In a recent essay, Carolyn Abbate argues for a ““drastic”” rather than ““gnostic”” conception of music and would want to see musicology's efforts redirected accordingly. In the wake of the 1985 call by Joseph Kerman urging musicologists to shift their attention from ““positivism”” and ““formalism”” to ““criticism”” or ““hermeneutics””——that is, to musicology centered on interpretation——Abbate issues a call for a new disciplinary revolution, one that would shift our attention from works to performances and thus undo what she perceives as the fatal weakness in Kerman's position. When we ignore the actually made and experienced sounding event in favor of the disembodied abstraction that is the work, we bypass the sensuous, audible, immediate experience (the ““drastic””) and put in its place the intellectual, supra-audible, mediated (that is, interpreted) meaning (the ““gnostic””) and thus avoid what is of real value in music——the experience, the powerful physical and spiritual impact it may have on us. While I am in fundamental sympathy with Abbate's arguments and aims, I believe that the opposition between the real performance and the imaginary work——the former the object of immediate, sensuous experience, the latter the vehicle of mediated (that is, interpreted, ““hermeneutic””) intellectual meaning——on which her argument rests is overdrawn: The hermeneutic element cannot be wholly banished from the arena of performance; there is no such thing as pure experience, uncontaminated by interpretation.
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