What is the Musical “Middle”?

Tinctoris defined the stylus mediocris, or “middle style,” as music that aimed for the heavens in its expressive intent but did so in a way that was more grounded, humble, and human than the lofty, “high” masses discussed last week. In the 15th century, the middle ground went most notably to the motet genre (remember, motets a century earlier were the “highest” style).

Music, as with many things in our culture, is often understood in terms of dichotomous pairs. Thus, we have major/minor, sacred/secular, vocal/instrumental, etc. We also have the distinction between “high art” and “low art,” and as Taruskin reminds us, this divide is centuries old in the west. Over the course of the OHWM readings so far, Taruskin has taken great care to problematize this strict binary between “high” and “low” music: indeed, sacred music always borrowed from the secular oral practices of the street, and vice versa. However, this is the first time that a middle road has been formulated, and it really wreaks havoc on the old binary of high/low to which anyone from our culture is deeply (if subconsciously) accustomed. It seems to present us with a promising (Utopian?) way out of the pair of opposites so fundamental to western thinking – as Tinctoris writes, the middle is Both/And instead of Either/Or. Or is that what stylus mediocris really means?

It also brings to mind our contemporary concept of “middlebrow.” This term (according to Wiki) has its origins in 1920s England, and was meant to denote the intermediary grounds between highbrow and lowbrow. (Terms which are themselves the ludicrous legacy of phrenology, the “scientific” discipline that sought to explain differences between the races by means of cranial measurements. Spoiler alert: white males have the biggest craniums!) Virginia Woolf and others went on the attack against middlebrow values, claiming that these mediocre folks were “in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.” Even today, the term has the scent of the petit bourgeoisie attached to it – it connotes tastelessness masquerading itself as Die Kultur. Musically, I hear this term applied most often to musical theater. Musicals aren’t quite popular music, but they aren’t opera either – what should we call them? Middlebrow!

Before blathering further, I’d like to get your take on this: What is the musical “middle”? Was Tinctoris’s stylus mediocris essentially the same thing as today’s “middlebrow”? In a system still thoroughly dominated by the conceptual crux of the high/low dynamic, is there even room for a middle? (Like third parties in American politics.) What might today’s middle look like (besides musicals)?

Taruskinian Fallacies

Taruskin is a rhetorician of unsurpassed ability, and logical reasoning (in the classical sense) is always at the forefront of his assessments and critiques. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that he is so adept at pointing out fallacies in the way we think about music history. Below is a list of the fallacies gleaned from the first 500 pages of Vol.I. We will be adding to it as we move forward, I’m sure.

The Fallacy of “Essentialism”: This lapse in thinking occurs when we conceptualize any trait as the essence of something. For example: “Black musicians don’t have the same restrictive mind/body dualism as white musicians” (essentializes black musicians as not adhering to the mind/body split and white musicians as adhering to it. The essentialization here occurs on the grounds of race.); “Medieval music is harmonically simple while Renaissance music is more harmonically complex” (ascribes essential qualities – harmonic simplicity and complexity – to music from different eras which, as we have seen, are arbitrary constructions anyways.) For more, see p.381.

The Pathetic Fallacy: We commit this fallacy when we ascribe agency to music itself, not to the people creating it. Thus: “English descant delights in parallel thirds” (the music doesn’t “delight” in anything; the composers/performers did.); “The leading tone likes to resolve to the tonic” (leading tones don’t “like” to do anything other that what they are instructed to do by composers on a page and by singers in the throat.) See p.221.

The Organic Fallacy: This line of reasoning has been addressed frequently on the blog. The central assumption is that music grows and evolves just like a living creature. There is also the presupposition that music grows more complex with time, which is a misreading of evolutionary theory. For instance: “Beethoven was way ahead of his time when he wrote his Grosse Fuge” (one cannot be “ahead” or “behind” one’s time; one is  simply in one’s time.); “Debussy’s use of non-functional harmony led to a total breakdown in the tonal language that reached its climax in Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique” (Debussy did not develop into Schoenberg; atonality was not the natural byproduct of a process of organic development – it was its own culturally and temporally embedded musical process.) See all over the place, but especially p.142.

The Genetic Fallacy: We stumble into this fallacy when we equate origins with essence. Thus: “A drinking song could never be a national anthem” (a drinking song is a drinking song, thus not a national anthem, goes the argument – of course, any piece of music can be anything.); “Rock ‘n’ Roll is really just a latter-day development of the blues” (while blues may be an ancestor in rock’s family tree, rock came to occupy a different meaning and position in our culture.) See pp.221 and 472.

The Poietic Fallacy: This one mistakes music (and music history) for composition. Thus, the history of music is the history of what composer’s write. For example: “The music of the Trecento is filled with Landini cadences” (of course, only notated, composed music can be said to have this feature; everything that happened in the oral tradition is gone to us.). This one hasn’t come up yet in the OHWM, but I just encountered it in RT’s review of Susan McClary’s Festschrift.

If readers can think of any other Taruskinian fallacies, please submit them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the post. I’m sure I must have missed something..

AMS Blogging

What do you get when you put 700 musicologists in the same room?

I guess we’ll find out, because beginning today and running through Sunday, the American Musicological Society will be hosting their annual mega-conference, this year in Philadelphia. Neither Mark nor I will be able to make it, but we’d love to hear your impressions if you happen to attend the musicological circus. No doubt Richard Taruskin will play a role in the proceedings..

Our friends over at amusicology will be hosting a “no-host” reception tonight, and we hope that available conference-goers will try to make it to connect with some top-notch music bloggers. (amusicology’s Drew Massey posted his preview of the conference here.) Phil Gentry keeps us in the know with a practical guide to Philly; on Sunday, he’ll be presenting his paper “Crying in the Chapel: Religiosity and Masculinity in Early Doo-Wop.”

Have a great time and let us know how it goes – we wish we could be there too!

Update from the Trenches

The end of this week’s reading corresponded nicely with a division in the OHWM. Taruskin has finished with the trecento, and shifted off the continent to begin a discussion about English music, and in the meantime he has made it clear that we are not at the natural break between the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Even so, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock in how far we have come in the Taruskin Challenge:

  • We’re just about exactly half way through Volume I.
  • We’re about 1/10 through the entire set.
  • 60 posts
  • 3852 site views
  • And finally, Volume I has been able to lay open on its own for a number of weeks now—no small feat, and having free hands allows us to get that all-important mid-reading electrolyte (who’m I kidding, caffeine) boost.

Not bad in just 8 weeks!

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!