“I finished!” (Vol. I)

Today’s reading schedule brings us up to the 830th page (out of 834) of Vol. I. So hopefully readers will forgive me if I read ahead and polished off our first—and thickest—volume this morning. So much about being successful in a long-term project is counting victories along the way.

So for those of you out there who are reading along with us, this is your chance to proclaim to the cyberworld that you have accomplished the first leg of this journey. Whether you are finishing the first volume the same day as this post, have finished it in the past, or finish months from the date of this post, let us know in the comments section, and we’ll celebrate with you.

I finished Vol. I!

Coronation of the Virgin

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Our new header image is a detail of a detail. This sumptuous scene is tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, c. 1435. The lower image is of the entire scene, with the Virgin Mary being crowned in the high center. Angels herald the moment with playing of trumpets, lutes, and harps. At the lower center of this heavenly scene (note that they all sit or stand upon clouds), a lone angel plays obeisantly on a portative organ.

The upper image is a detail of the group of angels over the shoulder of the Virgin, and the header image is a horizontal slice of the same.

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?

Romance of Alexander

Our new header image is a detail from the bottom margin of a page from the Romance of Alexander, a Flemish manuscript from the middle third of the 14th century. It sets the scene of a marriage feast (the topic of the story at this point), in which music and dance plays a central part. On the left is a man playing a bowed stringed instrument (viol?) on his shoulder, while several attendants dance in a line, while holding hands. The men at the front and back of the line seem to be lifting their legs in a dance step. The middle vignette shows a man in the midst of striking two drums, which are being held by a youth—at his own risk, it would seem. At the right, a man plays a portative organ, while six ladies and one man dance in a circle. It’s hard to tell, but perhaps one of the women is in the middle of the circle.

These images are beautifully depicted and intricately detailed, and yet they still leave us with many questions. For instance, why is it no longer fashionable for men to wear mismatched leotards, when it is obviously so stylish?

Romance of Alexander Detail

Technologies of Transformation

One of Taruskin’s more philosophical passages, the aptly subtitled “What is Art?” (I, pp. 64-67), outlines in broad strokes the transition from music-as-activity to music-as-Art. Once a practice that existed entirely within the oral tradition, early notation was pivotal in codifying music and providing individual works with autonomy, a fairly universally regarded prerequisite for “art” status. Instead of the transitory, unpredictable nature of oral transmission and living, breathing musical practice, notation allowed for prescriptive snapshots of sound ideals. The manuscript was sound made flesh, and the very “thing-ness” of a notated page had the effect of elevating it to a higher status. When the printing press came along, allowing for numerous, easy copies of musical works, this process of reification intensified. As Taruskin writes: “The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic – a timeless aesthetic object – was waiting to be born.” (I, 65). The final step in this progression, Taruskin goes on, came with the invention and popularization of recording technology, which allowed people to own not just things that represent music (scores, notated music), but the music itself, the Ding an sich. “A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.” (ibid.) Recordings are the ultimate tangible embodiment of music, and thus the ultimate step in their paradigmatic transfiguration into art.

Oh what has changed in the decade and a half since Taruskin wrote this. In many ways I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment: the recording is just another form of writing (“sound-writing” to be precise), only one that is much more powerful than notation in that it captures time itself, not just representations of music-colored time. In no other 20-year interval in history, however, has a paradigm of musical transmission come so quickly to its knees. The thing-ness of recorded music is, for all intents and purposes, presently dead. Proliferation and rapid adoption of digital formats like the MP3 have taken the physical object out of music consumption for a majority of people. They still have their recordings – fixed, solid performances of music – but the things attached to them have disappeared into thin air. In some ways, we moderns are returning to an earlier paradigm of music making with alarming, unprecedented alacrity.

As goes the transmission medium, so goes the art. Contrary to what Taruskin says – that today works of High Art are held in great esteem precisely because of their manifest thing-ness – today the traditional bastion of musico-cultural value, “the canon,” is collapsing all around us. The nature of this transformation is complex, but one of the major factors, I would argue, is the severe decline of the physical object in recorded music.

I want to return one last time to our favorite topic of the week – tropes. (And I swear this is the last post, all you troper-haters out there!) As Taruskin argues, thinking of tropes as art in the traditional definition is highly problematic. The same is true of sampling, as the legal and cultural firestorm over the technique’s very right to exist amply demonstrates. Much of the reason why these two forms are so problematic is because of the strange, complex message they carry about the media of transmission themselves.

The thing that intrigues me the most about tropes, and about sampling, is how fundamental the media is to the message. Here’s what I mean. The respective technologies of music notation and sound recording, by fixing musical practice into a thing, enable the subversion of the medium itself since an object can be cut, pasted, broken apart, rearranged, etc. It’s much easier to use an object for new purposes than it is to use an idea, which is what all songs were before they were figuratively “made flesh.” In both troping and sampling, the media itself (notation, recording) becomes the battleground on which musicians mediate these warping notions of musical meaning. Tropes (and sampled hip-hop) aren’t just captured by their respective transmission media – they are a product of their technologies. No music notation, no tropes; no sound recording, no sampling.

We should keep this in mind when attempting to draw straight lines through music history. The same technologies that helped reify music into Art also helped challenge the very notion of art and might, ultimately, lead to the collapse of cultural authority inherent in such a paradigm. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The Tropin’ Monkey: A Debate

Troping Vinyl: Grandmaster Flash

The Argument: Medieval chant troping constituted the first documented instance of altering, recontextualizing, and fragmenting musical materials for new purposes. Fast forward a millennium, and we find that hip-hop musicians applied a similar principle (sampling) in the creation of new beats. The sampling process involves “cutting” segments from old records and “pasting” them into entirely new contexts, often alongside samples from other records. The result of such a process, like troping, warps the musical narrative’s sense of time, as material from different eras and genres are mashed together into a unified whole. Thus we have “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” where he samples from Chic, Queen, salsa music, television from the 1940’s, etc. As Mark (MC Samples) points out in his The Telling Trope post, adding commentary to and framing preexisting text and chant allowed monks to reinterpret the liturgy and, in effect, personalize it. Similarly, in hip-hop, sounds from old records (a beat from one song, a horn hit from another, James Brown’s grunt from yet another) are used to form a link with the past – what Chip Gates calls “signifyin'” – while also allowing for some dramatic editorialization over the source material (ie. rapping). Sampling JB is a gesture of homage, it’s a way to confirm his stature, but it’s also a way to confirm one’s own stature as a producer or an MC. Like monks confirming the validity and truth of Biblical passages through their tropes, sampling serves as a framework that, by pulling sonic materials out of the original environment, allows the troper/sampler to both show respect for tradition and break tradition by doing something new and personal with old material.

Many valuable critical perspectives have come out of the nascent body of scholarly literature on hip-hop. A smorgasbord of theories and approaches have been brought to bear on the topic of sampling, including postmodern theory, Marxist theory, Kristeva’s idea of intertextuality, Bateson’s concept of “play,” Gates’s “signifyin’ monkey,” ethnomusicological comparisons to African musical practices, etc. Since sampling resembles the practice of troping to a remarkable degree, issues and perspectives from hip-hop theory should be brought into the musicological discussion of this repertory.  Furthermore, what better way to engage a 9am undergraduate music history survey class than to introduce the topic of tropes with video of Grandmaster Flash?             — DJ Tropesphere

The Counterargument: Comparing Medieval troping with hip-hop sampling is all too tempting. On the surface, both techniques share much in common. Furthermore, certain generic parallels can be drawn between the two practices: tropes framed old material, commenting on it and confirming its content; sampling, generally speaking, can do the same. Both are steeping in a paradigm of musicking that is agglutinative, intertextual, and – for lack of a better word – “cut and paste.”

But beyond these passing similarities, the argument falters. Monks did not trope in order to engage in any sort of postmodern play or cultural rebellion whatsoever. They did so for practical reasons – to lengthen the liturgical day. Additionally, their reasons were not musical per se: they were informed by spiritual, theological probing. To compare the authority of the Bible with the authoritative groove of James Brown is fallacious and wildly off base. Moreover, this form of music scholarship – finding examples of a creative process and cutting it wholesale out of its original context to apply to another music – damages the specificity of each repertory/composer/era/technique by collapsing important differences for the sake of convenience (or the sake of waking up a class of sleepy undergrads). Mark (Dr. Samples) meditates eloquently on this idea in a recent post.

In conclusion, jumping between eras, languages, cultures, spiritual contexts, and musical use functions in the pursuit of The Same can be fun and rewarding – indeed, it’s easy to make novel and interesting scholarly connections between completely different practices when historiographical exactitude is disregarded. Unfortunately, such scholarship does little to shed light on the actual truth of past (or present) musical practices. It can only obfuscate the truth to draw false parallels between traditions when the commonalities are far outnumbered by the differences.    — Dr. Wallmark

Blogging Musically

For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism. – Andrew Sullivan, preface to “Why I Blog”

And a golden era for musicology too, we hope.

Blogging might not be the most natural process for the typical scholar or grad student. In formal academic writing, we are held to a high degree of rigor, organization, and factual accuracy. But blogging is a bit different. As Andrew Sullivan says, “truths are provisional” in the ephemeral realm of the blogosphere. It is less about formal elegance and perfectly articulated thoughts than it is about the messy process of thinking. Moreover, it’s a venue for the collective action of working out ideas, probing, thinking aloud, and engaging in discussion. This improvisatory element to blogging might be intimidating for the scholar and student, steeped as they are in formalism and the need to back up everything they assert with a reference. The challenge to music blogging for the scholar-student, therefore, is in letting go.

We want to welcome all forms of writing on this blog, fully-formed ideas included. But one should also feel free to contribute without fear of accusations of shoddy scholarship; one should feel enabled and encouraged to plop amoebic ideas down without worrying about loose ends. This is the greatest gift of the blog format: it’s ok to be imperfect. Writing in this format is an attempt to capture thoughts in motion. One can always pin them down later.

This sort of writing can only be a good thing for a scholar-student, and a good thing for the discipline. If traditional scholarship is the equivalent of a flawless performance of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, then blogging is like getting onstage with a rhythm section and improvising a solo on “Bye Bye Blackbird,” complete with occasional wrong notes and mental misfires. It’s the verbal version of a jam session.

We hope that The Taruskin Challenge provides an open, exploratory, nurturing, and fun venue for music-geekery in all its forms. In the spirit of this geekery, I close with a particularly felicitous metaphor from Sullivan’s piece:

There are times when a blogger feels less like a writer than an online disc jockey, mixing samples of tunes and generating new melodies through mashups while also making his own music. He is both artist and producer—and the beat always goes on.

Thank You


Original movie poster for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Zach and I started this blog with modest ambitions. It was simply an easy way to hold an ongoing discussion between us across distance, and work through our thoughts and reactions as we work through the text of the OHWM. We told some friends and colleagues about it, thinking that maybe—just maybe—a few of them would be interested enough, or have a sliver of time in their busy schedules to drop by the blog and chime in. We were quite surprised with the response.

Since launch day six days ago, the blog has received over 800 hits. Numerous colleagues both known and unknown to us—the wonders of the internet!—have left comments or sent emails expressing excitement in the project, or a wish that they had had such an outlet when they were reading through OHWM. I can only assume that the overwhelming response to the blog is an indication that there is still plenty of room for this type of discussion within the musicological community.

So first we want to say thank you. Thank you for your interest and support. Second, we want to encourage you to continue stopping by when you have the chance, and don’t be afraid to join the conversation. Lively discussion is the life blood of a blog (more on this soon in a post by Zach).

In the meantime, we will press on toward the goal. One week down, only seventy-six more to go!