse of meaning and communication, it is a way of speaking about it- a useful terminology that can be used to pointpoint what could previously only be expressed through the use of nebulous metaphor. Without an index, Tarasti's study is a frustrating read, demanding an excess of digging to find the singular pages on which words are defined. When they are defined-and often, they never are- they are done so largely through the use of example and not by way of concise definition (see "deduction", "induction" and "abduction": 194). Were Tarasti's prose generous enough to reemphasize these meanings upon consecutive utterances, this might not be the problem that it certainly is.
Another problematic element of the study perhaps lies in reasons beyond its immediate control. The nature of semiotics as an independent discipline, one focused exclusively on a "science of the sign," has been obscured and diluted by the many linguistics-based disciplines which have borrowed and been based upon its devices. We might even say that semiotics is so tied to its companion disciplines (the "new" musicology, literary theory, cultural studies, etc.) that to speak of one is impossible without speaking of the other. Thus, as a study focused exclusively on semiotics, Tarasti's essays have the effect of estranging the familiar by removing common themes from their most common scholarly contexts and isolating them within those of semiotics. The reader is thus placed in a kind of hazy scholarly netherworld, oriented by the use of familiar ideas yet disoriented by their new clothing. For example, while most scholars will accept that gender in music is a socially constructed phenomenon-and most studies begin from this point of departure-Tarasti takes a substantial number of pages to demonstrate why these connections are, in fact, arbitrary, why there can be nothing inherently "feminine" or "masculine" in a musical gesture. What seems at first to be Tarasti's refutation of a widely accepted idea-the presence of gender in music-turns out to be a clarification of its subtle implications. While awkward upon the first read, these recontextualizations are perhaps refreshingly helpful. In his section summarizing the history of the discipline, for example, it is enlightening to see scholars such as Ernst Kurth or Heinrich Schenker framed not simply as music theorists-an understandably common label-but, rather, as different types of proto-semioticians (52).
If much of Tarasti's study is somewhat alienating simply by nature of its situatedness between and not necessarily within music scholarship's many disciplines, the effect is only heightened by more specific devices within Tarasti's writing. Non-musical concepts are often referenced in passing without sufficient explanation, such as those of Marshall McLuhan in this passage on musical modernism: ...narrative elements based on tonality have maintained their importance in many musical areas, particularly in popular and media music (cinema, TV, video, multi-media)...In addition, a transition from what Marshall McLuhan called a "cold to a "hot" society took place, and the changes that occurred in all areas of communications with growing rapidity also took place in the language and style of music (43).
Also, there is perhaps an overabundance of references to Finnish composers and scholars-Sibelius alone is referenced in over thirty pages-at the expense of a broader survey of scholarships and genres. Popular music, for example, is almost entirely left out of Tarasti's discussion; and through a somewhat tangential discussion of the Bororo Indians in the books concluding chapter, world musics receive only a cursory nod.
Tarasti is perhaps at his best in his chapter six, entitled "Body and Transcendence in Chopin" where he provides close readings of the composer's piano music using the semiotic tools developed in previous chapters. Analyzing different moments in Chopin as specific types of musical "utterances", or "meeting places of corporeal and stylistic meanings", Tarasti proceeds to locate thirty-two different types of musical signs and what they might specifically communicate to the listener (143). Interestingly, Tarasti's names for specific "utterances" in Chopin are strangely reminiscent of the litany of terms forvever employed by music teachers as a means of coaxing specific sounds out of their students' playing. While our musical discourse has always been laden with such "semiotic" intuition, Tarasti's methods seem to justify these symbolic connections- those which would otherwise be purely metaphorical and thus, baseless-by grounding them in the different ways in which they are encoded-socially, corporeally, or otherwise.
Signs of Music provides a much-needed survey of the way semiotics manifests itself in strictly musical terms. It is unfortunate, then, that the book's clumsy handling of the most practical features keeps it from becoming the useful tool it sets out to be.