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Posts Tagged ‘High/Low Art’

Before we leave last week’s reading too far behind, we have to listen to this:

This tricky piece comes out of the lavish tradition of artifice funded by the aristocracy of the duchy of Berry (modern-day southern France). Its composer is a man known to us only as Solage, and his rondeau Fumeaux fume represents the lengths to which a composer’s wry ingenuity could reach. To read the text aloud in the original language (which I assume is still Occitan down there; correction anyone?) is to get a sense of its artifice. The words fold back in on themselves, like the billowing smoke they represent. It is the type of playful prodding of language and meaning that reached such extremes during this period.

Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

Qu’antre fummet so pensee:
Fumeaux fume par fumee.

quar fumer molt li agree
tant qu’il ait son entencion.
Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

[A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.

Is, between puffs his thought:
A smoker smokes through smoke.

For smoking suits him very well
As long as he keeps his intention.
A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.]

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This kind of song ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts. — Grocheio, about the motet, c. 1300 (I, 226)

One major theme of the book so far has been the complex relationship between description and prescription as it relates to newly-developed notational styles and theories. Do theories and notations actively affect music composition, or are they the handmaiden to preexisting practices? Of course, they paradoxically do both. The relationship reminds me of that M.C. Escher drawing of two hands drawing themselves into existence (below).

P46L

With newly developed Franconian notation came a greater level of rhythmic complexity to notated music, and the motet was the first genre to fully capitalize on this potential. As Taruskin writes in reference to a motet from this era: “Such a piece was a triumph of literate contrivance, one whose craftsmanly intricacy depended utterly on the written medium.” (I, 228) Indeed, there is a playful quality to much of this music, as if composers were experimenting with novelties just because, for the first time, they could.

The hyper-literate nature of the early motets made the genre an ideal showcase for the elite, literati classes. However, the more technically complex and bound to written notation the motet became, the more out of reach it grew for those unschooled in music theory/notation, the people Grocheio endearingly labeled “the vulgar.” It’s quite the irony, therefore – as Taruskin points out – that many motet texts were pastoral love poems about shepherds and other ordinary folk. Motet singers sang earthy poetry about the exact types of people who “that kind of song ought not be propagated among.” We’re back to the questions raised initially by the trobar clus and trobar clar, the “closed” and “clear” song styles of the trouvéres. (And back to Mark’s first post on the question.) Should music be for all or for the few?

Of course, setting the tales of the shepherd lovers Robin and Marion as the lyrics for a double motet doesn’t automatically show sympathy for the “types” these ordinary folks represent. Moreover, I’m skeptical that the average listener would be able to decipher the lyrics in the first place, seeing as they are polytextually amalgamated into an impenetrably dense web of words. In this intricate, clever musical structure, Robin and Marion disappear entirely, existing only on the written page.

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Clus or Clar?

Like Zach, I was intrigued by the genre of the tenso, which is fascinating not just as a social practice, but also for the content of the songs. These mock-debate songs addressed, among other things, whether a poet should adopt as his style of choice trobar clus or trobar clar. The former is a “closed” style, dense in construction and esoteric. The latter represents the opposite: a “clear” style that is by its nature simple, direct in communication, and exoteric. For instance, in one of these mock debates between Guiraut de Bornelh (the author of the verses and pro clar) and a colleague (dit.) Linhaure (pro clus), the arguments go something like this (in my own paraphrase):

Linhaure: There is prestige in artifice. If everything is accessible, then there would be no way to determine what is valuable and what is base. Don’t blame me; if someone doesn’t understand my poetry, it’s not my fault! “Provided that I produce what is best at all times, I care not if it be not so widespread […].” (I, 116)

Guiraut: But a song that reaches more people is loved by more people. And don’t equate simplicity with laziness; I labor more in crafting elegant simplicity than obfuscation, light than darkness. “Why compose if you do not want all to understand? Songs bring no other advantage.” (ibid.)

As Taruskin acknowledges, this conflict is an eternal one.* It touches all eras of music history, not the least of which is the 20th century, the history of which contains plenty of analogous battles: academic music vs. popular music, American art vs. Soviet socialist realism. On the trobar clus side, I think first of Schoenberg: “Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” (qtd. in Style and Idea) On the trobar clar side, I think of Shostakovich, who had to write music that was accessible to the soviet worker (or at least perceived as such) in order to keep his head.

A question to the collective wisdom: in your own research/experience, what are some other places where this debate has materialized?

* Of course the debate, in its polarization, is vastly oversimplified, and many composers (trouvères included) wrote in both styles.

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