The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism

The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
pp. xxiv + 277.

Read an interview with the author at the Oxford Culture Review

Download a PDF of Chapter 1. This material has been published in The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton by J. P. E. Harper-Scott, and has been reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press.

Book description

Modernism is both a contested aesthetic category and a powerful political statement. Modernist music was condemned as degenerate by the Nazis and forcibly replaced by socialist realism under the Soviets. Sympathetic philosophers and critics have interpreted it as a vital intellectual defence against totalitarianism, yet some American critics consider it elitist, undemocratic, and even unnatural. Drawing extensively on the philosophy of Heidegger and Badiou, Quilting Points proposes a new dialectical model for faithful, reactive, and obscure subjective responses to modernism, which embraces all the music of Western modernity. Basing its analyses more or less arbitrarily on the music of William Walton, it establishes connexions between the revolutionary politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the logic of the various subjective responses to the Event of modernism, to show how all modernist music helps to advance our most pressing contemporary concern — an escape from the horrors of the neoliberal present through the transformations of a coming society.


Preface [xi]

Part I: A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing [1]
1. Modernism as we know it, ideology, and the quilting point [3]

Part II: Relationship Problems [43]
2. Modernism, love, and truth [45]
3. The love of Troilus and Cressida [81]

Part III: The Revolutionary Kernel of Reactionary Music [147]
4. Communist modernism [149]
5. A new community [197]

Afterword: what to do? [251]

Bibliography [255]
Index [267]


Part I: A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing

1: Modernism as we know it, ideology, and the quilting point

The book opens with a critique of the most influential recent work in historical musicology, that of Richard Taruskin, arguing that his work depends on a xenophobic–capitalist ‘quilting point’, a master signifier that fixes the terms of the discourse. In particular I argue that this quilting point underpins an ideological subtext of the inevitability of neoliberal democratic–capitalist hegemony. Subsequent sections critique technical definitions of modernism, and particularly my own previous work, on grounds that, first, they are partly occluded by a masculinist quilting point, and second, that the recent reformulations of the definition of modernism, particularly those by scholars working on Western ‘peripheries’ (i.e. outside the Austro-German tradition), have been merely internal reformations. They do not change the framework of the discourse, and in fact bind the existing discourse in place. This book proposes a radical break with existing conceptions of modernism. The final section begins the process of showing how artworks can expose the framing effects of ideology by considering Heidegger’s analysis of one of Cézanne’s paintings of his gardener, Vallier.

Part II: Relationship Problems

2. Modernism, love, and truth

Chapter 2 argues that postmodern ideologies of sex and gender depend on a meaningless ‘atony’ of banal listing of sexual acts and sexualities. Drawing heavily on Alain Badiou’s philosophy of love, it explains how love can function as an ‘excess’ that can break the conceptual framework that means, according to Lacan, that ‘there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship’. Situating Wagner, Beethoven, and Schoenberg in relation to Badiou’s critical concept of subjectivization (in response to a truth) and his set-theoretical ontology, it clarifies the nature of a radically Evental love.

3. The love of Troilus and Cressida

Chapter 3 reads the ‘pornographic interlude’ of Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida as an act of Agambenian ‘profanation’, which does violence to ideological imperatives for human action in relation to a ‘sacred’ state power. Finding Agamben’s ‘whatever being’ in Bach’s Goldberg Variations and an anonymous thirteenth-century motet, it elucidates the ‘pornographic interlude’s critique of both normative and seditious gender roles. Through engagement with Lacan’s theory of desire, it examines the function of a range of psychoanalytic objects in the opera, such as the scarf that does everyone’s loving for them. Musical connexions are established with the function of the objet a in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, to show how Walton’s music effects a critique of ideological gender roles. It concludes by arguing that Cressida’s betrayal imposes a new quilting point, presenting a genuinely revolutionary act of love, and a profound challenge to existing conservative and liberal notions of the possibilities of a loving relationship.

Part III: The Revolutionary Kernel of Reactive Music

4. Communist modernism

Chapter 4 outlines the theoretical basis of the book’s dialectical definition of modernism in terms of faithful, reactive, and obscure subjective responses to the truth-Event of modernism. It offers an exposition of Badiou’s theory of the subject in Logics of Worlds (2009), which is then explained in musical terms. It defends an insistence on emancipation of dissonance as the essential foundation of all subjective responses to modernism, on grounds that it constitutes the most significant revolution in musical metaphysics since at least the time of Ancient Greece. The official antagonism of consonance and dissonance that modernism breaks free of is related to similar official antagonisms in the modern nation state and the deadlock of ideology. In delineating the obscure subject of musical modernism, in music and also in criticism, the closing section uses the example of different forms of ethnomusicology to point to the ethical risks of postmodern musicology, which a renewed dialectical focus on modernism can mitigate against.

5. A new community

The final chapter clarifies the relation of Badiou’s four ‘conditions’ of philosophy – love, politics, art, and science – to the new theory of modernism. It suggests, with the aid of Heidegger’s idea of ‘dwelling’, a praxis for a critique of techno-capitalist ideology that draws on the Ereignis or happening/appropriation of truth in artworks. Applying the theory to analysis of Walton’s First Symphony and Cello Concerto it reveals the morphological connexions between Walton’s post-war aesthetic, those in contemporary literature and art, and the social-democratic reactive response to communism. Sticking firmly to Schenkerian models of tonal structure, it explains why Schenkerian analysis is best fitted to analysis of reactive-modernist music, because its failures to account for the tonal process in this music are a correlate of the failures of tonal process to entirely negate the trace of the modernism Event in reactive-modernist music such as Walton’s. The book concludes with reflexions on the limited but positive and valuable work musicology can do, by drawing attention to the presencing of ideology, as long as it evades the pull towards the obscure subject.