[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]
The question of meaning in music is one of the most fascinating – and rancorous – inquiries in contemporary musicology. As Mark cogently points out, the question is a highly nuanced one, yet the default position of many in our culture is the old maxim – music is a universal language. Imagine the World Music 101 student’s surprise when they learn that this feel good notion isn’t at all the end of the discussion. Meaning, it turns out, is a Protean concept and tough, if not impossible, to fix.
The issue is often phrased as a dichotomy, an approach Taruskin labels “The Great Either/Or” (I, xix). Is music a universal, open and free to all; OR is it situationally based, culturally specific, and constructed? His derision of this binarism makes his own perspective clear: music is both. One major problem, it seems to me, with the either/or approach to this issue is that is can potentially shut down all meaningful study, analysis, and discourse surrounding music and absolve all judgements from having to shoulder any reasonable burden of proof. If music is the universal language, period, then we’re all born with musical meaning preenscribed into our understanding of the world. No need to look too hard at the nit-picky details of time, place, culture, subculture, economics, ritual, use-value, race, gender, et cetera ad nauseum. If music is universal, then what’s to understand about it? We, almost by definition, must understand it already! It’s a convenient out. On the other hand, if music is too situational, too culturally predetermined, then it could almost lead the scholar (or music lover) to a sort of benighted resignation. Mark is right: we are all “outsiders” insofar as we cannot be Masai tribesmen, medieval monarchs, virtuoso Indian sitarists, and fin-de-siecle salon goers all in one lifetime. One individual can only occupy a handful of cultures/times at once (Alex Ross’s discussion of Richard Strauss shows the inherent weirdness of experiencing too much time on musical earth). If one can’t be an insider, and one must be an insider in order to get the meaning of the music, then why bother? It’s a lost cause.
Taruskin seems to be aiming at a middle path. I’m itching to follow this theme throughout, for it’s not terribly clear how it’s going to be accomplished.