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Archive for the ‘Outside the Text’ Category

New Feature

To inaugurate both Volume Two and the new year, it is with great pleasure that we announce the addition of a new feature to the blog – the Musicology Must-Reads List!

The list comes out of a basic question that we have at various points in our academic lives both asked and answered: What is this music scholarship thing and what could I read to get a glimpse of the major issues and questions in the field? Of course, every musicologist has a very different answer to this question, and the sheer range and diversity of perspectives in the discipline have perhaps led many musicologists to stay clear of list-making entirely. There’s a real shortage of basic resources for the curious neophyte and the interested student out there, and this feature is the TC’s humble attempt at rectifying this paucity.

The goal of the must-reads list is to provide an organic, constantly growing compendium of outstanding pieces of music scholarship. It is in no way an attempt to form a “canon” of Great Music Books, nor is there any claim of comprehensiveness; indeed, there will be unexpected items on the list, and things that we left off that really should be there. That’s why the list will rely in large part on contributions and comments from TC readers. Please add your suggestions, corrections, musical invective, praise, criticism, and whatever else. Mark and I will add all suggestions to the page.

Instead of foolhardily attempting our version of a definitive list, the must-reads page features books that represent personal engagements with the field. We surveyed a group of music scholars and graduate students on what books really sparked their imaginations, exposed them to new possibilities, and influenced their work and the discipline in general. Nothing was edited out. After compiling the list, we placed all entries into five broad categories for the sake of convenience (not out of an uncritical adherence to disciplinary divisions). Of course, this is just a starting point; along with your help, the list will expand over time.

We’ve also set up a personalized page with amazon.com where you can purchase all the books on the list. For each purchase, the TC will receive a small commission that will go into a blog fund for future features and maybe even a party at an upcoming AMS conference. (The amusicology party in Philadelphia was a fantastic idea for bloggerly camaraderie!)

So, without further ado, we’d like to introduce the Taruskin Challenge Musicology Must-Reads list! (cue Orfeo)

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Students: Have you ever gone to your music history professor’s office hours and asked, “This musicology stuff is kind of cool, and I’d like to learn more about it. Can you suggest some music scholarship books as a starting point?”

Teachers: Have you ever had a student come to your office hours and ask the same question? What do you tell them?

We have alternately asked and been asked these very questions frequently. Judging by conversations with colleagues, it’s not all that infrequent for them either. And yet there is no obvious place to send the inquiring minds that come our way.

Next week we will try our hand at filling this gap by rolling out a new feature of this site called “Musicology Must-Reads.” It will be an on-going, semi-annotated list of books that we consider to be rich, inspiring, or sound examples of what the discipline is about. The initial list will be just a beginning—we hope that the musicological community will also chime in over time to make it a solid catalog and resource for students. Keep an eye out for it.

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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.

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Today’s reading schedule brings us up to the 830th page (out of 834) of Vol. I. So hopefully readers will forgive me if I read ahead and polished off our first—and thickest—volume this morning. So much about being successful in a long-term project is counting victories along the way.

So for those of you out there who are reading along with us, this is your chance to proclaim to the cyberworld that you have accomplished the first leg of this journey. Whether you are finishing the first volume the same day as this post, have finished it in the past, or finish months from the date of this post, let us know in the comments section, and we’ll celebrate with you.

I finished Vol. I!

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Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Our new header image is a detail of a detail. This sumptuous scene is tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, c. 1435. The lower image is of the entire scene, with the Virgin Mary being crowned in the high center. Angels herald the moment with playing of trumpets, lutes, and harps. At the lower center of this heavenly scene (note that they all sit or stand upon clouds), a lone angel plays obeisantly on a portative organ.

The upper image is a detail of the group of angels over the shoulder of the Virgin, and the header image is a horizontal slice of the same.

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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?

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Romance of Alexander

Our new header image is a detail from the bottom margin of a page from the Romance of Alexander, a Flemish manuscript from the middle third of the 14th century. It sets the scene of a marriage feast (the topic of the story at this point), in which music and dance plays a central part. On the left is a man playing a bowed stringed instrument (viol?) on his shoulder, while several attendants dance in a line, while holding hands. The men at the front and back of the line seem to be lifting their legs in a dance step. The middle vignette shows a man in the midst of striking two drums, which are being held by a youth—at his own risk, it would seem. At the right, a man plays a portative organ, while six ladies and one man dance in a circle. It’s hard to tell, but perhaps one of the women is in the middle of the circle.

These images are beautifully depicted and intricately detailed, and yet they still leave us with many questions. For instance, why is it no longer fashionable for men to wear mismatched leotards, when it is obviously so stylish?

Romance of Alexander Detail

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