Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Musicological Appreciation of the Distinction between Nouns and Verbs

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about an article in the Journal of the American Musicological Society by Rob C. Wegman which suggested that the governing powers of "the city of fifteenth-century Leiden thought more about the issues of both education and poverty than government at any level in our own country in the present day." However, I was not drawn to this article by my interests in educational policy. Rather, I was drawn to the paper by its title "From Maker to Composer: Improvisation and Musical Authorship in the Low Countries, 1450–1500." I had encountered that title while reading Kate van Orden’s book Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, about which I had written (in rather glowing terms) on my national site at the end of last month. The thesis behind this book is that the sixteenth century, which happened to begin with the publication of the first volume of the masses of Josquin des Prez in 1502, was a period during which how people thought about music went through a radical "paradigm" shift (to invoke the terminology of of Thomas S. Kuhn's monograph, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." In prior centuries thinking about music was solely a matter of thinking about making it through performance. However, Ottaviano Petrucci's printed volume of Josquin's music introduced the possibility that one could make music by making a document, rather than making a performance.

This struck a familiar nerve for me. Last August I had found myself thinking, once again, about the difference between a verb-based approach to thinking about music (where the focus is on those actions that lead to performance) and a noun-based approach in which thinking about artifacts, such as pieces of paper with music notation on them, is more important than the dynamics of interpreting the notation. It was that familiarity that led me to check out what Wegman had to say about the distinction between making and composing. Through this paper, I was pleased to discover that I was far from the first to recognize the distinction between nouns and verbs in thinking about music. Instead, that recognition could be traced all the way back to Aristotle.

There are some real gems of observation in that section of Wegman's paper that deals with the distinction between making and doing. His primary source is the medieval theorist Tinctoris, but he is also interested in how one can read Tinctoris' texts properly. Here is the first quote that resonated with me:
At the root of Tinctoris's perception lies the Aristotelian distinction between making (poiesis) and doing (praxis). Music, by definition, belongs to the latter category. To ‘make’ is to produce a piece of work, an object, and sound is not an object but motion. It is fleeting, transitory, immaterial: sound cannot be made (factus) but only uttered (prolatus).To think of music as a ‘thing’ is a paradox: things have permanence and spatial extension, and for sound this is unthinkable unless it is represented by ink on paper, thus assuming matter and form.
The distinction between nouns and verbs then arises in addressing the nature of "Tinctoris's perception" as follows:
And the principal characteristic of the perception is, in fact, its commonsensical nature, its rootedness in everyday language: a thing is a substance (noun) modified by accidents (adjectives),while motion is caused by action (verb), involving an agent (nominative) and patient (accusative). Tinctoris's written/mental classification, cited above, parallels exactly this noun/verb distinction. While written counterpoint, by its very nature, can only be represented by a noun (res facta or cantus compositus), oral counterpoint necessarily requires one to use a verb (cantare super librum). The noun contrapunctus, covering both, can be an overarching term by virtue of being, not an object, but an ars, a knowledge of the rules for making and doing.
From that position Wegman can then return to the "Aristotelian distinction," now reflected by the writings of Thomas Aquinas:
Although writing, creating, and making are nowadays used interchangeably as synonyms for composing, medievals were acutely conscious of the distinctions between them, and they carefully maintained these in written statements. ‘To create,’ as Aquinas put it (ibid., 264), is to ‘produce something out of nothing,’ which only the Creator can. To make or to compose is to work on or put together material provided by nature, which is what the artist does. To write, finally, is to copy (scribere).
I suppose that, had I been younger, I would have felt disappointed to discover that what I had thought was my own bright idea had actually been hijacked from Aristotle. However, I have been nurturing this idea for quite some time, going back to my own days as a Silicon Valley researcher. No matter how hard I worked at it, I always felt as if I was the only one who saw any value in it. As a result of reading Wegman's paper, I no longer feel quite so solitary!

No comments: