Hubertus Dreyer

How Ligeti Once Was Puzzled by Schubert – And a Luhmannian Response

A common and quite successful approach in musical semiotics tends to explore semantics locally (for example by means of semantic topoi) and string the semantic units together into an overall narrative. If one looks for a more ‘holistic’ approach, following the notion of ‘organic unity’ which was so important for many music theorists of the 19th and 20th century, one can find that musical works share many characteristic features with complex systems in Luhmann’s sense. Of course it would be naive to describe musical works as autopoetic systems, since one of the most important features – autopoesis – is obviously lacking. However, musical works can reflect properties and principles of real world systems (icons or, more precisely, diagrams in Peircean terminology), thus providing artistic insight into the working of these systems.

This approach allows a wealth of ramifications; to illustrate its fecundity, here only one aspect shall be explored. According to Luhmann, the complexity of a system can only be reduced by complexity itself, i.e. surface complexity is transferred to complexity in the relation of the system to itself or to the outer world (for example by stricter criteria for selectivity). This may help to better understand the semantics of musical works with reduced surface complexity – like Schubert’s D.366/3, one of Ligeti’s favorite examples for a deceptively simple work with utmost semantic depth. In a similar vein, one can unveil aspects of certain pop songs and Japanese Jiuta pieces that are otherwise difficult to grasp.