Friday, February 12, 2021

Augustine's De Musica, Book VI--the necessity of having followed the tedium of Books I-V to understand why all those numbers are significant in terms of human cognition

Now we can finally get to the more famous final book of Augustine's treatise, having seen at least some of what books I-V were discussing.  Someone like Ted Gioia can get hung up on the mere fact that numeri show up in Augustine's treatise without, it seems, remembering why Augustine had his master and disciple discuss where those numbers were perceived and how that is significant.  It's no surprise that a post-Pythagorean and post-Platonic thinker like Augustine would turn toward number but we can see, from what I quoted earlier from the first five books, that Augustine's interest was in things like mobile and immobile meters and in the last book we get to the matter of the minds that are able to perceive the numbers in the flow of a poetic or musical rhythm.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

excerpts from Augustine's De Musica (Books I-V), his never-finished treatise on music--proposing that Augustine's discourse on poetic rhythm could correspond to "flow" in hiphop if music historians stop using him as a punching bag (hint, Ted Gioia)

The single most important problem with Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History with respect to Augustine of Hippo is he never quotes Augustine. He also never mentions that  Augustine's treatise on music was never finished. Augustine is merely collapsed into Gioia's patently pejorative take on Pythagoras and the entirety of all Pythagorean and quasi-Pythagorean or neo-Pythagorean conceptions of music as Gioia takes them to be over the last 2,500 years.  Well, let's at least quote Augustine and associated scholarship to give people a chance to decide what they think.  Just because we might not endorse a post-Pythagorean neo-Platonic cosmology in which the divinely ordered cosmos is full of musical resonance that can be replicated or imitated in human music doesn't mean we can't at least disagree with Augustine for what he says rather than by way of some person telling us what to think about Augustine without ever quoting him.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Ted Gioia's history of music as Europe vs. Africa traffics in an artificial binary--exploring the Native Hawaiian ancestry of slide guitar and Anton Reicha's advocacy of microtonal melodic ornament in 1814

… No matter what the political structure one advocates, the wrong music can apparently send it toppling. Perhaps the strongest aspect of this evolution is its reversal of the ancients’ philosophical dichotomy. The guitar, a kind of modern lyre, is now the dangerous source of disorder, while the flute is seen as a prim, subdued instrument evoking respectability and orderliness.  This is one of the most striking examples of the dialectic at play in music history in which things turn into their opposites.

 This is not mere happenstance. The guitar shook things up in the twentieth century because it was the focal point for the African diaspora’s attack on the Pythagorean paradigm that had dominated Western music since 500 BC. As blues guitar techniques entered the mainstream, they validated the use of bent notes and introduced sounds outside conventional scales. This assault on Pythagorean notions of playing in tune—which for centuries had required musicians to keep within the boundaries of carefully delineated scales and maintain a proper tone—threatened to overturn all the hierarchies of established music, both social and aural. [emphasis added]

 … This African counter-paradigm represented the most forceful attack in more than two millennia on the codification of music into a system of discrete notes. The knife could bend a guitar note in a way that a hand or finger could not. With a weapon in hand, the subversive performer could rediscover music’s origins in unconstrained sound. As such, the modern guitar represents the exact danger that Plato had perceived in the flute more than two millennia before: an untuning of the universe. Music: A Subversive History, page 106

 The rise of the blues may offer the most powerful test case we could devise for assessing a key thesis of my book, namely, the assertion that musical innovation comes from the underclass. This hypothesis, if it could be proven, would show how different music is from other art forms.  Innovation in painting and sculpture, for example, has almost always happened in close proximity to rich patrons—even today, a couple hundred affluent collectors set the tone for the visual arts economy. The rise of the novel drew momentum from the wealth-creating enterprises of the Industrial Revolution. The new artistic mediums of today—video games, virtual reality, and probably whatever is coming next—appear inextricably connected to profit-generating businesses in Silicon Valley. Only music plays by different rules, almost defiantly so. Music: A Subversive History, pages 335-336

Being a guitarist I’m flattered that Gioia thinks the guitar has been so revolutionary in music in the last century. I’m tempted to agree but …   is Ted Gioia imagining that all post-Pythagorean bids at tuning system represent repressive norms?  Did blue notes really defy the established order by not obeying “the rules”, whatever those are of “properly” ordered scales and notes?  Are we talking about the rules of sixteenth and seventh century species counterpoint grounded in the performing traditions of acapella vocal music? Those rules emerged for some practical as well as theoretical reasons. 

Or is Ted Gioia trying to say that blues riffs with notes a quarter-tone away from the notes E flat or A natural on a keyboard is subversive?  String players who perform Haydn string quartets already know that E flat and D sharp are not the same pitch, which was why when Haydn went to the trouble of saying to play a passage scored in E flat starting from the pitch of D sharp that was because he felt he needed to. 

Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History has a theory of Pythagoras that got debunked by Kyle Gann's history of tuning systems more than a month before Gioia's book came out

Music: A Subversive History

Ted Gioia

Basic Books, Hachette Book Group

Copyright © 2019 by Ted Gioia

ISBNs: 978-1-5416-4436-6 (hardcover), 978-1-5416-1797-1 (ebook)

At a certain point in Western history, music became a quasi-science. Or, to be more precise, those who theorized about music managed to impose a scientific and mathematical framework that would marginalize all other approaches to the subject. We can even assign a name, a location, and a rough date to this revolution. The alleged innovator was Pythagoras of Samos, born around the year 570 BC. The impact of the Pythagorean revolution on the later course of music is still insufficiently understood and appreciated. I believe he is the most important person in the history of music—although his `innovation’ has perhaps done as much harm as good—and I will make a case for that bold claim in the pages ahead. Yet he is often treated as little more than a colorful footnote in cultural history, a charming figure who appears in anecdotes and asides, but not the mainstream narrative of cultural history.…

Pythagoras’s attempt to define and constrain musical sounds by the use of numbers and ratios continues to shape how we conceptualize and perform songs in the current day, and even now we distinguish between melody and noise. Music, as it is taught in every university and conservatory in the world today, is explicitly Pythagorean in its methods and assumptions. And even when musical styles emerged from the African diaspora that challenged this paradigm, threatening to topple it with notes that didn’t belong to scales and rhythms that defied conventional metric thinking, the algorithmic mindset prevailed, somehow managing to codify non-Pythagorean performance styles that would seem to resist codification. [emphasis added] Even today, I see the Pythagorean spirit as the implicit philosophy undergirding the advances of digital music—the ultimate reduction of song to mathematics—and technologies such as synthesizers, drum machines, Auto-Tune, and the dynamic range compression of current-day recordings. From pages 48-49

Gioia's would-be subversive history of music was a fun read in terms of breezy style but exasperating in terms of its history. Gioia has a pejorative take on Pythagoras and anyone and anything he has bracketed into the category of Pythagorean. 

Monday, February 08, 2021

Atanas Ourkouzounov: Toccatchenitsa (video with score)


This piece is fun and a good introduction, for those who have never heard of Atanas Ourkouzounov, to what he does.  From page one we can hear and see an interest in non-metered musical ideas that make use of extended techniques and riffs and grooves in which timbre, melody and harmony are inextricably bound to what is physically possible on the instrument. If you're a guitarist as skilled as Ourkouzounov this means there's few things that can't be done that aren't impossible on the instrument to begin with.