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.

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

The Telling Trope

As DJ Tropesphere points out in his recent post, tropes were a way to re-immerse monks in the liturgy. But the most fascinating thing about tropes to me is how the trope texts allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of intellectual activity at the time. Far from being empty vessels, transferring original truths back into the mouths of monks unchanged, Clunaic reforms, and tropes with them, shaped—and were shaped by—contemporaneous theological developments. Like the text glossing of a manuscript, in which commentary filled the margins surrounding the original text, tropes form a musical frame around pre-existing chant. As such, paying attention to what topics the tropes emphasized (Marian imagery, Christology) can tell us what the authors considered to be important. Riffing off of Zach’s recent post, troping a Kyrie is like taking a pop ballad and remixing it as a dance track. Both tell us something about the participants’ changing values.

When telling the story of music history, tropes are usually big news because they were new, and we like to track what we think of as the forward edge of history. (We deal with the origin of a genre, then follow its development only as long as it does so dynamically. To my knowledge, no one has ever written a chapter called “Gregorian Chant in the Seventeenth Century,” though I would love to be proven wrong!) But as Taruskin’s discussion implies, tropes are important for far more than just being new. As additions to a pre-existing set of texts, they show us how a new generation of believers made the liturgy their own.

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!