As a critical performance text that works both inside and outside established generic frameworks of performance work and critical study, Speechsong argues that the interface between speaking and singing that Schoenberg created in Sprechgesang opens his work and that of Gould to an analysis based on the notion of mediation. Attention to media is able to foreground the cultural importance of Schoenberg as having produced an understanding of acoustic space as the contemporary environment in which we experience performance. A similar argument can be made for Gould, who likewise articulated a new soundscape through his radio documentaries and his acoustic orchestrations. Both Schoenberg and Gould find their contemporary place not in “music” per se, nor in the concert hall, but on YouTube and in practices such as composed theater, post-internet art, and sound installations.
Published today at punctum books, Richard Cavell composes a performative dialogue and critical analysis on two of the most enigmatic musicians of 20th century North America in Speechsong: The Gould/Schoenberg Dialogues. This harmonious work is available in print and digital open access at punctumbooks.com.
Speechsong is a work of imaginative musicology that addresses the engimas of Schoenberg and Gould, of singing and speaking, of Moses und Aron, of technology and being. Its point of departure is Gould’s last public performance, given at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, where a number of Schoenberg’s works were performed during his California exile. It is here, after that last performance, that Gould encounters a spectral Schoenberg in a staged conversation that explores Schoenberg’s travails in rethinking the fundamentals of Western music. This first part of Speechsong recalls Schoenberg’s operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron, in which the divinely inspired Moses seeks the help of his brother to relate his vision: Moses speaks and Aron sings. Written as a twelve-tone composition, the opera produces an involution of harmonics that was Schoenberg’s response to Richard Wagner’s diatribes about synagogue noise. For Gould, Schoenberg’s is a formalist revolution; Schoenberg’s life, however, suggests that it was a search for personal and political freedom.
The second half of Speechsong is a critical essay in twelve “moments” that re-articulates the staged conversation as an inquiry into the intersections of music and mediation. Gould’s turn to the recording studio emerges as a post-humanist inquiry into recorded music as a repudiation of the virtuoso tradition and a liberation from unitary notions of selfhood. Schoenberg’s exodus from musical tradition likewise takes his twelve-tone invention beyond musical performance, where it emerges, along with Gould’s soundscapes, as a prototype of acoustic installations by artists such as Stephen Prina and Cory Arcangel. In these works, music abandons the concert hall and the exigencies of harmony for an acoustic space that embraces at once the recordings of Gould and the performances of Schoenberg that have found their home on the internet.
Richard Cavell has written extensively on Marshall McLuhan and on media theory generally. He is the co-founder of the Media Studies program at the University of British Columbia and the curator of the website Spectres of McLuhan. Speechsong, his second critical performance piece, was preceded by Marinetti Dines with the High Command (2014).