Week 4 in Review

This Week in Blogging: Posts for the week chronicled a number of diverse engagements with the text, from an example of the first extant piece of polyphony and a new piece of artwork, to a meditation on the role of anonymity and its relationship to orality in the early repertory. (From here on out, dear readers, we’ll be dealing with composers, not anonymous monks.) The week came to a close with a rumination on the element of creative play that really crystallized during this period. In some of the earliest polyphonic experiments and into the Notre Dame school, we can get a clear glimpse of homo ludens, “humanity at play.”

CHAPTER 5: Polyphony in Practice and Theory

  • Guido, John, and Discant (153): Inventing the staff wasn’t Guido’s only contribution to music – he also set down some basic counterpoint rules in his “Micrologus.” This practice, discant, was the same type of note-against-note (homorhythmic) counterpoint evident in the Chartres fragment.
  • Polyphony in Aquitanian Monastic Centers (156): While the earliest polyphony used preexisting chant as the melody (the highest voice), Aquitanian practitioners flipped the script, putting the chant (cantus firmus) in the tenor. The cantus firmus was then slowed down dramatically to leave room for florid melismas in the upper voice(s).
  • The Codex Calixtinus (162): A late 12th-century French manuscript with some of the earliest examples of this new sort of polyphonic music.

CHAPTER 6: Notre Dame de Paris

  • The Cathedral-University Complex (169): Paris was the undeniable intellectual and artistic hub of 12th-13th century Europe, and it was in the newly founded universities and massive cathedrals that a new style developed. Early Notre Dame polyphony alternated between two styles: discant (note-against-note) and organum (sustained tenor cantus firmus with melismatic flights in the upper voice).
  • Piecing the Evidence Together (172): The most important document shedding light on the practices, composers, and repertory of this compositional school was written by an anonymous Englishman, the so-called “Anonymous IV.” It it through this document that we learn the name of Leonin and Perotin, the two masters of Notre Dame. However, the specifics are all quite sketchy, and modern scholars still know very little about these composers.
  • Measured Music (175): This repertory featured a novel way of notating rhythm, with long or short durations indicated through ligature patterns. The rhythmic feel would change dramatically between discant and organum sections. Copula served as an intermediate rhythmic level.
  • Whys and Wherefores (183): Taruskin takes the opportunity to ask why modal rhythm was developed at this time and for this repertory. Again, the “organic fallacy” appears – we should not read the development of rhythmic notation as a progressive evolutionary step. Instead, it might have been developed as a mnemonic device (to aid in memorization). In any case, Perotin and his ilk were the first generation of composers to depend on this new notational technology.
  • Organum cum Alio (186): The polyphony discussed so far is of the 2-voice variety. In the Notre Dame school, however, more voices were added to the mix (“organum with another [voice]”). Juggling three of four parts required a level of coordination that would have been impossible without modal rhythmic notation. The section features analyses of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes and Alleluia Nativitas.
  • Theory or Practice? (196): Johannes de Garlandia’s authoritative De mensurabili musica offers descriptions of the rhythmic modes that exemplifies the complex relationship between theory and practice. While most of the modes outlined in the treatise appear to have reflected actual practice, a few of the theoretical modes that were introduced in the text only began to appear after Garlandia described them. This is a textbook case of theory influencing practice.
  • Conductus at Notre Dame (198): Notre Dame composers added some interesting new features to the conductus genre: 1) they were settings of contemporary poems and could have been composed from scratch, not from chant; 2) they were syllabically texted.

Coming up this week: the motet!

Art as Play

Such a spirit of playful creativity is more in keeping with modern understanding of the word “art” than are the functional amplifications of plainchant that we have been encountering up to now. (I, 161)

[Early notated polyphonic practices] bear witness to the process (and the fun) of creativity within an oral culture. Homo ludens and homo faber – “humanity at play” and “creative humanity” – were close allies in such a culture. (I, 162)

.. What begins in necessity often ends in play – that is, in “art.” (I, 179)

.. What was prompted by practical need became the stimulus for luxuriant artistic play. (I, 186)

As our week’s reading has progressed, we can begin to see the genesis of a new (rather, old) creative principle at work – art as play. Surely the concept of creative play has been a major driving force behind the activity of music making since the first song was sung and the first rhythm danced back in pre-history. At this point in our musical odyssey, however, Taruskin sees the concept of play coming to the fore. (And just as the role of play gradually took a more prominent role in notated music at this time, the connection between art and play is gradually deepened and expanded upon over thirty pages in Taruskin’s text. By the end of this development, “playful” and “artistic” are virtual synonyms.)

Play is a transparent yet complex phenomenon. Oftentimes, the word “play” is invoked as a sort of counterweight to seriousness, as in: “Come on! I’m only playing with you!” Play is, almost by definition, fun. (“Can Mark come out to play?”) It is closely associated with recreation, games, and sports. Play in music is most often used in the context of  “playing a piece,” or “playing an instrument.” And here, linguistically, we can almost see a bifurcation  in our thinking about the various roles in music making: performers (ie. those who play music) vs. composers (ie. those who write music). This formulation is, of course, highly reductionist, but  the words we use to describe various musical actions (play guitar; make hip-hop beats; improvise jazz solos; write symphonies) can be very telling. One does not “play” a fresh, new piece of music; one writes, composes, or creates new music.

Taruskin does us a valuable service by pointing out that early compositional practices, steeped in the oral tradition, were in fact modes of creative play. The intricacies, puzzles, and patterns of early Aquitainian polyphony and the Notre Dame school demonstrate this playfulness. (Of course, most if not all composition, period, includes the component of play. But more on that as the Challenge progresses..) Taruskin goes a step further, however, by identifying this quality of play with a modern aesthetic valuation. Play is art.

There’s so much to unpack with this topic, and the purpose of this post is simply to get the idea out there on the table. How do we theorize play? A fruitful place to start could be biologist-psychologist-philosopher Gregory Bateson’s writing on the subject. To Bateson, play is not just a feature of human behavior – it is universal to all complex life forms. In his “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” (1954), Bateson visits the zoo and observes a pair of otters at play. It is obvious to all – even a toddler – that the otters are playing, not fighting and chasing each other out of hostility. Of course, the otters themselves are in on it. This leads him to conclude that true play is only possible when the organisms in question are able to transmit the message “this is play.” This code is a meta-level communication, since the actual behavior involved in the play (biting, chasing, tackling, etc.) could, under different circumstances, be interpreted as aggression. Therefore, an otter (or two brothers wrestling, for that matter) communicate two contradictory messages at once: I am biting you, but don’t take this bite as a real threat. It’s only play. In a brilliant and dense string of logic and reasoning, Bateson concludes that play is where members of the animal kingdom show us their advanced abilities to decipher multiple levels of meaning at once. Similarly, play in humans communicates a multiplicity of different meanings. This is where he touches on the profound nexus between play, fantasy, ritual, and art, arguing that play is of the same logical type as aesthetic engagement. Bateson: “In the dim region where art, magic, and religion meet and overlap, human beings have evolved the ‘metaphor that is meant,’ the flag which men will die to save, and the sacrament that is felt to be more than ‘an outward and visible sign, given to us.'” Play, to Bateson, could be the key to that metaphorical unlocking of meaning.

I’m not sure how all this will relate to our topic of music, but I feel that is does somehow. More to come when (if) these inchoate thoughts take shape. How do you, readers, engage with the concepts of play and artistic activity?