On Anonymity

When discussing a musical tradition that is quite foreign to one’s own, it’s only natural to draw comparisons to what is known and understood. Putting the alien into a familiar context can help open up the proverbial windows and get some light in the room. Saying something like “troping is the same as sampling” is of course a crude oversimplification, but at its root, this thought betrays the perception of sameness (that is, familiarity) that can shoot through centuries and cultural differences. Critical comparisons like these can help one to form conceptual bonds with the past or with other cultures.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of our discussions on the blog so far have drawn parallels to our present musical landscape. This has been done in the spirit of playfulness and fun, but also to help put the pieces together and make meaning out of traditions that are long gone. I can’t help it – when I think about tropes, hip-hop production is the first thing that comes to mind. A big part of the reason why I think we’ve been drawing so many parallels to today is that music from the Middle Ages often has more in common with predominantly oral, “popular” lineages than it does with canonical Western art music. It makes sense to take a more ethnomusicological approach to this topic, therefore. In many ways, chant and secular music from this era share more with folk music, pop songwriting, and yes, hip-hop, than they do with Beethoven.

As Taruskin reminds us, orality and literacy have always been engaged in a complex pas de deux through the centuries. Even though notational technologies were available from around the 9th-10th centuries, music making remained primarily an oral tradition, and notated music simply attempted to capture what singers already knew. But at a certain point (or rather, many certain points), the pendulum swung towards literacy as the primary means of transmission.

To shift gears slightly, lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of composer anonymity and its role in shaping this repertory. Anonymity is fundamentally a trait of the oral tradition. In folk signing traditions, for instance, complex lineages of who learned a song from whom are often highly valued, but the origins of most songs are murky. In many (perhaps most) cultures around the world, songs are said to have been created by ancestors or the Gods. Some cultures view their song repertory as something that simply always has been. Similarly, most chant cannot be pinned down to a specific composer. Like the composition of the Indian ragas, Gregory was said to have received direct dictation from God. The idea of the “composer” didn’t really come about until the pendulum had swung a little more towards literacy.

For example, Hildegard’s music was elaborate, florid, and not always intuitive. There is little chance that her music would have been remembered and passed on in the same way as plainchant – it’s simply too difficult. Once music surpassed a certain threshold of technical complexity, notation became a much more valuable technology of transmission. Hildegard’s music was in many ways enabled by notation. Likewise, because it was affixed to a thing from the beginning, so too did her name enter the material record.

Oral traditions tend to value continuity more than innovation. One can certainly composer orally, as Taruskin wrote at the beginning of the volume, but is that composer going to be remembered? Indeed, is he going to even want to be remembered? In an oral paradigm, an individual’s unique contribution to the flowing river of music is  just a drop in an unchanging yet constantly moving tradition. No wonder we don’t have the names of many chant composers – they didn’t have the technology to pass their compositions down, of course, but just as important, they didn’t think like composers.

Literacy is one of the defining qualities of Western music (indeed, the defining characteristic according to Taruskin). But literacy also enabled an equally important concept, one that also defines Western music – the composer. We can see the faint stirrings of the composer concept now: fewer and fewer musical examples are anonymous as notation grew more precise and powerful. In a couple hundred years, composers will be well-known throughout their regions and in the employ of kings and churches. A couple hundred years after that, they will be the Gods.

[Addendum:] Continuing with our little tradition of bringing up current music in our discussions of the Middle Ages, the hip-hop practice of hiding one’s true identity through clever monikers is a fascinating phenomenon. All of these masks – many performers go under multiple aliases – fracture the concept of an individual composer/creator. In some ways, could we be returning to an oral, composerless paradigm?


  1. Nathan Baker says:

    It should also be noted that in many oral traditions, skilled performers receive the level of acclaim and recognition that are given to composers in the more literate traditions. In the realms of pop and jazz music, musicians compare versions of the same song done by different performers, and the focus on performers holds true in various world traditions as well (several Indian musicians claim to be the true disciple of Ravi Shankar, for example). Even in the classical world, performers talk about their lineages (so-and-so studied with one of the pupils of a student of Chopin!).

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    Excellent point, Nathan. I wonder about the role literacy played in sidelining the performer in the west.. Perhaps when compared to the long-lasting, durable contributions of their composer counterparts, performers at many points in western history were marginalized because, no matter how good that violinist was, when he died his sound died with him. Recording changed that, of course, which has tilted power back towards the performers.

  3. Mark Samples says:

    Literacy is not the only circumstance that led to a decrease in anonymity. It is also an issue of the point of view the musicians had towards self-glorification. For instance, if a monk were so brash as to put his name in a byline, he would have been accused of the sin of pride. However, once we come to the influence of Italian humanism on music (late 14th-15th c., and over 150 pages from where we are now in the challenge), claims of authorship become allowed, preferred, and in some cases even the sine qua non. Take, for example, the Squarcialupi Codex, the early 15th c. collection of trecento song. The entire codex is organized by composer, roughly chronologically, with elaborate paintings of the men themselves on each section’s title page. Here we have authorship commanding every aspect of the codex’s organization, and as a result, conditions of anonymity would be enough to guarantee that a song would not make it into the collection. Such a situation would never have been possible without a drastic change of worldview, and valuation of oneself.

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