Just Another Heretofore Silenced Voice,
Bustin' Out and Singin' a Song of Dissent

by Linda Kernohan
Music 209
Spring 1999

comments to: lkernoha@ucsd.edu

At the beginning of an article I very much admire, musicologist Suzanne G. Cusick declares, "Ho grandissimo paura."(1) She goes on to address the reader in Italian for a full paragraph before revealing, to those of us who donÕt speak Italian, the meaning of that initial statement: "I have great fear." She is afraid because she is about to examine her relationship to music, on a personal level which includes, among other things, sexuality; in other words, to bring up issues outside of what has traditionally been deemed 'acceptable' and 'appropriate' in musicology.

I too have great fear. In the context of composition programs in academic music departments, certain issues and modes of communication fall into the range considered 'acceptable,' while others do not. I would like to expand that range, to shed light on what has historically been kept in the dark.

What is the purpose of being in a graduate degree program in composition,(2) in a university music department? Why are we here? Why do we write music, and how do we talk about it?

As graduate students in composition at UCSD, we enjoy many benefits: we have access to the wisdom and insight of the faculty; a community of fellow composition students with whom to share ideas; talented performace students with whom to collaborate; access to facilities, and opportunities to present performances of our music. Presumably, not only will the degrees we earn prepare and qualify us to work professionally in the field of composition, but they will have sufficient prestige attached to them to contribute decisively toward our future success. What could possibly be wrong with this picture?

I have nearly finished my third year as a doctoral student in composition, and I am frustrated. It's not because I have missed out on any of the benefits mentioned above - on the contrary, I have been extremely fortunate. I am frustrated because there is this thing called Academic Discourse (or so I'm told), and I have a big problem with it, and I have yet to make my peace with it.

In his original call-to-arms for this class, Miller challenged us to make polemic declarations. His title question was deliberately provocative: "Whose musical language is the real one?" Indeed! Obviously there is no single correct answer, (except perhaps among stylistic fundamentalists, such as Boulez or Wuorinen) but I have spent considerable time pondering this question and being bothered by it; something has kept nagging at me as IÕve been thinking, like a child who tugs at your sleeve asking "Why, why?" Look at that original question again: "Whose musical language is THE REAL ONE." In his book Historians' Fallacies, David Hackett-Fisher demonstrates how the nature of one's questions exerts a profound influence on the answers one finds. So if I ask whose musical language is the real one, I am assuming that thereis one real (i.e. right) musical language, and that the others are not real (i.e. wrong). Dualism, my arch nemesis, the thing IÕd like to wage a personal crusade against, rears its ugly head in these assumptions. Right/wrong, black/white, male/female, day/night. Competition. The idea of judging a piece of music and deeming it a "success" or a "failure."

The question, "Whose musical language is the real one?" also leads me to consider the way we talk about music. Why is it that the most satisfying and helpful conversations about music that I have had took place outside the seminar room? These conversations happened spontaneously, at cafˇs, at parties, after concerts - in other words, when it didnÕt "count." Why donÕt we know how to talk to each other about music in the "official" settings? We talk around music. We talk about form, structure, procedure - in a word, technique, but do we (can we) talk about those subjective, elusive areas that make what we do not just a craft, but an art? DonÕt get me wrong - I strongly believe that technique is very important, and I do not in any way mean to imply that we should stop talking about it. But why canÕt we talk about more than that?

What am I trying to say? I have noticed, during my ten years (and counting) of post-secondary music education, that there exists among composers a certain tacitly agreed-upon mode of communication for discussing what we do. It includes many five-dollar words and a few snazzy metaphors, but it always leaves me feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if I had eaten a meal that was acceptable in the sense that it filled my stomach, but not in an aesthetically satisfying or memorable way - and dessert was not served. There are things you Can and Cannot say, which is annoying, but the worst part overall is that composers seem to feel they must maintain an air of detachment; if you demonstrate that you feel strongly about something, everyone gets embarassed. But what is the point of writing music if youÕre not passionate about it? I suspect that some composers in academia adopt a detached pose in some misplaced attempt to justify (qualify?) themselves as intellectuals.

I would like to take the approach that Suzanne G. Cusick takes in discussing her relationship to music:

To speak publicly and truly about my own musicality... To speak not from what Luisa Muraro calls the state of 'faked being' (l'essere finta), whence the verisimilitude and credibility of one's topos and thesis are more important than the truth...(3)

Well, what is the truth, then? It seems to me that perhaps the truth is something we can only dance around. It canÕt be captured completely with words, and that, I believe, is one of the reasons we write music. And yet, we are here to learn with each other and from each other, and this process requires that we struggle to find ways to communicate about our whole musical selves, wherein art and craft function symbiotically.

Benjamin Boretz writes:

We cannot afford to deprive ourselves of our own expression by conventionalizing or institutionalizing our talk, or our thought, or our music... because [doing so] deprives us of what we most need from those outlets, what we lusted after in the first place so as to find ourselves energetically engaged, for life, with them.(4)

Our creativity is precious and must be treated accordingly; when we feel compelled by a narrowly defined academic 'tradition' to keep the part of our creative selves that most excites us 'in the closet' - marginalized, mystified - under the pretense of protecting it from public scrutiny, we confuse the protection of privacy with the imposition of shame. Boretz again:

Status replaces identity, erudition replaces experience, technique replaces awareness. Discipline replaces engagement. Knowing replaces searching. Self-congratulation replaces self-fulfillment - and in the end it must be that cynicism replaces yearning... Where this is the case our thinking, which could be our most powerful self-liberating resource, may be our most powerful self-administered poison.(5)

Schoenberg retreated into the Ivory Tower not, I believe, because he thought using music as polemic was a great idea, or because he didn't care whether audiences appreciated his music. He did it because so many people reacted to his art with such hostility. I don't think he shrank from criticism, but constructive criticism is predicated on an assumed foundation of acceptance and respect, and there is no room in such a scenario for antagonism and knee-jerk dismissiveness. And so I am disturbed, because I don't think the community of musicians should be plagued by ideological division and status-seeking competition. Lately I have heard the view expressed that the stylistic plurality that exists today is something to worry about, and that the polar oppositions of the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries were good because they provided structure, grounding or orientation. I am very uncomfortable with this assertion. First of all, though it is common and convenient to look back on history and sort everything and everyone into rival camps, it is teleology and oversimplification. I speculate that plurality may well have been around longer than we are aware, and to a greater degree, but that the writers of history exercised their editorial muscle in ways that filtered out variety. But more importantly, I think that art occurs prior to rhetoric (or if it doesn't, it should!); many composers have succeeded in finding their voices and producing their work without the aid of a prefab artistic label or -ism; it's generally the critics and scholars who have come along afterwards to name everything.

I lose perspective easily - I must remind myself frequently that the academic atmosphere in which I currently reside is its own rather self-contained world, and it occupies a very, very small corner of the world as a whole. This self-containment has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, university music departments protect and support important activities about which I care deeply, and which are endangered species because they are not sufficiently marketable and profitable in the commericially-oriented world outside of academia (though as university administrations increasingly adopt the management techniques of for-profit corporations, anything that doesn't produce revenue becomes endangered). On the other hand, I have so often felt frustrated, disappointed and silenced in this atmosphere that I sometimes get the urge to flee. But I don't think it has to be this way. Schoenberg writes:

It is not the heart alone which creates all that is beautiful... nor is it the brain alone which is able to produce the well-constructed, the soundly organized, the logical, and the complicated. First, everything of supreme value in art must show heart as well as brain.(6)

Thus dividing art from technique is an unnecessary contrivance to begin with - another instantiation of evil dualism! How ironic that the composer putatively responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place should be the one to summarize most elegantly and succintly what I've been trying to say about how to get us out!


1. Suzanne G. Cusick, "Toward a Lesbian Relation to Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight," Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Muiscology, Philip Brett, Gary C. Thomas and Elizabeth Wood, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1994).

2. I focus on the composition program in this paper not out of any desire to slight or ignore the other graduate programs at UCSD, nor do I wish to gloss over the fact that many composition students, myself included, participate in musical activities other than composition. Rather I wish to address the area with which I am most familiar, in order to avoid making unproductive generalizations.

3. Cusik.

4. Benjamin Boretz, Talk: If I am a musical thinker (Barrytown, N.Y., Station Hill Press, 1985).

5. Ibid.

6. Arnold Schoenberg, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., Leo Black, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).


Boretz, Benjamin. Talk: If I am a musical thinker (Barrytown, N.Y., Station Hill Press, 1985).

Cusick, Suzanne G. "Toward a Lesbian Relation to Music: A Serious Effort Not to Think Straight," Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Muiscology, Philip Brett, Gary C. Thomas and Elizabeth Wood, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Schoenberg, Arnold. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., Leo Black, trans. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

comments to: lkernoha@ucsd.edu