Music and Rhetoric: Making it Matter

I’m listening to Philip Glass’s score to the classic 1930s Dracula, and this track seems to represent the thoughts bouncing around in my head right now. Hit play and listen as you read along.

I opened up my Google Doc “Dissertation Research Journal” and started to write this out there as a freewrite to figure out some thoughts, but then I decided this was as good a place as that to think “out loud.” (Auditory metaphors are unavoidable, no?) I feel that sense of scholarly unease that often leads to good things; someone (who?) once wrote, “I always wake up in the middle of the night and realize that my current project is completely uninteresting, but by figuring out my way around that terror I get to the really good stuff.” I feel like I’m getting there now.

Here’s the thing: musicologists write about rhetoric all the time, but it’s generally boring. Here’s what I don’t mean by that:

  • I don’t mean that musicology is boring.
  • I don’t mean that exploring the intersection of music and rhetoric is boring.

Still, this stuff (which I’ll politely not cite in this informal space, I think) is often boring:

  • It’s boring because rhetoric is interpreted as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a speech. Here are figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from that, it’s boring because musical rhetoric is described as a series of techniques. (“Here is how you arrange a sonata. Here are musical figures to make your style effective.”)
  • Building from both of those, it’s boring to read a technique-driven analysis of any text. (“Then, Cicero/Bach moves into the confirmatio section of the speech/piece, which has x effect. Then, Cicero/Bach uses anaphora, which has y effect. Then . . . .”)
  • It’s also surprisingly boring to read the original manuscripts of 17th- and 18th-century musical theorists (mostly German) who loved listing every single way that rhetoric and music seem to be similar.

So. As I’ve been weighed down by this boring-ness more and more in the last few weeks, I’m increasingly led to a deeper question: how do I view rhetoric? Is it just a compilation of techniques that can be roughly categorized to help people invent, arrange, embellish, memorize, and deliver arguments? Or is it something more? I felt this desire for the ineffable recently when I was writing a fun, student-friendly piece called “Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches us About Writing” (which I’ll post here one of these days). I kept talking about why rhetoric mattered, but suddenly I realized I hadn’t actually gotten specific about what rhetorical techniques actually look like, and in the end that section is what I’m least happy with.

Maybe this is the heart: one of my dissertation readers emphatically said to me once, “How can anyone in other fields know what rhetoric is? We don’t even know what it is!”

But that’s not how it sounds when you read musicologists, past or present, write about rhetoric. They seem to know. Rhetoric is always a set of techniques. It’s depicted an art, a techne, a set of technical knowledge about what’s most likely to move a crowd. Certainty all around! And in some ways, they’re right. Rhetoric is indeed an art and a series of techniques. It really is. But it’s more, too. Right?

When I was writing that piece about freestyle rap, I asked a question on my Facebook wall that now feels particularly apt:

A screenshot from Facebook

Did I ask these people for permission to post this? Nope.

Marc mentions Corder’s article, and here’s how it ends:

Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. Most failures of communication result from some willful or inadvertent but unloving violation of the space and time we and others live in, and most of our speaking is tribal talk. But there is more to us than that. We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language.

Musical rhetoric can work the same way, and it’s even better suited to this kind of “commodious language” than words are: music can be carefully crafted to “hold our diversities,” to be loving, to honor the inherent “violation of the space and time” that music brings as it insistently attacks our ears and minds.

And did you see Corder’s sudden move to the auditory in his 4th-from-last word–his request that we “learn to hear” this new, connection-bridging model of rhetorical communication? Maybe he hears it too. . . .

So what does this have to do with my dissertation? It means that I’m not just “interpreting musicology’s work on rhetoric in terms that the rhetoric field will appreciate,” which I always say is one of my many goals. Instead, it means that I’m coming at that work–again, both historical and contemporary–with the new lens of pointing out how our view of rhetorical music can be so much broader, so much lovelier, so much more engaging, than a simple study of arrangement and figures. And there’s nothing boring (to me) about that.

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  1. Pingback: Cicero bach | Digitalwalmart

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