Must We Mean What We Quote?


Jonas Tarm, composer; photo by Elena Snow.

The recent controversy over the young composer Jonas Tarm turns on the eleventh-hour discovery, or recognition, that his “March to Oblivion” (“Marsh u Nebuttya,” in a transliteration from Ukrainian) incorporates unplayable music — unplayable not because of its difficulty but because of its use of musical quotation.

The New York Youth Symphony canceled its performance of the work at Carnegie Hall,  reportedly in response to its quotation of a Nazi tune.

The controversy centers on two passages, reportedly each 45 seconds in length, in which the composer quotes, in some fashion, a Ukrainian Socialist anthem as well as the infamous Horst Wessel Lied, anthem of the Nazi Party. Zachary Woolfe has written about the controversy in a recent New York Times piece.

Like Woolfe, I have not had the opportunity to hear the “March to Oblivion,” but I’ve listened to one piece by Tarm and would be happy to hear more. As to the cancellation itself, I’m struck by Tarm’s understandable reluctance to “explain” his work beyond his statement that “this piece was meant not to provoke but to evoke.

What does surprise me is our persistent belief that language is capable of explaining everything.

My blog today is not about the piece or the decision, but about the idea of quotation and our confidence that we know what quotation means.

Or rather — to borrow even more doggedly from the title of Stanley Cavell’s famous essay “Must We Mean What We Say?” — must  the meaning we identify in the material we quote be equivalent to  the meaning we wish to convey in repurposing that material?

In the classroom, we all work hard to explain to our students what a quotation is, and why it must be accurately and fully documented.

Things are more complicated when the material is not the work of a student, though I should point out that Tarm is still a student.

Quotation is a tricky business. When we quote, what are we doing? Adopting or adapting? When we take a portion of someone else’s creation, are we inevitably also taking  on the creator’s history and ideology?  Is quotation translation?

Different people will have different answers to these questions, and perhaps the same person will have different answers for different instances of quotation.

Most of us think of quotation in linguistic terms — a frame text and interwoven, interloping appearances that we spot — and are meant to spot — as originating elsewhere. But spotting a quotation rarely tells us what the creator of the frame text meant by deploying the quotation.

The purpose of quotation might be clear enough in scholarship, and almost as clear  in public oratory. Get to fiction or poetry or drama, and things get a lot more complicated.

Now, however, imagine yourself in the nonverbal realm. What is a quotation outside of human language?  How do we respond to it? How negotiate our relation to this intervening presence? When a gesture occurs in dance or a figure appears in a work of visual art, where do we begin?

Like the visual arts, music refuses to explain itself through language, and when music quotes something we’re left to figure out not just what the quotation is but how the artist is inviting us to engage a work now altered by this additional presence.

There is a long tradition of composers — and other artists — deflecting questions of meaning and intention and referring the curious to the works themselves.

There is a shorter tradition — no less important — of artists trying to explain their creation to journalists and the public and then realizing that such gestures are doomed to failure. That’s not what painting or music, or even literature, permits.

Anyone might ask an artist to provide an explanation of a work. But let’s not be too comfortable just because we get an explanation.

An artist can  miss the point, throw us off, only realize certain features of a work after having made it — works of the imagination are notoriously uncontrollable, especially in the vexed matter of their meaning. Even literature, the irrepressibly gabby art, doesn’t easily lend itself to “explanation” through language.

Tarm’s music, and its quotations, will be heard differently by different people. Whatever the composer might choose to say further about his composition, the work will still speak more loudly and more authoritatively than will his words.

We may not like that about quotation, but that’s one way art works.

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