Eero Tarasti

Introducing the 11th International Congress on Musical Signification at Cracow Music Academy on Sept 27 – Oct 2, 2010:  “Function and Value in Music” (

When the research project ‘Musical Signification’ was launched in the Parisian spring of 1984 at the French Radio Building, during a live broadcast of a conversation among six scholars, no one could anticipate its future.  Now it is certainly one of the largest and longest standing musical projects in the whole world with its over 660  members.  The title was a wise choice, since to call it ‘musical semiotics’ may have been felt in some circles as too limited, though basically it is, of course, a semiotic approach to music.

After having organized ever more extensive  and energetic international biannual symposia in Helsinki and Imatra, Finland (twice), in Paris (twice),  Aix en Provence, Edinburgh, Bologna, Rome and Vilnius, it has now reached Cracow, one of the musical and intellectual centers of Europe.  Most of the symposia proceedings have appeared as anthologies, i.e., printed books.  Other kinds of activities have included the biannual doctoral and postdoctoral seminars held in Finland, mostly at Helsinki University and at its Department of Musicology.  The administrative center has thus remained in Helsinki – following the advice of A. J. Greimas, who quite at the beginning said:  ‘Take it to Finland, we here in Paris are more like bohemian artists in these issues.’  Hence our last gathering was two years ago at Vilnius Music Academy, wonderfully organized by its staff, and now we shall not be very far from it.  In the meantime, however, our project seems to have grown more and more into a really global scale.  If we take a look at events in our field in the form of a short chronicle, we may note the following.

In spring of 2008, we had the traditional meeting of young Iberian musicologists in Barcelona, arranged by Ruben Lopez Cano, and dealing with music and society.  Then in Northern Cyprus semiotics was launched at Girne American University, under professor Zeynep Onur, an important educational center for young students from Turkey, Syria, Iran and elsewhere.  In spring in Lyon, there took place the defense of a doctoral thesis on French chanson, which applies theories by Louis Panier.  In Berlin, Mouton was ready to publish musical semiotics. In the summer at Cambridge, the Society of  Dialogical Self applied Bakhtinian theories to psychoanalysis and psychology – and music experienced as a genuine dialogue in the original Bakhtinian sense.  In October, the Musical Signification Project gathered, as said above, in the country of Greimas and Ciurlionis.

Later in November the Chinese semiotic society organized at Nanjing Normal University a large international congress on semiotics.  This event was so positive that Nanjing was later chosen to be the host of the next world congress of IASS/AIS in 2012.  A Lévi-Strauss centenary took place in Paris, remembering the man who initiated much in musical as well as general semiotics.  In December in San Marino, the Italian semioticians convened with Umberto Eco.  At Cracow Music Academy, a little later, there was  an international symposium on transcendental values in music; at the same time, the 75th birthday of Krysztof Penderecki was celebrated.  In spring of 2009 Musikeon in Valencia, a private music school, organized a master class for pianists, in which works were played that had been first analyzed semiotically.  In April, Warsaw again saw the famous Beethoven festival by Mrs Penderecki, followed by a Beethoven symposium organized by Professor Tomaszewski.  Paris IV organized a symposium to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s death; semiotic analyses of his work were heard.

In the summer Pierre Boulez visited the Helsinki Festival, and gave a talk in which he compared listening to music to visiting an art exhibition: in the latter, one is free to leave when one wants; whereas music is much more compelling, because of its temporal basis.  In early September young semioticians of doctoral studies from Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Estonia, Germany, Finland convened at Sozopol on the Black Sea under Kristian Bankov from the New Bulgarian University; there the legendary pianist Milena Mollova performed.  In late September the world congress of semiotics was held in Galicia, Spain, at LaCoruna, at the invitation of José Maria paz Gago.  It had a large section on musical semiotics, as well.

The history of the string quartet, presented through a series of lectures and concerts by the Arkadia Quartet, was organized by the Helsinki University Music Society, and attention was paid to the concept of genre.  It was again pointed out that the string quartet constitutes a form of dialogue among its parts and musicians, as was already said in the time Joseph Haydn.  Later in the fall, at the Teatro Malibran in Venice, Handel’s Giulio Cesare was given in an authentic version.  Before the turn of the year the first doctoral thesis on heavy metal rock and functional harmony, by Esa Lilja, was defended at Helsinki University, with Allan Moore as his opponent.  In Innsbruck a project by Monica Flink focused on music and visual arts – with the local music history of the Tyrolean region viewed as a counterforce to Viennese dominance. Brno University distinguished itself as a leading center of Czech music research.

In March the international doctoral seminar on musical semiotics convened at Helsinki, the emphasis being on Mahler, narrativity and some new models of analysis.  Charles Rosen spoke about tonal unity in Mozart operas and played an unforgettable recital with an all-Chopin program.  Chopin’s bicentenary was celebrated in Warsaw by an outstanding symposium, with new information on folklore in Chopin and the impact of bel canto upon his style. In April the Serbian Music Academy in Belgrad organized an international symposium on Nostalgia and Utopia in music.  A little later, at Wales University in Bankor, Tristan Evans defended a thesis with existential semiotic orientations about the postminimalist music of Phil Glass.  In June the ISI at Imatra organized its usual summer congresses of semiotics.  A Paneuropean doctoral program project by the EU was discussed, and steps were taken toward implementing such a program; it should be international, well funded, and labour-market oriented, and should be promising also for musical semioticians when completed in 2012. In addition, an international symposium on Wagner and His Symbols was also held in Imatra.

This short chronicle should awaken us to the essence of Musical Signification research.  It is linked closely, as we see, to events in general semiotics, but also to musical life itself, musical practices, and history.  If semiotics in general is considered a method of making simple things complicated, we may defend such an intellectual enterprise by stating that it also liberates musicians from centuries-old routines by the new aspects it discovers in any musical practice and competence.  Music semioticians are thus intellectuals on the scene of musicology; they try to establish a rational discourse about music, by making its implicit intuitions and arguments explicit, visible and perceivable.  Music is approached as a meaningful activity, not as merely the formal play of sounds without contents.  Whether these meanings it reveals are of a philosophical nature, as Adorno presupposed, depends on the scholar and his epistemic choices.  Music is not given by nature; rather, nature in music appears as a construction.

Neither is music directly obedient to any kind of ideology, since an art-work is always at the distance of a symbol to its object, as Jan Mukarovski already showed us in the days of Prague structuralism.  Music may stem from ideologies, but it is never directly ideological in any organic and automatic way. The mediation from ideology, body, nation, myth – whatsoever we hear and experience as music’s content – is very complicated indeed.  Neither should a semiotic approach lead us to oversemantisation and overinterpretation.  Not just any leading-tone going to tonic should be felt as the expression of lower classes to aspire to and fulfill higher goals and objectives.  Nor is every march rhythm in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony a sign of armies and boots marching towards victory, on the Karajan interpretation.  Yet, if music has a content, is there any way to decide or judge which is the correct one or at least the least erroneous one?  When Gergijev conducts Sibelius symphonies they become dramatic, colourful, sensual, effective, virtuosic – all that which was not the purpose of his style, which is ascetic.  But on the other hand, music is not bound with original context; new qualities can emerge when, paradoxically, it is forgotten!

The ultimate goal of a semiotician of music is to provide us with concepts and analyses whereby we get closer to the essence of a style, genre, work and composer.  Since our project has already existed a relatively long time – indeed, over 25 years! – it is like the Finnish Swedish poet J. L. Runeberg said:  ‘Våren flyktar hastigt, hastigare sommaren …’  (Spring flees fast, faster even summer).  However, it is clear that certain ideas and concepts emerge from our discourses and talks as more permanent and more conspicuous themes than others.  Often they stem from certain central studies, seminal and published works, that have become available to anyone interested.  Several symposia have been organized around the notion of ‘gesture’, a phenomenon brought into focus particularly by Robert S. Hatten, and launched with his prize-winning monograph on Schubert and other Viennese classical composers.  And we can hardly imagine a symposium without the concept of topics appearing in some form.  Here one may recall the last book by Raymond Monelle, on the topics of the military and the pastoral. Narrativity as well seems to be quite central to our activities, thanks to Marta Grabocz and her recent publications, as well as books by Byron Almén, Kofi Agawu and Michael Spitzer who have also emphasized the notion of metaphor.

The body is at the core of the prenatal styles studied by Gino Stefani and Stefania Guerra Lisi in Rome, and forms the central focus of their musical therapeutics.  Gino Stefani celebrated his 80th birthday just a year ago in Rome with a Festschrift celebrating his longtime work in musical semiotics.  Body, gender and other such notions also appear in the zoomusicology advanced by Dario Martinelli.  The epistemic dimensions have been broadly pondered by Maciej Jablonski in his recent book, Music as Sign (in English). Moreover, the Polish scholar Danuta Mirka, nowadays working in the UK, has published a study on cadenzas in Mozart’s concertos.  How semantics is linked to music was already shown by Constantin Floros in his monumental Mahler study, and Miecyslaw Tomaszewski has shown in his Chopin books the richness of various types of signs in the output of this apparently very classical composer.  In Paris a long series of seminars on the cognitive approach to music has been arranged by the IDEAT center of Costin Miereanu at Paris I.  Also, the Language and Music seminars, led by Bernard Vecchione, continue to be held in Provence.

All this may show how the project of Musical Signification thrives in a dramatically innovative way.  It is the platform for introducing new notions, whose theoretical content is next elucidated among specialists; following this, those notions are ready to be applied by any more pragmatically oriented musicologist.  Thus the conferences of Musical Signification may appear as a manifestation of the avant-garde in musicology; by following them, anyone who wants to be up to date in his/her musical approach will be rewarded with new findings.

Musical signification therefore constitutes a stage between general semiotics and musicology.  There are many avenues leading towards it, from more traditional music theory to more radical deconstructionist, gender-analytic, or sociological and cultural approaches.  From this paradigm we can pick up what is needed to clarify any style, genre or composer with which we are concerned.  As stated earlier, Poland has been very actively participating in our project; therefore it is natural that we now convene in Cracow, amidst the old Polish tradition, but also the place from which novelties in thought always spring up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *