Darwinian Music, Part III: Backtracking

Evolution has proved an alluring lens through which to see music history for obvious, sloppy reasons. On the surface, we can map the graph of organic development (amoebas to humans) directly onto music, with chant being the amoeba and (what?) Pierre Boulez being the human. (Or chant being the human and Boulez being the cyborg.) Needless to say, the fact that western music has, generally speaking, taken on more and more complex forms over the centuries has made the comparison all too easy to resist.

Moreover, beginning in the late 19th century, Darwinian thought came to influence many aspects of western thinking that were completely removed from Darwin’s actual writings, from social theory (who can forget the alpha version of compassionate conservatism, social Darwinism?) to history. The title of these posts might seem flippant, but historians truly were transposing Darwinism onto historical processes, with the result of validating the present and the European. Beyond the scale of western music history (the chant to Boulez chronology above), Darwinian musicologists looked to Darwin to help explain the vast diversity of human music-making, and with predictable results: “primitive” cultures were in an early stage of evolution, and western culture was in an advanced stage. Europeans sounded just like Africans way back in pre-history, but as we evolved our music grew more and more complex. Just give the primitives another couple thousand years and they’ll catch on, the Darwinian musicologists argued. The evolutionary scale of development was also likened by historians to the journey from childhood to adulthood: the music of primitive peoples was really just music for children, and a symphony was the apotheosis of mature, adult music. “Don’t worry, primitive people of the world, you’ll grow up.”*

Evolution is always the story of increasing complexity, right? We’ve discussed the forward flow of evolutionary musical development here, and the idea of the anachronistic hold-over (the musical fossil) here. In this “Darwinian Music” post, I’d like to turn to another phenomenon of the organic fallacy – backtracking. It turns out that “forward” is not the only direction forward.

Biological evolution works this way too, of course. There is no goal of evolutionary processes, and the more complex doesn’t always mean the more fit to survive. Dynamic change seems to be rule (though don’t tell the humble crocodile), but increasing complexity does not. In fact, if it provides an advantage, species can even evolve to be less complex. For example, many scientists believe this to be the genetic history of the virus – it started out as something more complex then gradually shed the complexity in favor of the lean, mean infecting machine that we know today.

Anthropologists will tell you that a similar process exists in human history: if a certain technology ceases to be useful, then it will cease to be used. (Any owner of a pager knows that much.) For instance, the ancestors of the Tasmanian aborigines had bows and arrows and other sophisticated hunting implements, but when they relocated to the island, they didn’t need all this stuff to get their food. These hunting technologies were lost from their cultural memory, and when Europeans arrived for the first time, they thought they had encountered a group of Stone Age hunter/gatherers surviving miraculously into the present. Little did they know (little did the aborigines know) that this culture once used all sorts of tools. They just didn’t need them anymore. It was taken as an object lesson in Darwinian history (“primitive” people with no sophisticated technologies = lower level of development), but really it was the exact opposite – complexity has little to do with survival, and the Tasmanians were surviving just fine, thank you.**

How do virus evolution and human technological de-acquisition relate to the organic fallacy of musical development? If complexity is all we’re looking for in music, then we would have hit upon the ars subtilior in the 14th century and stayed there. Of course, this was not the case; complex musical technologies are developed then lost all the time. If musical evolution is a straight line upwards (it’s not), then we backtrack regularly, just like the virus and the Tasmanians. Such backtracking has been viewed as mere hiccups in the inevitable march of history, but really it calls the whole philosophy of organicism into question.

For a musical style to survive, it must have a relevant social function and meaning to the people who create it. This is, after all, why music changes – we change. The process of dynamic change can sometimes match up with complexity, but it doesn’t have to. As we have seen, the ars subtilior – perhaps one of the most complex forms of western composition ever – came about to fill the elite need for mental puzzles and riddling. Furthermore, it was a triumphant statement of pride in newly developed notational technologies. However, it didn’t last forever in active practice – it served a function, but simpler styles were favored by a majority of musicians.

In the steady march forward, music history is filled with such potholes. Tonal harmony was in many ways a simpler system than the modal logic it supplanted (12 expressive modalities versus 2); polyphony was more complex than the monody that unseated it; in the rubble of western music teleology, minimalism is the ultimate virus of the evolutionary family. The same force of backtracking holds perpetually true in pop music as well. (Those who know me will know that I view “Crank That” by Soulja Boy as the absolute nadir of western music.)

I bring this topic up now because we’ve just hit the Council of Trent and its concomitant reforms. Like many politically-inspired reforms both before and after, church officials were seeking greater “intelligibility” in music and trying to curb perceived technical excesses. Some might argue that the resulting music represents another backtrack, where simplicity (clearer text declamation, fewer wild harmonies, etc.) wins out over complexity (thus winning out over forward evolution). There was nothing evolutionary about these reforms, however; complexity has really never been the only thing at stake in the history of the arts. Like the Tasmanians losing their bows and arrows, church officials concluded that what was needed was a more simple, direct music – all that complexity was useless. Moreover, it was actually a liability in the intensifying ideological battle with the Protestants over the soul of Europe. In the case of the virus and the Tasmanians, survival dictated backtracking; in this instance, it wasn’t so different – it was a matter of survival for the Roman Catholic church. And survival is really the name of the game – for species and for musical styles – not complexity.

* For a thorough and totally unique history of the organic fallacy in music historiography, see Warren Dwight Allen, Philosophies of Music History: A Study of General Histories of Music 1600-1960 (New York: Dover, 1962).

** An account of the Tasmanian migration can be found in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel.


A long time ago in a land far, far away…

When Mozart wrote music, he never made a mistake – it was as if he was taking dictation from God. Sensing his pending death, he composed a Requiem Mass for himself. Such are the lives of the great composers.

Legends like these are nothing new to music. (Recall the first notated repertory, plainchant, and the dove whispering in Gregory’s ear.) With Josquin and Palestrina, we can see the same mythologizing forces at work: after Josquin’s death, he was turned into a larger-than-life Genius, an emissary of God expressing perfection through sound; Palestrina was turned into the literal savior of music when his Missa Papae Marcelli wowed counter-reformation church officials. Were it not for Palestrina, the Pope would have tossed the whole messy affair of music into the wastebasket of history.

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has written a number of playful articles and books examining western music from the perspective of an outsider (an “ethnomusicologist from Mars” in one memorable piece).* While we may like to think of ourselves as a purely rational, scientific culture, our tendency to mythologize our great musicians is profound. Ask the average student in the average music department about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven and you’re bound to get a colorful potpourri of fact and fiction. (Ask the average person on the street and you’re bound to get a blank stare.) Beethoven is the great mad genius of music, with an Einsteinian explosion of hair, deaf as a doornail, pounding out tormented, brilliant music on the piano. How many times have we seen this representation in movies, TV, and cartoons? Mozart, likewise, is less a historical figure than he is a Force. With every generation, myths are kept alive and reinforced through Mother Culture; the movie Amadeus, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of cultural work to keep the Mozart myth flourishing. According to Nettl, the way our culture transforms the great dead composers is really no different from the origin myths of the Blackfoot Indians, in whose mythology the beaver is the bringer of music. When in comes to the great musicians of the past, Taruskin’s often-quoted Italian proverb holds: “Not true, perhaps, but well invented.”

It’s a curious case. Perhaps our propensity to elevate (dare I say deify) great artists after their death is a reason why living composers are such a rarity on concert programs. Music and musicians must be transmogrified into myth before they can be counted in the pantheon of the truly great and eternal. You can’t very well mythologize a living person – too much warm blood is anathema to legend. Therefore, the dead receive more attention than the living. Remember: six months ago, Michael Jackson was a washed-up kook; today, he’s the tortured genius of pop.

The discipline of musicology might not be as death-fixated, but we have our myths as well. Who hasn’t gasped in shock at the story of the legendary Susan McClary standing in front of an AMS crowd, likening Beethoven’s 9th to rape? (The original comment was quite a bit more ambiguous, and it appeared  in the Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, hardly the hornet’s nest of an AMS conference.) Who hasn’t heard about Richard Taruskin’s legendary graduate courses, where he assigns between 500-800 pages of reading (in a handful of different languages) per week? Who doesn’t know about the two reckless grad students attempting to read all of the OHWM and – foolishness of foolishness – blog about it!

* Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Champagne/Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1995).

Musicologists in the Making?

I mentioned in a comment not too long ago that an apt subtitle for Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music would be  And How it Got that Way. Taruskin consistently presents not only the history at hand, but also the story behind how the history was constructed. Elijah Wald recently put it succinctly: “Any history is a reflection of at least two periods—when the events happened and when one is writing—and also of the writer’s personal experience.”* And Taruskin’s is no exception. Take for instance his attention to the volatile changes in Josquin scholarship since the inception of modern musicology (the Josquin legend, biography, the minefield of style dating; Vol. I, 547-584). This is something we expect to get extended space in the pages of The Journal of the American Musicological Society, not a general history of music. That he insists on these types of inclusions—and they are frequent—reflects Taruskin’s concern with outing unconscious philosophical blunders and a self-consciousness about the shifty nature of our historical understanding. Further, it reflects the presence of these issues in the larger community of today’s musicologists.

But I don’t want to get into the philosophy of it right now. Instead, I have been thinking about what byproducts this practice of including the “story behind the history” might have on student readers of the OHWM. There are many possibilities, but I would like to ask the readership’s opinion about a specific one: Do you think that this inclusion will create more interest in the discipline of musicology among student readers?

I’m imagining the typical undergraduate music major, who sees learning about ancient music from a bunch of dead composers as barely more fun than the swine flu—or maybe not even that, given the number of absences in class this term. Would it be more intriguing to students if music history was less of a set number of dates and facts, and more of a living, breathing animal that may bite your hand at any moment?

What if, on an undergraduate music history exam, the student had a short answer question on how Lowinsky and Noblitt affected our understanding of the historical importance of “Ave maria…virgo serena”? What if the student had more of a conscious understanding that history is being better understood every day, and that they could be a part of it?

Taruskin’s is not the first history to include the story behind the history, though I might argue that it is the first to do so on such a pervasive, ground level, and on such a grand scale. And I am eager to hear feedback on the effects this might have on potential readers. Will this have any effect on interest in musicology as a discipline?

I need your opinion. Are you a teacher who has included “the story behind the history” in your lectures? Have you noticed any effects on interest in musicology? Are you a student who would appreciate this type of information? Do you think this idea is totally bogus? Click on that comments button and let us know.

* Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7).

The Complexity Paradox

These compositions are given rather as specimens of a determined spirit of patient perseverance, than as models [worthy] of imitation. In music, different from all other arts, learning and labor seem to have preceded taste and invention, from both which the times under consideration are still very remote. — Charles Burney in his A General History of Music (1776), referring to Ockeghem and his ilk

History has not been terribly kind to Johannes Ockeghem. From the 16th century until quite recently, this composer of profound gifts was branded with a reputation for “cold calculation,” and indeed many of his pieces present us with formidable challenges. Ockeghem delighted in extreme complexity, elaborate musical puzzles, and sophisticated conceptual contrivances. His “Missa cuiusvis toni,” a mass for four voices, was ingeniously designed to be sung in any of the modes, each with a different affective character; “Missa Prolationum” (Mass of the Time Signatures) plays with temporality in a mathematically dense web of interlocking periodicities. These pieces certainly aren’t easy; indeed, they bring to mind the ars subtilior compositions of the previous century. The pieces for which Ockeghem was best known for 400 years are tough nuts to crack, and this fact has led to an unfair if fascinating reception by historians. It appears Ockeghem committed the cardinal sin of too much complexity.

The notated western music tradition has an paradoxical relationship with technical complexity. On the one hand, complexity is fetishized as an ultimate conferrer of value and seriousness. Historically, big is better in the “classical” music tradition – large scale works like symphonies have found a privileged place above chamber music for generations of music historians, and long, formally sophisticated works usually win out over shorter, simpler, humbler varieties on the Grand Scale of Historical Importance. On the other hand, complexity is a sign of cold calculation, mannerism, anti-emotionalism, and artifice. At best, it’s an utter waste of time; at worst, a masturbatory fantasy. Our perception of musical complexity has always changed with the political tides; during the Cold War, for instance, academic composers in the US wore the mantle of total serialism as a mark of American freedom and intellectual curiosity, juxtaposing themselves with the Soviets’ kitschy functional music of massed choirs and brass bands. However, although such composers were granted tenure in their university gigs, most Americans would have preferred balalaika-accompanied paeans to Lenin than the latest offering by Milton Babbitt. Even when it was politically correct to embrace pure musical complexity, it didn’t mean people actually liked it.

This is the paradox of complexity: a composer can’t be a complete musical simpleton and get respect from historians – they need to show some level of mastery of complex forms. However, they can’t get too complex lest they cross the line into alienating abstraction. There are a raft of false dichotomies inherent in this paradox. As Burney suggested in the first major history of music written in English, “learning and labor” are in opposition to “taste and invention.” Is it possible to compose music that is both learned/laborious and tasteful/inventive? Could a cold and calculating 12-tone piece, in fact, be emotionally expressive as well? I don’t understand why not.

Cases like this are so fascinating in part because they reveal how deep a role taste plays in historiography. Burney, writing in the empirically-minded age of reason, saw no purpose to such extravagant musical games. Anton Webern, a product of the end-game of western music teleology, however, praised Heinrich Isaac (another composer famous for complexity and puzzles) as the subject of his 1908 doctoral dissertation. The times and the politics, to a large degree, determine the tastes.

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..

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)

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.

Humor in the 14th Century, or “Europe’s Funniest Home Versus”

It’s all too easy to attribute modern comedic sensibilities to modern people only. But if the comedic impulse comes out of suffering, as Lenny Bruce claimed when asked why so many comics were Jewish (“All my humor is based on destruction and despair”), then the Middle Ages should be the Age of Hilarity. This is an insight Monty Python understood well. (“I’m not dead yet!”)

As our reading progresses, a prominent new stylistic feature is beginning to emerge – humor. Earlier repertories, while fascinating and beautiful, can hardly be called funny. But with the motet, we find examples of music that is – even to modern ears – quite clever and witty. This is somewhat surprising given the solemn treatises on the genre (remember dour Grocheio) and its status as an elite art. But just as frisky motet texts often belie the technical complexity and esotericism of the form, so too do the complex forms belie the essentially comedic and playful nature of some of these pieces. The more progress occurred in notational technology, moreover, the more composers were free to experiment with ever more elaborate (and hilarious) techniques.

Take the motet Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili. Its text is in Latin, not exactly the typical conduit for comedic expression in those days. (As opposed to today, when Latin comedians are all the rage. Think Carlos Mencia. *rimshot, cymbal*) In fact, the text is straightforward and dignified enough: the triplum takes the voice of an anthropomorphized Music: “The science of music sends greetings to her beloved disciples…” Music goes on to instruct the singers to respect the rules and “not to offend against rhetoric and grammar by dividing indivisible syllables.” The motetus text (remember, each voice has a different text in the double motet), conversely, is the voice of Rhetoric: “Rhetoric sends greetings to learned Music.” This voice warns against faults like rhythmic hockets. Simple enough, right?

The zinger comes when you notice that the music doesn’t in any way follow the advice of our friends Music and Rhetoric. In fact, the music is actively undermining the stentorian declamations of the poetry – indivisible syllables are divided, a strict violation of the rules; and what’s more, the voices engage in a complex series of hockets. I imagine two stern old teachers in a classroom telling a group of students not to use their cell phones while all the while the kids are texting furiously under their desks.

What we have here is an early case of irony in notated music. Perhaps if the composer of this motet was alive today he would frequent hipster bars and sport a mullet, gas station attendant jacket, and mustache.

All joking aside, this is pretty amazing. As Taruskin astutely points out, in order to poke fun at a style, one has to be fully conscious of the codes and forms that are typical of said style. Irony is essentially a self-aware form of humor, and the recognition of the fundamental constructed-ness of musical practices represents, I think, a small breakthrough in the Western notated tradition.

I’ll close with Taruskin: “Every one of the ‘faults’ for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer. The piece is a kind of satire. But such satire requires an attitude of ironic detachment, a consciousness of art as artifice, and a wish to make that artifice the principal focus of attention. These are traits we normally (and perhaps self-importantly) ascribe to the ‘modern’ temperament, not the ‘medieval’ one. Only we (we tent to think), with our modern notions of psychology and our modern sense of ‘self,’ are capable of self-reflection. Only we, in short, can be ‘artists’ as opposed to ‘craftsmen.’ Not so.” (I, 270)

Clus or Clar II: The Motet

This kind of song ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts. — Grocheio, about the motet, c. 1300 (I, 226)

One major theme of the book so far has been the complex relationship between description and prescription as it relates to newly-developed notational styles and theories. Do theories and notations actively affect music composition, or are they the handmaiden to preexisting practices? Of course, they paradoxically do both. The relationship reminds me of that M.C. Escher drawing of two hands drawing themselves into existence (below).


With newly developed Franconian notation came a greater level of rhythmic complexity to notated music, and the motet was the first genre to fully capitalize on this potential. As Taruskin writes in reference to a motet from this era: “Such a piece was a triumph of literate contrivance, one whose craftsmanly intricacy depended utterly on the written medium.” (I, 228) Indeed, there is a playful quality to much of this music, as if composers were experimenting with novelties just because, for the first time, they could.

The hyper-literate nature of the early motets made the genre an ideal showcase for the elite, literati classes. However, the more technically complex and bound to written notation the motet became, the more out of reach it grew for those unschooled in music theory/notation, the people Grocheio endearingly labeled “the vulgar.” It’s quite the irony, therefore – as Taruskin points out – that many motet texts were pastoral love poems about shepherds and other ordinary folk. Motet singers sang earthy poetry about the exact types of people who “that kind of song ought not be propagated among.” We’re back to the questions raised initially by the trobar clus and trobar clar, the “closed” and “clear” song styles of the trouvéres. (And back to Mark’s first post on the question.) Should music be for all or for the few?

Of course, setting the tales of the shepherd lovers Robin and Marion as the lyrics for a double motet doesn’t automatically show sympathy for the “types” these ordinary folks represent. Moreover, I’m skeptical that the average listener would be able to decipher the lyrics in the first place, seeing as they are polytextually amalgamated into an impenetrably dense web of words. In this intricate, clever musical structure, Robin and Marion disappear entirely, existing only on the written page.

On Anonymity

When discussing a musical tradition that is quite foreign to one’s own, it’s only natural to draw comparisons to what is known and understood. Putting the alien into a familiar context can help open up the proverbial windows and get some light in the room. Saying something like “troping is the same as sampling” is of course a crude oversimplification, but at its root, this thought betrays the perception of sameness (that is, familiarity) that can shoot through centuries and cultural differences. Critical comparisons like these can help one to form conceptual bonds with the past or with other cultures.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of our discussions on the blog so far have drawn parallels to our present musical landscape. This has been done in the spirit of playfulness and fun, but also to help put the pieces together and make meaning out of traditions that are long gone. I can’t help it – when I think about tropes, hip-hop production is the first thing that comes to mind. A big part of the reason why I think we’ve been drawing so many parallels to today is that music from the Middle Ages often has more in common with predominantly oral, “popular” lineages than it does with canonical Western art music. It makes sense to take a more ethnomusicological approach to this topic, therefore. In many ways, chant and secular music from this era share more with folk music, pop songwriting, and yes, hip-hop, than they do with Beethoven.

As Taruskin reminds us, orality and literacy have always been engaged in a complex pas de deux through the centuries. Even though notational technologies were available from around the 9th-10th centuries, music making remained primarily an oral tradition, and notated music simply attempted to capture what singers already knew. But at a certain point (or rather, many certain points), the pendulum swung towards literacy as the primary means of transmission.

To shift gears slightly, lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of composer anonymity and its role in shaping this repertory. Anonymity is fundamentally a trait of the oral tradition. In folk signing traditions, for instance, complex lineages of who learned a song from whom are often highly valued, but the origins of most songs are murky. In many (perhaps most) cultures around the world, songs are said to have been created by ancestors or the Gods. Some cultures view their song repertory as something that simply always has been. Similarly, most chant cannot be pinned down to a specific composer. Like the composition of the Indian ragas, Gregory was said to have received direct dictation from God. The idea of the “composer” didn’t really come about until the pendulum had swung a little more towards literacy.

For example, Hildegard’s music was elaborate, florid, and not always intuitive. There is little chance that her music would have been remembered and passed on in the same way as plainchant – it’s simply too difficult. Once music surpassed a certain threshold of technical complexity, notation became a much more valuable technology of transmission. Hildegard’s music was in many ways enabled by notation. Likewise, because it was affixed to a thing from the beginning, so too did her name enter the material record.

Oral traditions tend to value continuity more than innovation. One can certainly composer orally, as Taruskin wrote at the beginning of the volume, but is that composer going to be remembered? Indeed, is he going to even want to be remembered? In an oral paradigm, an individual’s unique contribution to the flowing river of music is  just a drop in an unchanging yet constantly moving tradition. No wonder we don’t have the names of many chant composers – they didn’t have the technology to pass their compositions down, of course, but just as important, they didn’t think like composers.

Literacy is one of the defining qualities of Western music (indeed, the defining characteristic according to Taruskin). But literacy also enabled an equally important concept, one that also defines Western music – the composer. We can see the faint stirrings of the composer concept now: fewer and fewer musical examples are anonymous as notation grew more precise and powerful. In a couple hundred years, composers will be well-known throughout their regions and in the employ of kings and churches. A couple hundred years after that, they will be the Gods.

[Addendum:] Continuing with our little tradition of bringing up current music in our discussions of the Middle Ages, the hip-hop practice of hiding one’s true identity through clever monikers is a fascinating phenomenon. All of these masks – many performers go under multiple aliases – fracture the concept of an individual composer/creator. In some ways, could we be returning to an oral, composerless paradigm?