Darwinian Music, Part II: Anachronisms

Persistence, [like Oswald’s]*, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism – in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them. (I, 143)


* [Oswald von Wolkenstein was a minnesinger who was born in 1376, years after the monophonic craft of the trouvéres faded away.]

This is a topic that I feel we’ll be returning to often. A historian who focuses solely on technical innovation and teleological progression could easily consider someone like Oswald to be atavistic and somewhat tragicomic. They just don’t seem to get it. Henry Ford is inventing the Model T and poor old Oswald is just coming out of the garage announcing that he’s discovered the wheel. Poor Oswald! (“Hello? Anyone in there? Think, Oswald, think!,” I hear Biff Tannen saying.) In the little comparative taxonomy set up in the previous post, if chant is the amphibian that wiggles onto shore, then Oswald is the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that mind-bogglingly survived into the present (in very small numbers) with a primitive anatomy.

Oswald isn’t alone in this historical assessment. One of the major complications inherent in the concept of the “eras” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.) is that it codifies certain style characteristics as typical of a specific time, irrespective of the particular cultural milieu. If a composer is writing music that seems to outdo the style associated with his era, he’s considered progressive, vanguard, and innovative (and thus valuable and important). Music history is scattered with such innovating Geniuses who are ahead of their time: for instance, Gesualdo, Moussorgsky, and Ives. However, on the flip side, some composers in the standard canon wrote music that harkens back to earlier eras (a rococo classicist living in the Sturm und Drang era, for example). Since these unfortunate individuals aren’t current and up-to-date with their musical style, they are subjected to the historical judgment of conservatism. Thus, Sergei Rachmaninoff is an anachronism, writing grand, romantic symphonies and piano concertos well into the jaded, spiky 20th century. Mendelssohn is another who is sometimes labeled this way. And poor, misunderstood Oswald also falls into this category.

No good ethnomusicologist would make this judgment, steeped as the discipline is in the cultural embeddedness of all musical phenomenon. It may seem silly that we have to remind ourselves of this, but stylistic developments were not spontaneously adapted throughout Europe as soon as they came about. Nor should they have been. Indeed, innovative systems of music making were born from cultures, and were thus useful and meaningful in some way to the culture that produced them. Outside of that specific culture, however, the same technique could be irrelevant and unnecessary. Music is used, and if one culture has a use for a technique while the principality down the road (complete with a different language, system of social organization, economy, etc.) does not, then we can’t expect the second culture to adapt the new development wholesale simply because it’s technically innovative. This flawed historical perspective, Taruskin argues, is the anachronism, not the cultural practice so judged.

The fact of the matter is that feudalism, the social system that gave rise to the troubadour/trouvére/minnesang styles, persisted in the German lands long after it faded away in the French kingdoms. Oswald was not a holdover from an earlier era, therefore: he was responding to his culture, which just happened to keep up with feudal conditions after France began the shift towards urbanization. He was plenty relevant to his time (indeed, he was quite popular). As Taruskin puts it: “When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto – by the very fact – relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how.” (I, 143)

History is not a straight line. Indeed, it’s the twists and turns and bifurcations that make history so interesting and so complex. We would all do well to remember that.

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?

Love Bursts Forth

It should come as no surprise that the first notated body of secular song came from the troubadours, poets in the service of feudal lords. The troubadours sang about the knightly bonds between lord and vassal, but more famously, they sang about love.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the troubadour’s concept of “courtly love” not only on music history, but on the cultural development of the West. It’s easy to forget this today, when the topic of love in one form or another comprises a good 90% of all popular music, literature, film, and art, but our contemporary understanding of love is by no means universal. Indeed, the concept of personal romance as transcendent of sexual longing and approaching something divine didn’t arise in the West until the troubadours helped to popularize it. In much of the world, this concept is still a foreign notion, and marriage is more a matter of tribal/familial politics, hide-bound tradition, and economic expediency. The great religion scholar Joseph Campbell put it this way:

The troubadours were very much interested in the psychology of love. And they’re the first ones in the West who really thought of love the way we do now — as a person-to-person relationship. Before that, love was simply Eros, the god who excites you to sexual desire. This is not the experience of falling in love the way the troubadours understood it. Eros is much more impersonal than falling in love. You see, people didn’t know about Amor. Amor is something personal that the troubadours recognized.

It’s strange to consider, but I wonder how people in the pre-love days experienced love. Did individuals fall in love with the same fervor that they do now? Or did this first poetic-musical annunciation of the concept merely reflect a natural tendency that was already there in all people, regardless of specific acculturation? In this scenario, the troubadours simply came along and named something that had existed all along.

It’s easy to take our troubadour-inspired concept of love for granted, but living in other countries can really open one’s eyes to the profound differences that exist between our idea of the phenomenon and those of other cultures. In Japan, where I lived for a couple years, Western culture was closely associated with romantic love. One of the hugely popular activities for financially secure, unmarried women is to fly to Europe for “princess tours,” where ladies are escorted around Austrian villages by debonair young men. They are even put in fantastical costumes for lavish ballroom dances with (presumably) handsome princes. (Of course, who knows how much of this is inspired by Disney movies, not troubadours.) In any case, there is a marked difference in the concept of love in Japanese traditional thinking. The idea of personal romantic love is, like baseball, a Western import.

Since this concept of love is so closely associated with the West in so much of the world, it is fascinating to learn that there’s scholarly agreement on the origins of the troubadour values – Arabic sung poetry (I, 108). Known to troubadours from the cultural mixing with Muslims in southern Europe as early as the 9th century, the nawba genre consisted of lengthy love poetry set to accompaniment on the oud. Some contemporary performers of troubadour music incorporate elements of Arabic and Persian performance practice into their renditions, although nothing conclusive has been established in this arena. Nonetheless, isn’t it an amazing idea to consider, especially today, when many people believe that Western civilization is antithetical to Islam. Odd idea. We may have learned one of the most wonderful aspects of our culture from Arabic love songs.

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

Warning: Patterns May be Habit Forming [Updated]

Miles Davis, Think DifferentOne can form a mental habit of looking for sameness instead of difference, which can lead to an actual (perhaps unconscious) preference for simplifying sameness, and a concomitant (equally unconscious) antagonism toward complicating difference. (I, 63)

In other words, our brains look for patterns. It’s how we interpret the mass of information barraging us everyday, from navigating the freeway to shopping for groceries. It’s how we organize the kuchka of historical data required to pass our comprehensive music history exams. Further, we use patterns every day as musicologists to categorize and engage with musical repertoire by genre (“that’s a sonata, not a concerto”), or form (“this movement is in sonata form, not rondo form”).

But sometimes patterns work against us. The first and most vicious way is that they can keep us from truly engaging with music. All too often, when I am studying a piece of music (say, the first movement of a late 18th-c. symphony), I catch myself listening for what I’ve been told should be there, rather than what I actually hear and see. The patterns that musicologists attend to—genres, music theory, form—exist because they can be useful descriptions of a repertoire. The shift we need to watch for is when that description becomes anachronistic prescription, and forms a barrier between us and the music.


After posting this, I started in on today’s reading. In the first paragraph was the following, about the effects of 9th-c. Frankish music theory (a cumulation of Aurelian, Hucbald, Alia musica, Dialogus de musica) on ensuing composition of chant:

For that theory, modest in its intention, was huge in its effect. […] From a description of existing music it became a prescription for the music of the future. (I, 80, emphasis mine)

Coincidence? Perhaps. It is another reminder that we need to be able to recognize the effects of the descriptive/prescriptive process as a catalyst in history, but also be sensitive to its effect on our historical judgment.

On Tropes (Part I)

Beginning in the 9th century, a new Frankish musical practice took off. “Tropes” are a whole category of chants that were added, interpolated, and generally affixed to older chants. From a practical point of view, tropes helped to re-immerse Benedictine monks back into the sanctity of liturgical life after centuries of brutal Norse invasions by making liturgical observances longer. Textually, the content of the tropes served as commentary to the Biblical verses in the preexisting chant; they also functioned as confirmation and validation of the truth of the original passages. Thus, with tropes, new is blended with old, the narrative voice of the text becomes diffuse, and the musical continuity of the original troped chant is fragmented.

I thought we’d have to wait until the 20th century to be confronted with the postmodern, but here we are.

For many reasons, tropes – or the phenomenon of troping – seem much more modern than the other chant repertories we’ve been discussing up to now. There is a fluidity of meaning to them, a deliciously complex problematization (musicological buzz-word!) of authorship that most modern people can relate to. Contemplating tropes, a couple things come to mind immediately. Most of us who are at least half-way immersed in global popular culture hear a contemporary take on the concept of troping all the time, in our cars and in the dance clubs. Indeed, hip-hop music (at least the sampled variety) occupies much of the same technical and semiotic space as the Medieval tropes. Even some of the reasons for sampling are the same (I’ll explore this later). [In an alternate life as a rap producer, perhaps I would sample from recordings of tropes to create a delightful little musical hall of mirrors – troping the tropes. I would be known as DJ Tropesphere. But I digress..]

The phenomenon of troping also brings to mind another pervasive cultural practice of our modern age – blogging. Adding, commenting, amending, collaborating, confirming, changing meaning through context… all of these roles are familiar to the intrepid blogger. They must also have been familiar to the troping monk.

This is a fascinating development for many reasons, and I hope to explore the phenomenon beyond just this brief propaedeutic post. Expect more this week from DJ Tropesphere!

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!

Darwinian Music, or “The Triad Ate The Dyad”

In undergraduate music history surveys, it’s easy to develop a simple assumption: music evolves. The evidence is all around us, like trilobite fossils in an ancient sandbank. Over the evolution of Western music, things started out simply and progressed in ever and ever greater complexity, culminating in (what?) Beethoven, Schoenberg, or Elliott Carter. The music we’re reading about now – where the proverbial rubber meets the road between orality and literacy – represents the fish wiggling onto shore. Chant is the musical equivalent of a rudimentary amphibian.

This sort of thinking can be compelling and attractive. While it is true that there are countless examples of music getting simpler with time, not more complex, the general thrust of Western music is pretty tough to ignore: back in the middle ages, they sung unaccompanied modal melodies, today we have all the bountiful gifts of total serialism. It’s easy for the student of music to view every musical innovation, therefore, as an evolutionary adaptation bringing us ever closer to the present.

This way of thinking, attractive as it may be, is of course false. (And it might even be harmful – more on this in a later post.) Actually, it’s both a false reading of history and a demonstrably inaccurate take on the concept of evolution. In classical Darwinian evolution, species don’t simply evolve in straight lines towards their ultimate expression, ie. what they are today. Evolution is sprawling and messy; it doubles back on itself when survival dictates; it results in all sorts of dead-ends and false starts. Just like music. So perhaps music history and evolution do share something in common, only not the simple, commonly understood definitions of either.

But back to the text. Chant, it turns out, is not the squirmy amphibian on the evolutionary chart of music. Earlier dominant styles, actually, were far more complex, at least according to all evidence (we can’t hear it, obviously). The Psalms, in their description of Judaic practice, describe massed ensembles of drums, tambourines, singers, and – yes – even orchestras. Pagan musical practices were most probably polyphonic as well. Musically speaking, these practices were more complex than chant. In fact, chant can be seen as a deliberate step towards simplifying the raucous music that preceded it. It was, in a sense, reactionary. As monasteries were formed and the ascetic religious life took shape, a corresponding music for contemplation and spiritual equanimity was needed. Musical complexity and formal development weren’t even a consideration. So where, then, does this leave the Darwinian musicologist?

This is a topic I hope to return to as the project progresses (dare I say “evolves”). For now, I leave you with Taruskin:

Monophony was thus a choice, not a necessity. It reflects not the primitive origins of music (as the chant’s status as the oldest surviving repertory might all too easily suggest) but the actual rejection of earlier practices, both Judaic and pagan, that were far more elaborate and presumably polyphonic. (I, 10)

History as Drama?

Tonight’s menu: Pork Paprikash. Wait, this is not that kind of blog. (But I really did make paprikash this week, and it was pretty darn good for my first time.) Anyway…

In today’s reading came the end of the first chapter, “The Curtain Goes Up: ‘Gregorian Chant,’ the First Literate Repertory, and How it Got That Way.” Taruskin’s title—especially the first phrase—cleverly sets the stage, so to speak, for the enterprising soul who has set out to read his history. “Settle in to your seat,” Taruskin seems to say, “and enjoy the OHWM, a History in Five Acts. Cue the overture!”

His use of the curtain metaphor has me thinking about the connection between the telling of history, and the presentation of a drama. We usually talk about history as a “narrative” (Taruskin included, notwithstanding his condemnation of the nefarious “master narrative”), but is there any benefit to applying dramatic theory to historiography? Or do the pitfalls of such a paradigm outweigh the benefits? Does anyone know if any work has been done on this, or have thoughts about it?

Of course, when I think drama I automatically think opera: a curtain-raising overture, several acts, a cast of characters whose relationships to one another will be revealed over the course of the evening—however ill-fated those relationships turn out to be—remember, it’s opera. How does/should the work of a historian emulate drama? (Extra points for the first commenter who uses “dramaturgical” in his/her response.)