Musical Objects

[Vol. I, pp. 1-50]

It is the sense that an art work may exist independently of those who make it up and remember it that is distinctive of literate cultures. (As we shall see, it is that sense that allows us even to have the notion of a “work of art.”) And another difference is that having works of music, however large in scale, in written form encourages us to imagine or conceptualize them as objects, which is to say as “wholes,” with an overall shape that is more than the sum of its parts. […] Since the performance of such works must unfold in time, but the written artifacts that represent them are objects that occupy space, one can think of literate cultures as cultures that tend conceptually to substitute space for time—that is, to spatialize the temporal. (I, 20-21)

A tendency to spatialize the temporal. This is a nice way to explain a concept that has been nagging at my brain for a couple of years now, and Taruskin’s formulation helps crystalize my thoughts. I think this tendency arises out of humans’ proclivity for visual information. Time can’t be seen—at least not all at once—but limited portions of space can. This is at once the mysterious beauty of music, and its elusive frustration. The more something is unknown or indefinable, the harder it is to master. What we can’t master we consider a threat, whether it be the threat of political disorder throughout the realm (c.f. Zach’s recent post) or merely the threat of not fulfilling your duties as cantor due to the inability to recall intricate series of melismas (e.g., Notker Balbulus).

Putting music down on paper (or parchment, or wax tablets) allows us to see its edges, see its entirety. Even more, we can hold on to it, manipulate it, own it. In short, we can be masters of music—a goal that all musicology students can relate to. But the key point here, that often goes unsaid—and unnoticed—is that this brand of musical mastery is engineered synesthesia. The realm of hearing is relegated to that of seeing, through a series of meaningful symbols. We then interact with the sound through the mediator of sight.

There of course is nothing wrong with this, and it has proven to be a most valuable eventuality, especially to historians. To focus only on what can be seen—the Great Score of musicological lore—is to miss out on the music itself: a living, breathing, performance affected, error susceptible experience. It’s like preferring the 2009 Fodor’s guide to Paris to the real thing—there’s no way it will be comprehensive, and it will be out of date before it gets into your hands.

May I never choose the guidebook over the experience.