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.


Why Petty Politics Can be a Good Thing

What drives musical innovation and complexity? We’ve discussed a couple factors so far, including artistic play, technological advances influencing practice, and competition. I’d like to return briefly to the last of these (competition), although I’ll leave rap battle analogies out of this one.

The motet was the most sophisticated, dense, and – as Taruskin points out – occult genre of its day. It was also the most prestigious in the halls of power. (In today’s terms, the motet might be the equivalent of combining the intellectual rigor of total serialism with the patriotic fervor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”) Suffice it to say, the motet did a lot of cultural work. It is important to remember, however, that the great feats of complexity that played such a prominent role in the genre’s success were not purely the result of aesthetic considerations. One of the things I admire the most about the OHWM is that Taruskin adamantly refuses to approach pieces of music as disembodied, pure aesthetic objects. It would be easy and alluring to see the motet as just another evolutionary step forward, as a product of composers’ innate drive for greater expressive power. Taruskin doesn’t let us off this easily.

The fact of the matter is that politics played a major role in the complexity arms race of the motet, especially in Italy. During the 13th and 14th centuries, small principalities broke up the boot into a balkanized patchwork of power centers. Even the church got in on the factionalization when the great papal schism lasting 40 years led to a multiplicity of popes all vying for legitimacy. And what does music have to do with all of this? Taruskin: “This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music. That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts.” (I, 277)

Despots used music as a competitive tool to project their own superiority over their rivals. Despite the somewhat ignominious nature of this arrangement, their deep pockets made for some of the best-paid, most respected gigs of the day. (That is, until your patron’s fiefdom gets sacked by the next town over.) Composers from France and Flanders – the birthplace of ars nova – flocked south to write music for these powerful patrons, including the great Johannes Ciconia. Ciconia worked for one Francesco Zabarella, an archpriest in line for the papacy, setting to work to glorify the achievements of his boss. Here are some sample lyrics from his hagiographic motets: “O Francesco Zabarella, glory, teacher..,” “O Francesco Zabarella, protector….”

Music of this sort is about as far as you can get from “music for music’s sake.” Yet the competition between rival Italian courts and religious authorities led to cross-pollination of regional styles, a secure paycheck for the composers involved, and the explicit instruction for them to go out and innovate. Thus, while the pretenses for this music were hardly what we today would call “purely aesthetic,” political competition profoundly enriched the musical culture of the day.

It’s a bit like the space race. While it’s certainly true that the US and the Soviet Union were essentially engaged in a multi-billion dollar pissing contest, it’s hard not to recognize the positive (and unintended) outcome of the race. Our species endeavored into outer space, we developed amazing new technologies, we educated an entire generation in the hard sciences. The photo of the earth from the moon is pretty nifty, if existentially exhausting. At a certain point, the petty political posturing at the root of space race funding sort of fades into black. What we’re left with is that photo of our perfect planet earth.

Medieval Cutting Contests

One of the important genres of the troubadours was the tenso, a competitive form that allowed – indeed, encouraged – musicians to show off their most virtuosic poetic technique. Among the trouvéres of northern France, this same practice was known as jeu-parti, or “mock-debate.” In these contests,  judges crowned the winner as the “Prince” of jeu-parti, and we can assume the appellation came complete with bragging rights and vows from challengers to oust the reigning prince in the next contest. The great mock-debater of the day was a trouvére named Jehan Bretel. (The same phenomenon of competitive song-writing occurred with the Meistersingers of Germany.)

This is quite a departure from the liturgical tradition, where music served only the purpose of glorifying God. In fact, these early musical jousts might be the first documented case of music as sport. There’s a wonderful (and distinctly masculine) energy in the act of trying to out-technique an opponent in front of an audience. It sublimates something as abstract as aesthetic value and artistic merit to the whims of judges and audiences, in essence turning creativity into a kind of game.

This “competitive game” aspect of music making is alive and well. One only has to turn on the TV to see our own version of the Meistersinger contests, “American Idol.” In school music programs, especially marching bands (some of which are treated just like any sports team), young musicians go head to head in regional, state, and national contests to determine the “Prince” of high school bands/orchestras/choirs. Sometimes emotions run hot in our gladiatorial musical slug-fests (“Yo Taylor. I’m really happy for you. I’ma let you finish but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”)

To me, the best (or at least most fun) parallel to the terso contests in modern society are rap battles, where two MC’s get on stage together and face off with freestyle lyrical flows. A man with a timer is present to make sure each rapper is given an equal amount of time at the mic, and events are judged either by adjudicators or by audience reaction. Battle rappers improvise rhymes with the intent not only of showing superior verbal skill, but also demolishing the other rapper with ribald trash-talk. As a cultural practice, it bears many similarities to the African-American concept of “playing the dozens,” where young men face off in a good-natured way to dis the other guy to shame (“Your momma’s so …”). The two clips below feature master battle rappers Jin and Immortal Technique practicing the irreverent craft (and it does get irreverent, faint-hearted readers!):

So, who’s the Jehan Bretel of the 21st century?