[Smt-talk] Theorists and Composers

Dr. John S. Cotner cotnerjs at sfasu.edu
Mon Jul 9 15:59:29 PDT 2012

Dear Professionals:

I tend to resist commenting on SMT-Talk threads since more often than naught
a colleague with greater knowledge, eloquence, and experience than I
eventually expresses thoughts on a subject that put mine to rest. After
following the recent thread revisiting the old binary opposition theorist
vs. composer/composer vs. theorist, I decided to express some thoughts on
the matter.

If our cumulative education and knowledge proves anything, it is that this
community is always best served when commentaries employ the same kind of
intellectual prudence and professional respect that we take for granted in
our research, teaching, and relationships.  Thus, any discussion of topics
as culturally, historically, and philosophically complex and loaded as the
relation between performance/analysis/composing/listening, should be
approached with regard for the intellectual narratives of Western thought
(and, non-Western thought where a member's expertise affords).  In order to
maintain the high level of dialogue characteristic of our enterprise at
large, my hope is that argumentation and criticism builds logically from
explicit intellectual points of reference for the purpose of vigorous
discourse, no less passionate, yet less the trend toward put-downs. 

Consider Nicholas Cook's critical method throughout *Guide to Musical
Analysis*, which fairly consistently rejects superficial, even monolithic
notions of what terms such as "composer," "theorist," "performer," or
"listener" might mean; or what it is generally presumed that these roles
entail.  I think that he sets a good example of how quality critical
discourse in music conducts itself, whether in published prose or discussion
lists.  That is, he practices self-reflection, and unpacks cultural and
institutional prejudices against thoughtfully-conceived suppositions and
supporting material.  He backs-up his arguments with evidence, and poses
counterarguments, undergirded by historical context. Music Theory is treated
quite critically, yet through this process, Cook exposes and corrects biases
that artificially seek to place  performers and composers in opposition to
theorists, or vice versa. He affirms the value of theory and analysis by
means of intervention. Whether one takes issue with his conclusions or not,
Cook's method demonstrates that when we seek to learn cognitive,
psychological, philosophical, linguistic, scientific, historical, or
cultural underpinnings of a concept, a method, a compositional technique, a
process, a style and genre, for instance, we proceed to a higher-order
discourse; an enterprise that considers the various disciplines of our
profession as intimately bound aspects of a more profoundly integrated and
multilayered human experience. 
Should not theory and aural skills classes, applied lessons, and master
classes be fertile ground for cultivation of such an integrated experience
and higher-order critical method?  For our discourse to run the path of
intellectual and artistic vision, I think that we should always scrutinize
the motivations that drive us to stake-out territory in one or another
dimension of experience, and reconsider how and why we define ourselves and
others accordingly. What politics will hold us to a higher standard of
dialogue if not the pursuit of knowledge through mutuality, even when
philosophical disagreement persists or personal views run at cross-currents?
Real learning does not tend to come through agreement, but disagreement; and
civil negotiation of the dialectic matters, and usually leads to new
learning, new experiences, a new horizon for my own teaching, song writing,
and scholarship.

I would like to interject my view that the duality between composing as,
say, "doing," and theorizing as, say, "thinking" (a distinction posed to me
some time ago), or between the prior activity being one of "practice"
whereas the other activity is one of "contemplation," is itself an
altogether simplistic subtext immediately subject to skepticism.  But to
adequately discuss any of this further, among other things, we would need to
look back and reconsider the early Western philosophical distinction between
so-called theory and practice, and reconsider how ancient and later currents
of thought continue to influence the state of music studies, formally and
informally.  One cannot create without a cultural schematic, and one cannot
theorize without imagination and intuition; theory and practice are two
sides of the same coin.  Elsewhere, Cook has talked about the
"performativity of analysis," Christopher Small gave us musicking/music;
Lewin and Cohn define networks as opposed to hierarchies.  Subotnik
articulated the opposition structure/medium.  How can we learn from each
other and thereby broaden and enhance our individual perspectives, the
intellectual and artistic vision of our programs, the intrinsic motivations
of our students, the artistry of our time?  


Dr. John S. Cotner
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
Director of Music Theory and Aural Skills
School of Music
Stephen F. Austin State University
P. O. Box 13043, SFA Station
Nacogdoches, Texas 75962-3043
Office: (936) 468-1428
Fax: (936) 468-5810
Email: cotnerjs at sfasu.edu

-----Original Message-----
From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org
[mailto:smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of Sheehan,
Sent: Sunday, July 08, 2012 10:01 PM
To: Ninov, Dimitar N; smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

Dear Readers,

I have a wish:  that a couple of months pass during which time I would not
see contributions to smt-talk (that is, the Society for _Music Theory_'s
talk list) from those harboring contempt for "theorists".  I would like to
hear some other voices.  By flogging the poor, dead horse of (let us be
frank) theorists-are-inferior-to-composers, such contributors betray the
fact that they feel threatened by the very existence of "theorists"--of
people who think about music in a deep, meaningful way and about how to
explain it to undergraduates, graduate students, "the public", and their
peers.  Seems to me like a service rendered for composers might be better
left alone by those it serves!

I am interested in new contributors to this thread and others along these
lines.  Are some who have remained silent listening?

Dr. Paul Sheehan
Instructor, Music Department
Nassau Community College (SUNY)
One Education Drive
Garden City, New York 11530

From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org
[smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] on behalf of Ninov, Dimitar
N [dn16 at txstate.edu]
Sent: Sunday, July 08, 2012 10:52 AM
To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: [Smt-talk] Theorists and Scientists

Dear Prof. Morse,

I could not agree more with what you wrote in your last letter. ...

Best regards,

Dimitar Ninov

Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666
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