On a More Serious Note

Contrary to my slightly facetious post yesterday about the “labor” of reading OHWM, I have to say that the reading so far has been an absolute pleasure. Here we have a magnum opus (if one can have a magnum opus with so much of his career left in front of him) from one of the sharpest minds in the humanities today. It has only been two days, and already I am looking forward to what I’ll read tomorrow. This is going to be fun!

Frameworks, Perspectives, and Issues in OHWM

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

Before launching into the project tomorrow, I wanted to briefly take stock of the critical and analytical perspectives Taruskin discusses in the introduction. At a diminutive 9 pages, the intro essay lays out a handful of musicological issues that will be taken up in greater detail throughout the work. Taruskin’s list of analytical frameworks expresses a catholicity of approaches, from good old, staid archival work digging up primary documents, to broader historical methods, to even a touch of what I could call “New Musicology” (although he firmly dismisses this school of thought). Be on the lookout for the following issues as we progress through the OHWM:

  • Literacy vs. Preliteracy vs. Postliteracy: Taruskin is quite clear right from the beginning that his multivolume work addresses only the “elite genres” (I, xv) of Western musical history. In other words, it works with what is known from the written record. Perhaps the defining feature of the Western “art” music tradition has been the technology of notation. Of course, this technique underwent its own incredibly complex, sprawling evolution over the centuries, as anyone who has tried to sing from original plainchant manuscripts knows. The question of how transmission methods affect the dissemination of music is a fascinating one – I just hope Taruskin doesn’t skimp on thoughts about preliterate modes of thinking. (His meditations on postliteracy should be interesting as well – I’m curious how he will handle the issue of recording technology and the transmission on music. Any comprehensive history of music that leaves this last bit out is useless.) [Wow, that last comment was very Taruskin-esque!]
  • Reigning Narratives – Aesthetic and Historical: I guess this might go without saying, but the study of music history has traditionally focused on aesthetic value (the presence of beauty) and the determination of historical context and facts surrounding the creation of music.
  • High Art vs. Low Art: This is a thorny one, especially since the scope of the work is delimited by literate genres. Music is a powerful cultural tool for social identification, and this dichotomy has played out in every quarter of the Western world (indeed, the planet) for as long as we know. What the culture puts on a pedestal and what it puts on the street says a lot about the value systems at work in a particular time and place. The concept of musical “taste” is a rich analytical tool, and Taruskin (immodestly) lets the reader know that it receives “unprecedented coverage” in the OHWM.
  • Semantic: The objective, technical parameters of a piece of music. The field of Music Theory is the ultimate method of semantic analysis for notated Western music. Semiotic: This category concerns musical meaning (see last two posts). Evaluative: The point at which judgments, either aesthetic or historical, are made. A historian exercises the evaluative aspect both knowingly (ie. arranging the narrative of history into what’s important) and unknowingly (any evaluation is personal and thus limited – or enlivened – by taste).
  • Reception History: Taruskin is right on top of the contemporary conversation in his respect for not only the creation of a musical artifact but its record of reception. This plays a huge role in the evaluative aspect of analysis mentioned above.
  • The “Art World”: This final entry isn’t a critical perspective so much as an ideal paradigm for viewing the study of different musics (from art historian Howard Becker). An “art world” is “the ensemble of agents and social relations that it takes to produce works of art (or maintain artistic activity) in various media.” Taruskin goes on: “To study art worlds is to study processes of collective action and mediation, the very things that are most often missing in conventional musical historiography.” (I, xx) We’ll hold you to that, Prof. Taruskin!

More Thoughts on Musical Meaning

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

The question of meaning in music is one of the most fascinating – and rancorous – inquiries in contemporary musicology. As Mark cogently points out, the question is a highly nuanced one, yet the default position of many in our culture is the old maxim – music is a universal language. Imagine the World Music 101 student’s surprise when they learn that this feel good notion isn’t at all the end of the discussion. Meaning, it turns out, is a Protean concept and tough, if not impossible, to fix.

The issue is often phrased as a dichotomy, an approach Taruskin labels “The Great Either/Or” (I, xix). Is music a universal, open and free to all; OR is it situationally based, culturally specific, and constructed? His derision of this binarism makes his own perspective clear: music is both. One major problem, it seems to me, with the either/or approach to this issue is that is can potentially shut down all meaningful study, analysis, and discourse surrounding music and absolve all judgements from having to shoulder any reasonable burden of proof. If music is the universal language, period, then we’re all born with musical meaning preenscribed into our understanding of the world. No need to look too hard at the nit-picky details of time, place, culture, subculture, economics, ritual, use-value, race, gender, et cetera ad nauseum. If music is universal, then what’s to understand about it? We, almost by definition, must understand it already! It’s a convenient out. On the other hand, if music is too situational, too culturally predetermined, then it could almost lead the scholar (or music lover) to a sort of benighted resignation. Mark is right: we are all “outsiders” insofar as we cannot be Masai tribesmen, medieval monarchs, virtuoso Indian sitarists, and fin-de-siecle salon goers all in one lifetime. One individual can only occupy a handful of cultures/times at once (Alex Ross’s discussion of Richard Strauss shows the inherent weirdness of experiencing too much time on musical earth). If one can’t be an insider, and one must be an insider in order to get the meaning of the music, then why bother? It’s a lost cause.

Taruskin seems to be aiming at a middle path. I’m itching to follow this theme throughout, for it’s not terribly clear how it’s going to be accomplished.

Meaning in (of? through? attached to? inherent in?) Music

[Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xxii]

Meaning and music. Their relationship is ambivalent at best. Is musical meaning associative, like a language whose syllables and patterns are collected and understood by the initiated listener? Or is it inherent, including certain physical reactions to vibrations of sound waves that hit every body in the same way?

I pose this question to my students—in the same either/or format—every time I teach an ethnomusicology course in which they confront musical systems that are arcane, and sometimes indecipherable, to them upon first listen, such as Javanese gamelan. At the beginning of the course, many students agree with the statement: “Music is a universal language.” By the end of the course, many students realize that the issue is much more complicated than that. They end up saying that meaning in music is both universal and specific. A culturally rich musical event will be experienced differently by one who is initiated into a culture than one who is an outsider (never mind for now the acknowledged problem with the terminology “outsider”).

But the truth is, as historians, we’re all outsiders. We are trying to understand a culture that is removed from us, just by a different type of distance: time. Sometimes I think we should approach an understanding of medieval culture (or Renaissance, or Baroque, etc.) more like we approach African music. It’s just as different. But I digress.

Richard Taruskin is very clear about what he will consider musical meaning in the Oxford History of Western Music (OWHM). Meaning represents a full range of associations:

It covers implications, consequences, metaphors, emotional attachments, social attitudes, proprietary interests, suggested possibilities, motives, significance (as distinguished from signification)…and simple semantic paraphrase, too, when that is relevant. (I, xvi, ellipses in original)

That is a fairly rich and seemingly exhaustive list upon first reading. There is a clear theme to the list, which Taruskin goes on to expound. These types of musical meaning are all what he calls “social facts.” In other words, it is the human that makes music meaningful; the music becomes meaningful not because of what it does to us but what we do with it. This is clearly an important way that we find meaning in music. We associate music with personal feelings, memorable events, social acts such as dancing, or just as motivation for cleaning the house.

But does it really represent the “full range”? If association is the end all, we can’t rightly say that there is any meaning in the music at all. We have to change the phrase to meaning in humans, with respect to music. Modern scholars tend to be perfectly happy stopping with such a solipsistic understanding. But I wonder.

I wonder if there is more to music than just that. Is it possible for music to literally act on a person, aside from, or overruling one’s associations? Plato and Aristotle thought so. Religious composers have always thought so. Baroque composers thought so. Romantic composers certainly thought so. Can we accurately recount the history of these periods (and all those in between the few examples given here) if we don’t at least consider the same possibility? Or will we be missing a large part of the significance of the music?

These are questions I intend to chew on as I read on.