A Theory of Music Analysis: On Segmentation and Associative Organization by Dora A. Hanninen (review)

Exarchos, Dimitris. 2014. A Theory of Music Analysis: On Segmentation and Associative Organization by Dora A. Hanninen (review). Notes, 71(2), pp. 320-322. [Article]

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Comprising research spanning over a decade, A Theory of Music Analysis constitutes a comprehensive account and a culmination of Dora A. Hanninen’s work to date. To the extent that no theory of music is independent of analysis, this work is indispensable as a theory of analysis. The main (philosophical) concern of the book is how to create a precise analytical language, one that can secure a credible interpretation; intertwined with this is a (practical) concern with how to employ this language in a way that reflects the individual analyst’s flair. Analytical applications are not set against theory as singular instances of ready-made methods; on the contrary, by negating the usual rhetoric of theory and analysis, Hanninen sets out to provide a kind of metatheory, independent of the particular existing music-theoretic tools that it aims to encompass. This level of interaction between Hanninen’s overarching metatheory (or simply “theory”) and particular, or what she calls orienting theories is, I think, most intriguing and—although at times not easy to ascertain—promising.

From the outset, the author wishes to safeguard the “interpretive autonomy and imagination of the individual analysts” who use the theory (p. 4). In this spirit, the book addresses music theorists, analysts, and musicologists. It is ideal for a postgraduate and academic readership and it could serve as a main reference item in analysis courses. Analysis scholars will appreciate its focus on segmentation. From atonal-theoretic to semiotic methods, segmentation relies on interpretation of the music score. Hanninen endeavors to formalize segmentation protocols by constructing three basic types of criteria; although she provides comprehensive lists for the three types, these lists are left open-ended.

The book encompasses a wide range of Western music traditions from the baroque onward. This feature is one among its several qualities of methodological flexibility, afforded precisely by the relation between metatheory and orienting theory. From Bach to Brahms and from Varèse to Babbitt, the first half of the book abounds in examples and indicative applications of analytical tools and concepts. The second half comprises a set of six detailed analyses of mostly piano-based music, two European (Beethoven and Debussy), and four American (Nancarrow, Riley, Feldman, and Morris). Analytically, the book employs, and thus presupposes, a firm knowledge of common-practice tonality, serial systems, atonal theory, and Schenkerian analysis. These four approaches suffice to cover the repertoire with which Hanninen engages. Having said that, the flexibility just mentioned should provide enough space for one to apply new orienting theories to analysis (e.g., the often-idiosyncratic approaches by Iannis Xenakis, who is mentioned briefly).

Orientations and criteria for segmentation form the theory’s conceptual part, while associative sets and organization lie on the objective end, segments being the interface. The schematic of the theory is a synoptic representation of these five levels, which interact within three domains: sonic (psychoacoustic), contextual (associative), structural (theoretical). Thus, orientations refer respectively to disjunction, association, theory; and criteria can be sonic, contextual, structural, or linked as structural–sonic, structural–contextual.

Any analyst of the post-tonal repertoire will appreciate the difficulties around segmentation strategies. Allen Forte’s distinction between primary and composite segments, or the practice of imbrication, can be useful, but his reference to contextual criteria for segmentation was left un-systematized. In practice, this was counter-balanced by a refining of the segmentation process according to both those contextual criteria and set relations (The Structure of Atonal Music [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973], 91). Such practices point to a conundrum of theory and analysis: to what extent should we allow (the orienting) theory to affect our interpretation? Such problematics are usually confronted in analysis classes, where students are required to provide a convincing (as opposed to convenient) segmentation. The three types of criteria that Hanninen’s theory provides refer to disjunction (bottom-up feature extraction; sonic), association (by some kind of repetition; contextual), and specific orienting theory (compositional/analytical strategies; structural). The interaction between these three provides a sufficiently rigorous (albeit at times demanding) framework for segmentation. Following this rigorously allows one to mitigate the tension between theory and “the music.”

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December 2014Published

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15 Dec 2015 22:03

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29 Apr 2020 16:17

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