Quilting Points: An Interview with J. P. E. Harper-Scott

Musicologist J. P. E. Harper-Scott is currently a Reader in Musicology and Theory at Royal Holloway, specialising in music theory and analysis with an emphasis on Heidegger, Badiou, Žižek, Critical Theory, Marxism, and postmodern critiques of human subjectivity. I spoke to him about his new book, ‘The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism’.

Firstly – what is your book about? Why should people read it?

It proposes a new theory of modernism, and it is a theory that fits all music since the modernist revolution as an essential act of indestructible relationships between truth claims. So not just the stuff that we know of from GCSE as ‘the modern period’, but all of it – jazz, pop, even the way that world music is consumed in the West.

Should any theory be able to be applicable to all music?

In this I see eye-to-eye with ethnomusicologists when I often don’t at all. The focus on how music works and the way in which it is written – those sorts of questions – tend to make a dialectical reading impossible because they focus on music as a subject in a particular place as a certain set of internal operations that you can understand, and then your response to it is to show your intelligence in appreciating its finer qualities and then go to bed, job done. I think it would be much more interesting for students, and also more important and valuable, to situate it in the broadest possible context. This can change lives.

Why modernism? Why is it so important to you?

I suppose the particular kind of modernism that I’m interested in is a more conservative kind. The majority response to the challenge of what you want to do artistically to engage with humanity’s situation with modernity tends to be a conservative one. You see what the musical experiments are and what the political experiments are, and finding a course that’s more profitable and more accessible, certainly, is very attractive. I’m sort of interested in the connection between this majority response in music and all political developments since the French Revolution, but primarily since the Russian Revolution. I essentially want to find a reading of music history in the Twentieth Century that will trace a nice Leftist course through all the arts, and trap everything in this hectic sort of modernism that is both a challenge to this impossible thing that most composers just don’t engage with but which yet somehow exercises such a powerful influence over them that they can’t escape it, or the message it carries.

The title of your book – ‘The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism’. To somebody who doesn’t know what a quilting point is, how would you sum that up in a nutshell?

It’s one thought or idea that explains everything about a situation. The example I give in the book is that you’re in Boots, you have a sandwich, a hairdryer, a banana or something, and a bottle of lube. When you go to the counter the lube quilts the entire contents of the basket, so that the assumption is that you want to insert everything into you for sexual pleasure. That’s a sort of trivial example, but in the case of contemporary politics the figure that quilts certain kinds of reality might be the figure of the scrounger who is ruining the economy by taking massive payments. These are powerful ideas that we allow our entire reality to cohere around.

How do you choose a quilting point – if you have love, balls, and strawberries and choose ‘sex’ as your quilting point, everything takes on a completely different meaning if you choose ‘Wimbledon’ as your quilting point. Is it theoretically imposed, or do you feel it emerges self-evidently?

It’s kind of a political decision in its context. Take an idea like justice. If you look at it from a Conservative position, then that means a system of laws that will uphold rights to property. Look at it from a Communist perspective and it’s something radically different… In any situation you have to impose a new quilting point, it’s sort of a consequence of that to enable everything else that coheres around this idea to be redrawn and for the world to be changed.

So, when we talk about the Leftist perspective, a lot of people would say classical music is not remotely related to a Leftist perspective, it’s very ‘elitist’. Do you see it as elitist?

No, I don’t. I see it as essentially oppositional to dominant, economically mediated forms of music… The confusion is, I think, in the way that people generally conceive of music: [a confusion] between popularity and democracy. So, the assumption tends to be that if the majority are interested in a certain cultural product, it must be democratic; and if it’s only a minority that are interested in classical music then it must be elitist. But what they’re mistaking is the saleability of a popular commodity with a counting  of democratic voices. I think that while there’s certainly elitist support for classical music, and there’s certainly a very heavily politically conservative base of listeners to classical music, nevertheless it itself is fundamentally oppositional and it’s the kind of stuff that is not easily digestible, it’s not easily sold, it does not submit (classic Adornian thing) totally straightforwardly…to the pressures of capitalism… It already always contains this little seed of hope that it can form a kind of resistance to the majority form. In my own experience too, classical music offered a lifeline, a ray of hope, a way in which things could be quite different. I think that the mass liberal middle-class tendency to think of it as elitist has the effect of shutting off this lifeline for a lot of people, as it’s sort of saying: ‘be happy with your pop. We will keep this awful, disgusting classical music for ourselves.’

So do you disagree with the general consensus that music syllabuses should not contain very much Western Classical Music because it is inaccessible to the majority, particularly in multi-cultural Britain?

Yes I do. Strongly. There’s a place for popular music, of course, but I think that the music and particularly the mode of its cultural, economic reproduction ought to be critiqued, to be understood, to be fulfilling the cultural and ideological function that it has. I certainly don’t have this rose-tinted view that if you introduce a person to classical music they become this good guy who will be fighting the big industry or whatever, but the possibility of a vision of a world that might critique the world that it emerges into is lost by this sort of insistence that we shouldn’t study it very much.

Do you think music should be on the Ebacc? [More information about the campaign to include creative subjects on the Ebacc can be found here]

Yes. I’d happily sacrifice some sciences. The scientific attitude works perfectly hand in glove with capitalism – it encourages essentialising views of human beings and discourages theoretical speculation.

Is that what you think that creative subjects offer that the sciences can’t, a more pluralistic perspective on humanity?

Yes, in a very crude sense that I only mean figuratively – science describes the world as it is in beautiful, incredible detail; the creative arts create a new one. The attitudes that go with those two broad, disciplinary swathes sort have a correlation in that there’s a tendency towards acceptance of the world in the sciences and revolution against it in art. Of course both art and science operate the full gamut of political and cultural responses but nevertheless there is this tendency.

So for someone coming up to GCSE level, and they have to decide whether they should do music, why would you say it is important to critique our views through music? A lot of people think ‘It’s just an entertainment’, ‘it sounds good’. What would be your way of convincing someone to say music is important?

Well music, like cinema, or like any popular cultural form that is adored by billions, can of course have this wonderful effect of entertaining or making you happy or capturing a particular mood if you’re exalted, for example, or grieving etc. But what it’s important to be aware of is the way that it can shape your experience of your world and your view of yourself in negative ways too. It tends to be through the study of a musical base that is not just more complex but more complexly embedded in a bigger historical development that makes focus on classical music an important way of clarifying not just the way that music acts on us but the way the discourse in general, in politics and culture, operates on us.

Is that how you came to ‘more or less arbitrarily’ choose William Walton for your case study?

I chose Walton because he’s a completely ludicrous figure. There’s no way that anyone would consider him a modernist, he … did not have the slightest left-leaning inclinations at all, but nevertheless I argue that he cannot resist the force of what I call the ‘Truth’ that is emerging within modernist music. It would have been easy to go for Schoenberg.

William Walton

Do you define Truth as being a clear path through a set of problems or questions?

I agree with Badiou and Heidegger I guess. Truth is the name given to any understanding that is outside of the current state of knowledge. It is not possible to have one [a truth] in the current state of knowledge because it will revolutionise it. In a geocentric universe, the truth that we circle around the sun cannot be admitted to the geocentric understanding, you have to change it. Or you can attempt to make your understanding more complex without changing anything but a Truth will always be challenging… I think that Truth has this effect of constantly nagging around the edges. Even if people aren’t completely dedicated to it there is this big majority band of well-meaning, slightly conservative people who nevertheless bring on some advance.

The philosophy of modernism encompasses issues that are still relevant today – why do you think the Leftist perspective is the route to go down? 

The Rightist one is a bit misguided to start with and it has been fairly attacked by most scholarship. The assumption from the Right is that this music is unquestionably great, there is something dignified and significant about it, and that we must appreciate it: it is a test of intellectual ability and perceptiveness to be able to engage with it. Also part of the Rightist perception is a kind of contempt for the masses; the fact that this music is difficult and nobody wants to listen to it is great … The Leftist thing is to reconnect this difficult modernist stuff with its function across the totality of human experience.

Do you think that the arguments that you present in your book are accessible to a non-specialist who is perhaps not familiar with the work of Lacan, for example?

The majority of them aren’t, but the nub of it is, which is that it’s in the nature of the way that revolutionary truth of any kind emerges into the situation that it emerges into, historically and culturally, that it just cannot be shaken off. You have early adherents to this truth who do the radical thing; Schoenberg, Trotsky, etc. But then there are people who react against that truth and produce a revised present that is sort of better than the old one. It’s not fully revolutionised and it’s trying to accommodate things to the existing situation but nevertheless it is advancing in the same direction. So, for instance, you reject communism but you have social democracy, and what flows from that is you get radical increase in the range of people who can have a vote, the welfare system and the NHS in England, these sorts of things. This has the effect of carrying forward quite a lot of the proposals of Communism, without the party structure and the rule of terror. That’s the majority response. Even though it’s attempting not to do the revolution, it brings us closer to it. I find that really encouraging, the thought that even a well-meaning sexist today is effectively still advancing the cause of feminism. They will say ‘Oh, it’s awful being a man today, you’re not free to say anything. You will be branded a sexist. It’s just so dreadful the way the discourse works around us.’ And the beautiful thing about that is that they’re using the language of early first-wave feminism, they’re saying there’s a problem with the discourse, that people are trapped by it. Even by ostensibly sort of rejecting feminist advances as they seem, they’re everywhere continuing the revolution.

How does Lacan fit into a feminist perspective? 

A lot of feminists have a problem with Lacan. I think the beauty I see in it is his insistence that there is no sense at all to talk about the male and female, that he chooses deliberately, I think, to stick to the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as a means of shaking us out of any meaning that they might have. Everyone in this room now is a man, in Lacan’s terminology, because they are all chasing after the objet a, the pleasure that you can never get. We tend to make ourselves congeal around identities that in the first instance tend to be sexual and gendered. His great insight (borrowed from German idealism) is that this is a fantasy, a fabrication, and that there is no support to this. If there is no support to this then there is no reason why you can peg a certain set of qualities onto a woman and say: you will do these things, you will be restricted in these ways. If he’s undermining the idea that there can be masculinity, he’s undermining the idea that there can be a patriarchy as well.

So in your view of feminism, is it necessarily the most productive, practical route – to say that between the genders you must maintain equality? Does it not ultimately come under an essentially male perspective?

It has to exist in a dialectical relationship with what you might call a group reality which is that there are human beings who are on average sort of male or sort of female. Cultural forces act on those two basic propositions in extraordinarily powerful ways and so you have to start with a political struggle by saying: ‘These people are suffering because of the label that they have. That is real.’ If this realisation and the sympathy for the oppressed position can operate dialectically with the insight that there is no basis for this label, then the possibility of shifting the label, of moving the people into a different position, becomes possible because you’re taking the real people with you. You never lose sight of the real people, but move them into a space that has opened up theoretically in a way that it couldn’t be if you simply say as some schools of feminism would do: There is woman – the things about woman are gentle and loving, and we must have more of these things.

In relation to this in your book you talk about ‘Troilus and Cressida’. Why did you choose this opera?

Troilus again I chose not only because it’s by Walton but because it’s a failure among his works. I think it’s kind of a catastrophe to modern audiences because the figure of Troilus is not manly enough. He is a perfectly manly medieval figure but for us he is a little man who weeps at bedsides. Nevertheless I think that the form of love that they [Troilus and Cressida] present – which I don’t think is one that anyone can really imitate particularly – helps to clarify the ways in which traditionally, or even radically, understood hetero-normative relationships are destructive and have an effect of binding people, men and women, into an unfree situation. The fact that the love of Troilus and Cressida depends upon a betrayal and not on stability or on fidelity I guess is a powerful kind of warning against the kinds of radical reinterpretations of hetero-normative love which might offer models for human behaviour which are very attractive and very supportive (for instance, gay marriage), but can, if unquestioned, lead to bad ends.

Do you think we’re still in a position where we need to keep reconstituting our borders?

Yes. I have an enormous sympathy with gay marriage because that frees certain people in certain ways to do certain sorts of things, and in itself, that’s fine. Setting up a home with someone you love – great. But this then offers an article for society to latch on to and to fold into a socially repressive structure because … there are all sort of things that follow from the construction of two women or two men being part of this stable, conservative unity that have unexpected consequences. This little bit of freeing up somewhere has the effect of closing down other areas of a social space. It’s an impossible struggle to continue, but theory is not supposed to give you a range of options of things that you can do, but give you a range of understandings of how things are completely screwed up, in the hope that this dialectical relationship between what is theoretically the case and what is possible can somehow advance things.

You mention dialectical relationships a lot – do you construct your world view in dialectics? Are you replacing old dialectics with new ones?

The old musical dialectics that are talked about by Adorno are too small. He talks about the dialectic of the material of the musical work and this is just a pathetically small concentration on materials within a score, within a musical tradition. The dialectic must operate between the totality of human experience and the smallest thing. I want to replace that traditional musical dialectic with a different one.

You say you make no apologies for your heavy emphasis on philosophy in your work – do you think that music is something that you can regard without philosophy?

A lot of people do. But I think that without philosophy there is a tendency to bury all kinds of things that should come to the surface that are not just about modernism but, say for example in the chapter on Taruskin, about things like xenophobia. These are big disciplinary assumptions that are really broadly put, not just in the politics of revolution but governing principles that are too seldom explored, not just in musicology but across all disciplines.

So to those who say philosophy is not relevant?

I think they probably mean analytic philosophy, which writes articles on whether music expresses emotion, and circles around the same [old] questions. But it [philosophy] can be relentlessly asking questions that are all about the way that we live, the structures that we live under today, the decisions that we take today about the way we live our lives.

Leah Broad

J. P. E. Harper-Scott

‘The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism: Revolution, Reaction, and William Walton’ is now available to buy or download from Cambridge University Press. To find out more about J. P. E. Harper-Scott please visit his website, http://www.jpehs.co.uk/, or his blog. He can also be followed on Twitter @quiltingpoint

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