Technics and the Contours of Music History

At the beginning of the 16th century, Josquin des Prez was one of the first composers to gain widespread renown through the printing press. Gottschalk accomplished his national success by riding the cross-country American railroad system in the 19th century. Enrico Caruso was the first international recording star, beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. Arturo Toscanini’s widespread celebrity as a conductor was amplified exponentially through the new medium of radio broadcasts beginning in the late 1930s (Vol. IV, 752).

The contours of music history are bound by the history of technics, and vice versa. And as I pointed out in an earlier post, sometimes the nature of one’s success is dictated by when one is born, and what technology is available to you—or invented by you. More recently we’ve had the music video star (Michael Jackson), the youtube “star” (more infamous than famous, usually), and the indie-“wunderkind”. One can only imagine—what’s next?


Seeing Music

I’m back from a short hiatus. Many thanks to Zach for keeping the ship pointed in the right direction!

As I go through this week’s reading, I see more and more evidence of a major shift in literate music from this time period. Rather than existing largely as a way to record oral tradition, the technology of notation had developed to a point where it can increasingly generate new musical techniques. Now is as good a time as any to compare where we started in this history of literate traditions, with the earliest form of neumes, to the notation of Phillipe de Vitry, with a focus on the directional flow of anatomical priority: from ear to eye, or eye to ear.

The earliest neumed music, as we have repeatedly seen, relied first on the ear, that is, on the performer’s aural knowledge of an existing oral tradition. Only secondly and subordinately do they count on information received by the eyes. The visual signs were only gestural, and not able to be read at sight by one who was a stranger to the repertoire.

How different this is from one of this week’s examples, Phillipe de Vitry’s motet Tuba sacre/In arboris/VIRGO SUM. We are now working with music on a five line, cleffed staff, with notation that imparts to the reader specific rhythmic information. Two basic components of music—pitch content and rhythmic information—are accounted for in notation. The manuscript version of this piece that Prof. Taruskin reproduces in the text* is beginning to have some real resemblances to the notation we continue to use today.

Technology engenders experimentation; which brings me to the main reason for writing this post: coloration. The tenor line in Tuba sacre/In arboris/VIRGO SUM has a funny little quirk: some of the notes are in red ink instead of black. And beneath the tenor de Vitry wrote these words: Nigre notule sunt imperfecte et rube sunt perfecte (“The little black notes are imperfect and the red ones are perfect”). As de Vitry’s contemporary readers would know, this little rule (“rubric,” or “canon”) means that a change of color means a change of rhythmic proportion, specifically by the ratio of 3:2. And although de Vitry set this out as a special rule for this particular motet, it subsequently became common practice.

Coloration is a striking example of the generative influence of which notation was capable by this time. When a scribe’s change of inkwell can so drastically alter the way music is performed, we know for sure that we are no longer in a musical world monopolized by oral/aural tradition. Neither are we, however, in a world monopolized by the visual. But as a result of this notational coming-of-age, the visual impetus in music has emerged as a true contender.

*Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare, MS 115, fols. 15v-16. See Vol. 1, p. 262 for the plate, pp. 263-265 for a transcription of the entire motet.

Technologies of Transformation

One of Taruskin’s more philosophical passages, the aptly subtitled “What is Art?” (I, pp. 64-67), outlines in broad strokes the transition from music-as-activity to music-as-Art. Once a practice that existed entirely within the oral tradition, early notation was pivotal in codifying music and providing individual works with autonomy, a fairly universally regarded prerequisite for “art” status. Instead of the transitory, unpredictable nature of oral transmission and living, breathing musical practice, notation allowed for prescriptive snapshots of sound ideals. The manuscript was sound made flesh, and the very “thing-ness” of a notated page had the effect of elevating it to a higher status. When the printing press came along, allowing for numerous, easy copies of musical works, this process of reification intensified. As Taruskin writes: “The durable music-thing could begin to seem more important than ephemeral music-makers. The idea of a classic – a timeless aesthetic object – was waiting to be born.” (I, 65). The final step in this progression, Taruskin goes on, came with the invention and popularization of recording technology, which allowed people to own not just things that represent music (scores, notated music), but the music itself, the Ding an sich. “A recording of a piece of music is more of a thing than ever before, and our notion of what “a piece” is has been correspondingly (and literally) solidified.” (ibid.) Recordings are the ultimate tangible embodiment of music, and thus the ultimate step in their paradigmatic transfiguration into art.

Oh what has changed in the decade and a half since Taruskin wrote this. In many ways I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment: the recording is just another form of writing (“sound-writing” to be precise), only one that is much more powerful than notation in that it captures time itself, not just representations of music-colored time. In no other 20-year interval in history, however, has a paradigm of musical transmission come so quickly to its knees. The thing-ness of recorded music is, for all intents and purposes, presently dead. Proliferation and rapid adoption of digital formats like the MP3 have taken the physical object out of music consumption for a majority of people. They still have their recordings – fixed, solid performances of music – but the things attached to them have disappeared into thin air. In some ways, we moderns are returning to an earlier paradigm of music making with alarming, unprecedented alacrity.

As goes the transmission medium, so goes the art. Contrary to what Taruskin says – that today works of High Art are held in great esteem precisely because of their manifest thing-ness – today the traditional bastion of musico-cultural value, “the canon,” is collapsing all around us. The nature of this transformation is complex, but one of the major factors, I would argue, is the severe decline of the physical object in recorded music.

I want to return one last time to our favorite topic of the week – tropes. (And I swear this is the last post, all you troper-haters out there!) As Taruskin argues, thinking of tropes as art in the traditional definition is highly problematic. The same is true of sampling, as the legal and cultural firestorm over the technique’s very right to exist amply demonstrates. Much of the reason why these two forms are so problematic is because of the strange, complex message they carry about the media of transmission themselves.

The thing that intrigues me the most about tropes, and about sampling, is how fundamental the media is to the message. Here’s what I mean. The respective technologies of music notation and sound recording, by fixing musical practice into a thing, enable the subversion of the medium itself since an object can be cut, pasted, broken apart, rearranged, etc. It’s much easier to use an object for new purposes than it is to use an idea, which is what all songs were before they were figuratively “made flesh.” In both troping and sampling, the media itself (notation, recording) becomes the battleground on which musicians mediate these warping notions of musical meaning. Tropes (and sampled hip-hop) aren’t just captured by their respective transmission media – they are a product of their technologies. No music notation, no tropes; no sound recording, no sampling.

We should keep this in mind when attempting to draw straight lines through music history. The same technologies that helped reify music into Art also helped challenge the very notion of art and might, ultimately, lead to the collapse of cultural authority inherent in such a paradigm. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.