Invisible Barriers

One does not have to crack open Taruskin’s OHWM to infer that he does not ascribe to the traditional categorization of eras of musical history. One doesn’t even have to take the volumes off the shelf (or shelves, depending on how big your bookcase is). Just a glance at their spines shows that he has organized his five volumes according to chronology (“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth century,” “…in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” “…in the Nineteenth Century,” etc.) rather than era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic). I have been waiting, therefore, for the issue to come up in the text, and sure enough it did in last week’s reading.

Before coming to the conclusion of his discussion of the motet, Taruskin makes it a point to draw a stylistic connection between Machaut and Du Fay. The reason that he has to “make it a point,” rather than simply drawing the connection, is that between these two composers lies the traditional barrier between two stylistic eras: Medieval and Renaissance. These are made-up barriers, and yet they can have a profound and formative influence on how we think and act. Here’s Taruskin:

“…major historiographical divisions like that can act as barriers, sealing off from one another figures and works that happen to fall on opposite sides of that fancied line, no matter how significant their similarities. Not only that, but…an appearance of stylistic backwardness or anachronism—inevitable when sweeping categories like “Medieval” and “Renaissance” are too literally believed in—can easily blind us to the value of supreme artistic achievements such as Du Fay’s isorhythmic motets. They are not vestigial survivals or evidence of regressive tendencies, but a zenith.” [I, 281]

The power of socially constructed barriers can be startling. A couple years ago, a designer friend of mine, David Overholt did a project at NYU that explored this very phenomenon, called “Tape in Space.” David went around New York City, placing duct tape in various configurations in public spaces: across a step, in an X on a bench, or stretching waist-high from a wall to a lamppost across a busy sidewalk. David outlines the concept behind his project as follows:

“My tendencies to consider alternative solutions and push/pull ideas to the limits of their rational beginnings had me quickly consider the options in life that we come in contact with that are not walls, but in fact act as walls simply by social understanding or conditioning. Thoughts of cracks in the sidewalk, a speaker blaring music (a wall of sound), or light in a darkened room can instantly bring up a group of the same set of emotions that are evoked when coming face to face with a wall. Isolation, distance, separation, security, etc. are often derived out of ideas, objects, or senses that are, in definition, not considered walls.”

In other words, we see walls where there are none. And we act accordingly. As part of the project, David created this video. It shows how a thin piece of tape can become an infinitely vertical wall capable of literally stopping people in their tracks. It also shows how different people deal with the same situation, some even penetrating the perceived barrier. (This video is also an interesting commentary on perceived authority, something that David achieves with just a hard hat and orange vest.) I recommend watching the entire five minutes of the video, but if you have limited time, begin at about 3 minutes.

Tape in Space from David Steele Overholt [I couldn’t get the video to embed, so please click the link.]

We do the same thing by erecting barriers in music history, only our barriers are even more scant than a piece of tape: they are completely invisible.


  1. What a fascinating project! I can understand avoiding tape when it’s struck up across the sidewalk, but it’s interesting that even when lines are drawn on the ground it can have an effect on how people move through the world. Perhaps we’re just hardwired to stay within the lines – maybe the reptilian part of our brains sees a line on the ground and relates it to edge of a cliff, the bank or a river, or some natural boundary.

    Dividing music history into periods, on the other hand, is entirely conscious. I just finished reading Warren Dwight Allen’s “Philosophies of Music History: A Study of General Histories of Music, 1600-1960,” and apparently the question of how to demarcate periods is a very old (and controversial) one. In some of the first histories (c. 1600), there were simply “Ancient” and “Modern.” With time, it became “Ancient,” “Medieval,” “Modern.” The term “Baroque,” which is borrowed from art history, used to be “The General-Bass Period.” It was even quite the vogue during the 19th century to name eras after their most distinguished practitioners (ie. “Bach Era,” “Monteverdi Era,” etc.)

    There is a practical and totally pragmatic purpose to periods – they are easier terms to use than dry, chronological ones. You can immediately (if falsely) conjure some style characteristics of ‘stile gallant’, but I don’t know if “late 18th century” would be as vivid.

    However, every period term – “Baroque,” “Romantic,” etc. – carries with it an essential judgment of the values, techniques and genres of the time. These prejudices can really muddy the waters.

    Hope to keep this topic up in the air as we continue!

    1. You’re right that era labels also have benefits. In this post, I decided to argue for the position of “barriers are bad”, but the opposite argument could be strongly made as well. Perhaps one of us should do that in a companion post, then open it up for debate…

      Thanks for the citation of Allen’s study. I’ll have to check that out.

  2. The question of how to “chunk” music history into periods is one that I raise with my undergrads (music majors) when we move from late Beethoven to Schubert, Berlioz, and other composers born a good generation later than Beethoven. I warn them, among other things, that there is no coherent system of “Romantic harmony” (for example)–intensely chromatic, third relations, enharmonic modulations, etc.–that will be found in all or even most music of the early/mid nineteenth century: there were many different streams of musical style co-existing simultaneously, and parlor songs or four-hand piano quadrilles (for example) might be as plain-vanilla in harmonic language as something from the–if we must use the term–“early Classic” era (e.g., the Stamitz and Sammartini in their anthology–pieces I quite _like_ despite or maybe because of their relatively limited harmonic vocabulary, harmonic progressions, etc.). I also have them sing a French political song with me from the 1820s (unaccompanied, using a folk song, and protesting censorship of political songs at the time!). The more we consider non-masterpiece music (including “functional music,” as Dahlhaus conveniently labeled it), I suspect, the less meaningful these simple “period” labels become.

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