Tag Archives: musical communication

Solidifying Sound

I like when conversations and reading material coincidentally collide–and when I get to share those coincidences in hyperlinky ways. To wit:

Early this morning, my buddy Steven tweeted this:

Steven's tweet

A couple others jumped in. Harley Ferris pointed out:

Harley's tweet

And the inestimable DocMara directed us to this video, by my kind-of-hero Vi Hart:

I responded with a vague recommendation that everyone read David Burrows’s Sound, Speech, and Music. I had this kind of thing in mind:

Seeing is like touching, hearing like being touched; except that the touch of sound does not stop at the skin. It seems to reach inside and to attenuate, along with the distinction in Field 1 between here and there, the biologically still more basic one between within and without. In this way sound can ease some of the tension that goes with the duality of the organic condition. (21)

So there’s all that: essentially, some sound-loving rhetoricians trying to figure out what the heck sound does, and how that relates to the solid world our bodies inhabit. Weird, when you start thinking about it, right? In some ways, this is heart of the CCCC panel that I’ll present on this March along with Kati Fargo and Steph Ceraso: the physical nature of sound as something our bodies experience, not just as an idea we theorize about.

Even weirder: two (perhaps competing) things I read later in the day that hint at the topic of sound solidified–if perhaps only tangentially. Both are from interviews in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve’s Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, part of the Oral History of American Music endeavor.

First, composer Leo Ornstein made an intriguing claim that I’m still trying to wrap my head around:

And besides–now I’m saying something very, very important–one has to be particularly careful of one’s own style because it’s so easy to simply operate almost unconsciously within the style, forgetting altogether about the substance, substituting style for substance. . . . The trouble is it takes the most astute kind of person to be able to distinguish when the artist is operating on his style or when he is operating within substance. And an audience can easily flounder. (91)

Within the context, he’s criticizing composers who are “much more interested in experiment than they are in music,” saying that those are the ones interested in “style,” in composing as a solely intellectual activity as opposed to something that’s supposed to move an audience. Instead, he’d rather hear composers who are interested in “substance,” in having some sort of musical meaning that can be communicated to an audience. (At least that’s what I think he means; that last line about audiences who “flounder” makes me second-guess myself.)

Interesting metaphor though, right? Substance. I picture “style” music as like lasers and lights flashing through the air, unable to be grasped and moving so fast that you can’t make out what they’re doing there, how it all coheres. But I picture “substance” music as food-like, able to be chewed and swallowed and cooked again later to better understand the ingredients.

Second, I read these lines from experimental composer Edgard Varèse:

My aim has always been the liberation of sound; to throw open the whole world of sound to music. . . . When I was twenty I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my groping toward the music I sensed could exist: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” [Quote from Josef Hoene Wronski] It was new and exciting and to me, the first perfectly intelligible conception of music. It was probably what first started me thinking of music as spatial–as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually developed and made my own. (102-03)

Here again was the idea of sound as having substance, though in a very different way than Ornstein meant. Instead, Varèse is frustrated with the rules of music that Western concert music has followed for so long, and he sees an answer to that in reconceiving the basic metaphors we use to discuss musical form at all. Instead of music being recursive, or structured like an oration (in the Baroque period), or grown organically (in the Romantic period), music to Varèse is a physical thing hurtling through the air at you, like a pillar of cloud, or of fire.

Not that I have to, but I reconcile these kind of views (really, a very old debate) the way Andy Hamilton, a philosopher, does in Aesthetics and Music: he’s comfortable saying, essentially, there’s sound-based art over here, and there’s music over there, and they’re both awesome, but it’s okay for them to be different. Music, to Hamilton, has to deal with “tonal organization” created with some degree of will: “…with limited exceptions, tones not produced by human intentional action do not count as music” (49). Our pal Varèse would see that as limiting.

Side note: after reading about Varèse, I decided to listen to whatever came up of his on Spotify (a program I’ve written about before, and which I can give you an invitation to if you need it) while writing this post, beginning with “Arcana.” I expected heavy-handed, grating, noise-music–but at least in that track, what I got was something that sounded an awful lot like the score to the original Star Trek (this kind of stuff). Bizarre. Much nicer is the piano music of Ornstein I’ve got going now instead.


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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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What Beethoven Means for The King’s Speech

I’ve been thinking lately about the appearance of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony in The King’s Speech–it’s the piece that plays during Bertie’s climactic reading of the speech announcing Britain’s entry into World War II.

(There’s a free version of the symphony up at the Columbia University Orchestra’s audio page, though I admit I haven’t listened to it, and of all the YouTube versions, I love this graphic version the best.)

Margo and I were entranced by the music, and we rushed home to pull out our CD of the symphony to talk it over (which was in itself part of the “meaning” of the music in the film for us, I think, the very act of personally owning the music already drawing us into a shared emotional space).

This personal excitement made me wonder, though: everyone we’ve talked to has loved the film, but how does the presence of a standard piece in the classical repertoire affect how viewers read the film? How does this piece of music affect the meaning of what we see on the screen?

So here are a couple (very quickly gathered) thoughts floating around online:

David Stabler of OregonLive.com reminds us of “the irony of hearing German music during a speech about going to war with Hitler.” But more importantly, he writes, “If ever music and intention matched, this is it.” He (rightfully, wisely) describes how the movement’s mix of rhythm and grace reflect the action on the screen. From the point of view of my work on what kinds of things music can say, this makes music out to be something whose meaning seems to work one way–that is, hearing the Beethoven cold wouldn’t make you think of King George VI’s speech, but hearing King George VI’s speech might make you think of this Beethoven piece.

And as Jeremy Helligar points out at The Faster Times, this same piece was used as recently as in 2009 in a Nicholas Cage apocalyptic flick. (Oops?) Helligar admits he was moved by The King’s Speech, but less by the story than by “that damn Ludwig van Beethoven. He gets me every time!” But he sees the monumentally effective choice of the 7th’s Allegretto as a “manipulat[ion],” so much so that he’s switched his Oscar hopes to The Black Swan.

Now, I haven’t heard of anyone else responding this way to The King’s Speech‘s music, but I think it’s a telling symptom of American’s attitudes toward emotion in music: we want to be moved–we want to be moved!–but we only want to be moved so far. Because once we cross that invisible line, we’re into the world of emotional manipulation. This is something that church-goers talk about all the time: the question of if the emotion-tugging hugeness of much contemporary worship music is God-honoring or emotion-manipulating. How far is too far, in church and at the movies? Or in terms of our earlier discussion, what will we allow music to mean, and when do we want it to stop meaning?

A quick hit in closing: I love Lisa Scwarzbaum’s reminder over at EW.com that the film relies on classical music more than in just that critical scene. She even gives us a little test: “So if/when you see it again, try to imagine what the drama would be like without Beethoven or Mozart stepping in to do heavy emotional lifting in these four crucial moments”–which she goes on to describe. She doesn’t quite take the step of pointing out that today’s technology makes it possible for amateurs to try just that; I’d love to see a “re-score these 4 scenes” contest, considering how the meaning of the scene changes each time.


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Musical Metadata, or “That reminds me of. . . .”

Yesterday, M and I enjoyed the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s Pride and Prejudice, which I (as a read-it-once kind of fellow) thought faithful and intriguing and good. As I walked away, what I found myself most thinking of was a single musical moment from early in the play, a moment that has got me thinking about how music is particularly well suited to remind us of other times and places.

First, a background: one of our most-listened-to CDs is Dario Marianelli’s oscar-nominated soundtrack to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film (with Keira Knightley). (A happy accident was when my brother, meaning to buy us the soundtrack online, bought us the piano sheet music instead, which had the effect of driving its beautiful-ness into our brains even deeper as we practiced playing it.)

During one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Elizabeth and Darcy trade barbs  during a dance, but then the other dancers literally disappear, reflecting the intensity of focus the two have for each other (starting at about 2:35 in the below clip).

The music here is “A Postcard to Henry Purcell” on the soundtrack, and for me, it’s come to have a quite particular meaning, wrapped up in associations with flirtatious banter, the surprising beginnings of attraction, the erasure of surroundings because of focus on another person, and all that. But at one moment in the play we saw yesterday, this track played during a plain old dance scene–with little more meaning than as simple diegetic music to support the dancing of the characters. To me, it means more than that, so the sudden normalness of it here felt a bit shocking.

M noticed the track too, of course, and she wasn’t sure what she thought about it either. But she reminded me of a crucial point: that the track wasn’t originally scored just by Marianelli–as its title implies, it’s a reworking of the Rondo from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazer. Here’s a random YouTube clip of the original; notice how much its character changes with the thicker instrumentation and quicker tempo:

Wikipedia tells me that this track was also used by Benjamin Britten in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and as the theme for a BBC miniseries, The First Churchills. Think of that: just as the use of Marianelli’s adaptation in the play felt “off” to me, like a mischaracterization of the piece’s essential personal meaning to me, others who were familiar with the Purcell track in other settings might have felt just as much dissonance when hearing it in the 2005 film!

So what? It’s a reminder of one way that the emotional content of music works. I mean, we say all the time that “music communicates emotions,” but that’s kind of vague; it’s much stronger to say, “One way that music communicates emotions is by reminding listeners of their previous exposure to it–either to particular instances of pieces played in other settings or to general qualities of the music that it shares with other pieces (i.e. genre).” And this kind of communication is both communal and personal, in that two people can be exposed to all the same settings of the music, as M and I did when we learned the 2005 soundtrack together and saw the play together, but still have different personal meanings attached to the emotions brought about when hearing the old piece in new settings.

Questions I’m left with: To what extent did the play producers mean for the 2005 score to “mean something” in the play–was it a lazy, “This will do!” or a purposeful statement? (That’s M’s question, by the way.) When is this kind of uncertain, tenuous, different-for-everyone kind of musical meaning not worth bothering with at all? In other words, if everyone is going to have different personal experiences when reminded of previous music, how can a composer or director hope to “say something” at all?

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