The Music History and Theory Study Group Presents:

George Adams

University of Chicago

“Because They Didn’t Know How to Listen”:

On the Formal Analysis of Conceptual Music

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Logan 802

4:30 – 6:00 PM

“Conceptual Music” is a strange term. It is an uncommon designation in the fields of musicology and music theory at least in part because much music one might call conceptual already falls under the categories of “modern” or “experimental.” Its disuse also distinguishes music’s intellectual history from that of the visual arts, where conceptualism encompasses myriad styles and modes of production. Through a few representative musical examples, I argue that the ideas of conceptual art and its attendant literature can guide disciplined music analysis toward broader conceptual and cultural forms.

Steve Reich’s early phase pieces are most often filed under “minimalism,” a term associated with visual conceptual art. These pieces have also received a healthy share of analytical attention—perhaps most notably Richard Cohn’s (1992) application of beat-class analytic techniques to Violin Phase (1967). This type of analysis works very well within music’s closed symbolic systems of pitch and rhythm, but does not address the potential conceptual content of musical minimalism. The radically indeterminate works of John Cage, on the other hand, are the pieces writers turn to first when confronted with the intersections of music, sonic art, and conceptualism. In the “silence” and the many sounds of 4′33′′ (1952), its sequel 0′00′′ (1962), and the Variations series (1958–1967), analysis dependent upon notation and quantitative values fails. An approach that takes its cue from the visual arts and from recent work on forms (Caroline Levine’s 2014 book), however, may allow the music analyst’s insights to gain further traction with the works Reich, Cage, and others.

Peter Osborne writes that conceptual art is “art about the cultural act of definition—paradigmatically, but by no means exclusively, the definition of ‘art.’” To explain how it is that a work of art comes to be about the definition of art itself, Osborne lays out what he calls “lineages of negation,” distinct historical strands of conceptualism in the visual arts associated with particular styles or movements. In short, a conceptual artwork may take as its topic that which it negates or omits. So too, I argue, a work of conceptual music engages its listeners in this “cultural act of definition” via the negation of—or challenges to—received ideas about musical sound and organization. To be sure, conceptual music’s lineages are different: music’s inherent temporality and ephemerality already negate the material objectivity of the plastic arts. A conceptual music must instead contend with the conventions of (a)tonality and the primacy of pitched and metered sound, among other culturally and traditionally established parameters of music. Through these works by Reich and Cage—and through their intellectual exchange with artists Sol LeWitt and Robert Rauschenberg—I propose some means of analyzing conceptual music in its negation of musical norms as part of the aesthetic projects of the 20th century.

Persons who believe they may require accommodations to participate fully in this event should contact the coordinator, Bradley Spiers at, in advance.


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