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.

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