A System of Topics for Sofia Gubaidulina's Music

Michael Berry, Texas Tech University

Since Leonard Ratner's book Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style first appeared, many theorists have adopted and refined his notion of topics. Topics, as Ratner defines them, are "subjects for musical discourse" (9). Topics can be either complete pieces (types) or musical ideas within a piece (styles; 9). Robert Hatten's work is probably among the most well-known adaptations of Ratner's work. Hatten reinforces Ratner's topics with scaffolding borrowed from semiotics and gesture studies. He introduces the procedure of troping, where meaning emerges from the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated topics. Most of Hatten's work examines music of the Classical and early Romantic era, following in the footsteps of Ratner. Kofi Agawu takes a similar approach to Hatten (albeit more deeply rooted in semiotics) in Playing with Signs (1991), which examines Classical-era music, and in his more recent Music as Discourse (2009), which examines Romantic music.

A few theorists have adapted the ideas of these theorists to examine other repertoires, but not many have ventured into the realm of twentieth-century music. The polystylistic tendencies of composers such as Ives, Berio, Schnittke, and Gubaidulina seem particularly ripe for this sort of analysis. In this paper, I take steps toward a system of topical analysis for Sofia Gubaidulina's music. In the first part of the paper, I develop a list of common topics and their meanings. The domains of pitch, rhythm, and gesture provide three broad categories of topics, each containing several specific styles. In the second part of the paper, I employ these topics and examine the troping of these topics in an analysis of Quaternion for four cellos (1996).