Can anything be retained from Formalism? Art is not thinking in “images”, Shklovsky says (“image”, of course, in the usual sense of “picture” or “representation”). The rhythms of a work of art form not a special but a general economy of sensation according to which the sedimented history of significations (including that which comprises the movements of our very bodies in the viscera) that inform our experience are exploded. “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”, Shklovsky proclaims. But this is not simply ‘die Sache selbst’, for it is not the stone that is stony. Neither, however, is this simply the taking of an “aesthetic attitude”. The general economy of the artwork cares neither for the art object nor for our emotions. The rhythms bi-, di-, and intersected in a work of art open onto a new time that is neither constituted by the subject nor contained in the formalism of the text itself. The success of a work of art here is not the coherence of the “image” it presents (its narrative, its portrait or representation, its theme, etc). The work (of a work) of art is, in a word, a genesis (a unique affect, perhaps an “evental” affect).
One need not travel too late in the twentieth century to see these moments at work in music. Among the masters of the line in this later period are the later Corigliano and Dutilleux. But one can also hear similar moments—although rarely—in Rachmaninoff (in some of the preludes and a few measures in the sonatas), in Godowsky (particularly the left-hand study on Chopin’s 10/6 (No. 13) and, in the same spirit, Hamelin’s “triple etude”, although these moments occur precisely because of the co-presence of their companion pieces), and in Medtner at his best. In this last case, see, e.g., the ingenious closing three bars of the Gm sonata where we have come full circle, yet the origin had been displaced from the very beginning. We enter on the fifth, yet it is precisely that interval that is displaced not only by the immediate statement of the main theme but also in the line in which it is developed, ending in those final three chords wherein there is inversion without variation. Repetition: but infinitely productive within the interval that, ostensibly, is the most perfect. Yet as Medtner reminds us in these final bars, the system of temperament only disguises the Pythagorean Comma: the productivity of a system is nothing but the exploitation of this opening.