Listening to Webern

12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.

It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.

This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.

In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.

RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):

The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)

Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.


Mahler the Giant

… [A symphony] so great that the whole world is actually reflected therein – so that one is, so to speak, only an instrument upon which the universe plays.   — Mahler

Ambitious goal, that. To Mahler, the artistic aim to create a “universal symphony”  translated into expanding both the size and scope of the ensemble and the form. Where the average symphony up until then typically had first movements lasting roughly 10-15 minutes in duration, Mahler upped the ante to over 20 minutes in Sym.2 and over 30 in Sym.3; where the usual, humdrum orchestra had 4-6 horns, for instance, Mahler brought in a cavalry of 10 parts for Sym.2. In order to express the universal, it seems, everything needed to be larger.

RT calls this expansion of symphonic means and ambitions “maximalism,” a term that implies an uncompromising dedication to the extremes. It’s a fascinating fin de siecle paradigm that shows up in areas outside of music as well (one recalls a particular super-sized ocean liner..).

You have to wonder how much of this “maximalization” of the symphony had to do with expanding the expressive range of the orchestra to encapsulate the whole world (nay, the universe), and how much of it had to do the same sort of hubris that lay behind the construction of the aforementioned ocean liner. I’m an ardent admirer of Mahler, but there’s a lot of arrogance mixed in with the audacity here (first, to think that the “universal” is musically possible; second, to think that he would be the one who could do it). There’s an odd conflation of universality and philosophical serious-mindedness with massive orchestral forces, volume, and duration. Could not a Mozartean symphony also be “universal,” or are claims of universality proportionately related to size, making the “small” simultaneously the “non-universal”?

As a companion term to RT’s “maximalism,” I might suggest “gigantism” as another designation of the ballooning of orchestral forces, time scales, and philosophical ambitions during this period. The OED defines the word as “abnormal or monstrous size,” and in the context of the book so far (and music after the first decade or two of the 20th century), Mahlerian scale does indeed represent something abnormal. Both maximalism and gigantism work in tandem here: ambitions were extreme, but the equation of expressive range (“the whole world in a symphony”) with size expresses a “bigger is better” mentality as well.

Victory over Vol. III, or, The Chaikovsky Problem

Appropriately enough, Vol. III ends with Tchaikovsky (RT’s more consistently anglicized “Chaikovksy”), the master of the (melo-)dramatic finale. It was an arduous journey through the thickest volume of the set but, like the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, we emerged triumphant. Three down, two to go!

As we did with the last two volumes, we’re going to take a short reading break before resuming the Challenge with the early 20th century. But before moving on, expect some catch-up posts on the fascinating last 200 pages of the text. Also look for a Must-reads update in the near future.

But back to Chaikovsky for a moment. As I ruminate on my personal history with this composer, I remember that, as a kid, Tchaik was on par with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as far as “greatness” goes. I even owned a plastic bust of the guy (bearded composers were my favorites). Pieces like the 1812 Overture and the Nutcracker were about as amazing as classical music could get (come on, it even has a part for cannon!), and my family, which is full of musicians, ranked him high on their list (although my curmudgeonly grandfather always liked to point out that he was “as queer as a three-dollar bill”). Imagine my surprise, then, when at the tender age of 18 my college music history prof dismissed his music as “sentimental.” I clearly recall the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon learning that the music of a great composer was really something twee, excessive, and – worst of all – “popular.” I guess I, along with audiences for over a hundred years, was wrong about the guy!

The reception history of Chaikovsky is a twisting and (at times) tragic story that highlights the seismic shifts in our musical values over the last 100+ years. By “our,” of course, I mean music scholarship. For many decades, Chaikovsky’s link to ballet, his homosexuality, and his grand, gushing melodies were enough to make more than a few musicologists blush with shame. How could such a composer compete with the “serious” (read: German) masters? As a result of this category crisis, Chaikovsky was denigrated, dismissed, and discarded by generations of scholars.

Not that the concert-going public would know any of this, however. Chaikovsky, along with composers like Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Puccini, and Sibelius, dazzlingly demonstrates the frequent disconnect between what scholars deem important and what actual audiences do. Even during the darkest years of Chaikovsky-negativity in the academy, music-lovers flocked to annual performances of the Nutcracker, tingled as the 1812 finale joyously marauded their eardrums, and pondered in rapt concentration the 6th symphony in a darkened concert hall (sharing a billing with Beethoven, no less!). While I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s musicology’s job to slavishly track the popular simply by virtue of the fact that it’s popular (though tell that to the growing Lady Gaga Studies crowd), such a profound disjuncture between what is “important” to the scholar and what is “important” to the audience should give us pause.

Of course, Chaikovsky (along with the others mentioned above) has since been rehabilitated, giving today’s scholars the opportunity to look back smugly on the benighted history of the discipline and revel in just how far we’ve come. It does make you wonder, though, what we could be missing or dismissing right now. Might the musicologist of the future look back with bemusement at the conceptual blind spots that caused us to neglect such “important” artists today (Lady Gaga)?

Wagnerian Aesthetics 101

What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.

Purpose, Progress, and Evolution

Occasionally throughout the OHWM, but particularly in the “Mid-century” chapter, RT veers away from music history proper in order to offer a history of music history. These sections, I think, yield some of the most rewarding morsels in the book, setting aside the characters and plot for a moment to focus on the structure of the narrative itself and how it got to be that way.

Reviewing the choice clip in the latest “Darwinian Music” post, a couple of words really stand out. As RT points out, musicians in the middle of the nineteenth century, inspired by the historical philosophy of Hegel (and the Young Hegelians), came to see that history had a “purpose,” and that the prime aim of any artist should be to align themselves with that forward-thrusting cause. The “artwork of the future” was a product of evolutionary progression, and those out of line with this ineluctable force were of no historical significance. (The implication here is that such musicians would be lost to history.) From this philosophy emerges a trinity of concepts which together make up the idea of historicism: purpose, progress, and evolution.

This notion is so natural to many of us today that it’s easy to forget just how historically anomalous this notion was. To create music based to a large extent on the perceived dictates of history? Surely as far as creative impulses go, this one is a rarity in the vast world of music. People make music for individual pleasure, for dancing, for socializing, for God, for courtship, for rites of passages, for a deeper relationship with nature… to make music in order to “further the ‘evolutionary’ progress of the art,” as RT puts it, would probably strike most people around the world as completely inexplicable. Yet somehow it stuck.

Purpose, progress, and evolution are directional concepts; they imply a goal towards which their momentum is directed. Inherent in this very idea, then, is a certain level of teleology, or goal-orientation. A purpose-driven, historically “necessary” music evolves towards something, and in doing so implies the end to that very process. There’s something vaguely apocalyptic about this philosophy of history; once this paradigm took root, the great Götterdämmerung of the Western art music tradition was prophesied, the wheels set in motion.

This has to do with the fact that, in the West, purpose, progress, and evolution were interpreted along entirely technical lines. That is to say, “historical” composition was that which pushed the envelope of harmonic innovation and structural daring, challenging conventional (read: ahistorical) norms in pursuit of progress. With the development of compositional technique yoked to an almost messianic devotion to the “impersonal aims of history,” an endgame is implied. What, after all, is left to be done after every conceivable technical wall has been knocked down, every note liberated? Schoenberg understood this well: history demanded the complete abolition of tonality. If he didn’t make the final leap, someone else would have, because this final step was required by the teleological treadmill. The 12-tone system, in this historical paradigm, was inevitable.

This isn’t the first time that an arms race of technical innovation was set into motion (remember the ars subtilior, for instance). However, in early eras, extreme complexity was put to the service not of historical imperatives but of game-playing and clever riddles (and to innovations in notation that allowed such complexity to take place on the page. In this regard, like Schoenberg, composers did it because they could.)

There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to discuss the “endgame” – and ensuing rubble – that this historical process unleashed. The rubble of the 20th century, of course, was not the end of music (though one recent reader cleverly quipped: “I won’t spoil the ending for you: by 2010 there is no music left at all!”) It did, however, represent in certain important ways the end of a particular historical path, one that was formulated and embraced during the mid-19th century.

I’m reminded of philosopher/art critic Arthur Danto’s brilliant book After the End of Art. Like the above, his argument is not, of course, that art “ended” at a particular time; it did, however, become unyoked from the historical trajectory that it had been on for a very long time. Art in the rubble of a collapsed historical purpose is “post-historical”: it exists outside of the driving narrative of the Western tradition, and is thus aesthetically diffuse. (The “Western” element here is imperative: perhaps this accounts in some ways for composers’ embrace of the East, particularly from the 1950s on. With the Western historical narrative at an end, musicians turned to different models of time, history, and creativity.) Today, argues Danto, there is no historical path forward. We are at a conceptual impasse: some of us are eagerly pining for a new, unifying historical model to take hold; others are happily dancing on the grave of history.

Purpose, progress, and evolution, when tied to musical technique in the service of historical advancement, led, paradoxically, to the end of history. Paraphrasing RT (in another context): is this “progress”?

Those Pompous French

[Lully, Overture to Armide]

Opera in France was a completely different beast than its Italian cousin, with the glorification of state power front and center in its expressive agenda. Indeed, Taruskin writes: “Authority is what French music was all about, and Lully’s operas above all. They were the courtiest court operas that ever were.” (II, 86)

But they also represented a very particular, nay, a very French sort of political power. The French overture, a representative sample of which can be seen in the clip above, employed a distinctive, dotted rhythmic figure that quickly turned into “a universal code for pomp” all over Europe. (II, 91) National stereotypes, as invidious as they are, often have their origins in social reality, and Lully’s France provided plenty of cultural material for the essentialization of French culture by les étrangers and the French alike. For hundreds of years after the composition of these court operas, if a continental composer wanted to simulate Frenchness or simply represent a mood of stylized pomp, they simply had to draw on the musical techniques established by Lully and his cohorts.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the sound of Lully’s baton still reverberates around the world. Today, over 300 years later, people continue to associate the French with pomposity and conceit, daintiness and delicacy (as well as negative, gendered qualities like “prissiness” and “effeminacy”). The fine French restaurant is a stock setting for comedies, imbued as the location is with a prim formality just begging to be subverted; John Kerry was mocked for his ability to speak French (though those who believe a Francophile incapable of showing foreign policy muscle is clearly ignorant of Napoleonic history); and jokes about French cultural elitism are familiar to every American middle schooler (and many European kids too, I’m told). It’s fascinating, therefore, that some of these stereotypes established themselves as early as they did and were reinforced by musical practices.

Why is it that French culture, then as now, connotes arrogance to many people? Is there an inherently pompous quality to the French overture or was it simply seized upon as a representation of an already pompous court/culture/social ritual?

A Grim and Humorless Discipline?

We’re among the few comic writers in an otherwise grim and humorless discipline.    — Susan McClary in a note to Richard Taruskin (quoted in RT’s review of the  McClary Festschrift)

It’s a blessing and a relief that Taruskin knows how to employ the comic voice in the OHWM. At close to 4,000 pages, it would be a stultifying reading experience indeed if the prose did not dance. Looking back on the successfully-scaled first major peak of our ascent, I’m struck by how painless it all was. I can honestly say that I never once got bored (of course, ten pages at a time helped in this respect). Nor did I ever get that sinking feeling that comes on occasionally that this is all just a waste of time. (I recall a moment a few years back digging through a dense, hopelessly dull article establishing Dufay’s whereabouts in year X and wondering if I shouldn’t just go to law school.) For all the many minor flaws with the text, the most important element of historical writing is here in abundance – it manages to be continuously interesting, fresh, and relevant. And some of this is due to Taruskin’s mastery of the comic voice.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I often found myself chuckling aloud while reading Vol. I. His style of humor is difficult to pinpoint exactly. Occasionally it is silly, such as when he refers to Bartolomeo Tromboncino  as “the little guy with the trombone” (696). (It’s what his name means, I know, but what a funny way to phrase it.) Sometimes it is ironic: “.. in single stanzas, or ‘through-composed,’ as we now rather gracelessly say in musicologese (a dialect of German)..” (813). Most of the time, Taruskin’s humor comes from a certain lightness of tone. He’s clearly having fun writing his history, and it shows in the text. The OHWM, despite its behemoth dimensions, is not ponderous in the least.

The comic voice developed late in the field of musicology, and as McClary indicates, it isn’t very common still. This is quite a shame. Perhaps Taruskin’s greatest achievement of the history is its sheer readability; the OHWM is actually enjoyable to read. (Initiates into other unnamed texts [ahem, Grout] will know that enjoyability is not on the agenda of most histories of music.) And shouldn’t a book about music be enjoyable after all? I don’t mean to sound flippant about this, but we are scholars of music, perhaps humankind’s most universally adored activity. If we can’t make music fun, then what use is our field to the world?

If musicology is indeed a “grim and humorless discipline,” perhaps it became that way because of a ceaseless desire for recognition and status in the academy. Money is tight, and what musicologists do could be considered relatively trivial. Therefore, in order to justify the “-ology” in our title, maybe some scholars tried to adopt the most scientific, “serious” sort of language possible. With serious-mindedness comes credibility (and funding). Perhaps, therefore, all humor was wrung from the discipline precisely in order for it to become a stable, safe, and respected academic field. Remember: when the first musicology programs were founded, officials were often skeptical (the dean of Harvard quipped, “we might as well talk of grandmotherology.”)

Do you think musicology as a discipline is “grim and humorless”? Why is the this the case (or not)? How might the scholar, conscious both of getting a tenure job and of actually being read by a larger audience, ameliorate this deficiency? Extra points if you use a pun in your reply.

A Musical Trinity? (Reply to “What is the Musical ‘Middle’?”)

[This post is a reply to Zach’s earlier post, which you can find here.]

What if we historicize the metaphor a bit? History has shaped us to think of high(brow) and low(brow) in terms of social class. We live in a moment in time where the French Revolution of 1789 happened, and marxism, capitalism, and suburbia exist. None of these did by the fifteenth century of course. And therefore the self-consciousness of class did not exist so intensely as it does for us today.

My historical imagination suggests to me that the metaphor may have hung on a more cosmic scale for composers of the fifteenth century. My thoughts stretch all the way back to Boethius’s cosmology of music. If we reconcile his tripartite construction with our present one, then “high” is musica mundana, the harmony of the cosmos, and “low” would be musica instrumentalis, the audible music blown, struck, or vibrated by earthly bodies. So far, it seems we may be on to something. The 14th century motet, as Taruskin argued, disembodied the listener and created a mysterious discordia concors that reflected heavenly things. By these lights, it seems (super)natural that this style would cross over to the genre that “looks up” most directly: the fifteenth-century cyclic mass. Thus we have the beginning of a theory of high (I’m giving up on including the quotes on these terms from here on out) musical style that jibes with existing theories of the time.

On the other hand, Taruskin’s example of low music comes from Loyset Compère’s Ave Maria…virgo serena, in which the tenor shirks its responsibility to hold august musical material, and “is confined to a monotone recitation of the prayer that the sequence quotes, as if mimicking the mumbling of a distracted communicant going through the rosary” (I, 524) Incidentally, Taruskin offers a reading that counts this as flippancy on Compère’s part, “funny, but still pious” (ibid.). An alternate reading might suggest that Compère used the cachet of the tenor line to stress the importance that prayers be intoned. Both readings emphasize humanity, and therefore what might be called a low style, “pitched at the level of its hearers, rather than…way, way over their heads” (I, 526). In other words, it is music that reflects musica instrumentalis over musica mundana.

But hold on one Tinctorian minute. Hadn’t a millennium passed since Boethius flourished, and even if he held sway on centuries’-worth of music theory, hadn’t he long since lost his currency by the fifteenth century? Well yes, and that is why these connections can be only suggestions. But that doesn’t take away the value of using them as a heuristic tool to think through alternate understandings of the high-middle-low continuum. For Boethian cosmology was in the DNA of music theory and philosophy in the fifteenth century; marxism was not.

I still haven’t answered the original question “where is the middle?” But I have offered a rationale for its existence that doesn’t take our modern duality and stuff in a third option. It is a reminder that even though our culture defaults to duality, as Zach pointed out, it was not always that way. By all accounts, thinkers within the Roman Catholic cultures up to this historical moment were more likely to map a tripartite structure onto the world, thus giving it the reflection of the Holy Trinity. After all, according to music theorists, triple division was the only one open to musicians until the Ars Nova of the 13th century.

To complete our cosmological reconciliation, we must square the middle style with Boethius’s musica humana, or the “harmony of the human constitution” (I, 70). So what is the musical middle then? Taruskin has it pegged. The middle style of this period concerns itself with the mediator between man and God: the great Intercessor Mary. For Roman Catholics of this time, she stands as the connector between heaven and earth, between God and man, between musica mundana and musica instrumentalis, between high and low.

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)?

Art as Play

Such a spirit of playful creativity is more in keeping with modern understanding of the word “art” than are the functional amplifications of plainchant that we have been encountering up to now. (I, 161)

[Early notated polyphonic practices] bear witness to the process (and the fun) of creativity within an oral culture. Homo ludens and homo faber – “humanity at play” and “creative humanity” – were close allies in such a culture. (I, 162)

.. What begins in necessity often ends in play – that is, in “art.” (I, 179)

.. What was prompted by practical need became the stimulus for luxuriant artistic play. (I, 186)

As our week’s reading has progressed, we can begin to see the genesis of a new (rather, old) creative principle at work – art as play. Surely the concept of creative play has been a major driving force behind the activity of music making since the first song was sung and the first rhythm danced back in pre-history. At this point in our musical odyssey, however, Taruskin sees the concept of play coming to the fore. (And just as the role of play gradually took a more prominent role in notated music at this time, the connection between art and play is gradually deepened and expanded upon over thirty pages in Taruskin’s text. By the end of this development, “playful” and “artistic” are virtual synonyms.)

Play is a transparent yet complex phenomenon. Oftentimes, the word “play” is invoked as a sort of counterweight to seriousness, as in: “Come on! I’m only playing with you!” Play is, almost by definition, fun. (“Can Mark come out to play?”) It is closely associated with recreation, games, and sports. Play in music is most often used in the context of  “playing a piece,” or “playing an instrument.” And here, linguistically, we can almost see a bifurcation  in our thinking about the various roles in music making: performers (ie. those who play music) vs. composers (ie. those who write music). This formulation is, of course, highly reductionist, but  the words we use to describe various musical actions (play guitar; make hip-hop beats; improvise jazz solos; write symphonies) can be very telling. One does not “play” a fresh, new piece of music; one writes, composes, or creates new music.

Taruskin does us a valuable service by pointing out that early compositional practices, steeped in the oral tradition, were in fact modes of creative play. The intricacies, puzzles, and patterns of early Aquitainian polyphony and the Notre Dame school demonstrate this playfulness. (Of course, most if not all composition, period, includes the component of play. But more on that as the Challenge progresses..) Taruskin goes a step further, however, by identifying this quality of play with a modern aesthetic valuation. Play is art.

There’s so much to unpack with this topic, and the purpose of this post is simply to get the idea out there on the table. How do we theorize play? A fruitful place to start could be biologist-psychologist-philosopher Gregory Bateson’s writing on the subject. To Bateson, play is not just a feature of human behavior – it is universal to all complex life forms. In his “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” (1954), Bateson visits the zoo and observes a pair of otters at play. It is obvious to all – even a toddler – that the otters are playing, not fighting and chasing each other out of hostility. Of course, the otters themselves are in on it. This leads him to conclude that true play is only possible when the organisms in question are able to transmit the message “this is play.” This code is a meta-level communication, since the actual behavior involved in the play (biting, chasing, tackling, etc.) could, under different circumstances, be interpreted as aggression. Therefore, an otter (or two brothers wrestling, for that matter) communicate two contradictory messages at once: I am biting you, but don’t take this bite as a real threat. It’s only play. In a brilliant and dense string of logic and reasoning, Bateson concludes that play is where members of the animal kingdom show us their advanced abilities to decipher multiple levels of meaning at once. Similarly, play in humans communicates a multiplicity of different meanings. This is where he touches on the profound nexus between play, fantasy, ritual, and art, arguing that play is of the same logical type as aesthetic engagement. Bateson: “In the dim region where art, magic, and religion meet and overlap, human beings have evolved the ‘metaphor that is meant,’ the flag which men will die to save, and the sacrament that is felt to be more than ‘an outward and visible sign, given to us.'” Play, to Bateson, could be the key to that metaphorical unlocking of meaning.

I’m not sure how all this will relate to our topic of music, but I feel that is does somehow. More to come when (if) these inchoate thoughts take shape. How do you, readers, engage with the concepts of play and artistic activity?