August Sheehy

Methodological Questions of Reconstructing Historical Listening

It would seem that ‘the listener’—the universal cognitive subject haunting the annals of music theory—is a thing of the past. More precisely, following a certain drift in recent music theoretical discourse, he only ever appears as one of the possible listeners who emerge from the particular matrices of music history. ‘Listening’, then, is not a universal cognitive act but a set of heterogeneous possibilities. Thus we may ask: how can one know that people of other times and places listened differently to the same music? And if such difference can be determined, how might one ‘access’ these other modes of listening? Confronting these questions, naturalistic accounts of perception and cognition give way to questions of method. Schema theory provides a specific answer: through coordination of patterns (schemata) instantiated in a musical corpus, documented in pedagogical practices, and reiterated in the critical reception history of particular works, “the problematics of historically informed listening [are] situated in a transposition of history from a connotation of pastness to one of epistemology” (Byros 2009). Such optimism is warranted when a repertory (e.g., galant) can be discretely identified and shown to operate in two different historical-critical frames. Foucault’s ‘archaeological’ investigation of epistemes thus provides an attractive intellectual model. I propose that a general methodology for reconstructing historical listening needs to move beyond archaeology toward the problem of ‘historical ontology’ that occupied Foucault in his later work. Applied to music, the question, “What difference does today introduce with respect to yesterday?” (Foucault 1997) involves the investigation of practices by which listeners are constituted. Such a method would not discount the value of schema theory; on the contrary, schema theory exemplifies modern practices that bring ‘listeners’—past and present—into being as objects of inquiry (Hacking 2002).