Archive for October, 2009

One does not have to crack open Taruskin’s OHWM to infer that he does not ascribe to the traditional categorization of eras of musical history. One doesn’t even have to take the volumes off the shelf (or shelves, depending on how big your bookcase is). Just a glance at their spines shows that he has organized his five volumes according to chronology (“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth century,” “…in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” “…in the Nineteenth Century,” etc.) rather than era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic). I have been waiting, therefore, for the issue to come up in the text, and sure enough it did in last week’s reading.

Before coming to the conclusion of his discussion of the motet, Taruskin makes it a point to draw a stylistic connection between Machaut and Du Fay. The reason that he has to “make it a point,” rather than simply drawing the connection, is that between these two composers lies the traditional barrier between two stylistic eras: Medieval and Renaissance. These are made-up barriers, and yet they can have a profound and formative influence on how we think and act. Here’s Taruskin:

“…major historiographical divisions like that can act as barriers, sealing off from one another figures and works that happen to fall on opposite sides of that fancied line, no matter how significant their similarities. Not only that, but…an appearance of stylistic backwardness or anachronism—inevitable when sweeping categories like “Medieval” and “Renaissance” are too literally believed in—can easily blind us to the value of supreme artistic achievements such as Du Fay’s isorhythmic motets. They are not vestigial survivals or evidence of regressive tendencies, but a zenith.” [I, 281]

The power of socially constructed barriers can be startling. A couple years ago, a designer friend of mine, David Overholt did a project at NYU that explored this very phenomenon, called “Tape in Space.” David went around New York City, placing duct tape in various configurations in public spaces: across a step, in an X on a bench, or stretching waist-high from a wall to a lamppost across a busy sidewalk. David outlines the concept behind his project as follows:

“My tendencies to consider alternative solutions and push/pull ideas to the limits of their rational beginnings had me quickly consider the options in life that we come in contact with that are not walls, but in fact act as walls simply by social understanding or conditioning. Thoughts of cracks in the sidewalk, a speaker blaring music (a wall of sound), or light in a darkened room can instantly bring up a group of the same set of emotions that are evoked when coming face to face with a wall. Isolation, distance, separation, security, etc. are often derived out of ideas, objects, or senses that are, in definition, not considered walls.”

In other words, we see walls where there are none. And we act accordingly. As part of the project, David created this video. It shows how a thin piece of tape can become an infinitely vertical wall capable of literally stopping people in their tracks. It also shows how different people deal with the same situation, some even penetrating the perceived barrier. (This video is also an interesting commentary on perceived authority, something that David achieves with just a hard hat and orange vest.) I recommend watching the entire five minutes of the video, but if you have limited time, begin at about 3 minutes.

Tape in Space from David Steele Overholt [I couldn’t get the video to embed, so please click the link.]

We do the same thing by erecting barriers in music history, only our barriers are even more scant than a piece of tape: they are completely invisible.


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A Machaut Playlist

Already in Chapter 9 we have gone through a good deal of music by Guillaume de Machaut. Since there is no recorded anthology to go along with the OHWM, I thought I would collect some renditions of these musical examples, so that we can get the sound in our ears.  Disclaimer: I pulled these off of youtube, and can’t vouch for their quality. Someone more up to speed on the current performance practice of secular 13th-c. songs might choose better examples. I did choose performances that seemed to be professionally recorded, which is why, for instance, I chose the present recording of “De toutes flours,” rather than this one. There are some strange interpretations out there…

“Douce dame jolie”, a monophonic virelai.

“Rose, liz, printemps”, a four-voice Rondeau.

“De toutes flours”, a four-voice ballade.

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Week 6 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 7 kicks off with some good news. It’s official – Mark passed his doctoral comp exams! A hearty congratulations!

We started the week off with a video clip of an amazing “real life” motet (and the frustration of losing the Week 5 review..). From there, Mark returned from the dead to discuss the psychological implications of the switch from orality to literacy, as well as share a little koan about the motet. The week continued with posts on humor in the motet and the ever-important role of politics in the creation of new music. We closed with Du Fay’s crazily complex numerological motet and a Machaut sneak peak. The week also saw another exciting development: Alex Ross, the amazing music critic for The New Yorker, added the Challenge to the reading list on his new blog, Unquiet Thoughts.

The Week in Reading: Chapter 8 – Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova

  • A New Art of Music? (247): New music treatises began appearing around 1322 that radically altered the course of literate music making. These theoretical manuals launched an even more sophisticated notational technology for rhythms.
  • Music from Mathematics (248): A breakthrough occurred when musicians began adapting the theory of exponential powers for use in notating rhythms. Thus, every rhythmic value could be subdivided as follows: 3 minim = semibreve; 3 semibreves = breve; 3 breves = long; 3 longs = longa triplex. Furthermore, this method of subdivision allowed for the same breakdown of “imperfect” (2) values.
  • Putting it into Practice (250): Further discussion of the implications of the above.
  • Representing It (252): Time signatures (or mensural signs) were created to specify the four rhythmic modes (corresponding to 9/8, 3/4, 6/8, and 2/4).
  • Establishing the Prototype: The Roman de Fauvel (255): The story of Fauvel, a political satire featuring a corrupt deerlike creature, provided the first documented consolidation of a few ars nova features, including: 1) Latin text; 2) Lyrics relating to public morality; 3) Delayed tenor entrance for dramatic effect.
  • Taking a Closer Look (260): More discussion of this new rhythmic system
  • More Elaborate Patterning (261): The deep architecture of many ars nova motets reflects an inherent tension between triple and duple subdivisions. There was no way of mixing these two levels at one time, so composers used “rubrics” (or “canons”), including performance notes and color changes, to show a shift in metrical value.
  • Isorhythm (266): This combinatorial technique drew from the concepts of “color” and “talea”: recurring rows of notes and rhythms overlap to produce independent but overlapping periodicities. These large structural patterns reflected the rhythm of the cosmos.
  • Music about Music (267): With formal practices codified, musicians were able to subvert the rules in a playful and ironic way. There’s a lot of wit in these self-referential motets about the art of motet composition!
  • Machaut: The Occult and the Sensuous (270): This is our first glimpse of the immense creative vision of Guillaume de Machaut, particularly in reference to his gnomic treatment of rhythm as a reflection of hidden, occult truths. Of course, these structural densities were belied by sensuous surface textures.
  • Musica Ficta (273): Literally “false music.” Machaut was able to utilize a level of chromaticism heretofore inaccessible to notated music by exploiting the natural tendencies of pitches to magnetize towards other pitches. Musica ficta is a system of implied accidentals according to context. Its reach was to extend well into the 17th century.
  • Cadences (276): Major style feature – the “double leading-tone cadence.” Approaching the tonic and fifth by half-step was enabled by musica ficta.
  • Ciconia: The Motet as Political Show (277): See this post.
  • Du Fay: The Motet as Mystical Summa (281): The symbolic value of numbers played a major role in the structure and meaning of many motets. Du Fay’s mind-blowing Nuper rosarum flores juggles at least 4 levels of numerological meaning.
  • A Final Word From Dante (286): Dante wrote about the power and beauty of the motet, actually using it as a metaphor a world government of perfect justice. The chapter closes with Taruskin’s answer to the riddle of polytextuality: motets were intended to awe people, not to be understood.

We read about 10 pages into Ch.9, but for the sake of organization I’ll leave that for next week’s summary. Look out for more Machaut, including his famous mass, a return to sacred music, ars subtilior and more in Week 7!

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Du Fay and Machaut

Guillaume Du Fay, Nuper rosarum flores

This motet, composed for the dedication of a cathedral in Florence, features a staggeringly complex architecture based on certain symbolically important numbers. In fact, numerological patterning functions in overlapping systems to produce different simultaneous significations. For instance, the metrical signatures throughout form a ratio of 6:4:2:3, which happens to be the Pythagorean proportions. The ratio also corresponds to architectural descriptions of the great temple in Jerusalem found in the second book of Kings. (This was also a particularly apt numerological pattern to draw, as the motet was written for the dedication of a new cathedral.) In addition to all of that, the number 7 plays a prominent role in the piece, both structurally and poetically (7-syllable lines). Seven is a number associated strongly with the Virgin Mary, to whom the new cathedral was being dedicated. The mind spins.

Taruskin ends Chapter 8 with a theory that answers our quandary about why multiple texts were used in the motet genre, even though they couldn’t possibly be understood: “The mind-boggling effect of the fourteenth-century ceremonial motet, confirmed by numerous witnesses, may have actually depended on the sensory overload delivered by its multiplicity of voices and texts. If so, it was not the first time that what we would call aesthetic value and power would be extracted from the inscrutable. (A large part of the aesthetic value, as well as the sacredness, of the earliest melismatic chant derived from what Dante might have called its slipperiness.) And it certainly will not the be the last. Whenever the ‘sublime’ is valued as an artistic quality, so is awe. And what produces awe must be unfathomable as well as thrilling.”  (I, 286-287)

I’ll close this post with a sneak peak preview to Machaut. This is his motet/virelai hybrid Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY. Expect more on this towering figure of the 14th century in Week 7.

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What drives musical innovation and complexity? We’ve discussed a couple factors so far, including artistic play, technological advances influencing practice, and competition. I’d like to return briefly to the last of these (competition), although I’ll leave rap battle analogies out of this one.

The motet was the most sophisticated, dense, and – as Taruskin points out – occult genre of its day. It was also the most prestigious in the halls of power. (In today’s terms, the motet might be the equivalent of combining the intellectual rigor of total serialism with the patriotic fervor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”) Suffice it to say, the motet did a lot of cultural work. It is important to remember, however, that the great feats of complexity that played such a prominent role in the genre’s success were not purely the result of aesthetic considerations. One of the things I admire the most about the OHWM is that Taruskin adamantly refuses to approach pieces of music as disembodied, pure aesthetic objects. It would be easy and alluring to see the motet as just another evolutionary step forward, as a product of composers’ innate drive for greater expressive power. Taruskin doesn’t let us off this easily.

The fact of the matter is that politics played a major role in the complexity arms race of the motet, especially in Italy. During the 13th and 14th centuries, small principalities broke up the boot into a balkanized patchwork of power centers. Even the church got in on the factionalization when the great papal schism lasting 40 years led to a multiplicity of popes all vying for legitimacy. And what does music have to do with all of this? Taruskin: “This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music. That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts.” (I, 277)

Despots used music as a competitive tool to project their own superiority over their rivals. Despite the somewhat ignominious nature of this arrangement, their deep pockets made for some of the best-paid, most respected gigs of the day. (That is, until your patron’s fiefdom gets sacked by the next town over.) Composers from France and Flanders – the birthplace of ars nova – flocked south to write music for these powerful patrons, including the great Johannes Ciconia. Ciconia worked for one Francesco Zabarella, an archpriest in line for the papacy, setting to work to glorify the achievements of his boss. Here are some sample lyrics from his hagiographic motets: “O Francesco Zabarella, glory, teacher..,” “O Francesco Zabarella, protector….”

Music of this sort is about as far as you can get from “music for music’s sake.” Yet the competition between rival Italian courts and religious authorities led to cross-pollination of regional styles, a secure paycheck for the composers involved, and the explicit instruction for them to go out and innovate. Thus, while the pretenses for this music were hardly what we today would call “purely aesthetic,” political competition profoundly enriched the musical culture of the day.

It’s a bit like the space race. While it’s certainly true that the US and the Soviet Union were essentially engaged in a multi-billion dollar pissing contest, it’s hard not to recognize the positive (and unintended) outcome of the race. Our species endeavored into outer space, we developed amazing new technologies, we educated an entire generation in the hard sciences. The photo of the earth from the moon is pretty nifty, if existentially exhausting. At a certain point, the petty political posturing at the root of space race funding sort of fades into black. What we’re left with is that photo of our perfect planet earth.

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It’s all too easy to attribute modern comedic sensibilities to modern people only. But if the comedic impulse comes out of suffering, as Lenny Bruce claimed when asked why so many comics were Jewish (“All my humor is based on destruction and despair”), then the Middle Ages should be the Age of Hilarity. This is an insight Monty Python understood well. (“I’m not dead yet!”)

As our reading progresses, a prominent new stylistic feature is beginning to emerge – humor. Earlier repertories, while fascinating and beautiful, can hardly be called funny. But with the motet, we find examples of music that is – even to modern ears – quite clever and witty. This is somewhat surprising given the solemn treatises on the genre (remember dour Grocheio) and its status as an elite art. But just as frisky motet texts often belie the technical complexity and esotericism of the form, so too do the complex forms belie the essentially comedic and playful nature of some of these pieces. The more progress occurred in notational technology, moreover, the more composers were free to experiment with ever more elaborate (and hilarious) techniques.

Take the motet Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili. Its text is in Latin, not exactly the typical conduit for comedic expression in those days. (As opposed to today, when Latin comedians are all the rage. Think Carlos Mencia. *rimshot, cymbal*) In fact, the text is straightforward and dignified enough: the triplum takes the voice of an anthropomorphized Music: “The science of music sends greetings to her beloved disciples…” Music goes on to instruct the singers to respect the rules and “not to offend against rhetoric and grammar by dividing indivisible syllables.” The motetus text (remember, each voice has a different text in the double motet), conversely, is the voice of Rhetoric: “Rhetoric sends greetings to learned Music.” This voice warns against faults like rhythmic hockets. Simple enough, right?

The zinger comes when you notice that the music doesn’t in any way follow the advice of our friends Music and Rhetoric. In fact, the music is actively undermining the stentorian declamations of the poetry – indivisible syllables are divided, a strict violation of the rules; and what’s more, the voices engage in a complex series of hockets. I imagine two stern old teachers in a classroom telling a group of students not to use their cell phones while all the while the kids are texting furiously under their desks.

What we have here is an early case of irony in notated music. Perhaps if the composer of this motet was alive today he would frequent hipster bars and sport a mullet, gas station attendant jacket, and mustache.

All joking aside, this is pretty amazing. As Taruskin astutely points out, in order to poke fun at a style, one has to be fully conscious of the codes and forms that are typical of said style. Irony is essentially a self-aware form of humor, and the recognition of the fundamental constructed-ness of musical practices represents, I think, a small breakthrough in the Western notated tradition.

I’ll close with Taruskin: “Every one of the ‘faults’ for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer. The piece is a kind of satire. But such satire requires an attitude of ironic detachment, a consciousness of art as artifice, and a wish to make that artifice the principal focus of attention. These are traits we normally (and perhaps self-importantly) ascribe to the ‘modern’ temperament, not the ‘medieval’ one. Only we (we tent to think), with our modern notions of psychology and our modern sense of ‘self,’ are capable of self-reflection. Only we, in short, can be ‘artists’ as opposed to ‘craftsmen.’ Not so.” (I, 270)

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