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Kate van Orden documents the tension between making music and ‘authoring’ it

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Significant academic achievements often have a hard time registering with the general public. The results must be presented as the work of a “great expert, primarily for the edification of other great experts” (to draw upon my favorite quotation from Anna Russell). Anyone outside that elite community is irrelevant (unless (s)he is in a position to reward the effort with a generous grant or prize). Taking the time to explain the discovery at a more pedestrian level is viewed only as a distraction from those labors required to go on to “the next great thing.”

Kate van Orden’s book Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, published his past October by the University of California Press, definitely counts as a significant academic achievement. She clearly knows how to appeal to the “great experts.” The book is written in a well-honed scholarly rhetoric, richly supplemented with an abundance of detailed footnotes and a bibliography impressive in both depth and breadth. However, she writes with such verve and enthusiasm that her book can convey the import of her work to the general reader who is willing to follow the points she is making, even if the logic behind each of those points often involves several layers of detail. The result is a book that deserves the effort of anyone who realizes that listening to music is not just a matter of sitting there passively and letting the sounds wash into the auditory cortex.

The basic argument is that the century following the introduction of printing technology was one of “scientific revolution.” I use quotation marks to attribute that phrase to Thomas S. Kuhn, author of the monograph “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn used the phrase “paradigm shift” to explain his thesis that the history of science often involved replacing one set of assumptions with a radically different ones. That major shift in worldview provided a foundation upon which a “scientific revolution” could take place. (The simplest example of changing assumptions would probably be the rejection of the belief that the earth was at the center of all things.)

In van Orden’s case those assumptions concerned the very nature of music. On the one hand there was the assumption that music was a matter of performance, that, as I have argued elsewhere, the music is in the making. On the other hand there was the assumption that music was an artifact; and this assumption flourished with the emergence of notation, writing, and, eventually, printing and publishing. As van Orden tells her story, that “first century of print” was a time when these two assumptions were in strong dialectical opposition; and, to this day, it remains unclear to what extent that opposition has been resolved by any Hegelian-style synthesis. Nevertheless, as she observes in her final paragraph, artifact-based thinking was heavily reinforced by what she called the “life and works” narratives that took over scholarship during the nineteenth century. As I have previously observed, those were the narratives that transmogrified “Beethoven the working musician” into “Beethoven the monument;” and van Orden basically generalized the scope of that misconception.

Along the logical path through which van Orden makes her case, she drops any number of tidbits likely to make all but the most insensitive reader rethink the nature of the listening experience. One of her most important observations is that the major efforts to print music in France all took place in cities that were a significant difference from Paris. Her point is that those involved with making music for the royal courts or the major cathedrals had far to much to do to find time to “document” their efforts. She observes that one of the major author’s during that first century, Guillaume Costeley, only took to publication after circumstances allowed him to shift his professional life from a performing musician to a tax collector and royal advisor.

An equally important insight deals with the question of authorship. During that first century, printing was a complex profession involving many layers of expertise that had absolutely nothing to do with the text being printed. Thus, in the earliest years of music printing, the “authors” of the books were taken to be the men who produced the physical objects, rather than the content on the pages of those objects. In other words the seeds of thinking of music as an artifact emerged from a mindset that prioritized the making of the “book artifact” over the making of the music.

At this point I suspect there are many readers anxious to remind me that the period covered by van Orden’s book, which begins with Ottaviano Petrucci printing his first volume of the masses of Josquin des Prez in 1502, was also a time during which counterpoint flourished, often at a highly sophisticated level of structure. Wasn’t the counterpoint of the sixteenth century the product of thought processes that required the “cognitive support” of writing? Wasn’t there a “historical inevitability” that music should progress from “orality” to “literacy” (to evoke the terminology of Walter J. Ong)?

To my surprise, van Orden’s book presents evidence that such counterpoint could just as easily have been a product of improvisation. After all, counterpoint emerged in its earliest forms (such as organum) as an oral practice. Sure enough, van Orden described the efforts of a few current early music performing groups to acquire the skill of improvising counterpoint in up to four voices. She even suggests some of the heuristics that such groups would follow. Then, in her final chapter, she goes so far as to argue that Fabrice Marin Caietain’s “Air pour chanter tous sonets” (air for singing all sonnets) amounts to a documented model of how those heuristics could be applied.

I spent about a decade of my life doing research for a large corporation that had decided to call itself “the document company.” My own specialization was in the area of hypermedia, which I saw as a technology that would revolutionize how we thought about both writing and reading. My distance from those activities is now that of another decade; and, when I look at what is now on the market, I can believe that both writing and reading really have been revolutionized, just not in the ways I anticipated. I suppose that is one reason why I am now so inclined to think about the activity of making music, rather than the technologies that “capture” or “document” performances.

There is an old joke that every revolution eventually turns you back to where you started. Reading about the making of music in the sixteenth century, it is difficult not to think of how ragtime and jazz were made before societal norms tried to shoehorn those practices into fodder for music publishers. Only dance seems to have survived as a “culture of practice” (in spite of many efforts to develop systems of notation). However, this recent book takes the music-as-artifact premise and subjects it to my favorite Firesign Theatre motto:

Everything you know is wrong!


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