Eric sams: book reviews (edward cone: the composer's voice)

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Eric Sams: Book Reviews (Edward Cone: The Composer's voice)

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6/9/12 10:09 PM

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The Composer's Voice by Edward T. Cone. University of California Press
Even the staunchest enthusiasts for musical aesthetics blench and quail at the professorial
lecture-book. The complacent tone; the endless repetition; the absence of argument or
evidence, or anykind of intellectual rigour (except perhaps mortis) - how well we know
them, and their University Presses. But the latter can sometimes be as well endowed
intellectually as they must be financially; for example the 1971 Ernst Bloch lecturer at the
University of California at Berkeley was Leonard Meyer. This visiting professorship was
established in 1962 “in order to bring distinguished figuresin music to the Berkeley
campus from time to time”, which is of course an excellent aim (though the resident staff
may feel that it could have been better expressed). So we open the latest (1972) volume
of lectures with high hopes.
But these are instantly and comprehensively dashed. The blurb explains the thesis as
clearly as possible, namely not very. In brief, music is a symbolic utteranceof the
composer's persona (i.e. “a musical projection of his consciousness that experiences and
communicates the events of the composition”). This includes the role of the performer,
whose function however simultaneously remains autonomous. This dramatistic view,
derived from literary criticism, is assumed to apply (and is duly applied, in 175 pages) to
song, opera, programme music andabsolute music, as well as to performing and listening
generally. To exemplify: in its appli​cation to song the theory envisages three personas​ the
vocal (or the protagonist), the instrumental (or virtual) and the complete musical (or an
implicit, or the composer's).
One thing at least is clear; the qualifications needed for such a task include analytical
acumen and philosophical discipline. Buteven the preface falls headlong into the trap of
thanking others for their helpful comments but blaming oneself for any errors. The errors
are not known - or they would have been corrected-so their provenance cannot be known
either. Gamma minus for logic. Worse still, Professor Cone had to be convinced by a
Princeton colleague that books about “what it means to say that music is a form ofutterance” have something to do with philosophy. There's a literary precedent for this too;
M Jourdain reacted similarly to analogous advice from the Maître de Philosophie.
By now we know what to expect. Professors of music may well have been talking prose
all their lives; but what about writing it well? This text is said to have been revised. But I
found it unen​durably repetitious and trite,even by the undemand​ing standards of the
spoken lecture. On p.160 for example the word “utterance” occurs 17 times; utterance à

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Eric Sams: Book Reviews (Edward Cone: The Composer's voice)

6/9/12 10:09 PM

spoken lecture. On p.160 for example the word “utterance” occurs 17 times; utterance à
outrance. This is instantlyfollowed by “means” or “meaning” 15 times in as many lines.
Here is the bridge passage between these two deafeningly ostinato themes.
[Instrumental music is] “a form of purely symbolic utterance, an utterance by analogy with song.
Has musical utterance any meaning? The answer naturally depends on what one means by Il
meaning", and what one means by the question. For example it can be contended...
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