“Kyrie Rex Virginum”

This clip tracks the manuscript as the music progresses, a helpful format for linking sound and early notation. The “Kyrie” performed here includes interpolated “tropes,” a fascinating technique (and musical philosophy) that I will be writing about a lot more this week. Also note the florid melisma (extended, textless melodic passage) on the last syllable. Glorious indeed!

Blogging Musically

For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism. – Andrew Sullivan, preface to “Why I Blog”

And a golden era for musicology too, we hope.

Blogging might not be the most natural process for the typical scholar or grad student. In formal academic writing, we are held to a high degree of rigor, organization, and factual accuracy. But blogging is a bit different. As Andrew Sullivan says, “truths are provisional” in the ephemeral realm of the blogosphere. It is less about formal elegance and perfectly articulated thoughts than it is about the messy process of thinking. Moreover, it’s a venue for the collective action of working out ideas, probing, thinking aloud, and engaging in discussion. This improvisatory element to blogging might be intimidating for the scholar and student, steeped as they are in formalism and the need to back up everything they assert with a reference. The challenge to music blogging for the scholar-student, therefore, is in letting go.

We want to welcome all forms of writing on this blog, fully-formed ideas included. But one should also feel free to contribute without fear of accusations of shoddy scholarship; one should feel enabled and encouraged to plop amoebic ideas down without worrying about loose ends. This is the greatest gift of the blog format: it’s ok to be imperfect. Writing in this format is an attempt to capture thoughts in motion. One can always pin them down later.

This sort of writing can only be a good thing for a scholar-student, and a good thing for the discipline. If traditional scholarship is the equivalent of a flawless performance of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, then blogging is like getting onstage with a rhythm section and improvising a solo on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” complete with occasional wrong notes and mental misfires. It’s the verbal version of a jam session.

We hope that The Taruskin Challenge provides an open, exploratory, nurturing, and fun venue for music-geekery in all its forms. In the spirit of this geekery, I close with a particularly felicitous metaphor from Sullivan’s piece:

There are times when a blogger feels less like a writer than an online disc jockey, mixing samples of tunes and generating new melodies through mashups while also making his own music. He is both artist and producer—and the beat always goes on.

Thank You


Original movie poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Zach and I started this blog with modest ambitions. It was simply an easy way to hold an ongoing discussion between us across distance, and work through our thoughts and reactions as we work through the text of the OHWM. We told some friends and colleagues about it, thinking that maybe—just maybe—a few of them would be interested enough, or have a sliver of time in their busy schedules to drop by the blog and chime in. We were quite surprised with the response.

Since launch day six days ago, the blog has received over 800 hits. Numerous colleagues both known and unknown to us—the wonders of the internet!—have left comments or sent emails expressing excitement in the project, or a wish that they had had such an outlet when they were reading through OHWM. I can only assume that the overwhelming response to the blog is an indication that there is still plenty of room for this type of discussion within the musicological community.

So first we want to say thank you. Thank you for your interest and support. Second, we want to encourage you to continue stopping by when you have the chance, and don’t be afraid to join the conversation. Lively discussion is the life blood of a blog (more on this soon in a post by Zach).

In the meantime, we will press on toward the goal. One week down, only seventy-six more to go!

Babylonian Song

We’ve been talking about early notated chant, but forms of musical notation existed long before the ancestor of our present system found its way onto parchment. This little phrase was decoded and transcribed from musical notation on a cuneiform tablet. Its origins are Babylonian, c. 1200 BCE. I made this little MIDI recording from the transcription found in Vol. I, p. 32. The harp is employed not to conjure a mystical, ancient mood (although that’s nice too), but because harps appeared in coeval iconography.

This little transcription awes me. Taruskin goes into no detail on how it was decoded, nor does he show the original notation. It raises mounds of questions. Nonetheless, it’s pretty remarkable. The phrase is simple and diatonic; it almost sounds like a carol. It’s amazing that something so distant can sound so familiar.

Darwinian Music, or “The Triad Ate The Dyad”

In undergraduate music history surveys, it’s easy to develop a simple assumption: music evolves. The evidence is all around us, like trilobite fossils in an ancient sandbank. Over the evolution of Western music, things started out simply and progressed in ever and ever greater complexity, culminating in (what?) Beethoven, Schoenberg, or Elliott Carter. The music we’re reading about now – where the proverbial rubber meets the road between orality and literacy – represents the fish wiggling onto shore. Chant is the musical equivalent of a rudimentary amphibian.

This sort of thinking can be compelling and attractive. While it is true that there are countless examples of music getting simpler with time, not more complex, the general thrust of Western music is pretty tough to ignore: back in the middle ages, they sung unaccompanied modal melodies, today we have all the bountiful gifts of total serialism. It’s easy for the student of music to view every musical innovation, therefore, as an evolutionary adaptation bringing us ever closer to the present.

This way of thinking, attractive as it may be, is of course false. (And it might even be harmful – more on this in a later post.) Actually, it’s both a false reading of history and a demonstrably inaccurate take on the concept of evolution. In classical Darwinian evolution, species don’t simply evolve in straight lines towards their ultimate expression, ie. what they are today. Evolution is sprawling and messy; it doubles back on itself when survival dictates; it results in all sorts of dead-ends and false starts. Just like music. So perhaps music history and evolution do share something in common, only not the simple, commonly understood definitions of either.

But back to the text. Chant, it turns out, is not the squirmy amphibian on the evolutionary chart of music. Earlier dominant styles, actually, were far more complex, at least according to all evidence (we can’t hear it, obviously). The Psalms, in their description of Judaic practice, describe massed ensembles of drums, tambourines, singers, and – yes – even orchestras. Pagan musical practices were most probably polyphonic as well. Musically speaking, these practices were more complex than chant. In fact, chant can be seen as a deliberate step towards simplifying the raucous music that preceded it. It was, in a sense, reactionary. As monasteries were formed and the ascetic religious life took shape, a corresponding music for contemplation and spiritual equanimity was needed. Musical complexity and formal development weren’t even a consideration. So where, then, does this leave the Darwinian musicologist?

This is a topic I hope to return to as the project progresses (dare I say “evolves”). For now, I leave you with Taruskin:

Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as the oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic. (I, 10)

History as Drama?

Tonight’s menu: Pork Paprikash. Wait, this is not that kind of blog. (But I really did make paprikash this week, and it was pretty darn good for my first time.) Anyway…

In today’s reading came the end of the first chapter, “The Curtain Goes Up: ‘Gregorian Chant,’ the First Literate Repertory, and How it Got That Way.” Taruskin’s title—especially the first phrase—cleverly sets the stage, so to speak, for the enterprising soul who has set out to read his history. “Settle in to your seat,” Taruskin seems to say, “and enjoy the OHWM, a History in Five Acts. Cue the overture!”

His use of the curtain metaphor has me thinking about the connection between the telling of history, and the presentation of a drama. We usually talk about history as a “narrative” (Taruskin included, notwithstanding his condemnation of the nefarious “master narrative”), but is there any benefit to applying dramatic theory to historiography? Or do the pitfalls of such a paradigm outweigh the benefits? Does anyone know if any work has been done on this, or have thoughts about it?

Of course, when I think drama I automatically think opera: a curtain-raising overture, several acts, a cast of characters whose relationships to one another will be revealed over the course of the evening—however ill-fated those relationships turn out to be—remember, it’s opera. How does/should the work of a historian emulate drama? (Extra points for the first commenter who uses “dramaturgical” in his/her response.)

“Justus ut palma”

This clip may or may not be the most accurate performance-practice wise (all female chorus), but it gives you a good sense of these early chants. It also has a lot of shots of the square-note notation itself – in a few pictures, you’ll see red squiggly lines over the music, like accents. These are “neumes,” the earliest notated form. This version of “Justus ut palma,” [“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”] is sung as a Gradual. The same text appears in many different settings for different moments in the liturgical day. Furthermore, different versions of “Justus” exist in different scriptoria, suggesting that there was no fully codified musical text that represented the supreme interpretation of the tune.

Chant has become, in recent years, synonymous with serenity, relaxation, and spiritual quietude. The multi-million selling “Chant” record from 1994 cemented the New Age connection to this ancient repertory (and showed its market potential). But listening to this clip, there are lots of fleeting moments of jagged musical surprise. The melody is unpredictable and wanders into places that don’t strike the modern ear as necessarily intuitive. Calming, yes, but there’s a lot more going on here than just that. (Of course, try marketing “unpredictable melodic turns” to a mass audience..)

Musical Objects

[Vol. I, pp. 1-50]

It is the sense that an art work may exist independently of those who make it up and remember it that is distinctive of literate cultures. (As we shall see, it is that sense that allows us even to have the notion of a “work of art.”) And another difference is that having works of music, however large in scale, in written form encourages us to imagine or conceptualize them as objects, which is to say as “wholes,” with an overall shape that is more than the sum of its parts. […] Since the performance of such works must unfold in time, but the written artifacts that represent them are objects that occupy space, one can think of literate cultures as cultures that tend conceptually to substitute space for time—that is, to spatialize the temporal. (I, 20-21)

A tendency to spatialize the temporal. This is a nice way to explain a concept that has been nagging at my brain for a couple of years now, and Taruskin’s formulation helps crystalize my thoughts. I think this tendency arises out of humans’ proclivity for visual information. Time can’t be seen—at least not all at once—but limited portions of space can. This is at once the mysterious beauty of music, and its elusive frustration. The more something is unknown or indefinable, the harder it is to master. What we can’t master we consider a threat, whether it be the threat of political disorder throughout the realm (c.f. Zach’s recent post) or merely the threat of not fulfilling your duties as cantor due to the inability to recall intricate series of melismas (e.g., Notker Balbulus).

Putting music down on paper (or parchment, or wax tablets) allows us to see its edges, see its entirety. Even more, we can hold on to it, manipulate it, own it. In short, we can be masters of music—a goal that all musicology students can relate to. But the key point here, that often goes unsaid—and unnoticed—is that this brand of musical mastery is engineered synesthesia. The realm of hearing is relegated to that of seeing, through a series of meaningful symbols. We then interact with the sound through the mediator of sight.

There of course is nothing wrong with this, and it has proven to be a most valuable eventuality, especially to historians. To focus only on what can be seen—the Great Score of musicological lore—is to miss out on the music itself: a living, breathing, performance affected, error susceptible experience. It’s like preferring the 2009 Fodor’s guide to Paris to the real thing—there’s no way it will be comprehensive, and it will be out of date before it gets into your hands.

May I never choose the guidebook over the experience.

Accidental Music

[Vol. I, pp. 1- 50]

The fact that eighth-century Roman liturgical song – cantus in Latin, from which we get the word “chant” – was singled out for preservation in written form had nothing to do with musical primacy, or even with musical quality. The privilege came about, as already implied, for reasons having nothing to do with music at all. (I, 2)

This passage made me smile. It’s only natural to conclude that the most enduring music out there, the stuff that enriches our lives and breathes energy into our spirits, is also the best. For instance, take three bodies of essential music at random: say Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles. Their body of work, virtually uncontested in its brilliance, still works magic on people – and presumably will continue to do so – because of its sheer quality. All three acts, processed through the canonizing influence of “Big Men” historiography, reveal themselves to be game-changing, iconoclastic, and touched with a Romantic notion of Genius. We listen to Bach, therefore, because Bach is good. Or is it really that simple?

I’m not insane enough to impugn the quality of this music. But there’s something more at work in why these three bodies of music are recorded, remembered, and cherished today. Let’s take  a closer look. Bach was a  humble church composer and organist who toiled hard making beautiful music. Unlike, say, the Mozartian concept of inspiration being handed down from on high, Bach believed that creating music was more the result of hard work, solid craftsmanship, and perseverance. He certainly wasn’t positioning his own work to be worshipped as Genius for hundreds of years after his death in 1750, and indeed Bach’s name was largely forgotten for decades afterward. It wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn came along in the late 1820s, rearranged St. Matthew’s Passion, and championed his cause that a revival of interest in Bach occurred. Looking in retrospect, Romantic composers embraced the industrious contrapuntalist from Leipzig as their forefather. But without Mendelssohn, where would Bach be today? It’s a metaphysically impossible question, but it makes you wonder.

Same with Miles Davis and The Beatles. Davis was pulled into the mainstream of the NY jazz scene by powerful friends like Charlie Parker. Had he not moved from East St. Louis, where he grew up, to the bustling, brand new bebop scene in NY in the late 1940s, his destiny as one of The Greats becomes murky. The Beatles were given not one but two unfathomably good breaks at the beginning of their career. The first was an opportunity to play, virtually without limits, in Hamburg. This opportunity allowed the young men to craft an incredibly tight product. The next big break came after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, a storied event that catapulted the Fab Four into the American market. No Hamburg residency, no Ed Sullivan – no Beatles.

Bach, Miles Davis, and The Beatles all produced some amazing music. But they also got by with a little help from their friends. This notion that circumstance, sheer luck, politics, and random factors influence success and failure perhaps more than anything else is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers. It’s a fascinating premise and one that historians should keep in mind as they proceed down the narrow path of any “Master Narrative” of history.

But back to the earliest written music. Chant was not selected to be preserved because it was better than the other music of the day; it was not notated (or, rather, notation was not invented for it) because it was just that good. No, musical notation came about when Charlemagne consolidated power under the aegis of the Holy Roman Empire and all of a sudden a vast, linguistically divided land all came under the same political stewardship. Charlemagne, seeking unification of this diverse empire, initiated a standardization of the liturgical cycle of chant. The earliest form of notation was invented so that far-flung regions with their own, heterodox liturgical traditions could learn the Roman way of singing. The invention of written notation, therefore, was a political act.