Saturday, December 22, 2018

Ellen Lockhart and the Music of Animated Statues

from the Web page for the book being discussed

Last year the University of California Press published a volume whose title almost read as if it had been generated by a computer. In fact, however, Animation, Plasticity, and Music in Italy, 1770–1830 was the published version of the doctoral dissertation written by Ellen Lockhart to conclude her graduate studies at Cornell University. The book presents Lockhart as a researcher who is not afraid to dive deep into her sources and then return to the surface to account for her findings in clearly accessible language. On the other hand the very nature of her subject matter stands as an indicator of how difficult it has become to come up with original thesis material than can be discussed and defended through a degree-worthy dissertation.

Given the clarity of Lockhart’s writing, it seems proper to reproduce her own words describing the thesis topic that she has chosen to present and justify:
I argue that from 1770 to 1830, the animated statue was not only a figure of spectatorial engagement—as an object shaped like a human body, inviting aesthetic attention from the human body, and curing a corresponding animation within the human body—but also a means of understanding the relation of human senses to the self and to the very matters and materials of the fine arts.
Those who follow this site know that I am not one to recoil from a lengthy sentence; and, for what it is worth, the adjective “spectatorial” can be found on an Oxford Living Dictionaries Web page, even if it is there only as the adjectival form of “spectator!” More interesting, however, is the universality of the topic, extending beyond music to the fine arts in general.

This past summer, when writing about the Profil album of the complete operas of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, I recalled the joke about a one-sentence book report written by a sixth grader: “This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.” When it comes to animated statues, most of us think immediately (if not exclusively) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 opera Don Giovanni. First performed in 1787, that opera fits comfortably into Lockhart’s time frame; but it receives relatively little attention in her book. Pride of place instead goes to the musical dramatization of the Pygmalion myth, best known from Ovid’s account in his Metamorphoses. However, Prometheus also figures in the examples that Lockhart explores, which include Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1801 Opus 43 score for the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, based on a libretto by Salvatore Viganò.

For the most part, however, many readers will find most of the names that emerge in this book to be as unfamiliar as Viganò’s. Personally, I feel that the one name that deserves more attention is that of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, whose Traité des sensations was written in 1754. A disclaimer is appropriate here: When I entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was informed that those of us with knowledge of French had the option of taking our four semesters of introductory humanities in French, rather than in English. As a result I was fortunate enough to encounter Condillac’s treatise in the spring of my freshman year, and my copy of that book is still on my shelf!

Given the state of knowledge in the middle of the eighteenth century, Condillac was a major pioneer in the domain of psychology as we now know it and the philosophical side of what has come to be called “cognitive science.” His treatise took a “bottom-up” approach to an analysis of sensation. He begins by asking the reader to imagine a statue. He then augments that statue by providing it with a single sensory organ, the nose and describes the effect this partial animation, so to speak, will have on the statue. He then works he way systematically through the other four senses before then turning to what happens when the sensory organs then interact among each other.

(Fun fact: The shortest path from the “outside world” to the brain goes through the nose. I learned this from a lecture given by Gary Lynch to a cognitive science seminar series at the University of California at Los Angeles. As Lynch put it, “There are only three neurons between your brain and air.” Think about that the next time you inhale the scent of someone’s marijuana joint!)

Lockhart basically treats Condillac’s analysis as a “recipe” for the sort of “animation” she cites in her title. Ultimately, however, I did not come away convinced that Condillac’s insights had much to do with the musical examples she presented, particularly the operatic ones. Far more significant were the examples she cited of how a “statue figure,” such as Galatea, acquires a sense of self and the ways in which different composers could lend expressive power to the delivery of a mere first person pronoun.

It is through this issue of how self is established that we encounter another familiar name among the composers that Lockhart discusses. It involves a significant transition in which the regular rhythms of vocal music from the eighteenth century and earlier begin to bend to the more flexible rhythms of speech:
It is in the music of Vincenzo Bellini that we may hear the speech-like song … in its purest form. This declamation is most evident in Bellini’s early operas and was identified immediately by startled spectators, who (for reasons that should now be clear) called the style “philosophical.” His operas for La Scala bear a number of strong family resemblances to the first essays in melodramatic opera, Through large portions of Il pirata (1827) and La straniera (1829), Bellini employed vocal lines that were so austere and so resolutely speech-like that one contemporary critic wondered whether they should be called canto declamato (spoken song) or declamazione cantata (sung speech). An emphasis on “the rhythms of the spoken word” resulted in brief lyric portions that eschewed ornamentation and repetition, taking their melodic forms directly from the verse …. Perhaps more striking, though, are the fluid musical forms that play host to this song. Bellinian “numbers” like Gualtiero’s aria in act 1 of Il pirata feature a continuous texture, devoid of extended ritornelli but defined instead by a constant interchange between accompanied recitative, arioso, and orchestral gesture; a single number might encompass dozens of tiny shifts of character, tempo, and key, and a few larger ones. (John Rosselli called this music “startlingly Wagnerian.”)
(Readers may recall that I invoked the latter part of this passage last weekend when writing about Franz Liszt’s paraphrases of operas by both Bellini and Richard Wagner.)

Lockhart also includes a chapter on sensory deprivation, which struck me as valuable for shifting the domain of discourse from general questions of self to the more specific issue of time consciousness. She pays particular attention to how the blind can only perceive objects “diachronically,” usually by applying the sense of touch to different parts of the object over a span of time. She then asks whether there might be a “spatial” way to perceive music the way a sighted person recognizes an object in an instantaneous glance.

This is the one place in which Lockhart’s background scholarship turns out to be lacking. There is (and has been for some time) a shape-based approach to the representation of a time-dependent audio signal. It is known as a sonogram. It is basically a graph with time as the horizontal axis and frequency on the vertical. It essentially provides an instant-by-instant representation of the spectral content of a sound. I once attended a lecture by a specialist in computer-based speech recognition, who supposedly could look at a sonogram and “read” the text being uttered by the data sample; but I never saw him actually demonstrate this skill. (The MIT Media Lab explored the possibility of accounting for mapping two independent dimensions along the time line through a rectangular solid called a “micon.”) Andrew Bregman wrote an entire book entitled Auditory Scene Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound about the interpretation of sonograms, but the book never made a convincing case that his techniques would account for perceiving music.

Personally, I am not entirely convinced that Lockhart’s book follows through on the thesis statement quoted above. On the other hand it presents a highly engaging account of both social and intellectual contexts during that period of transition from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth. If most of the members of Lockhart’s “cast of characters” tend to be obscure, the roles they played in a changing artistic frame of reference are still worthy of consideration.

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