Friday, December 25, 2009

Politicomusicologico-ism: should we be afraid?

Yes, chestnuts are roasting on an open fire.

Jackfrost nipping at your nose.

You know the drill, except on this early Christmas afternoon, the sordid interjection of Facebook did more than just reintroduce icicles hanging over my nose. It introduced this:

Surprise! And a very merry Christmas to you!

Not exactly your average way to start off the holiday celebrations by getting politically infuriated over the Coppenhagen dealings. Holiday space, like musical/musicological space is supposed to be ritualised space, where clean lines of method, process and knowledge intersect predictably. Where, for a bite-sized oatmeal cookie chunk of time, we stave-off the staves, becoming domestic holiday-beings, chorusing good cheer while all this lip-service to goodwill appears to be a simple pat on the back for not getting embroiled in sticky world-situations.

Sometimes, it's a gordian knot, isn't it? In a world that demands the intellectual to properly intervene, his space has likewise been reduced to the domesticated coffee-mafia of sterile scholasticism. In this bubble, "change" is what we believe in, but sometimes we're happier when all "change" denotes is a shift in scholarly perspective, unearthing some dusty deconstructive debate if only to give the 'ol knowledge box a shiny veneer. Has the musicological endeavor absorbed enough of corporate values that it has finally become a bookmark, a footnote in the historical-citation practice of the future? Are we narcissists, gazing into the imaginary mirror of futurism, secretly imagining how our output will be viewed in the years to come?

I want to expand a little on Dominick LaCapra's bitter essay in the 1985s concerning the "archival" turn. His critique was philosophical, a post-Hayden White generation of thinkers who took the "aesthetic" argument of History seriously, and believed that its extension into politics was more metaphysical than objectively navigated. In the wake of Derrida & co's linguistic turn, La Capra criticized historians for conferring a Benjaminesque auratic quality to the "archive" where The Truth (see the capitals?) promised to reside, where authentic knowledge could be extracted over other (inauthentic??) means. I won't ponder over the authentic/inauthentic unesay currencies reminiscent of Heidegger and National Socialism - others have done a good job of explicating the ways in which theory and practice do diverge, but by diverging, they inadvertedly touch each other. In such touchings, the inertia from their interactivity determines certain countours of history, contours of the present which also serve to delimit the nature of contemporary "truths".

LaCapra calls archival fever no more than a "fetish", a "literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian". Of course, LaCapra continues to be debated in spheres of the philosophy of history, and lately conceptions of the "presentness of the past" (remember Taruskin?) have come back into play. Theorists such as Runia confer theoretical legitimacy upon "Experiences" of the past as irruptive windows into the Real real of the past. I myself am more Zizkekian; skeptical of the Real real, I tend to agree that the real tends to present itself as a rupture of chronotypes, which does not simply offer one a "window" into the past, but disfigures the ontological authority of "the past", "the present" and "the future" as we know it. In short - trauma, horror, symbolic breakdown. Do other manifestations of the "real" exist outside Lacan which extend a "softer" version of the historical real like that envisioned by Runia? Perhaps, but perhaps this version of fantastical unmediate access would merely make "thrill-seekers" of us, and not fastidious poststructuralist inquirers.

Anyway, this "rupture" destroys the symbolic efficacy of Christmas for me. The irruption of the "real", I think, can be no more than a discursive infection, where one discursive sphere suddenly spills into the ritualized, ordered discursivity of festivity. Christmas is fantasy. Me listening to old recordings of Nat King Cole singing "The Christmas Song" over youtube is merely the flexibility, insistence and tenacity of the Symbolic to quickly conscript bedfellows in its reproductive series. And this series says "rest, dear academic", for battles can be forgotten for a day. But we forget these battles for a day, and the musical umbilical to fantasy is prematurely severed upon the insistence of the pleasurable. The wonderful. Or, if I may warrant: the fetishistic.

I'm not all negative nancy. I know I dissed the eco-musicology symposium, but this was in faith that we could someday avoid neologisms (eco-) to legitimate an endeavour that is always already political, or partisan in a reproductive fantasy of differentiated political space. We love music, we love it, we love it, we love it. Our worrying love for the subject infects the field of the historical to bend to our contours of love, or vice versa. But this is the "touching" of spheres, its colouring by our orientation towards the fetishistic object. But to love, I think, requires us to acknowledge the infectous "hate" typical of any object of desire, any objet petit a, delimiting a structural vortex in our system of pleasure. We tend to excribe the unpleasurable from the musicological, don't we? We give analytical treatises on why we should love, cherish and enjoy music, but maybe we should also pay attention to relieving our conscience of the insistence of enjoyment. When free to hate, or extend dislike, we turn our objects of fetishistic love into monstrous relics, threatening to devour the very amorous speaker. Inscribing the monstrous element of the musical, affirming its ability to turn against us, is just an important task as appraisal.

So, to sum up briefly on this happy day - yes. Be very afraid of politicomusicologico-ism (I made up that word. It's a mouthful). Because fear, as much as it is a manipulatory tool, is an affirmative counterbalance to our fetishistic insistence on the musical, the nonconforming structural hole in the middle of the symbolic. By returning the duplicity of the fetishistic object as both desirable and horrific/abject, we make room for the object to speak back and punish the lover. It becomes frighteningly queer, and the "musical" demands a different sort of attention to its agenda. I cite a couple of visionary examples - Suzanne G. Cusik's incredibly important article in Radical Musicology on "Musicology, Torture, Repair", and another article (I can't remember the source) on News-TV opening-titles. Such investigations re-open the wound of the fetish, and expose its other quality: the abject, the foreclosed feature of the object which incites fear, disgust, and the possibility of denoting new lines of flight.

So Ho ho ho,

Oh fear!

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Chirstmas Eve!

Because of various externalities, I decided to cancel my little trip around the freezing, forrested areas of New England for Christmas. Instead, I'm spending it with my little sister who travelled from Stanford to stay with me in Connecticut. And lemme tell ya'all folks: it's cold here! We've all got the sniffles, reduced to rubbing hands in front of the faulty heating to warm up. At least we have music to share! We can't eradicate world hunger and injustice, but boy, can we sightread.

In the spirit of Christmas, I thought I'd post a little video from the last concert I had with the mixolydians, a small singing consort that I direct at Wesleyan. We usually do lots of funky, eclectic 21st century Eastern European stuff (think lots of cluster chords and an over-zealous penchant for stacked major-seconds), but this year we decided to improve our musicality by going back to "basics". And by basics, I mean the hefty interpretative task of Poulenc's gorgeous 1952 Ave Verum Corpus for female choir.

You can just see my back, conducting this piece, milking the musicality for all its worth. But I think slowing down the tempo and underplaying the architectonics paradoxically stresses its psychically schizophrenic texture. Poulenc is, of course, famous for composing in juxtapositionary cells, but here he seems to have a keen pulse of voice-leading techniques than in his Mass for choir and orchestra, for example. I let the music "speak for itself" (don't press me on this point on Christmas Eve, let's celebrate!)

Get a cup of eggnog people, and kick back on those upholstery. Merry Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

un/dissing Bent

Addendum after this was posted: I'd better keep under wraps. I feel some passions are going to fly after I've blatantly mentioned the "B" word. And no, it's not that prize-winning homosexual Nazi-play. See below, but please, don't judge too harshly or call All Souls.

I think I've been rather unfair to Margaret Bent, whose lucid analyses and keen insight into medieval musicology has rejuvinated a field always in danger of going stale. Looking back, like Leech-Wilkinson, I reeled a little from her distinction between historically "valid" and "invalid" modes of analyses, even though she was attempting to designate a regulative principle, indeed a scholarly code of conduct to historical musicology. In other words, she was engaging in matters of methodology, not "moral" principles. But can we fully disengage ourselves from the manifestations of the "moral" in so-called cold, hard analyses? As a disciplinary field, Music Theory has sometimes moved towards the polarity of ahistoricism - think David Lewin's phenomenological investigations, Lerdahl and Jackendoff's psychological tree-diagrams or Richard Cohn's revitalization of Riemann's harmonic theory, turning Schubert into a mathematical grid. Cohn rhetorically calls them eyeglasses for "gazing" at the wonderful stars of tonality, an endeavor in translation, making them statistically decodable to our generation far removed from Schubert's. Sometimes medieval musicologists claim that we cannot move in the same direction - to do so is to enact postmodern rape. Postmodern rape = bad, historically-informed analyses = good. Hence empiricism is sufficiently defended from those historically insensitive theorists. Bah humbug on them.

Wait... let's take a step back, shall we? How far off is the "historicist" approach to medieval music theory from the cube-like architectural constructions of Douhett's musical cubes? Most recently, Jennifer Bain has recently attempted a "statistical" breakdown of Machaut's monophonic chromatic inflections, and, in turn, composing a hierarchy of ouvert/clos strengths based on those figures. Her research has been lauded as an important addition to medieval music and theory, a pat on the empiricist's back for toiling away, counting chromatic inflections. I don't want to discuss the epistemological shortcomings of this painstaking work, but simply to point out some - Bain's main statistical pool consists of Machaut's 200-or-so virelai, leaving out the monophonic chansons of Machaut's Lais which, I think, are equally important to the concept of chromatic inflections. This is not even considering the blatant disregard for issues of ficta; like Brothers, Bain takes Machaut's text as God's holy word - no signa there, means no inflection implied. Done, end of story. And should "Machaut" speak for the rest of 14th-century chromatic practices? This is assuming that Machuat, from the onset of his career, conceived of the heirarchical function that Bain extracts from her figures, or has remained consistent in his approach to said inflections.

The million-dollar question is this: is it alright to assign an idea of "hierarchy" to Machaut's chromatic inflections in the first place? The question may a methodological puzzle of chicken-and-egg: which came first? Machaut penciling chromatic hierarchies, or the hierarchy-seeking analyst who labels such structural features as chromatic hierarchies? I am not dissing Bain as a replacement to Bent. No, in fact, I welcome her work, especially the ontological problem they shed on her analyses. All in all, extrapolating structural conclusions from statistical data like this is not much different than extracting a middleground voice-leading graph in neo-Schenkerian Analysis. The difference is that while the "ahistorical" theorist tends to sidestep contingent historical traces to construct modern hermeneutic grids that "work" for certain musics (think Kuhn, Rorty, and the debate about scientific knowledge), historicists assign value to contemporaneous historical sources as collaborators in their analytical/narrativistic enterprises. And, beholden to the historical trace as a methodological bedfellow, historical musicologists tend to have to straddle more discursive practices than the theorist. This may mean more work for the musicologist/historicist over the theorist (I'm not making any claims here), which may serve to explain the emotional righteousness historians feel over "ahistorians", if such a designation may even be meaningful.

So, after this minor diversion, can we fully disengage the "moral" from the "method"? To this, we should say that the story is more complicated. To say we can be free of the "moral" from the "method" is to theoretically compartmentalize these terms in order to preserve a certain sense of autonomy to one's historical preoccupations. The reality is Foucauldian; no one can simply say anything one likes. That is to say, both Leech-Wilkinson and Bent are right, and in the logic of scholarly debate, more valuable than right. After all, arguments generate papers, and papers generate citation and more papers: the machine of scholarly production rarely grinds to a halt with dispute. Rather, dispute feeds the paper industry, which, in turn, works to sustain scholars whose very lives depend on the production of papers. The method is the moral (of the story), what we say and do affects the regulative contours of the discipline, and the disciplinary models we pass on to future generations or inherit from older ones. Centering the debate on "methodology" obscures the fact that "methodology" generates a ripple effect, which vibrate with passionate self-beliefs - one's set of morals oriented towards the other, if you may. Strong words call to be read strongly in the field of the other: amicability is one mode of ethics when dealing with a clash of methodological beliefs, and can be of serious consequences.

To be continued.

Musica Ficta: Ruminations when Music History seems to Fail us

It is one thing to write about history as a historian, and another to write about music history as a musicologist. As a corollary to the actual performance of music, musicology is sometimes seen as performance’s little brother, busying in the field of history, getting the details “precisely right”, so that musicians can “do their thing” without fear of offending a properly “historical” rendition of a non-contemporary work of music. The scrupulous archival empiricism of medieval musicologists, in particular, may be pivotal in determining the fate of a single work. If a piece of music is discovered to be wrongly attributed, the work may drop out of repertory entirely. On the other hand, the excitement of discovering a new attribution may propel a piece from forgotten history into the forefront of performance, analysis and discussion. Similarly, close historical analyses revealing clues about performance practice have instigated an entire industry of “historically-informed” performances, perhaps (mis)construing other performative interpretations as lesser or uninformed. “Authenticity” (at least prior to the ‘80s) was a shiny badge to be worn with pride, a step up the ladder of teleological positivism, a beacon of a commitment to knowledge which casts a long shadow over performers and musicians who fail to step into its dazzling terrain. Or, as Joseph Kerman put it, a “baleful term which has caused endless acrimony” for it “resonates with unearned good vibrations”.[1]

Of course, debates in the 1980s over authenticity in music have concluded that such figments of accuracy are but pipe dreams, remnants of the great 19th century Hegelian progress-myth enabling us to approximate “truth” tangentially.[2] “Authenticity” has become a dirty-word, embarrassingly replaced by the benign term “historically informed”, denoting a principled system of musical production rather than a commitment to any single, latent historical truth.[3] The infamous listening experiment in which musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson paired “authentistic” recordings with those that were not led him to declare that in every case,

“[The] stylistic contrast between the earlier and the “authentic” performance is essentially the same. [...] In a nutshell, the difference is that between performer as “interpreter” and performer as “transmitter” [...] The remarkable uniformity of approach which dominates early music performance … is nothing more than a reflection of current taste”.[4]

Richard Taruskin chimes in on the anti-authenticity camp with characteristic wit and insight, claiming that “It is the latter [historically “authentic” performances] that is truly modern performance … while the former [“modern” performance] represents the progressively weakening survival of an earlier style, inherited from the nineteenth century, one that is fast becoming historical”.[5] Attempting to sum up the difficulties involved in the “veneer” of historicism through the debates,[6] Colin Lawson and Robin Stowell remark that “Early music as a concept is surely beginning to be eroded, as period principles begin to be applied to mainstream situations”,[7] attesting to the force of modern-day music reproduction technologies such as CDs, mp3s and I-pods to restructure entire social and international networks of listening.[8] I do not wish to resurface many of the torturous and complicated arguments in this paper, but to convey a sense of how such conceptual preoccupations are still “live” theoretical materials, weighing heavily upon scholars who plumb the depths of the “historical” for information which may impact the reception or performance of a particular “work”.

No musicologist today claims that we can ever accurately reconstruct the proper epistemological conditions by which to “accurately” listen to music. No amount of historical clothing, historical instruments or site-specific re-enactments can ever magically open an experiential hatch into a world long lost. Such “veneers” we erect over a systematic process of scholastic appraisal or disproval cannot be taken as properly “historical” in-and-of-itself. The paradox of “live” performance and recordings is that while it gestures towards a sort of “presencing” of (the music of) the past, it is inevitably mediated through written, textual documents – blueprints for realization – not to mention intermediate stages of editing, transcribing and documents regarding period-specific performance practices. As Rick Altman has brilliantly demonstrated, our formalised “codes of listening” and “codes of representation” are themselves subject to historical change;[9] even Lydia Goehr’s biting critique of the “work concept” in musical ontology has accused modern listeners of “conceptual imperialism”, superimposing today’s codes of listening and presentation upon the music of the past.[10] In this sense, the present day concert-hall performance situation appearing to deliver a sense of aural immediacy is itself a fantasy of unmediated listening access to a sonorous past. Here, the “experience” of live music drawn from historical sources cannot and should not present itself as a doorway into some hidden kernel of the past. As Taruskin suggests, one should be critically aware of “historical” performance as modern forms of “historicism” which “clothes a performance style that is completely of our own time”.[11]

In light of recent discourses over the problem of the photograph composing a form of historical “presence”, one could conceivably gesture towards forms of musical recording as an analogue of the photograph’s trace-like “indexicality” criterion. This may argument may be pertinent to recorded pieces of the late 19th and 20th Century, indeed serving as indispensible audio-documents concerning performance practice.[12] But what happens when such recordings do not exist? For medieval musicologists, the significant absence of an audible evidence to test their hypothesis leaves a gaping hole in the history of early music; without recourse to such sources, musicologists have tended to foreground text to offer insights into the realization of early scores. “The sound of modern performances and recordings may beckon us into the realm of early music,” says Margaret Bent, “but it is only when we recognize performance sound to be a modern construction … that we may penetrate beyond it, to the intrinsic content of the music independently of the performance, and learn new ways of listening to unfamiliar [early] music styles” (My emphasis).[13]

For Bent, a corresponding gateway into appreciating early music is dispensing with the interpretive gesture of performance (the variable) and focussing on the score (the invariable), suggesting that abstract, “intrinsic” musical form can be separated from timbral content. There is, however, the danger that attempting to “penetrate beyond” the mediated sound-world of performances to the “intrinsic content of the music” risks simply replacing the interpretive liberties of performance with an assumedly more historically-filial object – namely, medieval source documents themselves such as treatises, scores and manuscripts. In other words, the mode of “presence” is shifted from the sonic immediacy of “performance” to the sphere of the “textual”, bestowing source documents with a quasi-religious aura not unlike the seductive call of “authenticity”.[14] As Harry White points out, such musicological preoccupations “with the textual integrity of contemporary [early music] performance [becomes] an expression par excellence of the regulative force of [Lydia Goehr’s] work-concept”,[15] leaving us trapped in a reductive circuit which accepts no more than the aura of the textual as a metaphysical substitute for “authenticity”.

Bent goes further, claiming that a more fruitful musicological endeavour should involve restricting our gaze to the determinable, quantifiable elements in the score. By tweaking our musicological proclivities to produce “knowledge of the music” rather than “knowledge about the music”,[16] she seems to suggest that we can somehow recover a historically shared “grammar” of early music, bolstered by fastidious historical citation:

“A methodology cannot be sensitive to the particular language of pretonal music unless that language was taken into account in formulating the analytical method – in which case it would indeed be to some extent a historically sensitive method. The task is to reconstruct, as precisely as possible in the absence of native witnesses, the languages, grammars and dialects proper to specific repertories, as we would in dealing with their verbal counterparts, if we aspire not a ventriloquized monologue but a true dialogue”.[17]

The task of constructing “as precisely as possible” the “languages, grammars and dialects” most pertinent to the repertory analysed, Bent seems to argue, would be to fashion our analytical tools out of historically valid “premises”. These “languages” are “fundamentals … essential to correct interpretation of the music as is knowledge of sexagesimal calculation to understanding early astronomy”,[18] fundamentals which will allow savvy musicologists (painting by Bent’s numbers) to distinguish “between notes that are clearly right and notes that are clearly wrong”.[19] Bent means serious business, lashing out strongly against the “barbarisms” of wrong notes which still prevail in scholarly editions of composers such as Guillaume de Machaut. Putting aside the defensive self-righteousness of Bent’s positivism,[20] the danger is that we risk homogenizing a notion of “the Music” with a capital M, by privileging the textual authority of the “score”, thereby foreclosing the possibility that each surviving version of “the Music” may constitute a very different ontology in relation to its textual vehicle.[21] Furthermore, this universalizing view of Music works to reinforce the idea of an “original” distinguishable from disagreeing sources by scribal error and corruption along the disseminating chain; deeply Platonic in its conviction that proper historical work will reveal an essential, uncorrupted originating source,[22] or even the “perfect language”.[23] The problem is the movement from the particular (the individual manuscript source) to the general (historical concepts about music) – how can we fashion historically appropriate hermeneutic tools without subscribing to a “one-size-fits-all” ontology of early music?

In these cases of complexity where the historical-empiricist approach seems to work too well, perhaps we should take a step back and consider the cases where music history fails us, where the cherished goals of tedious archaeological research disable instead of en-able the production of “historically-informed” music. By doing so, we become more aware of the points of contact between historical musicology and the “historicism” promised by early music performance practice, a shared-space where a choice is demanded of the performer/musicologist: to enact a form of radical reverence to some fantastical notion of an authentically recoverable past and to cease performance altogether, or to perform in spite of historical uncertainty, acknowledging the pitfalls of the unknowable, while at the same time celebrating the agency of the performer as a creative co-collaborator in the production of music, rescuing historical interpretation as a necessarily creative endeavour rather than a scrupulous (not to mention impossible) iteration of a past always and already lost.

Such an example is the notoriously tedious phenomenon of musica ficta or falsa (fictitious or false music). Ficta may be crudely paralleled to a modern-day version of accidentals in music – that is, sharps or flats, which were used since the 12th Century to denote an alteration of an interval. A signa durum which would equate to today’s “natural” sign indicated the augmentation of an adjacent pitch dyad by a semitone. The signa durum denoted both the “natural” and the “sharp” sign, indicating to the singer to raise the written pitch accordingly. Similarly, the signa molle (or what we call the “flat” sign today) would signal a corresponding lowering of pitch. The origins of such signs, however, did not presuppose a democratic pitch-set of 12 chromatic tones. In addition to the Church system of modes (groups of scales organized by stepwise patterns), the Guidonian Hexachord quickly became a popular pedagogical tool for navigating pretonal space in the 9th Century, later taken to be a prominent feature of diatonic pitch-space by the 13th Century.[24] The Hexachordal system of pitch-navigation was initially developed by Guido of Arezzo, who sought to reduce errors in the singing of plainchant by cantors who sang incorrect intervals. In a nutshell, the Hexachord is a portable gamut of six pitches arranged on the letter notation (claves) of the properly divided monochoral scale:[25]

Each hexachord consists of five solmisation syllables ut-re-mi-fa-sol-la, the medieval predecessors of our familiar “do-re-mi” scale. The intervals between ut-re, re-mi, fa-sol and sol-la were fixed at a whole tone, while the only semitone in the Guidonian hexachord was the interval between mi-fa. When several of these hexachords are superimposed upon the claves, it allows the cantor to navigate the pitch-space of the claves, keeping the position of the mi-fa semitone intact to the particular context which the hexachord is situated. The “natural” hexachord (naturale) maps the ut of the hexachord onto C clave (indicated as C-ut). The “hard” hexachord (durum) maps ut onto Gamma Γ (Γ-ut), rendering B-mi as b-durum (or b-natural) to preserve the intervallic integrity of a semitone between B-mi and C-fa. Likewise, the “soft” hexachord (molle) maps ut onto F (F-ut): because B-C claves of the monochord correspond to fa-sol on the hexachord (an interval of a whole tone), the B is flattened into b-molle and given a signa molle (flat sign). By doing so, this also preserves the mi-fa semitone by mapping directly onto A-B-molle. Because the naturale, durum and molle hexachords all overlap each other by a series of claves, the singer can navigate the pitch-space of the claves by switching from one hexachord to another through a shared note. To give an example, if the cantor were on the Γ-ut durum hexachord (the first vertical hexachord on the left in the diagram) and wanted to sing a G clave, he would have to effect a hexachordal mutation from the Γ-ut hexachord to the C-ut naturale hexachord by singing ut on C-fa, re on D-sol or mi on E-la (see the boxed space in the figure above). What is important to note is that the signa durum and molle do not indicate local pitch-changes in the context of the claves; the signa serves to draw attention to a change in the position of solmisation syllables mi-fa in relation to the claves, hence signalling a hexachordal mutation. Signa durum and molle denote the proprietas (property) of the new hexachord one mutates to without affecting the intrinsic proprietas of individual claves.

Two-dimensional systems of overlapping hexachords were frequently presented in a visual schema called the Guidonian hand, where each step in the claves corresponded to a notch on the bare hand.[26] For novice singers, this mental schema could be embodied, indeed grafted onto their own bodies – students could visually navigate the mutation of hexachords through paired solmisation syllables using their hands as visual references (See diagram above).[27] The system of overlapping hexachords contained by the Guidonian hand also set epistemological limits to the apperception of pre-tonal space. The pitch-boundaries delimited by the hand was called musica vera, recta or regularis (true, right or regular music), since they reflected the “regular” hexachoral mapping over the letter claves.[28] Musica ficta, on the other hand, refers to intervals that lay “outside” the Guidonian hand which were not found on the regular letter claves. Amongst other reasons, musica ficta was theorized in to accommodate an increasing amount of chromaticism, regulating them under a common mnemonic system.[29]

If a composer wanted to indicate a singer to sing a C-durum (C-sharp), for example, the singer would have to draw the C-durum from a hexachord not found on the Guidonian Hand. Since applying a signa durum on C implies that it takes on a C-mi solmisation, the theoretical implication would be to “borrow” the C-mi from an A-ut hexachord, which is alien to the musica recta designations on the Guidonian hand. The A-ut hexachord is thus “feigned” or “fictitious” in relation to musica recta, contrived to fill in the composer’s demands for musical chromaticism. The problem is that numerous musica ficta in polyphonic compositions were un-notated; composers usually relied on a singer’s understandings of the performance practices of the day to inflect such notes with ficta.[30] Burdened by a lack of clear theoretical evidence by a scarcity of historical treatises, one can understand the difficulties of editing late medieval music. As Bent relates:

“A twofold dilemma faces the editor of early music when he comes to supply accidentals. Firstly, he has insufficient evidence on which to base a definitive solution but must nonetheless specify what is to be performed; and secondly, such evidence as he does have appears to embody a conflict between the testimony of theorists and the evidence of manuscript accidentals”.[31]

While Bent presents a “working hypothesis” to guide the editing of old manuscripts for performance purposes, her “hypothesis” does not eliminate the degree of uncertainty to which editors should fill-in implied ficta. Some theorists such as Elizabeth Leach propose a radical ficta-cization of “directed progressions” – conspicuous cadence features in polyphonic music.[32] Others, such as Thomas Brothers, advocate a less totalitarian approach to ficta applications, reinterpreting musica ficta based on “the expressive potential of accidentals rather than … a topic for performance practice”.[33] Brothers takes Anonymous 2’s depiction of ficta as causa neccesitatis (reason of necessity) and causa pulchritudinis (reason of beauty) at his word, arguing that “necessity” referred to the avoidance of contrapuntally occurring tritones, leaving space for chromatic experimentation (hence “beauty”) where compositions did not violate the tritone principle. This leads Brothers to uncertain ground where he reads ficta as “digressions” from the Guidonian space of recta hexachords, suggesting that “the possibility that the manuscript evidence can be taken at face value”, dispensing entirely with the “performance practice” haggle.[34] Perhaps entertaining such “possibilities” may be a welcome gesture in the discipline of musicology, which has seen earlier 19th Century theorists such as Hugo Riemann, who edited ficta markings to reflect contemporaneous understandings of tonality.[35] More recently, Thomas Christenson has unearthed the politics of ficta editorial decisions in early 17th Century France between opposing camps expressing diverging attitudes towards “modern” tonality.[36]

What this little excursus reveals is the problems inherent in the project of medieval musicological archaeology when the sources refuse to speak back on clear, equal terms to their scholastic interlocutors. Conceivably, performers and analysts could wish to ignore musica ficta entirely in their assessment of the pieces, although this is to historically reject an oral tradition which has shaped the pitch and melodic contours of medieval song; in counterpoint, this may invariably lead to glaring tritones and mi-contra-fa violations.[37] The failure of the musicological project to shed certain light upon the proper inflection of musica ficta is today reflected in the sheepish editorial markings of suggested ficta, with accidentals notated above the note rather than on the same staff line prior to the note (as conventionally indicated today). For performers, ficta uncertainty may offer a liberating opportunity for creativity and interpretation, although it spells despair for the musicologist. Ficta uncertainty opens up a gap between the “historicism” desired from the musicologist and the “historicism” demanded by the fantasy of “historically-informed” performance practice, a clear-and-present “absence” that haunts our reception of the score-trace.

This ficta ghost which comes back periodically to haunt the insufficiencies of modern transcriptions threatens to pull the thread, completely unravelling our epistemologically sound hammock of the “work-concept”. In such cases, giving up (to) the ghost could mean abandoning the editorial project altogether – indeed refusing to perform based on the conviction that “historically-informed” performances demand a degree of textual authenticity and accuracy, a conviction that is itself “fictitious” and illusory in the first place. In such cases the ficta ghost of absence terrifies the petrified musicologist/performer to inaction, and frazzled retreat. For a few philosophers of history following Derrida’s “Hauntology”,[38] however, grappling with history’s blind-spots through the uncanny experience of the ghost may be an enabling function rather than disabling. This “blind spot” has been theorized in a number of fields as a vortex which resists our scholarly, analytic gazes: Roland Barthes’s photographic “punctum”,[39] Michael Fried’s “anti-theatricalism”[40] and the “stain” of the Lacanian Real as interpreted by Slavoj Žižek’.[41] This “stain” on the canvas of historical knowledge that reminds us its failure to comply with our rules is but a feature of our own epistemological horizons, a condition of perspectival blindness on our part that makes the project of history possible (and valuable) in the first place.

Rather than recoil from the field of the vortex that threatens to render meaningless the historical project of musica ficta, the “spectre” of the past “returns to remind us that the past is incomplete and therefore to come”.[42] In this way, the spectre of ficta-absence gestures towards the future, opening up possibilities for renewal, renovation and imaginative innovation not so much in spite of absence, but in the face of absence-as-presence:

“It is a proper characteristic of the spectre, if there is any, that no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or to a living future … A phantom never dies, it remains always to come and to come back … The thinking of the spectre … contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future”.[43]

In the case of ficta, the spectral absence of certainty allows us to be open towards possibilities for coming to terms with a past irretrievably lost through ingenuity and invention. When one historical method fails us, surely this must not hamper our efforts to productively deal with mysterious historical traces – methodological failure should compel us to whittle new hermeneutic tools with creativity and imagination, not to mention inventing transcriptive tools to enable the sounding of these blueprint-like traces. While we may not be able to fully disengage ourselves from the epistemological confines of the “work-concept”, two alternatives come to mind. Firstly, we may concede to the intrinsic limitations of the “work-concept” warts-and-all. The “work-concept”, as Goehr attests, is also a “regulative concept”, one that helps to define the position of music (and musicology) and productively discipline the contours of “musicking”[44] without falling into the bleak, deconstructive relativism of Leech-Wilkinson’s tautological dictum: “musicology is whatever musicologists do as musicologists”.[45] Goehr explains:

“Regulative concepts … provide the rules of the game … [guiding] the practice externally by indicating the point of following the constitutive rules. [They] do not make up the structure of the practice; rather, in their interrelations, they determine what the structure should be like. In their normative function, regulative concepts determine, stabilize, and order the structure of practices”.[46]

To put it another way, the “regulative” rule-bestowing function of the “work-concept” confers meaning upon the spectrum of musical activities under its wing. It justifies the production of music-as-works by accepting that there is no prior, “purer” historical frame of reference by which we can relate to these early pieces of music. Ficta decisions today may not necessarily be made in relation to the 17th Century teleological-leanings of Joseph Fétis’ tonalité moderne, Edmond Coussemaker or the anti-moderne Joseph d’Ortigue,[47] but this is neither to assert that the hypothesizing of Bent, Berger and Brothers necessarily reflect an ontologically rarefied state. It makes the historical trace complicit to its varying degrees of disclosure by focusing on the presentness of the past’s trace, preserving the meaningful possibilities of historical musicology while acknowledging that we are subjective “fallible human beings”.[48]

Secondly, we might seek to preserve the resistive dimension of historical blind-spots through acts of criticism, using, as Haydn White suggests, interpretive gestures “to create perplexity in the face of the real – not to clear it up”.[49] But “perplexity” does not mean taking a postmodern attitude of relativistic free-play in the face of the void. What White means by “creating perplexity” is to transform the unresponsive resistive void of the historical into a productive force, a force to unsettle normative musicological concepts taken for granted, and a creative force to imagine other regulative possibilities for musical ontology. This approach foregrounds the importance of musicology’s affective orientation towards performance and criticism as a necessary “co-product” of performance-reception,[50] reminding the listener of the levels of mediation and uncertainty in the medium of performance. The unsettling character of the ficta ghost by nature already delimits “space for the bird to fly”,[51] even though one may find such freedom of choice “uncanny” by the strict, logical demands of musicological standards. Transposing the effects of the “uncanny” into an opportunity for reinterpretation and critique, as Joan W. Scott writes, keeps us open to the future of performance-possibilities while being faithful to the trace’s ability to surprise and unsettle our expectations:

“For historians, there is a double challenge here: to write the kind of history that will serve as a lever, unearthing the foundational premises upon which our social and political [and musical!] verities rest, in order … to clear the space for the operations of a history whose direction cannot be determined and whose end will never come”.[52]

Thomas Brother’s face-value “interpretation” of ficta employs precisely that option in seeking alternative ways to conceive of ficta without fashioning a pedestal of authority from which to speak from. By flirting with the “possibility” of his interpretation, Brothers phantomocizes his own theory, acknowledging its own shelf-life and even imminent death by the renovative flux of time, where evolving listening conventions and methodological concerns would have rendered his interpretation defunct. But courting with uncertainty certainly clears the musicological field for other ways of transcribing and presenting early music. Different treatments of musica ficta alter the pitch-content of transcribed scores, allowing for new experiences of listening, and unsettling old ones. Similarly, as Brothers himself has shown, imaginative filling-in of the gaps can lead to creative, thought-provoking analyses capable of grasping the reader and listener’s imagination. If the latter reason is precisely what draws us to music in the first place, then why should we let the void of uncertainty obscure our attempts to make music? Engaging with the historical trace in the face of absence throws into relief the contingencies by which our regulative concepts control and discipline the rules of musical production and listening; creative interpretation makes room for the aggregation of other regulative possibilities, indeed other work concepts – fictional (though meaningful) yardsticks to measure medieval musics yet-to-come. I leave the last words to Lydia Goehr in her reconsideration of the “work-concept” project seven years after her book’s initial publication:

“Either we would seek a work-concept so thin that it could accommodate all descriptions given of it, or we would allow that descriptions could conflict, given our choice of very different prototypes. Again, I prefer, and have tried to argue for, the latter route, not least because it shows so well that how we think about music, how our musical discourses develop, depends in very interesting ways on the prototypes we employ and on the myths we construct. On the purest philosophical plane, our choice of examples perhaps does not matter. But I chose the route of philosophical impurity where our choices matter a great deal. That impurity symbolizes … the intersection between philosophy and cultural diagnosis”.[53]

[1] Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985), 192

[2] For a collection of the complicated views presented, see Nicholas Kenyon, Authenticity and Early Music: A Symposium, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

[3] In 1986, for example, the American Musicological Society used the term “historically-aware” in its guidelines for the Noah Greenberg Awards. See the AMS Newsletter 16/2, (August, 1986): 5, 14

[4] Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, Early Music, 12, (1984), 14

[5] Richard Taruskin, “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance, (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 140

[6] Ibid., 102

[7] Colin Lawson & Robin Stowell, The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 160

[8] See, for example, Greg Kot, Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, (New York: Scribner, 2009)

[9] Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), See Introduction

[10] Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992)

[11] Taruskin, (1995), 102

[12] This is not to suggest that recordings themselves are “authentic” representations of the time period in any way. The technological restrictions of recording devices may impose real, musical restrictions on the way a piece of music is performed ‘for the microphone’. The time-restrictions on the early 331/3 rpm record, for example, affected tempo-decisions and repertoire choices and playing styles to suit the demands of technology of the day. See Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Music History, (New Haven, Connecticut & London: Yale University Press, 2000)

[13] Margaret Bent, “Words and Music in Machaut’s Motet 9” in Early Music, 2003, 387

[14] One can draw an analogue between the auraticization of manuscript sources and Derridean “archival-fever” as what Dominick LaCapra calls a “fetish”, a “literal substitute for the ‘reality’ of the past which is ‘always already’ lost for the historian” and, as such, a condition privileged by fantasies of presence and authenticity. See LaCapra, History and Criticism, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985)

[15] Harry White, “‘If It’s Baroque, Don’t Fix It’: Reflections on Lydia Goehr’s ‘Work-Concept’ and the Historical Integrity of Musical Composition” in Acta Musicologica, Vol. 69, Fasc. 1. (Jan – Jun, 1997), 97

[16] Margaret Bent, “The Grammar of Early Music: Preconditions for Analysis” in Tonal Structures in Early Music, Ed. Cristle Collins Judd, (New York & London: Garland, 1998), 18

[17] Ibid., 19

[18] Ibid., 20

[19] Ibid., 19

[20] To be fair to Bent, she does later point out that sometimes unica (unique cases) offer divergences from the hard-and-fast musical language “rules” she seeks to unearth. But she maintains firmly that such faults must be solely that of the scholar who places “too much weight” on “isolated or eccentric statements” that “may not have universal or prescriptive value” (ibid., 39). However, who decides which theories have “prescriptive value” over those that supposedly do not? By looking for “the” musical grammar, Bent perhaps unfairly disowns the possibility of multiple coexistent grammars, even plural, contradictory ones existing synchronically within the same time period.

[21] This is especially pertinent to music edition-making, in which various sources are collapsed into a single “authoritative” form. Disputes over the “correct” edition of a piece of music may take place when there are more than one surviving manuscript sources, a condition Lydia Goehr (1992) would ascribe to the late 18th Century “work-fidelity” concept that has survived into modern ontologies of music. More recently, the status of notated music has been given a materialist spin, teasing out the individualities of a piece of music preserved in more than one source. See Ardis Butterfield, Poetry and Music in Medieval France: from Jean Renart to Guillaume Machaut, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). For a concept of multiple musical ontologies, see Philip V Bohlman, “Ontologies of Music” in Rethinking Music, Ed. Nicholas Cook & Mark Everist, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 17-34

[22] This problematic aspect has been debated by musicologists with regard to the “work concept”. See especially Leo Treitler, “History and the Ontology of the Musical Work” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 51, No. 3, (Summer, 1993), 483-97, in which he discusses specific musical examples which seem to fall outside the regulative hold of the “work concept”.

[23] Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, trans. James Fentress, (London: Fontana Press, 1997)

[24] This idea was recently developed by Stefano Mengozzi (University of Michigan), who delivered it in a talk The Making of the Hexachordal System: Medieval Semiotics in Transition at the 75th Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in Philadelphia, Nov 2009. Also see Mengozzi, “Virtual Segments: The Hexachordal System in the Late Middle Ages” in Journal of Musicology, Sept 2006, Vol. 23, No. 3, 426-467

[25] The following information is drawn from consistent information found in numerous basic books on medieval-theoretical concepts on music. Some good sources include Charles M. Atkinson, The Critical Nexus: Tone-system, Mode, and Notation in Early Medieval Music, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and the Grove article on Musica Ficta [Musica Falsa]: Margaret Bent & Alexander Silbiger, “Musica ficta” in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed December 22, 2009)

[26] See Karol Berger for a more detailed account, “The Guidonian Hand” in The Medieval Craft of Memory: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, Ed. Mary Carruthers & Jan M. Ziolkowski, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 71-82

[27] Bruce Holsinger offers an insightful interpretation of the hand’s relation to pedagogical systems of power and discipline. See Holsinger, Music, the Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001), 259-94

[28] Karol Berger, Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino, (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press,1987), 12

[29] Margaret Bent, “Musica Recta and Musica Ficta” in Counterpoint, Composition, and Musica Ficta, (New York & London: Routledge, 2002), 67

[30] Margaret Bent & Alexander Silbiger, “Musica ficta” in Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed December 22, 2009)

[31] Ibid., 61

[32] Elizabeth Leach, “Counterpoint and Analysis in Fourteenth Century Song” in Journal of Music Theory, 2000, 44(1): 45-79; on the “directed progression”, see Sarah Fuller, “Tendencies and Resolutions: The Directed Progression in Ars Nova Music” in Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Autumn, 1992), 229-258

[33] Thomas Brothers, Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson: An Interpretation of Manuscript Accidentals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), x

[34] Ibid., 23

[35] See Raymond Haggh’s commentary in Hugo Riemann, History of Music Theory, Books I and II: Polyphonic Theory to the Sixteenth Century, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 396-7

[36] Thomas Christenson, Tonality Before and After, paper given at the 75th Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Nov 2009

[37] Bent, (2002), 82

[38] Jacques Derrida, The Spectres of Marx, (London: Routledge, 1994)

[39] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, (London: Vintage, 1993)

[40] Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

[41] This formula is elaborated widely in many of Žižek’s books, one of which is The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy worth Fighting For?, (London: Verso, 2008)

[42] Nick Peim, “Spectral Bodies: Derrida and the Philosophy of the Photograph as Historical Document” in Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2005, 76

[43] Jacques Derrida, “The Specters of Marx” in The Derrida Reader: Writing Performances, Ed. Julian Wolfreys, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 143

[44] Christopher Small’s preferred term to synthesize the heterogeneous messiness of music-related activity, see Small, Muscking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, (Hanover & London: University Press of New England, 1998), Chapter 1

[45] Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 216

[46] Goehr, (1992), 102

[47] Christensen, (2009)

[48] Rob C. Wegman, “Historical Musicology: Is It Still Possible?” in The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction, Ed. Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert & Richard Middleton, (New York & London: Routledge, 2003), 144

[49] Haydn White, “The Aim of Interpretation is to Create Perplexity in the Face of the Real: Haydn White in Conversation with Erlend Rogne” in History and Theory, 48, (Feb, 2009), 74

[50] Nicholas Cook, Analyzing Musical Multimedia, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

[51] Robert A. Rosenstone, “Space for the bird to fly” in Manifestos for History, Ed. Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan & Alun Munslow, (London & New York: Routledge, 2007), 11-18

[52] Joan W. Scott, “History-Writing as Critique” in Manifestos for History, Ed. Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan & Alun Munslow, (London & New York: Routledge, 2007), 26

[53] Lydia Goehr, “‘On the Problems of Dating’ or ‘Looking Backward and Forward with Strohm’” in Liverpool Music Symposium I, The Musical Work: Reality or Invention?, Ed. Michael Talbot, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 245

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mechanical Ears for Masculine Men: Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei Rumori, the “Multiplied Man”, and Machine Aesthetics

In a manifesto dated March 11, 1913, the Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo unleashed L’Arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noise), a dynamic piece of literature calling for nothing less than the complete renovation of the musical arts. Commencing with a genealogy of music from the Greek tetrachordal system to what Schoenberg had later proclaimed as the “emancipation of dissonance” in 1911, Russolo declared that the music of his time sought further complexity, searching “for the amalgamation of sounds more dissonant, strange, and harsh to the ear” (Kirby, 167). Thus, Russolo argued, “we are always getting closer to ‘noise-sound’.”

The musical world had gone through an unprecedented revolution as Russolo was writing his manifesto. The symbolist sympathies of Claude Debussy ruptured the Classical diatonic system by exalting the whole-tone scale as a method of composition, turning Balinese tonal influences into the pitch-space of the sensuous, exotic other, as exemplified in the programmatic Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun, 1894) after Stephan Mallarme’s poem of the same title. Scriabin’s unclassifiable “mystic chord” likewise chipped away at the marble of diatonicism, fusing his theosophical leanings with the sonorous. By 1909, Schoenberg had begun his early experiments in “atonal” music, threatening to chuck the tonality baby out with the bathwater.

From these episodic musical revolutions, Russolo’s treatise of 1913 seems like a natural cadence of what Richard Turaskin calls the “maximalist” impulse of the early 20th Century avant-gardism. Yet, to simply arrest Russolo in a linear trajectory anticipating the Musique Concrete of Pierre Schaeffer or John Cage’s prepared piano is to overly filter the musical from Russolo’s wider philosophical project as a member of the Futurist movement in a fast-modernizing Italian landscape. To begin with, despite growing up in a musical household, Russolo was not a professional musician. Eschewing ambitions to enter a music conservatory like his two brothers, Russolo chose a path of painting instead, and was one of the founding members of Futurism under the charismatic leadership of F.T. Marinetti. Neither was Russolo the “official” composer of the Futurist movement, the position of which went to Francesco Balilla Pratella – the only Futurist musician with an academic background in music – who had authored the first Futurist Music Technical Manifesto earlier in 1911 (Kirby, 160).

Despite his lack of qualifications, Russolo transformed his musical ineptitude into a dynamo for impetuous revolution. “I am not a musician,” he wrote at the end of his manifesto, “I, therefore, do not have acoustic predilections or works to defend. [...] That is why, being bolder than if I were a professional musician, unpreoccupied by my apparent incompetence and convinced that audacity has all rights and all possibilities, I have been able to perceive by intuition the great renovation of music through the Art of Noise.” (Kirby, 174) Unshackled by the conditioning effects of disciplinary artistic institutions, Russolo thus framed himself as a fortuitous outsider, albeit one that can truly invoke the revolutionary spirit of music without years of accumulated biasedness. To prove himself worthy of his task, Russolo went on to create sound-making objects called intonarumori (noise-makers), which he exhibited and toured in futurist concerts around Italy and Europe.

By the late 1920s, however, the initial furor of excitement over Russolo’s project had but faded into the background. Marinetti, once championing Russolo’s intonarumori as tactile objects symbolizing noise as “the language of the new human-mechanical life” (Marinetti, Flint, 138), fails to mention them altogether after the war. Attempting to sum up Russolo’s musical oeuvre, numerous historians such as Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla usually anticipate the short-lived glimmer of the intonarumori project, claiming that “noise was Futurism’s contribution to music.” (Risdall & Bozzolla, 111)

Such accounts of music in Futurism, however, to consider Russolo’s second project, which aimed not only to revolutionize the methods of musical production and the universe of “musical” sound, but also to forge modern listening subjects in line with what Marshall Berman calls the “machine aesthetic” (Berman, 26), a quasi-religious faith in the myth of technological progress through the mediation of machine between man and his perceptible environment. Indeed, as Berman points out, it is this incipient form of Modernism which would later occupy artists such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, with palpable intellectual consequences in what Jean Baudrilliard calls our virtualized, “hyper-real” forms of ontology in 21st century technoculture. Understanding this armature of Russolo’s musical sensibility as a transformation of listening culture under the aesthetics of the machine, furthermore, sheds light on the internal conflicts and inconsistencies of Futurism as an ideological manifestation with multiple players, without over-reducing Russolo’s role to a historical road-marker en route to musical avant-gardism. Furthermore, locating L’Arte dei Rumori in the discourse of the machine might enable us to consider the real, gendered implications of Futurist machine assemblages in light of hybrid theory by Harraway, Deleuze and Guattari, as well as a re-evaluation of the early machine aesthetic not as simple opposition, but reworked extension of Italy’s emerging Decadentismo consciousness.

Indeed, for Mario Morini, the reception of French decadent literature and poetry in early 20th Century was instrumental in giving critical voice to a class of intellectuals predisposed to the politicization of the aesthetic, amidst a recently unified Italy (Morini, 66). Geographical unification, however, did not give rise to political unity: the risorgimento, under the Parlimentary hegemony of Giovanni Giolitti, fostered an ambivalence in the role of the individual in early industrial Italy. Despite ushering in an epoch of “economic progress, civil modernization, cultural renewal and democratic reforms” which gave rise to a “modern and productive bourgeoisie”, Giolitti’s governance from 1903-1913 attracted criticism for “political corruption, a crisis of state, a weakening of the nation and serious moral decay of individual and collective conscience” (Gentile, 11). Decadent literature and poetry was viewed with some suspicion, backed with the imported psychological theories of the modern “nervous” man in studies by Janet, Charcot and Nordeau. As Morini notes:

“The ‘decadent’ style itself indicated the need for artistic and literary languages to refer totally and obsessively to themselves, in an attempt to validate their self-enclosed code against external reality and history at large. [...] Italian Decadentismo appears to have been constructed for the purpose of indicating a variety of signs of an epochal crisis of values, rather than signs of a critique of those values [which were] ... inevitably correlated and complementary. In the last decade of the nineteenth century in Italy, however, the idea of decadence was constructed and conveyed primarily as a crisis rather than a critique.” (Morini, 69)

Italian critics and intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century such as Vittorio Pica and Arturo Graf capitalized on decadence as decline, with journals such as Il Convito openly hostile to French decadent literature doomed to stasis and ennui rather than transformative possibilities (Morini, 72). In an essay on Paul Verlaine and other decadent writers, Vittorio Pica characterized the aimlessness of the decadent consumer “fluctuating between sensualism and mysticism”. Indulging in “vain, crazy, and unnatural efforts” at invoking extreme experience, “they spend what little energy they have, and they fall back, disheartened and exhausted, to a sad and incurable lassitute” (Morini, 70). One remarkable exception, however, cast Decadentismo as a transitory phase, a fleeting moment in dialectical history which will eventually pave the way for a better, modern existence. In Libro della figurazioni ideali written in 1894, the Symbolist Poet Gian Pietro Lucini interpreted what he called decadenza as a historically necessary transformative force to topple the gods of the old:

“In any case, we would not be decadent (decadenti) with respect to our artwork, but with respect to life, because everything around us is subject to change: science, religion, political forms, economics, but change comes to an end, and that end is not without death and ruin: nor is a new life possible without death and rottenness.” (Morini, 74)

For Marinetti and the Futurists in early 20th Century Italy, faith in the myth of technological progress found form in the machine both as metaphor and synecdoche, literally and figuratively a “vehicle” for transformation of social consciousness oriented towards the glorification of a new, modern Italy. The machine was to Marinetti what decadenza was to Lucini’s historical dialectic, an intermediary mode of embodiment which would ultimately lead to a greater Italy. In her book The Other Modernism: F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Fiction of Power, Cinzia Sartini Blum identifies remarkable complicities between Marinetti’s literary personification in La Conquete des Etioles (The Conquest of the Stars) and Huysmans’s des Essientes (Blum, 7-16). Both fictional characters experience a moment of sublime elevation through the locomotive, in which the refreshing vigor of mechanical speed is set as a foil against the effeminizing degradation of nostalgia, the past, and the passivity of the masses. “The attitudes of the two protagonists,” she notes, “differ significantly: Des Essientes’s is one of passive contemplation, whereas that of Marinetti’s protagonist is one of active identification” (Blum, 11). One could also conceivably say that Marinetti’s modernist machine aesthetic is decadenza as extrapolative activity rather than introspective retreat.

Here, we return to Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei Rumori of 1913, which he described as the “logical consequence” of Ballila Pratella’s Futurist Music technical manifesto of 1911. The obliteration of traditional forms of harmony, for Russolo, is justified by both the history of musical composition and the transformed demands of the modern listener, attuned to the energizing soundscape of modern life. Central to this progression is the role of the machine which reflects the new sensibilities of the 20th Century:

“THIS EVOLUTION OF MUSIC IS PARALLELED BY THE MULTIPLICATION OF THE MACHINE, which collaborates with man everywhere. Today, the machine has created many varieties and a competition of noises, not only in the noisy atmosphere of the large cities but also in the country that, until yesterday, was normally silent, so that pure sound, in its monotony and exiguity, no longer arouses emotion.” (Kirby, 167)

As a result, Russolo proposes that the ears of modern man “are not content” with conventional harmonic systems, demanding instead “more ample acoustic emotions” (167). A new listening economy measured by the yardstick of machine aesthetics henceforth replaces the traditional sentiments of Beethoven and Wagner; for Russolo, the modern listening subject extracts “pleasure in ideally combining the noises of trams, explosions of motors, trains, and the shouting crowds than in listening again ... to the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastorale’” (168). Great emphasis is placed on the liberating pleasures of listening to machines as music, and Russolo envisions a kind of attentive listening to match that of the visual, with one’s “ear more attentive than our eye”, propelling man’s sensory organs into machine-like receptors for future developments in music:

“Our multiplied sensibility, after being conquered by Futurist eyes, will finally have futurist ears. Thus motors and machines of our industrial cities will one day be skillfully tuned in order to make every factory an intoxicated orchestra of noises” (174)

Russolo’s penultimate passage is particularly telling: one may chose to read it literally, in the sense that, like Russolo’s later intonarumori, the specific pitch class potentials of noise-producing machines would be tuned to evoke specific predetermined compositional templates. In Fedele Azari’s Futurist Aerial Theatre dated April 11, 1919, Azari mentioned a collaborative invention with Russolo of a “special type of hood to increase the resonance of motors and a type of exhaust that regulates the sonority of the motor without modifying its potential” (220). Such contrivances constitute the aestheticization of the machine, prefiguring the mechanical instrument for aesthetic contemplation. Alternatively, one could see Russolo’s tuning of the machine as a function of the “Futurist ear”, a transformed sensibility which automatically hears noise as music, extracting the aesthetic from machine noise. It is this conception of Russolo’s that requires theoretical amplification from contemporaneous Futurist machine discourses, especially Marinetti’s. In particular, Russolo’s “multiplied sensibility” is a direct quotation of Marinetti’s Futuristic “Multiplied Man”, a machine/human cyborg-like hybrid, a subject who experiences ecstatic totality and wholeness through the pseudo-divine union with the machine.

One of the earliest elaborations of Marinetti’s “Multiplied Man” is found in the publication Le Futurisme, from 1911. In the accompanying essay Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine, Marinetti decries the traditional “ideological fusion” between woman and beauty (Rainy, Poggy & Whittman, 89), promoting “the idea of mechanical beauty” in its place. The apocalyptic “multiplied man”, for Marinetti, is man invigorated through artifice and machinery, drawn to the aesthetic pleasure of the technological, diverted from the corrupting desire for fleshy women:

“[We] must prepare for the imminent and inevitable identification of man and motor, facilitating and perfecting a continual interchange of intuitions, rhythms, instincts, and metallic disciplines that are absolutely unknown to the great majority of people today and are devined by only the most clear-sighted minds.” (90)

Conceptualizing the “Multiplied Man”, Marinetti describes the “creation of an inhuman type” unsullied by the “poisonous corrosives” of “moral suffering” and “love”, an “inhuman and mechanical type, constructed for omnipresent velocity” who is “naturally cruel, omniscient, and combative”. The neighboring essay We Abjure Our Symbolist Masters, The Last Lovers of the Moon continues the machinic diatribe in more explicit, hybridized terms:

“With us [the Futurists] begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delights of danger and quotidian heroism” (94)

Like Deleuze and Guattari’s “desiring machines”, Marinetti and Russolo’s “Multiplied Man” reflect an ontological system characterized by temporal assemblages, circuits of pleasure completed by “plugging” and “unplugging” oneself from these mechanical extensions. Rejecting the Symbolist poets and the sordid pleasures of decadence, Marinetti recasts the “Multiplied Man” as a hygienic form of decadent pleasure whereby flesh fuses with circuitry in what Deleuze and Guattari call the “machine assemblage”. The metamorphosis of man and machine as temporal assemblages constitute Marinetti and Russolo’s multiplied consciousness in which the boundaries between self (subject) and other (machine) break down through “planes” and “potentialities” without recourse to a self-autonomous, enclosed subject. With the dissolution of the stable subject by machinic extension, Marinetti literally reduces the future “Multiplied Man” to mere masculine machine, incapable of extraneous and inconsequential emotions such as love and passions, his heart “reduced to purely distributive function”. Even the erotic is demystified and desexualized, transformed into “copulation for the preservation of the species” like every other banal bodily function (92).

“Attentiveness” of the Futurist ear attuned to the machine thus cast a transformative effect over the “Multiplied Man’s” perception of sound. The boundaries between “noise” and “music”, like the opposition between man and machine, lose their clear definitions: “Noise” becomes music to the ears of the “Multiplied Man”, who looks back with disgust at traditional forms of music as noise to his renewed sensibilities. In The Futurist Intonarumori of 1913, Luigi Russolo further contemplates the formation of the Futurist ear with respect to noises, in which he forsees noise losing “its own accidental character” becoming “an element sufficiently abstract so that it can reach the necessary transfiguration of every primary element in the abstract material of art” (Kirby, 178). Only then, “liberated from the things that produce it” can it become “automatic material, malleable, ready to be shaped by the wishes of the artist who transforms it into an element of emotion, into a work of art”. Alternatively, it is the Futurist listener, the “Multiplied Man” who plays the role of the artist, already reconstituting the noises of machines as aesthetic objects worthy of enjoyment.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Whale Song: Why Ecomusicology now?

Over last weekend, I attended AMS Philly, my first foray into the strange and wonderful world of musoids (following the fact that my adviser calls ethnomusicologists "ethnoids"). In an evening session, the Logans session room was packed to capacity for a strange panel entitled "Why Ecomusicology Now", a spin-off from the musicology ecocriticism discussion group. The panel itself was a hodgepodge polyphony of intellectuals, composers and musico-activists, all somehow tangentially invested in what they fell should fall under the rubric of "ecomusicology". Crudely, Ecomusicology is Ecocriticism + Musicology, a broad based examination of how the "natural world" is plumbed for musical purposes. As one might already expect, critical and theoretical perspectives were hardly homogeneous, and one of the panel's main goals was to attempt to articulate some form of direction for the future of ecomusicology. Hence the title: "Why Ecomusicology Now?" - doubly fraught with the need to promote so-called "ecomusicology" in the 21st Century with all its political activist resonances, and, as a corollary of that aim, the desire to organize and self-define. However, by the end of the session, I was still puzzled and more than a little disturbed. Mitchell Morris' lovely keynote ended with a strange appeal for the diverse messiness that ecomusicology - an interdisciplinary space still unburdened by overdetermined forms of reproduction - should precisely remain that way, in order to generate more creative encounters with its supposed object(s) of study.

This, of course, however, came into direct contradiction with the earlier stated goals of the ecomusicological project, which is to organize, to discipline, to define. At the end of the session, I was tempted to stand up and recapitulate: "So... WHY Ecomusicology NOW?" The question remains unanswered, and should - what's the point about arguing over something that everyone agrees about? This is not the issue. As professional, critically-oriented musicologists with a responsibility to illuminating the wondrous capacities of music as well as scrupulously analyzing the contingent assumptions that enables it to flourish, should we really direct our attention to seeking logistical security and well-defined parameters by which we may call "musicology" musicology? Should we be gazing at our navels, imagining phantasmic umbilical cords somehow linking scholars sitting in the same room? I think of Alvin Lucier's "I am sitting in a room", where the implicit contradictions of language games begin to melt away under musical multiplicity, leaving only the ghostly, sonorous echoes of dumb, amplified sound material resonating in space...

To illustrate my points by way of oblique analogy, here are three little (fictional) anecdotes:

1) A whale walks into a bar and says to the bar tender: "[insert long and funny whalesong here]". The other whale sitting at the bar says to the first whale: "dude, you're wasted!"

2) A few years ago, there was a television advertisement that used (abused?) whale song: the opening scene filmed entrepreneurial divers recording their encounters with the whales, the soundbytes traveling to the hands of a club deejay who, through his ingenious mobile device, directly downloads the song into his computer, and instantly plays the song as a scratch-track to hundreds of ravers pulsing in self-glorified ecstasy.

3) Another example of overly contrived for-the-whales marketing strategies:

So what's the point of this slight excursus? The need to answer the difficult question posed by Slavoj Zizek - under whose "gaze" does one operate, and what are the repercussions of such a gaze? Doolittle, the panel's composer, recalled an incident where she heard beautiful music, then only after scrounging the source, realized it was birdsong. For Doolittle, this encounter proved to her the weaknesses of the anthropological exclusivity to realms of music-making. I argue it does the exact obverse. By discovering birdsong was not "human" music in retrospect, it only goes to show that "human music" still serves as a yardstick from which to measure all music, human or nonhuman. It is the structural positioning of that sonic yardstick that assures the longevity of this sonorous symbolic universe of human music, admitting nonhuman music only as quasi mystical reverence of their likeness (not sameness!) to us. The whale joke operates precisely on the desettling of our expectations implicit in the nature of the discursive anticipations of the "joke" genre: we expect the whale to open its mouth and speak in human tongues. The joke is only "funny" when the whale falls short of our genre-specific expectations, we only "get-it" when the whale does not adhere to its humanized conventions we have already set up for it in the first place. That's what makes the joke funny, viz-a-viz its sudden disjunctive rupture of expectation (also see Freud on the joke).

The point of this is that we should not rush too quickly into something we imagine to be oriented towards a righteously pious topic. Morris acknowledges this when he speaks of the problems of the "face" of endangered species, as well as the implicit inequalities between members of endangered species through the filter of the media. Some animal faces become more prominent than others. The Dodo, legendary for its supposed stupidity, is also legendary posthumously as an exemplar of the failure of conservation. Lest we forget, the Dodo and other creatures alike are likewise mute in the spheres of language we have forged for ourselves, ineffable in this strangely solipsistic game of human linguistics which may turn out to be no more than a stupid evolutionary mistake, a symptom of gross interactions beyond the human and animal, beyond the organic and the inorganic.

In the end, the call to ecomusicology "Now" looks like it hangs on a precarious self-righteous filament. Unable to answer properly the "Now", it befalls the "eco" to stir up resonances with ethical subjective participation. It's simply saying that you can have your cake and eat it too: "Since narratives are inherently political, let's not get wound up by our previous neuroses over fake objectivity, but let's be more properly political by choosing an object well reputed in other fields." That is to say, if we aren't careful, ecomusicology may end up sounding like a simple pat on the back: "not only can you be musicologists, you also can be ethical musicologists!", whatever that means.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No Futurism – Medieval musicology for monstrous children

Lately I’ve been going back to Jacques Lacan and co in Edelman’s rescuing of the death-drive in Queer Studies – a position of ethical embodiment he suggests we “impossibly” fill in resistance to the ideology of “reproductive futurism”, an anticipation of some future line of descendancy symbolized by the figure of the “child”. In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman purposefully rejects the “fascism of the baby’s face” and its seemingly queer-corollary, the homosexual (in opposition to the heterosexual) which simply reproduces its ideology from within the stratified structural position of the Other. The homosexual performs its resistive function too well, collapsing into trivial binary oppositions between us-them, self-other. Instead, he calls for the Saintly-Neighbourly (in a Lacanian sense! Nothing religious about it) category of the “sinthomosexual”. What Edelman calls for is rightly “impossible”; he offers no sound political advice to carry out the potent doxis, nor anticipates its consequences. To anticipate its consequences, to instrumentalize the position in lieu of its future manifestations is, for Edelman, a recourse to the ideology of reproductive futurism, letting our “kids” (whoever they may be – quaint/queer organisms charged with ph/fantasy), and hence an untenable platform from which to announce the apocalyptic insistence on continuous Symbolic death.

In The Medieval Middle, Michael O’Rourke continues Edelman’s investigations as follows:

In a recent issue of PMLA (2005) Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon revisited some of the terrain charted in Goldberg’s Queering the Renaissance (1994) just over ten years ago, in an effort to alter the ways in which we do the history of sexuality. The challenges they pose to historiography in that article will have, or ought to have, serious ramifications, beyond the field of early modern or Renaissance Studies. I also have no doubt that the methodological propositions Goldberg and Menon make will be enormously productive for those historians who seek to queer the past, and to undo the history of homosexuality. My worry, and it is a major concern, is that the kind of anti-teleological project they propose may only be useful for queering the past and challenging “the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. That is to say, Goldberg and Menon’s essay closes off the future, refuses an ethical opening onto the queer future, says fuck the future in much the same way that Lee Edelman does in his polemical book, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. (2004). What I wish to argue is that Goldberg and Menon have fallen under the sway of Edelman and this represents a dangerous turn not just for queer historiography but for queer ethico-political thought more generally. I suggest that Goldberg’s own turn away from Derrida and the problems it brings, both for the politicality of the political and the futurality of the future, could be averted by re-turning to Derrida’s Specters of Marx, a book which came out in the same year as Queering the Renaissance. It was, of course, Derrida’s Politics of Friendship which Alan Bray argued (in The Friend) would become the new political charter, rather than Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume One, for an anti-identitarian queer ethical project, one that does not block off the possibilities of differently imagined futures. Specters of Marx (1994) lays the foundations for many of the concepts developed further in Politics of Friendship (1996) two years later: mourning, spectrality, messianicity, hauntology, impossibility and the perhaps but it is to the earlier text, at once a brilliant reading of Marx and a virtuoso philosophical reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that I turn to find philosophico-historical concepts which might help us produce a queer historiography which bears a responsibility to the past, the present and the future.

But first let me briefly introduce some of the concepts which Goldberg and Menon develop in their article. The first is “unhistoricism” which they set up in opposition to “a historicism which proposes to know the definitive difference between the past and the present”. Rather than embracing ahistoricism, as Valerie Rohy does in a recent GL Q article, they argue against a prevailing historicism (misidentified by them as to be found in the work of David Halperin and Valerie Traub) which emphasizes alterity over sameness. In refusing the way that “history has come to equal alterity” Goldberg and Menon choose instead to practice what they call “homohistory”. Homohistory is set up in opposition to “a history based on heterodifference”. Now, this is not a history of homos but rather this history would be “invested in suspending determinate sexual and chronological differences while expanding the possibilities of the nonhetero, with all its connotations of sameness, similarity, proximity, and anachronism”. The third concept they propose is “idemtity”, invoking the earliest usage of the word in 1570 in opposition to what has come to be sedimented in what we call identity, usually in the concrete formulation, identity politics. They say that pursuing “the project of queering under the rubric of identity or alterity, then, might productively push categories-in this instance, the categories of sameness and difference that serve congruent normalizing purposes in both the field of history and the domain of sexuality”. Finally, Goldberg and Menon reject what they term “heterotemporality” or the compulsory heterotemporality which bedevils historicism whether it “insists on difference or produces a version of the normative same”. They set the historian two challenges, firstly a deheterochronologization which would seek “to resist mapping sexual difference onto chronological difference such that the difference between past and present becomes also the difference between sexual regimes”, and secondly “to challenge the notion of a determinate and knowable identity, past and present”. So far so good, but for all this emphasis on differàntial history, or homohistory, and resistance to the strictures of knowability and possibility, Goldberg and Menon still remain teleologically bounded, to the past and the present, a capitulation which in the end refuses and forecloses, is spooked by the promise of, the future.

Lest it sounds as if I am being, like any good deconstructionist, a little bit too suspicious, let me trace this resistance to futurity back to Goldberg’s recent collection of essays Shakespeare’s Hand, where he acknowledges his enormous debt to Derrida but admits his growing impatience with the politics of deconstruction, claiming that deconstruction, “is itself a politics of a kind of patience that risks maintaining the status quo in the belief that the divisions and differences that make any moment or regime non-self-identical are the resources of futurity”. It is hard to see how one can square this with the projects of homohistory or the new unhistoricism. Goldberg goes on to reject his own Derridean past more emphatically in ways which sound distinctly Edelmanian; he says “I do not agree with the stance of biding one’s time that seems to go along with a certain ‘proper’ philosophical attitude, and I have even less tolerance for the notion that some spectral regime may some day herald a future worth waiting for”. Now that book was written two years before Edelman’s No Future where Edelman argues that heteronormativity and compulsory heterotemporality are imbricated with reproductive futurism (something Michael Warner had already argued years before with the brilliant coinage “reproteleology”) and also explains how homosexuals and homosexuality come to figure the death drive, something he urges queers to embrace (how teleological is that? Freud’s death drive is after all about a return to origins, a determinable endpoint) when faced with the fascist figure of the Child. He coins the neologism sinthomosexual based on the Lacanian term sinthome, to designate an an-archic resistance to meaning which unsettles any (literal) belief in the subject (maybe that should be Subject) or in futurity ( I am all for the first but not for the sinthomosexual’s unethical refusal of the future,which amounts to a Zizekian disdain for all the “democracy-to-come-deconstructionist-postsecular-Levinasian-respect-for-Otherness suspects” as he calls Liberals like Butler and Derrida in The Parallax View). In her own recent article “Spurning Teleology in Venus and Adonis”, Madhavi Menon reads Adonis’ refusal of heterosexual reproductivity in Shakespeare’s poem and his embrace of failure in terms which implicitly recognize him as what Edelman would call a sinthomosexual. What Edelman, Goldberg, and Menon seem to be arguing for is a swerve away from intelligibility, a refusal of literality and meaning in the direction of a sinthomosexual or homohistorical embrace of “the logic that makes it [the sinthomosexual as pure sign] a figure for what meaning can never grasp?” This is a move which Edelman, Goldberg and Menon never make because it would give us over to futurity, to the telepoietic, to the event as surprise, to the promise of a kind of religio-political redemption, to what Derrida calls the emancipatory messianic promise. In opposition to the sinthomosexual which is only im-plicitly ethical (and in Edelman explicitly unethical), I propose what I would like to call the phantomosexual or more properly and in less identitarian fashion, phantomohistory (fantôme is French for specter or its synonym ghost), a queer history which is haunted by the past, the endlessly contested and contestable present, and the undecidable and unmasterable future to-come. Phantomohistoriography would also be what I would term, a little awkwardly, historiopitality, an ethico-affective history which is not about exorcising the ghosts of/or the past but to make them, as Derrida puts it in Specters “come back alive, as revenants who would no longer be revenants, but as other arrivants to whom a hospitable memory or promise must offer welcome-without certainty, ever, that they present themselves as such. Not in order to grant them the right in this sense but out of a concern for justice”.

Now, I turn very briefly to conjure the specters, or phantoms, of Derrida. From “Force of Law” in 1989, Derrida’s first explicit foray into the juridico-ethico-political sphere his work has taken on an ethico-political cast, is marked, or structured, by what he calls a certain “religion without religion”, a kind of political messianism or what he has continually called a “messianicity without messianism”. Derrida’s “political messianism” involves a Levinasian-Blanchotian aporicity, a crossing of the uncrossable, a passing through the impassable (or an experience of the impossible), an infinite resonsibility before and ex-posure to the Other, or as he puts it in The Gift of Death, “all the other others” (both living and dead), to what Levinas calls “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”. This religious (without religion) political demand, to recognize the singularity of the tout autre entails a messianic waiting without waiting for the (in)coming of the wholly other, making way for an incalculable, undeconstructable, abyssal, khoric justice, for the democracy to-come. The democracy to-come makes a demand on us in the here and now but the present, as Nancy and Derrida aver, is always unpresentifiable. Derrida’s particular take on historicity does not involve “an end of history or an anhistoricity” but rather:

A matter of thinking another historicity-not a new history or still less a “new historicism”, but another opening of event-ness as historicity that permitted one not to renounce, but on the contrary to open up access to an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design.

By structuring historicity as emancipatory promise and the monstrous arrivant of/as justice “the very dimension of events irreducibly to come” Derrida stubbornly refuses to program the future, choosing instead to tear up chrono-phenomeno-temporality (to tear up Being/Dasein and Time). This tearing, these abrupt breaches are “the condition of a re-politicization, perhaps of another concept of the political”. (In fairness to Edelman he never does set out a political program and this opens up the ethical possibility of reconfigured futures even if he disavows them).If this sounds like an untimely politics then that is because, for Derrida, the time is “out of joint” and this temporal unhinging and disjoining is closely aligned to what Derrida calls the specter, the phantom, or the ghost. In Dertrida’s ana(r)chronic view of historicity and temporality, the radical untimeliness of the spectre signifies both an event of the past and of the future (“it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again”) and skews the chrono-temporal dimensions of past event and future-to-come (“a specter is always a revenant and thus it begins by coming back”). The phantomohistory or spectrohistoriography I am arguing for is marked by similar circulations and returns of differential or differàntial repetition (here deleuze meets Derrida and Cohen recognizes this I think) and like Derrida’s hauntology “dislodges any present out of its contemporaneity with itself” and thereby determines “historicity as future-to-come”. Spectrality in Derrida’s ethico-political-messianic scheme is similar to homohistory and idemtity, but differs (and defers) insofar as it encompasses the infinite ethical relationship and the political precisely as messianic future-to-come, or what Nancy calls finite history. At the “end” of Specters of Marx Derrida encourages others to join him in lending an ear to the specters that hover around him and us and prophetically warns us that “If he loves justice at least, the ‘scholar’ of the future, the ‘intellectual’ of tomorrow should learn it from the ghost”. One scholar prepared to learn from ghosts is John Caputo who argues, following Benjamin and Levinas, that the historian’s cultural responsibility is to the past, the present and the future. In his article “No Tear Shall be Lost: The History of Prayers and Tears” Caputo agues that history and justice come too late for the dead but that the “irreparability of the past goes hand in hand with the open-endedness of the future, with the radicality of the to-come, so that the more intensely we experience the tension and intensity of the past, the prayers and tears of the past, the more radically we pray and weep on their behalf for a future to come, the more radically we pray and weep “viens, oui, oui, viens!”.

Before I conclude (and open up to others in the middle) I want to stage with Caputo a deliberately counter-polemical argument for the future to-come as it is embodied in the spectral figure of the child, merely to highlight the unethical trap into which historians who follow Edelman, as I think Goldberg and Menon do, will fall. Here’s Caputo:

The child is the future, the other that is the same and not the same, the one to whom past and present generations are asked to give without return. The child is no less a paradigm for the historian, for the children are the ones to come in history no less than in the family. History is being written for the children, to children, and it is to the children that we call “come”, for whom we pray and weep, viens, oui, oui. The historian writes in the time between the dead and the children, between irreparable suffering and hope for the unforeseeable to-come”.

To finish then, but not to have done with all these ghosts, I am arguing that the term queer, in its spectral indeterminacy, makes way for historiographical practices that do justice to the reven(an)tal effects of the irreparable past as they live on in the present and to the specters/revenants who will come in the unanticipatable future-to-come. For, as Derrida says “It is a proper characteristic of the specter, if there is any, that no one can be sure if by returning it testifies to a living past or to a living future… A phantom never dies, it remains always to come and to come back… The thinking of the specter… contrary to what good sense leads us to believe, signals toward the future”. What I am calling phantomohistory, is a phantomalization of queer history or what Carla Freccero in Queer/Early/Modern calls a “fantasmatic historiography”, a spectrohistoriography which extends hospitality and justice to the wholly Other, living or dead, dreams of, prays and weeps over, the messianic time, the time of what Goldberg was once able to call “the history that will be”. Posted by Michael O’Rourke at 9:56 PM


“Phantomohistory” – an ulterior form of historiographically reconstructive “piety” (in Michael Roth’s words?) O’Rourke has provided us with no simple article with which to orientate ourselves towards a meaningless past already prefigured (Hayden White) by the intentionalisms of the que(e)rying spectator. However, acknowledging the “spectral” force of queerness in and through time dialogically announces the immanent death of one’s critically queer positioning, though it simultaneously ‘phantomosizes’ its life-form as a spectre that will haunt the future. Perhaps we should go back to the death-drive, in attempts to undo the force of the burden of that spectre.

Is there reproduction futurism in the force of medieval listening? For whom do we write analyses for? For whom do we reconstruct/destruct/suggest tactics and codes for listening under the aegis of “authentic” or “valid” or “invalid”? Even theorizing the aural gaze of my “master listener” in Vitry’s Garrit Gallus/In Nova Fert/[Neuma] versus its auxiliary, the “defective” listener, can one accuse me of overlapping the “master listener” to the privileged role of the contemporary musicological theorist (not exactly a neologism, but one relatively sidelined by centering contemporary musical theory practice)? In Dominic LaCapra’s terms, do I “act out” the problems of sonic exclusivity of an archaic language, repeating Vitry’s aural modes of description and proscription in founding privileged aural communitas? Who is this futurist child I am addressing?

The problem here is that “futurism” insists on longevity and the teleological capacity for integration and development. As scholars, this trajectory is tried and tested, albeit rewarded in the scholarly field. An article, essay or book, garnering citational force in quotation, retroactively increases the [at least material] acclaim of the writer. A potential receptive field of which the analysis is “birthed” makes the parent proud: a little anecdote of mine I remember was the pressures of superego during the festive season of Chinese New Year when our parents used to boast about us to other relatives. Insidiously objectified (at least to me), we were subsumed under a hermeneutical value-laden grid anticipating fluid societal codes of class, gender and belief. Thus our parents exchanged poisonous innuendos with other parents while we eavesdropped at the next table. Even though we were aware this “grid” was hardly essential, such a meritocratic lens with which to evaluate success and distinguish hierarchies of value – we slowly learnt – could be ways in which our own access to jouissance could be managed and regulated. In short, we found pleasure marking our bodies by the Symbolic instruments of intersubjective calculations used by our parents, measuring our distance to and from such markers of selfhood. Birthing our analytical/polemical child into the field of the scholarly likewise involves the same risk of transference, of acting-out, violently forcing the reproduction of ideological (aesthetic) discourse and behavioral practices upon a privileged “higher” field accessible through ritualized schema and linguistic ciphers.

But what if – and here is another thought experiment – what if we write for queer nonhumans? The immediate parallel I could think of was St Francis of Assisi’s sermoning to animals and beasts, reminiscent of the biblical “peaceable kingdom”, and immediately thought of this CD cover in a recording of Randall Thompson’s works by Schola Cantorum:

Like Agamben’s posthuman future which levels the living to “bare life”, indeed sacrificing the homo sacer himself (that is, the sacred man that can be killed but cannot be sacrificed), the artist’s impression of the end of history imagines a Garden of Eden-like paradise where beast bows with humanoid-animals (notice they are all cherubic, angelic, child-like?), juxtaposed with a peculiar res in the left-hand clearing of the image. There, a group of explorers are passionately greeted by indigenous individuals, both parties bearing gifts of exchange – articles of equal symbolic exchange. It is strange that envisioning a utopia that relinquishes itself of the hierarchical tendencies of language, one should find recourse to the ultimate symbolic-language of trade and exchange. Recall Adam Smith’s meritocratic economic principle or hands-off regulation, where the “invisible hand” (the hand of the Big Other which lays down the rules for success, the codes of childlike performability in the case of my CNY reminiscence) gently ushers the market into optimum economic growth. This peaceable kingdom, perhaps, is charged with the gaze of that Big Other of free exchange, frozen in time perhaps to meditate on this temporal evanescence of idealism before it spirals into temporalized inequality and struggle for self-expression under the guide-posts of the Big Other.

Can we escape the gaze of the Big Other figured through the “fascism of the baby’s face”? Should we reflect on our own analytical attempts (musically and historically) in the background of this begotten child?

Here I turn to an unlikely candidate for theorizing this Foucauldian problem of power integrated with knowledge-of, the 1984 hit-film Gremlins.

I am fascinated by the album cover: it accurately portrays the duality of the “fascism” of the baby in a distorted light. Gizmo, a huggable babylike nonhuman animal pet automatically spawns its horrific other, monstrous Gremlins which embody the death-drive. These monstrous beings are Gizmo’s shadow in the image, insistent on an irrational ethic of Freudian Thanatos of sheer destruction without reason. In the beginning of the film, Gizmo is “Mogwai”, a Chinese pet which literally translates into “little devil” or “little demon”. Under the White, heteronormative language of the owner, “Mogwai” is transformed into “Gizmo”, with all its pet-like affectionate-machinic associations (are animals machines? cyborgs? posthumans? See JJ Cohen/Dona Harraway et al.)

Under the gaze of reproductive futurism, Gizmo embodies the ideology of the child, a figure integrated (indeed given a position of embodiment) through the lens of the normative middle-class white nuclear family. At the same time, Gizmo spawns further Mogwai, transformed figures of death which threaten to disfigure the phantasy of family, destroying the sacred rituals which feeds its reproductive machine (i.e. Christmas). The unknowable, irrational force of “Mogwai” which is Other, Chinese, alien, distanced in its difference, acts like the return of the suppressed kernel of meaningless – the traumatic encounter with the Real (Zizek, Edelman), which threatens to expose the fundamental meaningless upon which family values and the mechanics of reproductive futurism operate. In other words, Mogwai is the untranslatable surplus of “Gizmo”, non-subsumable under the protagonist’s family’s act of integration. Although the film can be “read” under the light of racial and diasporic integrative encounters with the the fabric of Nation State policies, I wish to dwell longer on the dialogic implications of Mogwai/Gizmo.

Like the chaotic meaninglessness of the past, Mogwai is transformed by intellectualism and scholastic academicism into a sort of Gizmo domesticated house pet, given a different name, viewed from a privileged vantage of the present, its sting of the unknowable safely removed. As “Gizmo” itself implies, this transfigured animal reflects more of the epistemological histrionics of the present than it does of the past. The Spectre of the past, its traumatic kernel of unknowability, the pre-translated Mogwai, however, haunts and occasionally irrupts into the present – a queer ghost which continuously lurks in the shadows, destroying the foundations and rituals of modern scholasticism which attempt to domesticate it in the first place.

Musicology for monstrous children, the disfigured Other of reproductive futurism, is recognizing the innate “monster” of the past in the present, acknowledging that the future is itself monstrous. This call for a transformed musicology rejects the maxim that we “stand on the shoulders of giants”, implying that we are but dwarves on a teleological mission or, that we are but youths, “innocent” children, pure and desirous in our attempts to understand the past: a past that might engulf and destroy the tools with which we attempt to figure it with. This notion involves rejecting “authentic” and “inauthentic” listening, “valid” and “invalid” modes of theoretical/analytical reasoning, “historic” and “ahistoric” frames of interrogation, for the misbegotten child of history still haunts us, the monstrous/divine still lurks in the un-recoverability of the medieval musical world through the poverty of the textual and empirical project. Perhaps, above all, doing musicology for monstrous children should encourage us to think of ourselves as destructive beings, ravaging and pillaging the equivocality of the past’s sources, not to align ourselves with an increasingly diminishing asymptotic relation to the revival of the past, but because we are already monstrous for doing so, and take perverse delight in it, monstrous children standing on the shoulders of monstrous parents, desiring machines and pleasure seeking analysts in service of the death-drive, Dyonisians who rapaciously celebrate the polyvalence of the past as spurious surfaces for our interpretive desires.