The Anxiety of Influence

Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.

First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.

Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.

A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.

In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):

Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)

That English Sound

One of England’s greatest contributions to the burgeoning transnational musical language at this time was the liberation of the major 3rd as a consonant interval. Grant it, the major 3rd wasn’t afforded full rights as a member of the consonant club – cadences and finals still consisted of perfect 5ths only – but it functioned prominently in the “English Descant” texture. Indeed, if a music history 101 student is given a listening example from the 13th century and it’s chocked full of MA 3rds, it’s a safe bet that it’s English (or English inspired).

This snippet (recorded in Finale) is the first 13 measures of the English conductus/motet “Beata viscera,” from the Worchester fragments. (This source is regrettably one of our only documents preserving the English descant style due to the wholesale purging of all “popish ditties” over the course of the Anglican reformation.) Listen for all the parallel 3rds and 6ths. It’s a texture quite unlike anything we’ve encountered so far. Note too the way these sweet harmonies give way to steely, open 5ths at points of cadence. It would be a while yet before the 3rd would earn this privilege.

“Sumer is icumen in”

This remarkable 4-part round is one of the best known English compositions in the world. “Summer has come” was notated over 700 years before the British Invasion, but it carries the same revolutionary power as the Fab Four. This was the first round (extant notated round, at least) written for so many voices. Furthermore, its harmonic structure differs considerably from what we’ve encountered so far, with sonorous major triads ringing out on practically every beat. (Evidence suggests that this practice was a left-over from the Viking invasions.) Could this playful song be, in fact, “the first masterpiece in music”?

The text, first in the original Wessex dialect of Middle English then in modern English:

[Sumer is icumen in – lhude sing, cuccu! Groweth sed and bloweth med and springeth the wude nu. Sing cuccu! Awe bleteth after lomb, lhouth after calve cu; bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth – murie sing, cuccu! Cuccu, cuccu – wel sings thu, cuccu! Ne swik thu naver nu.]

[Summer has come! Loudly sing cuckoo! Seed is growing, the flowers are blowing in the field, the woods are newly green. The ewe bleats after her lamb, the cow lows after her calf. The bull starts, the buck runs into the brush. Merrily sing cuckoo! That’s it, keep it up!]

Week 8 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 8 saw both a musical example and an analysis of that smokiest of styles, the ars subtilior; Mark scratched the surface of the Trecento with a Landini clip; and I engaged in a self-indulgently free-form mediation on periodization and the Renaissance. We ended the week by taking stock of just how far we’ve come with the Challenge (and just how far we still have to go!).

The Week in Reading:

CHAPTER 10 – “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

  • Vulgar Eloquence, Madrigal Culture, and A New Discant Style (351-359): In the 14th century, Italian composers engaged most heavily in the madrigale form, which consists of a few tercets (terzetti) capped off by a ritornello, or “send off.” The characteristic texture for this form consists of 2-part discant with cadences through occursus, or unison (a la French music a couple centuries earlier). Madrigals were set to vernacular poetry. Major source: the Squarcialupi Codex.
  • The “Wild Bird” Songs (359): A lively madrigal tradition that featured rustic texts and technically challenging parts made to imitate the flight and songs of birds. Watch out Olivier Messiaen!
  • Ballata Culture (364): Besides motets and madrigals, the Italians were big fans of the ballata genre, a popular dance form. Boccaccio even included one in the Decameron.
  • Landini (366): As Mark’s introductory post mentioned, Francesco Landini (1325-97) was well-respected blind organist whose music comes down to us is relatively large quantities. Because of this serendipitous twist of history, Landini has become the primary composer of the Trecento in music historiography. Among other things, he is remembered for his “Landini cadence,” which approaches the tonic through a 7-6 falling leading tone. Some of his music was adapted for keyboard instruments in the Faenza Codex.
  • Late Century Fusion (374): One hugely significant element of the Trecento was its element of internationalization and fusion. There are madrigals that satirize French style, hint at motet then pull back before the Italian identity becomes too obscured , play with French techniques (putting the talea in the cantus instead of the traditional tenor, for instance), etc. All of this points to a healthy musical cross-fertilization going on at this time that would ultimately lead to a greater internationalization of musical style.
  • An Important Side Issue: Periodization (380-385): Taruskin’s mini-essay on the concept of periodization, a recent obsession on the blog, is well worth the time.

This doesn’t take us right up to page 400, but we switch gears here to English music and the beginnings of Ch.11 might be better served in next week’s summary. On the menu this week: English music (and it’s nothing like their food, thank goodness!).

The Murky Meaning of “Renaissance”

With ambivalent surprise, it seems we’ve stumbled into the Renaissance.

All students of music and history would do well to read pages 380-385 of the current volume, where Taruskin directly addresses the blog’s topic du jour, the periodization of music history. All of the historical period terms are problematic in their own way, but it turns out that “Renaissance” is uniquely challenged.

The “chunking” of history is complicated but necessary: while it simplifies a superbly complex chronological and geographical canvas, it also helps organize and consolidate knowledge. As Taruskin says, without breaking apart movements and evaluating the relative weight of different trends, history would merely be “the daily dribble of existence multiplied by weeks and years and centuries.” (380) For instance, it makes great practical sense to teach Beethoven and Schubert in the same semester-long history survey, but as Prof. Locke observed, these two masters could never tell the whole story of their time and place. The word “Romantic,” however, does carry some descriptive power when discussing these repertories. As a product of a similar time and cultural milieu, with all its accompanying philosophies and aesthetic paradigms, this might be a case where the employment of a broad term like “Romantic” would really help the student grasp a few of the fundamental issues of 19th century German musical thought (though certainly not all). In fact it’s impossible to imagine understanding this time at all without acknowledging the 500-pound gorilla in the room, Beethoven. (I’m trying to come up with the most unambiguous correlation between style terms and composers/repertories, and I’m having a hard time – even this example is deeply problematic. So goes this tangled topic!)

The start and stop dates of the various eras are another matter of heated debate. Some periods are easier to map than others: it is generally agreed that the Baroque era begins in 1600, as this was the year that saw the first operas, the infamous Monteverdi/Artusi quarrel (well, around 1600), and the fledgling consolidation of what would become tonality. (Coincidentally, Taruskin ends Volume I at 1600.) But the term Renaissance is even more difficult than most for a slew of tangled reasons. In fact, the word has come to mean something very different in music than in the world of general historiography. And this is only the beginning of “the Renaissance problem.”

When non-music historians talk about this era, the word “Renaissance” (rebirth) centers on three main characteristics: secularism, humanism, and the resurgence of interest in classical art and philosophy. Of course, these features entered into the cultural landscape of Europe at different times in different places and in different media. Let’s map these elements onto music to see what “Renaissance” might mean, and when it might first have started.

Secularism: The sacred and the secular have always coexisted in Western music. In fact, the blurriness of this distinction might be enough to call the whole flawed classificatory scheme a false dichotomy. Sacred melodies entered the popular repertory, secular tunes made their way into the church, and all the while musicians have set their poetry in a way that could be quite ambiguous (The Lady = Mary, etc.). Sacred music in the Middle Ages was generally privileged over the secular in terms of what was actually notated, but as we have seen, both sacred and secular traditions were primarily oral at this time. When would we say that the fulcrum tips in favor of the secular? You could make a convincing argument that music “tipped” with the troubadours in the 12th century; you could also argue that music didn’t reach a secular tipping point until the 19th century. The range of possible answers to the question of secularity in music is so broad as to render the rubric pretty much useless.

Humanism: When did music shift from (Leo Spitzer’s words) the poetic to the empirical “I”? Precisely when did the subjective voice take a role of primacy in Western music making? You could argue (as I would) that making music is ipso facto a humanist act: even if you’re singing praise to God in a 13th century cathedral, you’re still doing so with a human voice and a human soul. Human expression is at the heart of music, even when the specific subject matter is deeply theological and transcendent of mere humanity. Again, the characteristic itself, when transposed onto music, makes little sense. (I don’t see how it makes much sense in the visual arts and literature either: Giotto painted religious themes, but he did so in a way that was more “of this world” than his predecessors. And who exactly defines when a visual portrayal is more “of this world” than what came before?)

Rebirth of Antiquity: In the visual arts, philosophy, literature, and architecture, this was easy. Aristotle’s writings were available to the literati of the 15th century; the Parthenon stood in 1400 just as it does now. But music is a different beast, since it wasn’t notated at all until the end of the first millennium. Not surprisingly, then, many writers felt that music, unlike the arts listed above, had no past. Without a past, there was nothing to revive! Musicians eventually started to emulate ancient models (or at least attempted to recreate the effect of ancient music), but this belated interest corresponds – quite paradoxically – to the birth of the Baroque sensibility (again, we’re back to 1600), not the Renaissance!

Added together, secularism, humanism, and the revival of antiquity – the definition of “Renaissance” – have highly ambivalent meanings when applied to music. (If they indeed have any meaning at all.) There’s a lot more to unpack with this historiographical category, and I seem to have bitten off more than I can chew. These five pages open up so many ideas for discussion (there’s a dissertation on every page!) and, disorganized as this post it, I wanted to just toss some of these morsels out there for readers to pick at. What does the Renaissance mean for music? How do we “chunk” this era? (Does it matter?)

Ars Subtilior and the Problem of “Chunking”

That kind of showy overcomplexity is just the sort of excess – an excess of fantasy, perhaps, or maybe just an excess of one-upsmanship – that earned the ars subtilior its reputation as a “mannered” or “decadent” style. (I, 342)

At the tail end of the ars nova era, a new breed of composers – none of whom are known today outside of the academy – began taking the rhythmic and chromatic innovations of Machaut and his cohort to dazzling levels of technical complexity. This was “the subtle art.” Arguably, the technical feats that came out of this movement were unrivaled in sheer difficulty until the 20th century.

Why did the ars nova lead to, in Taruskin’s words, a “technical arms race” in the form of the ars subtilior? A couple of threads from the last month or so of reading come together to provide a few hypotheses. For one, composers in this new style were fiercely competitive, with many of them claiming to be the true heir to Machaut. Polymeter, hyperchromaticism and the like enabled these elite composers to playfully duel for supremacy. The harder the nut to crack, the more “subtle” the music was perceived to be. And, as Mark recently pointed out, many of these pieces were actually conceived as musical riddles. They were game pieces, elaborately conceived to flummox all but the most supple of musical minds. With ars subtilior we see perhaps the most ferocious manifestation yet of the old “trobar clus,” the closed style intended only for the cognoscenti. This was subtle music (in the sense of “ornate and obtuse”) for subtle ears only.

It’s also perhaps the first musical movement to become so flamboyantly complex as to alienate people and provoke a historiographical backlash. For many years, music historians referred to ars subtilior as “the mannered style,” a term that denotes excess, self-indulgence, and decadence. (Interestingly, the word also came to describe the style of Gesualdo at the radical tail-end of the Italian madrigal, circa 1600.) While the standard terminology since the 1960s has changed to “the subtle art,” modern scholars (Taruskin writes) still find it “annoying as well as fascinating.”

Why is that? It seems that historians’ rebuke of “mannered” and “decadent” music is out of character, since every technical innovation up to this point has been greeted with approval. That the ars subtilior, one of the most complex Western styles of the millennium, would be met with disapprobation seems odd for a discipline that is often quick to heap praise on anything that smacks of innovation. Music historians, to my knowledge, have not labeled Perotin and Machaut as “decadent.” Why the ars subtilior?

This is a tough problem. It’s true that a certain level of scorn has accompanied many vanguard, destabilizing movements in music history. For the hidebound music historiographer, however, an even bigger problem comes with musical movements that seem to defy their era. As we’ve been discussing (with Ralph Locke’s help), the “chunking” of music history into periods can have the effect of closing off the diversity of musical activities in a given era and reducing the time to a few monolithic style features and composers. What, then, to make of a style that defies many taxonomical notions of its period? As mentioned, the term “mannerist” is still used to describe Gesualdo, Rore, and the madrigal composers who wrote their highly experimental music (some would call it “bonkers”) towards the end of the Renaissance. For many years, historians didn’t quite know what to make of these fringe guys – they certainly didn’t conform to ars perfecta notions of the Renaissance, but they weren’t fully Baroque either. In an effort to contain and defang subversive styles, historians have long employed derogatory terms like “decadent” to explain away inconvenient exceptions to the periods of music history.

I think that part of the fraught historical reception of the ars subtilior and Gesualdo comes down to the fact that these “mannered” styles can strike the modern ear as Modern. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that sets in when listening to Fumeaux fume – it defies expectations of what “Medieval music” should sound like. Similarly, Stravinsky famously reeled at listening to Gesualdo, finding in his music the soul of a fellow modern composer. That Solage in the 14th century could write music in the same subtle manner as Milton Babbitt in the 20th is a cup of cold water in the face of many deeply ingrained historical prejudices. “Mannered” movements like these are so fascinating because they vividly help us to see through the myth of linear creative evolution; they help explode the separation between the musical (and historical) Us and Them. They can be quite subtle indeed.

Riddle Me This, or, Solage and His Smoke

Before we leave last week’s reading too far behind, we have to listen to this:

This tricky piece comes out of the lavish tradition of artifice funded by the aristocracy of the duchy of Berry (modern-day southern France). Its composer is a man known to us only as Solage, and his rondeau Fumeaux fume represents the lengths to which a composer’s wry ingenuity could reach. To read the text aloud in the original language (which I assume is still Occitan down there; correction anyone?) is to get a sense of its artifice. The words fold back in on themselves, like the billowing smoke they represent. It is the type of playful prodding of language and meaning that reached such extremes during this period.

Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

Qu’antre fummet so pensee:
Fumeaux fume par fumee.

quar fumer molt li agree
tant qu’il ait son entencion.
Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

[A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.

Is, between puffs his thought:
A smoker smokes through smoke.

For smoking suits him very well
As long as he keeps his intention.
A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.]

Week 7 in Review

We both began and ended last week’s reading in Ch. 9, “Machaut and His Progeny.” This is notable not only because it is the largest chapter so far by page count (61), but also because it is the first chapter with a composer’s name in the title, indicating that we are reaching a time (14th c.) where the documents can allow more of a focus on the composer. Whether or not this is good historiographical practice, however, is an issue that is sure to come up again in the reading and our discussion here.

The week of posting began with some recordings of Machaut’s secular chansons, then continued by discussing the real and sometimes negative effect that the grouping of historical eras can have on our view of music history. This particular thread was taken up later in the week by Prof. Ralph Locke, who shared with us his experience of dealing with this issue in the classroom. Zach continued our historiographical theme by tackling the “musical prophecy.” He asked the question: if the Messa de Notre Dame is an anomaly in Machaut’s output, why does it assume such a prominent place in his contribution to history? You can read his answer here.

Other notes from this week’s reading:

The Luxuriant Style: The four-voice rondeaux of Machaut (e.g., Rose, liz, printemps) were written within a structural hierarchy: It can be performed in four-, three-, two-, or one-voice versions, with the cantus (the next-to-top voice) being that final principal voice.

Instrumentalists: Though instrumental repertoires were still largely oral in tradition at this time, the Faenza Codex gives us a glimpse of the arrangement and virtuosic embellishment of vocal genres that was possible.

Machaut’s Messa de Nostre Dame:

  • Background: The Mass Ordinary as a polyphonic genre had a crucial development at the papal court of Avignon, as represented by the numerous such settings of individual or paired Ordinary items in the Apt and Ivrea manuscripts. Votive Masses (for special occasions outside of the church calendar) lead to the grouping together of Ordinary settings in manuscripts.
  • Variety: Machaut’s mass is “no less a composite than the other Ordinaries of the time” (I, p. 317). Its items (Taruskin steers us away from calling them “movements”) vary both modally and texturally.
  • Unity: Machaut connects the items by their motet-style basis on isorhythmic tenors. The compositional style represents a synthesis and summary of motet, cantilena, and homorhythmic styles.

Subtilitas: The “subtle art” of Machaut and his successors emphasizes intricate relationships of text and music (hocket, onomatopoeia) and high displays of intellectual prowess (the essence of clus). It is an art engendered in the context of aristocracy, and in turn was meant for aristocratic ears.

In its heyday, this “high” approach touched all genres, even the socially “low”-class  virelai. The result was an opportunity for aristocratic listeners to make a jaunt into the more “naturalistic” flavor of peasant life, albeit from a safe distance.

Musical Prophecies

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”  – Jorge Luis Borges, in “Kafka and his Precursors”

The same is true of musical genres and techniques. For example, Schoenberg colors how we perceive not only the music that came after him, but what came before. We talk about Beethoven’s late string quartets, Liszt’s late orchestral works, Wagner’s late operas, and the Richard Strauss of Elektra as molotov cocktails thrown into the guts of standard tonality. (There’s something about the “late phase” here too that will have to be unpacked at another time.) All of these were precursors to the utter collapse of tonality that came with Schoenberg and the second Viennese school. They were prophetic of the chaos that was to come. However, without the ultimate collapse of tonality as embodied by Schoenberg, these earlier works would be read much differently today. In other words, prophecies are valued only when they come true.

The idea of being “validated by history” is a fascinating one. We’ve dealt a little with the evolutionary model of historiography (the “organic fallacy”) on this blog, but the concept of musical prophesy, while related, has a fundamentally different feature. Yes, we read late Beethoven as a precursor to the breakdown of tonality. However, the late quartets often resist being seen as simply an evolutionary step towards this eventual break. Instead, many historians have pointed to these works as a quasi-mystical revelation of the future. The conventional wisdom has mad, brilliant Beethoven, deaf as a rock, pounding out his existential fury in a way that is far too modern for his age. His genius allowed him to musically prognosticate. (In literature, the same is often said of Kafka, who wrote about paranoia, political fear, totalitarianism, and state brutality long before these historical monsters descended on his native Czechoslovakia.)

Let’s rewind over 400 years now. Machaut was well known is his day as a poet and a composer of secular songs. However, ask any Music History 101 student about Machaut’s major achievement, and he is bound to answer the Messe de Nostre Dame. By all measures, Machaut’s setting of the Ordinary of the Mass was an oddity in his composerly output. It can hardly be called the most representative piece of his creative life, yet it is remembered today over all the motets, virelai, and ballades that he wrote. Why?

The Mass is an amazing piece of music that would surely be remembered even if it were the only Mass Ordinary ever penned. However, we should also take into account that it was the first of its kind: Machaut was the first single author to attempt a full setting of the mass. Moreover, the genre of the Mass Ordinary became, over the next two centuries, the primary genre in Europe. From the perspective of the modern historian, this little fact makes Machaut’s oddity very interesting indeed. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his work would be seen historically as a musical prophesy.

I’ve lately made a habit of closing with Taruskin, and I’ll continue that pattern now: “What might otherwise seem a liturgical anomaly in an otherwise basically secular career has instead loomed disproportionately large both within Machaut’s output and in music historiography itself, because the ‘cyclic Mass Ordinary’ (that is, a setting of the mostly nonconsecutive items of the Ordinary liturgy as a musical unit) became the dominant musical genre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Machaut seems willy-nilly its prophetic harbinger.”   (I, 307)

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.