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Absolute Music and Contingent Music: A Theoretical Framework


Although music is often talked about as having one political agenda or another, in Western art music these features are generally thought to be distinct from the "music itself." As straightforward a proposition as this might seem to a reader fully acculturated to the contemporary music ideology, it is not the only possible way of conceiving of music as a social force. There exists music whose aesthetic merits are completely indistinguishable from its social function. More accurately, there exists an attitude about music in which it is not thought of as occupying a separate sphere with autonomous aesthetic principles. This paper creates a theoretical framework with these two attitudes at its extremes: absolute music and what I shall call "contingent" music. This theoretical framework has interesting historical antecedents, and is a useful way of thinking about some of modern music's ideological conflicts. It is also an important part of my own work as a composer, and this paper concludes by describing the way in which the absolute-contingent opposition informs three of my own compositions.

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