“Dies Irae”

On a “Greatest Hits of the 10th-12th Centuries” compilation disc advertised on late-night TV, this famous chant would be track 1. Of course, most of us know this melody through its many quotations in both the classical canon (I, like most, heard it the first time in Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique) and popular culture (a remixed version of the chant was even featured in a Nike commercial a few years ago). Listening to  the original chant makes it all too clear why composers throughout the ages have found fertile ground here.

Teachers Making History

guidoEar training teachers everywhere, take heart. For it was one of your own, Guido of Arezzo, an ear training teacher from the turn of the first millennium (A.D.) who produced what Taruskin calls “perhaps the greatest [breakthrough] in the history of the literate tradition of music in the West” (I, 101): the musical staff with “key” lines, which we now know as clefs. Not to mention that other little device, solmization syllables.

How did these breakthroughs come about? Guido was just trying to be a better teacher. I wonder what breakthroughs we can come up with by aiming for the same goal.

Week 2 in Review

In order to briefly consolidate the reading of the week, quickly summarize themes and ideas on the blog, and touch on the issues in the text that never made it onto the blog, Mark and I are going to try to do quick and easy bullet-point reviews at the end of every week. We hope these little reviews help students and fellow travelers on the TC.

The Week in Blogging: This was the week of the trope! Unfortunately (or fortunately), tropes appeared at the very beginning of the week’s reading (p. 50-52) and thus eclipsed the rest of Ch.2 and beginning of Ch.3. We wrestled with the idea of troping through comparison (sampling), meditations on meaning (greater subjectivity and a way for monks to personalize liturgy), and ruminations on the primacy of the transmission media, a post which generated considerable discussion. The week also saw posts on the idea of oral composition and the critical perspectives needed to understand it, and the historiographical dilemma of focusing on sameness vs. difference.

The Week in Reading: Chapter 2 con’t –

  • Tropes (p. 50): But of course. Everyone’s favorite chant genre, involving the interpolation of new material into preexisting chant.
  • The Mass Ordinary (p. 53): The Mass was codified by the Franks and ordered into the format that endures today.
  • Kyries (p. 58): A hybrid genre and the only Greek text in the Mass. RT suggests that the use of double notation to convey necessary information in the Kyries may have played a major role in the invention of the staff.
  • “Old Roman” and Other Chant Dialects (p. 61): Frankish-Roman chant was not the only variety of the day. Other styles included: Old Roman singing, Milanese chant, Mozarabic (from Spain), Benevetan (southern Italy).
  • What is Art? (p. 64): The much-discussed philosophical essay.

CHAPTER 3: Retheorizing Music – New Frankish Concepts of Musical Organization and Their Effect on Composition

  • Musica (p. 69): Music was entirely theoretical and was considered the study of proportions. Active music making was considered a lower form of musical thinking. Musica mirrored harmony of cosmos; also had influence on human health and behavior.
  • Tonaries (p. 72): Notion of scale degrees developed; first foray in music theory. Musical analysis was developed to better understand older chants – descriptive body of knowledge started to become prescriptive.
  • A New Concept of Mode; Mode Classification in Practice; Mode as a guide to composition (pp. 76-86): Discussion of the Medieval modes and their codification in practice and role in guiding new composition.
  • Versus (p. 86): Late Frankish sequences. RT discusses the famous “Dies Irae” chant and Hildegard von Bingen here.
  • Liturgical Dramas (p. 92): Moral plays based on Biblical passages.
  • Marian Antiphons (p.94): Votive antiphons (Psalm-less) started to be attached to the ends of Office services to honor local saints and Mary.

Please respond if you have any suggestions for how to make these little reviews more useful for study. Stay tuned for troubadours, the invention of meter, secular genres, and much much more this week on the Taruskin Challenge!!

Technologies of Transformation

One of Taruskin’s more philosophical passages, the aptly subtitled “What is Art?” (I, pp. 64-67), outlines in broad strokes the transition from music-as-activity to music-as-Art. Once a practice that existed entirely within the oral tradition, early notation was pivotal in codifying music and providing individual works with autonomy, a fairly universally regarded prerequisite for “art” status. Instead of the transitory, unpredictable nature of oral transmission and living, breathing musical practice, notation allowed for prescriptive snapshots of sound ideals. The manuscript was sound made flesh, and the very “thing-ness” of a notated page had the effect of elevating it to a higher status. When the printing press came along, allowing for numerous, easy copies of musical works, this process of reification intensified. As Taruskin writes: “The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic – a timeless aesthetic object – was waiting to be born.” (I, 65). The final step in this progression, Taruskin goes on, came with the invention and popularization of recording technology, which allowed people to own not just things that represent music (scores, notated music), but the music itself, the Ding an sich. “A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.” (ibid.) Recordings are the ultimate tangible embodiment of music, and thus the ultimate step in their paradigmatic transfiguration into art.

Oh what has changed in the decade and a half since Taruskin wrote this. In many ways I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment: the recording is just another form of writing (“sound-writing” to be precise), only one that is much more powerful than notation in that it captures time itself, not just representations of music-colored time. In no other 20-year interval in history, however, has a paradigm of musical transmission come so quickly to its knees. The thing-ness of recorded music is, for all intents and purposes, presently dead. Proliferation and rapid adoption of digital formats like the MP3 have taken the physical object out of music consumption for a majority of people. They still have their recordings – fixed, solid performances of music – but the things attached to them have disappeared into thin air. In some ways, we moderns are returning to an earlier paradigm of music making with alarming, unprecedented alacrity.

As goes the transmission medium, so goes the art. Contrary to what Taruskin says – that today works of High Art are held in great esteem precisely because of their manifest thing-ness – today the traditional bastion of musico-cultural value, “the canon,” is collapsing all around us. The nature of this transformation is complex, but one of the major factors, I would argue, is the severe decline of the physical object in recorded music.

I want to return one last time to our favorite topic of the week – tropes. (And I swear this is the last post, all you troper-haters out there!) As Taruskin argues, thinking of tropes as art in the traditional definition is highly problematic. The same is true of sampling, as the legal and cultural firestorm over the technique’s very right to exist amply demonstrates. Much of the reason why these two forms are so problematic is because of the strange, complex message they carry about the media of transmission themselves.

The thing that intrigues me the most about tropes, and about sampling, is how fundamental the media is to the message. Here’s what I mean. The respective technologies of music notation and sound recording, by fixing musical practice into a thing, enable the subversion of the medium itself since an object can be cut, pasted, broken apart, rearranged, etc. It’s much easier to use an object for new purposes than it is to use an idea, which is what all songs were before they were figuratively “made flesh.” In both troping and sampling, the media itself (notation, recording) becomes the battleground on which musicians mediate these warping notions of musical meaning. Tropes (and sampled hip-hop) aren’t just captured by their respective transmission media – they are a product of their technologies. No music notation, no tropes; no sound recording, no sampling.

We should keep this in mind when attempting to draw straight lines through music history. The same technologies that helped reify music into Art also helped challenge the very notion of art and might, ultimately, lead to the collapse of cultural authority inherent in such a paradigm. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The Tropin’ Monkey: A Debate

Troping Vinyl: Grandmaster Flash

The Argument: Medieval chant troping constituted the first documented instance of altering, recontextualizing, and fragmenting musical materials for new purposes. Fast forward a millennium, and we find that hip-hop musicians applied a similar principle (sampling) in the creation of new beats. The sampling process involves “cutting” segments from old records and “pasting” them into entirely new contexts, often alongside samples from other records. The result of such a process, like troping, warps the musical narrative’s sense of time, as material from different eras and genres are mashed together into a unified whole. Thus we have “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” where he samples from Chic, Queen, salsa music, television from the 1940’s, etc. As Mark (MC Samples) points out in his The Telling Trope post, adding commentary to and framing preexisting text and chant allowed monks to reinterpret the liturgy and, in effect, personalize it. Similarly, in hip-hop, sounds from old records (a beat from one song, a horn hit from another, James Brown’s grunt from yet another) are used to form a link with the past – what Chip Gates calls “signifyin'” – while also allowing for some dramatic editorialization over the source material (ie. rapping). Sampling JB is a gesture of homage, it’s a way to confirm his stature, but it’s also a way to confirm one’s own stature as a producer or an MC. Like monks confirming the validity and truth of Biblical passages through their tropes, sampling serves as a framework that, by pulling sonic materials out of the original environment, allows the troper/sampler to both show respect for tradition and break tradition by doing something new and personal with old material.

Many valuable critical perspectives have come out of the nascent body of scholarly literature on hip-hop. A smorgasbord of theories and approaches have been brought to bear on the topic of sampling, including postmodern theory, Marxist theory, Kristeva’s idea of intertextuality, Bateson’s concept of “play,” Gates’s “signifyin’ monkey,” ethnomusicological comparisons to African musical practices, etc. Since sampling resembles the practice of troping to a remarkable degree, issues and perspectives from hip-hop theory should be brought into the musicological discussion of this repertory.  Furthermore, what better way to engage a 9am undergraduate music history survey class than to introduce the topic of tropes with video of Grandmaster Flash?             — DJ Tropesphere

The Counterargument: Comparing Medieval troping with hip-hop sampling is all too tempting. On the surface, both techniques share much in common. Furthermore, certain generic parallels can be drawn between the two practices: tropes framed old material, commenting on it and confirming its content; sampling, generally speaking, can do the same. Both are steeping in a paradigm of musicking that is agglutinative, intertextual, and – for lack of a better word – “cut and paste.”

But beyond these passing similarities, the argument falters. Monks did not trope in order to engage in any sort of postmodern play or cultural rebellion whatsoever. They did so for practical reasons – to lengthen the liturgical day. Additionally, their reasons were not musical per se: they were informed by spiritual, theological probing. To compare the authority of the Bible with the authoritative groove of James Brown is fallacious and wildly off base. Moreover, this form of music scholarship – finding examples of a creative process and cutting it wholesale out of its original context to apply to another music – damages the specificity of each repertory/composer/era/technique by collapsing important differences for the sake of convenience (or the sake of waking up a class of sleepy undergrads). Mark (Dr. Samples) meditates eloquently on this idea in a recent post.

In conclusion, jumping between eras, languages, cultures, spiritual contexts, and musical use functions in the pursuit of The Same can be fun and rewarding – indeed, it’s easy to make novel and interesting scholarly connections between completely different practices when historiographical exactitude is disregarded. Unfortunately, such scholarship does little to shed light on the actual truth of past (or present) musical practices. It can only obfuscate the truth to draw false parallels between traditions when the commonalities are far outnumbered by the differences.    — Dr. Wallmark

Warning: Patterns May be Habit Forming [Updated]

Miles Davis, Think DifferentOne can form a mental habit of looking for sameness instead of difference, which can lead to an actual (perhaps unconscious) preference for simplifying sameness, and a concomitant (equally unconscious) antagonism toward complicating difference. (I, 63)

In other words, our brains look for patterns. It’s how we interpret the mass of information barraging us everyday, from navigating the freeway to shopping for groceries. It’s how we organize the kuchka of historical data required to pass our comprehensive music history exams. Further, we use patterns every day as musicologists to categorize and engage with musical repertoire by genre (“that’s a sonata, not a concerto”), or form (“this movement is in sonata form, not rondo form”).

But sometimes patterns work against us. The first and most vicious way is that they can keep us from truly engaging with music. All too often, when I am studying a piece of music (say, the first movement of a late 18th-c. symphony), I catch myself listening for what I’ve been told should be there, rather than what I actually hear and see. The patterns that musicologists attend to—genres, music theory, form—exist because they can be useful descriptions of a repertoire. The shift we need to watch for is when that description becomes anachronistic prescription, and forms a barrier between us and the music.


After posting this, I started in on today’s reading. In the first paragraph was the following, about the effects of 9th-c. Frankish music theory (a cumulation of Aurelian, Hucbald, Alia musica, Dialogus de musica) on ensuing composition of chant:

For that theory, modest in its intention, was huge in its effect. […] From a description of existing music it became a prescription for the music of the future. (I, 80, emphasis mine)

Coincidence? Perhaps. It is another reminder that we need to be able to recognize the effects of the descriptive/prescriptive process as a catalyst in history, but also be sensitive to its effect on our historical judgment.

The Telling Trope

As DJ Tropesphere points out in his recent post, tropes were a way to re-immerse monks in the liturgy. But the most fascinating thing about tropes to me is how the trope texts allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of intellectual activity at the time. Far from being empty vessels, transferring original truths back into the mouths of monks unchanged, Clunaic reforms, and tropes with them, shaped—and were shaped by—contemporaneous theological developments. Like the text glossing of a manuscript, in which commentary filled the margins surrounding the original text, tropes form a musical frame around pre-existing chant. As such, paying attention to what topics the tropes emphasized (Marian imagery, Christology) can tell us what the authors considered to be important. Riffing off of Zach’s recent post, troping a Kyrie is like taking a pop ballad and remixing it as a dance track. Both tell us something about the participants’ changing values.

When telling the story of music history, tropes are usually big news because they were new, and we like to track what we think of as the forward edge of history. (We deal with the origin of a genre, then follow its development only as long as it does so dynamically. To my knowledge, no one has ever written a chapter called “Gregorian Chant in the Seventeenth Century,” though I would love to be proven wrong!) But as Taruskin’s discussion implies, tropes are important for far more than just being new. As additions to a pre-existing set of texts, they show us how a new generation of believers made the liturgy their own.

On Tropes (Part I)

Beginning in the 9th century, a new Frankish musical practice took off. “Tropes” are a whole category of chants that were added, interpolated, and generally affixed to older chants. From a practical point of view, tropes helped to re-immerse Benedictine monks back into the sanctity of liturgical life after centuries of brutal Norse invasions by making liturgical observances longer. Textually, the content of the tropes served as commentary to the Biblical verses in the preexisting chant; they also functioned as confirmation and validation of the truth of the original passages. Thus, with tropes, new is blended with old, the narrative voice of the text becomes diffuse, and the musical continuity of the original troped chant is fragmented.

I thought we’d have to wait until the 20th century to be confronted with the postmodern, but here we are.

For many reasons, tropes – or the phenomenon of troping – seem much more modern than the other chant repertories we’ve been discussing up to now. There is a fluidity of meaning to them, a deliciously complex problematization (musicological buzz-word!) of authorship that most modern people can relate to. Contemplating tropes, a couple things come to mind immediately. Most of us who are at least half-way immersed in global popular culture hear a contemporary take on the concept of troping all the time, in our cars and in the dance clubs. Indeed, hip-hop music (at least the sampled variety) occupies much of the same technical and semiotic space as the Medieval tropes. Even some of the reasons for sampling are the same (I’ll explore this later). [In an alternate life as a rap producer, perhaps I would sample from recordings of tropes to create a delightful little musical hall of mirrors – troping the tropes. I would be known as DJ Tropesphere. But I digress..]

The phenomenon of troping also brings to mind another pervasive cultural practice of our modern age – blogging. Adding, commenting, amending, collaborating, confirming, changing meaning through context… all of these roles are familiar to the intrepid blogger. They must also have been familiar to the troping monk.

This is a fascinating development for many reasons, and I hope to explore the phenomenon beyond just this brief propaedeutic post. Expect more this week from DJ Tropesphere!

Oral Composition and Questions of Method

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.