To some, “oral composition” might seem a contradiction of terms. After all, by composing something, which in today’s usage means “writing music down,” one is cutting it out of the oral tradition and giving it a spatial manifestation in place of fallible memory. As Taruskin takes pains to remind us, however, orality and literary coexisted for some time: “.. It is important to remember that literacy did not suddenly replace ‘orality’ as a means of musical transmission but gradually joined it” (I, 17). Even after the “curtain went up” and early notational forms came into existence, music making was largely within the purview of the ear, not the eye.
The field of musicology has long neglected the profound influence of the oral tradition in the development of our musical culture. Since no concrete records exist for musics that are transmitted without documentation, traditional musicologists, steeped as they are in textual analysis, are at a loss. How does one describe a process that isn’t recorded?
Taruskin shows us two ways. First, by comparing a family of Graduals, we can see that many phrases across the different versions are really just variations on the same finite set of melodic formulas. What does this tell us? Perhaps it indicates that certain parts of the repertory in question were interchangeable, and that ensembles chose formulas for cadences and other structurally important places from a body of similar functional phrases. It also could indicate that the same pieces were performed in different ways, and that the variation in performances resulted in different notated versions of the Graduals.
In addition – and I love this – Taruskin cites the work of Nicholas Temperley on “The Old Way of Singing” (I, 27). Temperley is not an early music specialist. Indeed, he’s a scholar of Anglo-American church music whose work centers on the oral tradition and how it has worked in this context. Stymied by the opacity of the oral tradition, many a musicologist would simply admit defeat and move on to the next textually supportable observation. But instead, Taruskin draws on the research of a scholar dealing with American music in the last few hundred years. I can’t say entirely if the transference of perspectives is valid (the way oral tradition worked in the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne’s time may be very different from oral tradition in American churches), but the effort to validate and understand the role of orality on early music repertory is admirable. (By the way, Temperley says that when wordless singing traditions go for years without formal direction, they have a tendency to become extremely slow, weak in rhythmic detail, and rife with new melodic contributions.)
The perspectives Taruskin introduces – song family analysis, musical behavior within certain cultures, etc. – aren’t really common in many a musicological study. Indeed, they share more with our sister field, ethnomusicology. This begs the question: why aren’t more ethnomusicological theories incorporated into our understanding of music from the Middle Ages? Indeed, chant and similar repertories are, in many ways, more consistent with what ethno- examines than they are with what music- examines, a fact that I’d like to write more about this week (although it might go back into Week 1 reading territory!). The fascinating interaction between literate and oral traditions is the typical academic terrain of folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and pop music scholars. I would even argue that the research topic of jazz improvisation could elucidate interesting corners of this repertory (melodic formulas called up by memory in similar contexts = licks). Contributions from all these fields would really enrich our understanding of early music. Musicologists would be remiss not to take them into account.