The Ambiguous Ethics of Music's Ineffability: A Brief Reflection on the Recent Thought of Michael Gallope and Carolyn Abbate

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Michael Gallope's book Deep Refrains is an in-depth study of the ineffable core of musical experience. But it engages ineffability without eliminating the pragmatic material of music's economic, technological and even ethical mediations; and it posits a synergistic relationship between these realms. Gallope casts equal doubt on the determinism that construes music's ineffability as wholly absorbed in mediation and on the vitalism that construes it as radically open. Framed by and theoretically grounded in the thinking of four twentieth-century philosophers (Ernst Bloch, Theodor W. Adorno, Vladimir Jankélévitch and Gilles Deleuze), the book deftly steers between the Scylla of music's irreducible sensuous materiality (and its attendant invitation to decipherment) and the Charybdis of its elusive ineffability (and its attendant vanishing act in the face of decipherment). The book begins by reflecting on the fascinations and prohibitions of the harmoniaia in ancient Greek philosophy. Already here, Gallope revises the standard interpretation of these founding texts, demonstrating the ways in which Socrates, Glaucon, Aristotle and others in fact consider music as at once deeply mysterious and also strictly rule-governed. This conception of music'sperplexing precision is shown to be shared in 'global' contexts less available to music history, including (for example) the Ikhwan Al-Safa, an eleventh-century priesthood of Islamic scholars. At the same time, Gallope draws attention to the continuity between simplified taxonomies of the ancients and the instrumentalization of their axioms for contemporary engagements with affect, so rampant in the era of emerging neuromedia. Instead of recoiling from music's indeterminacy (retreating to silence, say, or insisting on music's unspeakable mystery), Gallope attempts to unpack the critical potential at the heart of auditory experience. On the other hand, he argues, such potential is not harnessed by marking the movements of music's conceptual nomenclatures alone. Noting that music 'never speaks like a language, nor is it entirely nonlinguistic', Gallope seeks to account for the specificity of its 'vague impact'. In other words, while there is a residue of conceptual mediation at work in all sonic encounter, music's 'sensory impact' cannot be subsumed by that residue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-250
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of the Royal Musical Association
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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