Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jeff Nichols

Committee Members

Scott Burnham

David Grubbs

Katherine Manthorne

Subject Categories

History of Philosophy | Musicology | Music Theory


Graphic Notation, Modernism, Opera, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Sade


The music of Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti (1931–2021) presents intentional challenges to interpretation and canonization. These particular challenges and Bussotti’s reasoning for implementing them are interrogated in this dissertation by reading the score to Bussotti’s La Passion selon Sade (1966) through contemporaneous European social theory, philosophy, and political developments. La Passion selon Sade is a theatre piece for a chamber ensemble, with a primary vocal and dramatic role written for mezzo-soprano Catherine Berberian, with whom Bussotti frequently collaborated. Like much of Bussotti’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, the discourse surrounding the piece and its reception largely relates to its intriguing and unconventional notation. This dissertation contributes to that by situating the work in contemporaneous thought and politics. It also moves beyond the notation to explore the special social environments co-created by interpreters of this unique work and how these may inform composition and performance in the 21st century.

Each chapter pursues a different but related historicist perspective to understand the work in the aforementioned contexts. The first chapter argues that, through a musical insight compatible with contemporaneous social theory of Foucault and in various ways emerging from the political climate of Europe in the 1960s, Bussotti recognizes notation as a technology of control. This is expressed in the score through an approach in which varied degrees and forms of control are treated as a salient musical parameter. It is also expressed through the choice of Sade as a subject matter and the treatment of the Louise Labé poem that forms the libretto. The second chapter argues that, through an approach that troubles the central temporo-spatial metaphor of Western notation and rejects conventional boundaries between performance elements, Bussotti produces a musical universe where everyone and everything is connected by flesh. This approach is compatible with contemporaneous social theory of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The third chapter argues that Bussotti short-circuits the semiotic expectations of the score, as well as the expectation for the score to function as a symbolic language as advanced by Nelson Goodman in order to produce situations of impossible juxtaposition and intentional ambiguity. This evokes the centrality of “the image” in Breton and produces a form of historicism favoring the poetics of the outmoded as tied to surrealism by Walter Benjamin. The fourth chapter argues that Bussotti’s work contains a contradiction or antinomy: it simultaneously transgresses the interpretive frameworks of modernist performance practice under contemporary liberalism while extolling extreme individualism and the political centering of the self: touchstones of that very liberalism. This contradiction is explored in the context of three dimensions of Bussotti’s work — resistance to market logic, Bussotti’s complex relationship to individualism, and Bussotti and Berberian’s absence as a call to act as, in the language of Donna Haraway, speakers for the dead.