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.)

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.

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!

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.