KOFI AGAWU, Edward Said and the study of music :: Philomusica on-line :: Rivista di musicologia dell'Università di Pavia


Contributo di Kofi Agawu


Edward Said and the study of music



My first encounter with Edward Said’s work was in the 1980s with the book, Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975). I was exploring a semiotic approach to late 18th-century music, specifically, a beginning-middle-ending paradigm (an Aristotelian paradigm) that seemed to me to capture the rhetorical intentions of Classic composers. Said’s wide-ranging reflections and ruminations on beginnings – as inaugural moments, as sites for the establishment of difference, as authorially privileged moments, and as "first steps in the intentional production of meaning" – proved inspiring. My enduring impression of him at the time was that he was a very good analyst who had also read a lot of books and maintained a humane stance as critic.

Some years later, I encountered his famous book, Orientalism (no subtitle, by the way). It had become famous by the time I read it, so it was impossible to read it without the intervention of a series of veils, an unverified sense of its importance as a text. The book’s essential point could be grasped immediately, namely, that Western representation of the ‘Orient’ (which could in turn be generalized into the non-Western world) revealed a consistent or systematic bias. Discourse is ideological; it does not merely represent but actually creates the Orient. This alignment of knowledge and power was resonant for me, because I was myself beginning to think about ‘Western’ discourses on sub-Saharan African music. By the 1990s many of us were gleefully announcing that Orientalism had emerged as the inaugural text for the field of post-colonial theory. Among other achievements, it had helped to expose a self-serving, indeed racist West. Debates raged in various venues about Orientalism’s significance. I remember one in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, where a Cambridge don, Ernst Gellner, came down hard on Said’s book, describing it as "intellectually insignificant".

From then on, I encountered Said’s work in various venues. There were essays in learned journals (I remember a stimulating one in the U.S.-based journal Critical Inquiry called "Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors"). I also encountered a book called Musical Elaborations, and indeed wrote a not particularly favorable review of it for the magazine Transition. I was slightly put out by what I saw as Said’s frontal attack on musicology and music analysis – telling us that we were sheltered and cloistered, and that this was no longer justified; and yet, when he turned to make his own associations between music and other expressive systems, the results I found less than inspiring. Then came Culture and Imperialism, which appealed to some musicologists because it included a chapter on Verdi’s Aida which some opera scholars found liberating – licensing them, it would seem, to talk about such things as the historical Verdi and his material ambitions for Cairo, and not just about matters aesthetic. For others, the significance of Culture and Imperialism lay in the author’s engagement with cultural production from the non-West. The non-West "writes back" to its colonizers, it would be said.

By now (the 1990s), so much had been written about Edward Said that it was possible to devote equal attention to the primary and secondary literature. The growing literature on postcolonial theory had always made a point of Said’s key role in making possible the kind of interrogation of discourses found in his earlier texts. The work of prominent postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak was often contextualized in reference to Said. (Indeed the three together seemed to represent a kind of holy trinity in postcolonial studies). Of course, much was said about Said’s views on Palestine and his friendship with Daniel Barenboim. And he had a whole other life as a music critic. Said’s output is vast, impressive in its reach, and, for better or worse, always accessible from a linguistic, if not psychic point of view. In our increasingly interdisciplinary approach to the humanities (in the US at least), his work is precisely the kind that has the potential to open doors, stimulate other thoughts, unsettle orthodoxies, and compel the dissolution of barriers. It is also the kind of work that can be readily misappropriated or appropriated opportunistically.

Since we have all day to talk about Said, I will use my time to sketch the beginnings of a critique of a handful of issues that interest me.

  1. Said is first and foremost a reader of texts – an astute analyst with a keen eye for that which motivates or makes possible a target text. But what is the significance of reading for musicologists and ethnomusicologists, especially since some of our languages and parallel metalanguages occupy different material spheres? Reading texts is obviously central to what we do as music scholars, but it is not all; we are also engaged in interpreting other forms of textuality, as for example, notated scores of music, recorded works and live performances. If we follow Said’s example literally, we may be tempted to alter our priorities by privileging the reading of verbal texts – historical texts, for example. We may even confine our actions to the metacritical realm, the realm in which language about music rather than the music itself rules. This, in my view, would be an unfortunate turn. Rather than risk becoming mere parasites ("discourse analysts"), so to speak, we might explore the many forms of textuality that the practice of music makes possible. In short, we should be readers and more.

  2. A second issue concerns the question of the semantic element in music. (Gianmario Borio and Michela Garda have written about this, as have others, so I will defer to them for a proper formulation of the problem of music’s decipherable content). I bring up the matter, however, because it obviously mattered to Said; indeed his complaint against musicology in Musical Elaborations is precisely that the worldliness of music (the theme of worldliness of both text and critic was important to him) has not been sufficiently acknowledged and theorized. Again, one is inclined to agree that the tension between the idea of the world and the idea of the work assumes shifting configurations for us in music. At one extreme lies the view that all works, by virtue of coming into existence – being born – at a time and place, allow interpretation in relation to those circumstances or conditions. But what we don’t seem to agree on is the kind of relation that the trace itself bears to the external world. The eagerness to make this connection sometimes precedes deep reflection on the material nature of music, and yet we would all probably agree, I think, that adequate analysis of music must be based on accurate characterization of musical materiality, and that that characterization must in turn be based on historical, cultural and systematic observation. If we rush into imposing a specific iconic worldliness on the musical work (something I feel Said might have been guilty of on occasion), we may end up falsifying musical content, treating it but superficially, or overlooking its complex and overlapping significations. In short, although worldliness is a central tenet in Said’s theory, we do well to approach it with some caution.

  3. For those who might prefer to take a more catholic view of the musical repertoire, whose interests might extend from classical to pop, jazz and non-Western music (Serena Facci and Giovanni Giurati have lots to say about this), it is striking that Said’s literary and musical references are invariably to the core European canon. This unapologetic Eurocentricism has been noted by more than one critic. For Said, music is Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (not Schoenberg, as it was for Adorno); for him, theory is Vico, Marx, Auerbach, Foucault and Gramsci; and for him, literature is Chaucer, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert and Conrad. Even in the book Culture and Imperialism, in which he engages artistic production from the Third world (including Rushdie, Achebe and Soyinka), the frames of reference are still European. Achebe does not write but ‘writes back’, so to speak, just as the empire has written back. The framework for critical assessment remains European.


Is Said’s Eurocentricism strategic? Is it a willed Eurocentricism, or is he speaking at a first level, without quotation marks? From an Africanist perspective, I would like to imagine a point of analytical departure that denies a priori privilege to Europe. For example, one point of departure might be work on indigenous epistemology (such as Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka’s sage philosophy), which reinforces the unsurprising fact of the cogency of African thought systems – a reinforcement that would not be necessary were it not for the strong orientalist tide that we (post-colonial Africans) have had to swim against in representing anything African in today’s academy. The claim that African thought systems are cogent is not intended as an overtly comparative claim; it is simply an affirmation of the viability of certain ways of world-making that derive from the invented contours of an ‘African’ world view. If we follow Said’s example, I fear that we may forsake the possibilities of this line of thinking and research. That would be a pity.

  1. A related reason for revaluing the complex of forms known as indigenous thought systems is to escape the increasingly repetitive discourse about Africa. Granted, repetition is what it is all about – and we as musicians understand this better than anyone, including poets – but some repetitions are productive while others are not. Orientalism is in many ways a very repetitive book, for once you grasp the motivating mindset that ostensibly conditions Western representation of the Orient, you’ve got the idea. Of course, variety and nuance come in the range of texts from which Said draws his evidence, so it may be that the book does not feel at all repetitive to readers with literary backgrounds. And yet there can be a flatness to the theoretical claims advanced in Orientalism because their political implications are entered in relatively muted terms. In any case, there is absolutely no way that Africans can police the discourse about Africa unless intellectual power is accompanied by more instrumental forms of power – economic, political and military. Said’s model deserves to be emulated only once, after which we will need to move on. In short, when Serena and Gianmario ask "How can musicologists (studying African, Asiatic, European music, etc) interpret Said’s considerations in their specific fields?", I would answer by saying "With difficulty" because he only shows us the first step – a gesture of resistance that is necessary but not sufficient for full emancipation.

  2. Finally, as to the degree of "shared knowledge in the field of musical culture between East, West, North and South?" I want to say that this is, in some senses, a rather complex question, one that demands a contrapuntal answer. Some of Said’s critics have pointed out that the book Orientalism (and, for that matter, postcolonial theory in general) is read more in the metropolis than in the former colonies. Postcolonial theory is thus consumed more by our historical oppressors than by the historically oppressed. So if by "shared knowledge" one includes the kind of knowledge produced over several decades by Said himself and others like him, then an asymmetry remains between us and them. But this is just the surface of the surface of the issue, so to speak. Knowledge is produced and reproduced within the framework of institutions, so ideally we need to thoroughly examine the contours of colonial education and its legacies throughout Africa, including post-independence attempts to modify or in some cases overturn its premises. Continent-based musical education, though not the most central concern of government-appointed educational planners, would nevertheless reveal a significant sedimentation of ‘Western’ or European ways of thinking in Africa. A little anecdote: During a recent visit to the University of Ghana, I was allowed to sit in on a few classes, both graduate and undergraduate. I learned, for example, that in the music history class, students are (still) reading Donald Grout’s A History of Western Music for the Baroque unit of the course. The instructor has access only to the 2nd or 1973 edition of a book published in 1960, although the book is now in its 7th edition! The instructor does not have access to the accompanying recordings and scores (Norton Anthology of Western Music), which means that these poor Ghanaian students are busy memorizing facts about Vivaldi, Rameau, Corelli, Handel and Bach without hearing or playing any of the music. Rather than turn this pathetic condition into another opportunity for text-making – by pointing out, for example, the ostensible ironies of post-colonial African students reading the Traité of Rameau or writing about Handel’s operas when their own sonic environment is dominated by Highlife, reggae, afrobeat or Hiplife music, eating fufu and omotuo, and using cell phones, it is better to cut to the chase and confront the material disparities that ensure that knowledge can never be "shared" unless these very material conditions change.

  3. To conclude, let me just mention a few of the issues that we might discuss later this morning and during the afternoon session: first, the role of the post-colonial intellectual in the modern world; second, the politics of clear language use; third, the potential of abstract thinking as a mode of empowerment (which Said seems not to appreciate fully, being always anxious to return us to the concrete, the historically-specific, the worldly, the here and now); fourth, the costs of person-based theorizing (a kind of experiential epistemology) and how it underwrites the entire postcolonial project; fifth, the peculiarly North American character and context of Said’s work, with its obsession with difference and identity politics.



[Bio] Professor of Music at Princeton University  (http://www.music.princeton.edu/facmus.htm).

Torna all'inizio della pagina


 Copyright 2008 © Università degli Studi di Pavia
 Dipartimento di Scienze musicologiche e paleografico-filologicheFacoltà di Musicologia

Registrazione presso la Cancelleria del Tribunale di Pavia n. 552 del 14 luglio 2000 – ISSN elettronico 1826-9001 | Università degli Studi di Pavia Dipartimento di Musicologia | Pavia University Press

Privacy e cookies