Tag Archives: rhetoric/poetics

Billy Elliot: Crafted, Lovely

A while back, I was talking about The Great Gatsby with a couple of friends. One had recently read it (on my strong recommendation) and felt a bit let down; another remembered reading it in high school and feeling like the teacher was forcing a bunch of invented symbolism down his throat.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t mean anything that the sky is blue!” he said. “Sometimes it’s just blue.”

I thought, “But the author said it was blue. He didn’t have to make it blue. Everything that’s in a crafted piece of art is there because of a decision.” But I didn’t say it.

I was reminded of that conversation last night, when I was honored to see the traveling production of Billy Elliot here in Orlando. (Matt Palm’s review for the Orlando Sentinel gives a good plot overview.) It was pretty astounding stuff; summary videos can’t quite give the same impression as the effect of seeing dozens of bodies move in sync on stage:

I came in knowing that the play (and the film it was based on–and yes, that’s Mrs. Weasley in the trailer) is about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, but I wasn’t sure why the 1984 British mining strike was the context.

That’s when I thought of my friend’s comment about reading symbolism into Gatsby. I thought, “Look, someone made a decision to set this story in this context; it’s not like it was random, just as it wasn’t random that the sky was blue in the book.” And for a little while, I couldn’t figure out why this setting was chosen–but the process of wondering was meaningful, adding an extra layer of interest to what I was watching. That nagging question–why this strike?–made me an active watcher, not a passive one. And of course, it didn’t take long to begin understanding the answer–or perhaps it’s better to say that it didn’t take long for me to start making meanings, as I don’t think I was understanding the absolute, complete truth of what the show wanted to tell me. 

It started during the long number “Solidarity,” which was easily one of my favorite parts of the show. To mark the passage of many days, as Billy learns more and more about ballet and as the strikers’ confrontations with police grow in intensity, “Solidarity” blends passages of singing and dialogue in both the ballet class and on the strike line. What makes it so striking (accidental pun, I promise) is that these different characters are occupying the same spaces on the stage, moving in sync with each other, with girls in tutus passing between the gaps between the police officers with increased complexity, all while singing in harmony–even though we understand that they’re not really occupying the same narrative space.

The lyrics of the song–“Solidarity! Solidarity forever!”–have their surface level meaning, applying to the solidarity needed to stay on the strike line, on the police line, or to dance together in ballet. But increasingly, as we hear the word solidarity over and over, we realize that solidarity is both physical and emotional, that this production wants us to consider the ways that people group together and isolate themselves.

And that’s the answer to my question about why this story was set in this place: it offers a setting where the emotional parallels between Billy’s life and the lives of his family and friends crop up all over the place. The individual is honored: Billy’s decision to dance is shown to answer his dead mother’s request that he be himself even when it’s hard, and his father has to make a hard individual decision that costs him solidarity with his peers, a decision that is definitely honored by the production, as it leads to good things. (I’m clearly trying to walk around spoilers carefully here.) But the individual also seems to function best, paradoxically, when in the context of community. Billy’s father’s act of individuality leads to new levels of solidarity between the miners; Billy’s path toward fulfilling his individuality is only possible because of the people who join him; even Billy’s decision to dance alone at night shows him joined by an adult version of himself who echoes his every movement and eventually dances in harmony with him, suggesting that Billy functions best as an individual when the different parts of himself are acting in concert with each other, as in dance, or the trinity.

One of my favorite quotes about music and rhetoric is from Gregory Clark’s “Virtuous and Ensembles: Rhetorical Lessons from Jazz” (from this book). He says that improvisation “offers a starting point for thinking about resolving the conflict of individual and community in ways that conventional terms of rhetoric don’t allow” (44). That is, the ways that a jazz musician improvises both allows his individuality to shine, but only because he’s doing so in a context of community, where everyone supports each other, feeds off each other, and follows the same chart. Surely Billy Elliot has something similar to say.

If you’re wondering “So what?” this is the heart of why I’m writing this at all: I increasingly have trouble seeing the lines between literary analysis and rhetorical analysis. Here’s what I mean: because messages are crafted, because decisions are made by artists/communicators/rhetors/whomever, it’s worth asking ourselves why any text is the way it is. That means that if the sky is blue in Gatsby, let’s ask ourselves why that might be; if Billy Elliot is set in the 1984 mining strike, let’s ask ourselves why it was crafted that way. That’s also the heart of any more traditional rhetorical analysis: why is this political ad using these colors? These words? Why was this speech, this essay, this X organized in this way, using this and that detail or this and that order? After all, someone decided to make them that way; let’s not assume they weren’t and just let people affect us however they want without some critical thinking defense plates mounted solidly around our vulnerable heads.

No, the answers to all those questions won’t necessarily tell us what the creators had in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is find meanings, I think. Meanings that matter. Meanings that make me leave Billy Elliot both amazed at the technical skill I saw, but also at the complexity of what it said to me.

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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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Rhetoric, Music, Exactitude

Giuseppe Carpani, writing about Haydn’s symphonies in 1812:

You find in it, as in orations by Cicero, almost all rhetorical figures applied; among them are gradatio, antitheton, dubitatio, isocolon, repetitio, congeries, epilogus, synonymia, suspensio; but very special is his usage of reticentia and aposiopesis, which, when used in one of his incomparable fast movements, create a marvelous effect.

The point? That you could listen to Haydn’s music and apply rhetorical figures/topics to it. For example, in a speech, to practice aposiopesis is when “a speaker comes to an abrupt halt, seemingly overcome by passion (fear, excitement, etc.) or modesty” (via). It’s not hard to imagine hearing something similar in music, which makes sense, since they’re both fundamentally aural arts.

Ok, fine. This kind of analysis could go on forever, applied to pretty much whatever music you wanted to. And when these figures were being actively taught to pretty much everyone educated in Europe in the 16th-18th centuries, it makes sense to assume that composers were purposefully using them (as, for example Ursula Kirkendale demonstrates in really, really deep detail in her reading of Bach’s Musical Offering).

But still: so what? I’m deeply interested in overlaps between music and rhetoric, as I’ve been telling people over and over since I decided on a dissertation topic. But I’m not really interested in this kind of thing, beyond a casual, “Oh! Interesting point!” It’s so detail-driven, so focused on a clever critic finding example after example of an obscure rhetorical figure with a Latin name in a measure of music.

That’s why I’m drawn to my project of speaking with composers instead of texts. I want to know in looser, more expressive terms how they want their work to be experienced by audiences, and what choices they made that make those purposes possible. That puts the composer in the driver’s seat, seconded closely by the reaction of the audience–and with me, the critic, sitting back in the distance to try to understand that interaction. It feels more honoring, more listening instead of speaking. I like that.

Still, that doesn’t mean I think the figures/topics are worthless. I mean, I did at first, when I first encountered them in a graduate class. But I changed my mind when I heard how that professor teaches them to students: as possible ways to frame a text when nothing is coming to mind, when you need a jumpstart to suggest ways of approaching a problem in a way that will work best for an audience. In other words, as inventional tools. But what inventional tools do today’s composers use? Surely not ones with rhetorical bases and Latin names, right?

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The Rhetoric of 8-Bit Music

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different ways music can be described as “rhetorical,” even (especially?) when it’s instrumental.

(Ooh, instrumental is a cool word. Need to look up the origins of its different meanings one day.)

One example: I’m listening to Sabrepulse right now, one of many artists creating new music from 8-bit technology. (As far as I understand it, he performs with computers that are actually hooked up to modded Gameboys, actually using their original music hardware.) (Check out the 8bitcollective for more amazing artists.)

And as I listen to the bleeps and boops, I’m trying to figure out why I like it so much. There’s the purely musical angle–the fact that I love the tight rhythms and syncopation and inspiring little melodies. (Preferences which, I suppose, aren’t really “purely musical,” since those preferences are direct products of my years of wading through popular music.)

But then there’s the nostalgic angle–the fact that I’m reminded of years of playing Mega Man games and soaking in the music. So Sabrepulse’s stuff has a sort of rhetorical “message” for me, I think. It carries a meta-meaning beyond the purely musical that says something like, “This music has added value because of what it makes you remember.” Its shape has a particular effect on me, which affects how I understand its meanings and purposes, regardless of whether Sabrepulse had those meanings in mind when he composed this stuff.

I’m also a few chapters into Alex Ross’s exploration of 20th-Century classical music, The Rest is Noise, which makes me wonder if there are parallels between my experiences with 8-bit music and, say, Germans in the 1920s who heard the occasional new composition that was surprisingly tonal, nostalgic, un-modern. Thoughts?

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The Rhetoric of Fiction?

No, I haven’t read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, although it sits there on my office shelf looking at me, begging to be read.

(Random side-note: do books want to be read, or does it annoy them? Like, when I reach down and pick up Booth’s book, does it start silently squealing, “Yes, pick me! It fulfills my purpose to be read!” or is more of a, “I was sitting here, relaxing and enjoying myself, until YOU had to come along and start bending my spine, riffling my pages, all touchy and creepy”? And what about food–does it want to be eaten or left alone? Oh, I’m off-topic….)

In fact, I don’t really have a solid idea of what Booth’s book is about, exactly. But here’s an example of what his title makes me think about:

In my last post I brought up Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die, which I’m listening to on my commutes to Tampa. I’m on CD 11 of 12, and I admit my excitement with it is rapidly dwindling. Here’s why:

I can’t figure out where McDevitt stands on any of it. Not that authorial intention/purpose is ultimately knowable or even to-be-searched-for in a text, I know. But on the level of tone, purpose, audience, I admit I’m confused about where he stands–what he wants to criticize, which characters’ actions and motives are ultimately laudable or laughable, where he hopes we’ll land on our (inevitable) judgments about how characters acted in given situations.

I bring up Booth because these seem like rhetorical issues to me. If McDevitt is trying to make points with this book, even the complex and ambiguous and undefinable points that abound in fiction and art, they’re largely not coming across to me. The communication that could be happening isn’t happening. And again, I’m not saying that I want every author to preach at me in crystal-clear terms, a la Robert Heinlein or something. But I’m not even quite sure what general areas I should contemplating.

The easiest example is the main characters themselves. Both of them are rather similar to each other, flattish guys in their 30s who are dissatisfied with life and hope to find it through adventure and women and money. I know I haven’t finished the book (which might force me to totally change my estimations here, I know), but I don’t have any grip at all on if there’s a general suggestion about the kinds of things that really do lead to satisfied lives, or if McDevitt agrees with the protagonists’ choices, or what.

It reminds me of when we watched Hustle & Flow in Dr. Pamela Fox’s course “Class Fictions” at Georgetown. She said something like this: “The first time I watched the movie and saw the prostitute sing, ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,’ I figured it must be ironic. I mean, here’s this woman who is being oppressed by this man, singing about how hard life is for him! But then I watched the DVD commentary, and the director was like, ‘This is the heart of the whole movie. Women need to get behind their men and support them, just like she’s singing here.'”

In other words, she read a certain rhetorical message in the scene that the director, it turns out, didn’t mean to be there. The communication event didn’t happen.

So when I actually get around to reading Booth, I hope he has something to say about this kind of non-communication, about the rhetorical expectations readers have when they come to fiction, and what happens when those expectations lead to confusion.

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Music Mixes: Content or Context?

So I was listening to Pearl Jam’s newest album Backspacer (about which I have conflicting opinions) in the car yesterday, and the song “Supersonic” came on. Aren’t there like 15 other songs with that title out there? I wondered.

Try 208. (This does, admittedly, include lots of repeats of the same track on different compilations.) A search on allmusic.com shows notable tracks called “Supersonic” by Bad Religion, Jamiroquai, Oasis (including a version performed by the Ya Baby!!! String Quartet), and Zodiac.

I dreamed for a moment about a mix CD with every song paired up (or thriced up, or quartered up…) with another that shares the same name. Online searching and downloading of music would make this a snap.

The big question, though: do I include songs even if they’re not particularly good? Or more exactly, on a mix, does a song’s content or context provide more listening pleasure?

I admit that I’m a context junkie. I adore the CD a friend made me as part of our occasional SKAME series (Super Kick-Ass Music Exchange), in which she collected multiple pairs of songs that touched on the same theme or shared another similarity–e.g., “Songs about leaving relationships” or “Songs that use field recordings.” I dream these days of making a CD with a single symmetrical wave of content, beginning and ending with the same track (one electronic version, one acoustic/live version) and revolving around a song (yet to be discovered) that sounds the same backward and forward.

But of course, when making CDs as gifts, I’m always afraid that people will ignore the context and focus on the content. I worry that even if Pearl Jam’s “Supersonic” is surrounded by 4 other songs with the same name, listeners will say, “Wait, this is the best Pearl Jam song he could find?”

I’m going on like this partly because I think these considerations might matter in other realms of art and rhetoric. When does my video/podcast/essay fit the bill because it stands as a beautifully perfected whole, and when does its context matter more? And even more disconcertingly: who gets to decide?

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Inventing “Art”

I keep thinking of ideas for posts, trying to decide what to write about, and then not writing anything. Oh well–my thoughts on Christianity in science fiction and fantasy will have to wait. For today, then:

I’ve only read one chapter of Martha Woodmansee’s The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, but I think about it constantly–driving to work listening to the Xenocide audiobook, watching cheesy westerns while eating lunch, and multiple times in the English department as I overhear intersecting ideas.

Her thesis so far is pretty simple and compelling: we’re used to thinking of “art” as a concept that connects visual arts, poetry, literature, dance, and music. (What did I forget?) We’re also used to thinking of art as something that is valuable for its own, intrinsic sake; its value doesn’t have to be related to how popular it is or if it “does” anything in the world. Art can just be there and we like it for its own sake–say, when we look at a painting and say, “Hmm, yes…” or when we sit in masses of people to silently listen to a symphony or watch a ballet.

But Woodmansee points out that this way of thinking about art isn’t just “the way things are” but is a historically situated frame of thought that first arose in mid-18th century Germany. As capitalism and the middle class grew, economics put new kinds of pressures on artists, and it was in their best interest to dream up a vision of “low art” that the masses liked and a “high art” that didn’t have to please anybody except elites who wanted to feel like they were elite because they knew about the fancy, less crowd-pleasing stuff. Now there would be an audience for more obscure stuff too–whew!

Now, I find this hard to dispute (because I’m not really a scholar of aesthetics or anything) and compelling in a lot of ways. But there’s that little part of me that rebels, saying, “Okay fine, the way I think about ‘good art’ is part of my cultural heritage, not something that just appeared in my heart. But there’s still something beautiful and worthwhile and important in art that is beautiful for its own sake, reflecting the hard-to-explain goodness that echoes through us when we’re in its presence, hinting at things bigger than our fleshy bodies.”

But the more I think about her book, the more it resonates with me too. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard between 3 creative writers who were going to present at a conference on “teaching genre in creative writing classes.” (I somewhat rudely pointed out that what they called “literary fiction” was as much a genre as sf. Oops?) They insisted that literary fiction focuses on character (and is thus “good”) while popular fiction like romance, fantasy, and sf is focused on plot. Now traditionally, sf has always had a strong sense of social critique to it; i.e., we’re supposed to get lured into the story by the spaceships and then leave with a better understanding of diversity or racism or war or religion or whatever. And when I apply Woodmansee here, it reminds me that “art” of this type, which we could call rhetorical because of its insistence of making change in the world (and not just leading readers to be engaged by characters), was set up for dismissal by the highbrow art world starting back in the 18th century.

In other words, sf is too popular and too rhetorical to be considered “art” by culture snobs, and it’s been that way for 250 years (and only 250 years).

And then when I start to think of art that excites me, it’s so often those rhetorical kinds of art that get to me–those stories and images and music and community-driven initiatives that pull people together to create change in the world, not just to be created for their own sake. I do enjoy hearing people somberly play classical music on their Stradivarius instruments, a whole whole lot, but it’s a two-plane enjoyment, on the levels of “This is beautiful, all on its own” and “This moves something that was surely put inside of me when I was born.” But I want to seek out art that has the third plane, too: “This can change the world.”

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