Essay: Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘A Few Words to Sing’

It is true that the discourse of music does not refer to a referent in the same way that language does. Nevertheless, music appears as a temporal organization (diachronic, like speech) of discontinuous elements (articuli, the notes) defined, like phonemes, by their place in a system (the scale and the rules of harmony). In music the work of the unconscious produces effects of meaning by transgressing diverse levels: temporal organization (rhythm, development), steps between the elements (the scale), discontinuity between the elements (existence of notes), composition of elements out of other elements, sonorous material of so-called musical objects.

Let us reverse the proposition: every transgression of this type is equal to the trace of the primary process; that is, a transgression makes the listener grasp the secondary, the ‘linguistic,’ the ‘written’ character of the music to which his ear is attuned and in which this trace is marked. Such transgressions then have a critical function at least as long as they are not in turn connoted, that is, replaced in a new language as a constitutive operation, such as a rhetorical one, although they may be more elementary.

Taking its title from Luciano Berio’s libretto Sequenza III: Per voce femminile, Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘A Few Words to Sing’ examines the historical conditions that contributed to the end of representation in music. Lyotard uses Berio’s work to exemplify the simultaneous emergence of avant-garde forms and late capitalism, and constructs a comparative recent history of literature, plastic arts and music. In his close analysis of Sequenza III, Lyotard finds a complex whole, where Berio’s non-verbal elements of melody, rhythm and harmony operate outside the limits of spoken language to form an “articulated second zone”.

Read an excerpt of Lyotard’s ‘A Few Words to Sing’.


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