Dr. Johanna Frymoyer: “Topic Theory Beyond Semiotics: Insights from Cognitive Linguistics”

February 6, 2020, 4:00-5:30PM, RCMA 1-160

Abstract: Recent applications of Leonard Ratner’s topic theory into modernist repertory attest to the broad appeal of this semiotic method. But topical readings in modernism also amplify certain enduring criticisms of the theory, notably the uncritical process of topical “labelling,” the limitations of markedness oppositionality, and the circularity of topical acquisition and interpretation. This paper looks beyond the semiotic grounding of topic theory to address these criticisms with insights from cognitive linguistics. By defining topics as basic level categories, I shift the focus of topical analysis onto the radial relationships that relate token exemplars to a prototypical center. This emphasis on prototypicality effects enables a new location for topical meaning independent of interpretive strategies that rely on associational relationships (such as troping) or semantic/syntactic interaction (Agawu’s semiotic “play”) and instead proposes a meaningful process in how composers explore the typicality effects of individual topics—a strategy that becomes particularly important for modernist composers.

The cognitive approach helps to reframe and resolve certain epistemological questions about how twentieth- (and twenty-first) century audiences acquire knowledge of the topical lexicon. Because post-eighteenth-century listeners usually do not have direct experience with the “everyday sounds” of the topical lexicon (few of us have danced a minuet or participated in an aristocratic hunt), I argue that the palpability of topical analysis is facilitated through sonic analog and mimetic motor imagery. The cognitive approach arrives at a different definition of topics, one in which topical meaning arises not from the imitation of musical sounds, but rather the imitation of dynamic processes, and more specifically of learned, socially-encoded ways of moving. Topics thus participate in and perpetuate cultural values aboutmovement in ways that are transhistorical and accessible to audiences separated by chronology. The way in which we interpret these movement patterns in modernism—as ironic, distorted, or dysphoric—is likewise suggestive of our own values about movement.

Bio: Johanna Frymoyer is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests explore questions of musical meaning through the lenses of semiotics, narrative theory, and cognitive linguistics, with particular emphasis on the music of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Her current book project investigates the application of topic theory to early twentieth-century repertory. Using themes from markedness oppositionality, conceptual metaphor, and narrative theory, the book seeks to challenge traditional interpretations of topical conventions in modernism as ironic or disruptive, proposing instead new strategies for topical play and formal interaction. Recent publications include “The Musical Topic in the Twentieth Century: A Case Study of Schoenberg’s Ironic Waltzes” (Music Theory Spectrum), “Topics and Stylistic Register in Russian Opera, 1775-1800” (The Routledge Handbook of Musical Signification, forthcoming), and entries for The Cambridge Stravinsky Encyclopedia(forthcoming, 2019). She is currently serving a term on the editorial board of Music Theory Online.She earned her PhD in musicology from Princeton University and her B.M., majoring in violin and German studies, from Vanderbilt University.