Sublime Noise: Musical Culture and the Modernist Writer
Epstein, Joshua Benjamin
This dissertation examines the significance of noise for modernist culture. Noise functions as both a literal and figurative presence in the aural culture of the early twentieth century: as the sounds produced by modern life and as the social, institutional, and affective manifestations of modernity. The dissertation argues that modernist uses of dissonance and rhythm represent historically specific, embodied critical responses to an intensifying experience of sound. The phenomena indexed by noise—warfare, urbanization, industry, media, publicity, and rumor—are mediated and critiqued through modes of dissonance, whose (irregular) movement through historical time is marked by rhythm. Musical uses of noise reveal art as an ideologically laden mediation of social experience: as composers and writers incorporate everyday noises into the artwork, they question art's autonomy and implicate the material conditions of modernity enabling artistic production. Building an interdisciplinary model for interpreting modernism's aesthetics and ideologies, the project draws on literary cultural studies; cultural histories of sound; political and semiotic accounts of musical interpretation; and the researches of the "new musicology." After outlining the project's theoretical bearings in Chapter One, the project studies T.S. Eliot's <i>Waste Land</i> alongside the work of Theodor Adorno, analyzing the figures' treatments of dissonance and rhythm as responses to allegorical treatments of the human body. Chapter Three argues that the interactions between George Antheil and Ezra Pound reveal the drives for publicity and sensation at the heart of Pound's neoclassical aesthetics. Chapter Four addresses James Joyce's treatments of music and noise, arguing that even his less "noisy" early works ground music in their material noises. Chapter Five argues that Edith Sitwell's and William Walton's <i>Façade</i> appropriates the aesthetics of the Ballets Russes to reveal social interactions and "publicity" as stylized aesthetic constructions. The final chapter focuses on music-noise relations in Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster, examining each individually before turning to their collaboration on <i>Billy Budd</i>. Britten's uses of consonance destabilize the values traditionally accorded consonant harmony: stability, solidarity, transparency. <i>Billy Budd</i> thus calls attention to the acts of scapegoating and rumor at the heart of cultural consolidation.