Thursday 23 April 2015

Epoch Fail

If I'm a little slow to actually tell you what my dissertation is about, it's because—as you'll soon see—I'm not *quite* sure myself. It's about musical expression in the sixteenth century, that much is sure, but that topic is far too broad to write a book about in two years' time. It's more of a career project, and I hope it will work to my advantage that the dissertation feels like a beginning and not an end. I think I will probably narrow it down to looking at the expression of melancholy 1510–1530 or so. I will probably narrow it down to certain types of music too, defined by nationality, text (or lack thereof), and performance context, but I hope what these ought to be will emerge through my reading. 
I've been continuing on with Christine Ross' book today—not because it is most important (in fact it is almost tangential), but because it has been recalled to the library and I have to return it tomorrow. Her book, The Aesthetics of Disengagement, deals with problems of sadness in contemporary art. Art historians have been discussing the aestheticization of pain seriously for centuries—in music, from what I can see, we have been slow to follow. There are art history books and articles much closer to our time period–notably Panofsky and Saxl's famous 1923 study of Albrecht Dürer's engraving from 1514, Melencolia I, and the reactions to it by Walter Benjamin (1928), in Giorgio Agamben's Stanzas (1977), Max Pensky's Melancholy Dialectics (1993) and most recently, Laurinda S. Dixon's The Dark Side of Genius (2013). By looking at reactions to this single engraving over the last 92 years, it is easy to see how it is interpreted in light of our own times.
 In case you've forgotten, this is what Dürer's print looks like (it is the desktop image to the other dissertation workspace—there's not a chance of writing it with only a single screen!).

Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I (1514)

I have yet to read Panofsky and Saxl's take on this print, but from the summary and reactions to it by Ross and others, it looks as though their study takes the stance that the winged angel has succeeded in transforming melancholy from a disease of contemplation into a kind of contemplation that more befits an artist, hence the symbolism of the tools of making and measurement. (Expect a corrected version of this reading sometime in the future.) They base their ideas on Ficino's statement that turning voluntarily towards Saturn, i.e., engaging in "divine contemplation," is a way to counter the detrimental effects of melancholia. Walter Benjamin challenged this idea of the angel as a heroic figure because in Ficinian terms, Saturn is still a malefic influence, and melancholy is still an unhappy state. Rather than interpreting artistic genius as existing on a continuum with pathological melancholy (as suggested by Pseudo-Aristotle in Problemata XXX), Panofsky and Saxl suggest that the first triumphs over the second somehow.
It seems to me that Benjamin is accusing Panofsky & Saxl of over-romanticizing this melancholic angel. I tend to agree—I was a bit surprised to read that she might be a heroic figure, and Ross seems to agree. To me, if Dürer had wanted to show her in some kind of Divine Contemplation, he might have raised the point she is looking at a little higher—though it is worth noticing that she isn't looking at the ground either. (I shall need to find a real art historian to find out if these are indeed relevant!) 
If Panofsky and Saxl are being overly Romantic about Dürer's angel as some kind of suffering artist, Benjamin seems to be a bit more influenced by the psychoanalysis that was so prevalent in his day. Ross doesn't say this—it's my conjecture—but she does say that Benjamin "argues that the art historians' concentration on the individuality of the subjective melancholy genius prevented them from understanding that genuine creativity comes about not in the individual but, as Pensky has observed in his study on Benjamin 'between subjectivity as such and the phsyiognomy of its object realm,' between contemplation and pathology, between creative access to order and a fall into dead nature." [tracing this discourse is getting a little complex—Benjamin was writing in 1928, Pensky in 1993, and Ross in 2006, if that helps!] 
I think this is linked to psychoanalysis because what Freud did at around this time—as far as I understand—was to take the idea of the human soul and start to understand it in relation not just to itself and to a romantic, quasi-religious concept of genius (divine genius coming from a transcendent place even if not heaven), but as something shaped by all the relationships that people have over the course of their lives, to people, objects and ideas. 
It had apparently been traditional at their time to interpret the unused instruments of geometry in Dürer's painting as an expression of the inadequacy of geometry, essential though it may be to artistic craftsmanship, as falling short, unable to bring art into the realm of the sublime. This strikes me as very Romantic indeed, and I am now quite curious to read Giorgio Agamben's rebuttal of this idea. Is it possible that Panofsky and Saxl's ideas were so shaped by being formed at the very tail end of Romanticism, that we might think of their attempt to understand Renaissance thinking as an Epoch Fail?
(Sorry. In academia you get extra points for that sort of thing.)
Ross seems to suggests that Romano Alberti's 1585 discussion of phantasm—I think she means remembered impressions of objects stored in the imagination—might shed some light on why this misinterpretation took place, but ultimately sees his description of the melancholy of an artist in a different light. I'll quote it in full:
 "Painters become melancholics because, wishing to imitate, they must retain the phantasms fixed in the intellect, so that afterward they can express them in the way they first saw them when present; and being their work, this occurs not only once, but continually. They keep their minds so much abstracted and separated from nature that consequently melancholy derives from it. Aristotle says [he means pseudo- of course...but didn't know], however, that this signifies genius and prudence, because almost all the ingenious and prudent have been melancholics." (Quoted in Agamben)
It would be relatively easy for a Romantically-influenced reader to think that R. Alberti is writing about the impossibility of representing transcendence—this was a very big deal in the 19th century. But it is also possible that Romano Alberti should be read with a more classical bent—a platonic view, for instance that even concrete objects are some kind of imitation of their ideal form. They seem to have understood melancholy as a kind of disconnection, so it seems possible to me that the cumulative effect of substituting imagined objects for real ones might over time make someone feel disconnected.
Just to be sure, even though Ross brings Romano Alberti into this discussion, she is also quick to say that Leon Battista Alberti, writing over one hundred years before in 1535, wrote that painters simply painted what they saw! 
(The discussion of mimesis in art will of course be hugely important when we get to word-painting—which is where I will begin becoming mildly coherent, as it is the topic of an upcoming conference paper. Apparently it is discussed in detail in Sarah Kofman's La Mélancholie dans l'art (1985)).
I haven't even got to Laurinda Dixon's study of Dürer yet, but I've more than filled my quota and have practising and administrative tasks yet to accomplish today.  But I'll conclude today by saying that perhaps it is not so bad that I am starting with a book on contemporary art. I have been in Early Music long enough to have discussed dozens of times the impossibility of recreating authentic listeners, let alone authentic performances, and yet I am swayed by Bruce Haynes' argument, put forward in The End of Early Music (2007), that just because you can't attain a perfect understanding of older ways of thinking doesn't imply that it would be sensible should give up altogether. He called Romanticism "a veil" that distorts our concept of the past. By reading about twentieth and twenty-first century views on melancholy and aesthetics, I am more likely to be able to see what biases I am inevitably reading into my sources. If Panofsky and Saxl's analyses of Dürer suffered by being too Romantic, it's also possible that Benjamin's suffered from being too rooted in other ideas distinctly foreign to the Renaissance. And of course I am too, so I'd best attempt to understand what they might be.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Dissertation Writing!

I just started to write my dissertation, and decided that rather than attempt to deal with the immense pressure of actually writing a dissertation, I would write a journal instead, but make it mostly about my dissertation. A few paragraphs in, I realized that I could write this stuff into my blog instead... Of course I have no idea if this is a good or bad idea yet—surely it's a terrible idea! Because what is sure that while I'll write in prose (I have copious notes elsewhere), it won't be particularly coherent until much later on. But at least it may be more amusing for me if I post a picture now and again and allow myself to be entertained by mild digressions. Here's what I've done so far. 

First day of real writing—I suppose I mustn’t clog this up so much with journal, but why not write a bit about the process as I go? That sentence was interrupted by choosing an appropriate desktop image with which to work—not a minute in and a distraction! Maybe the inclusion of a wee journal will help minimize these? On to the writing itself!
Reading Christine Ross’s book on Melancholy vs. Depression in Art. She makes the point that the link with melancholy and genius began to dissipate at the end of the 19th century because of the medicalization of depression, and the view of it as a subjective deprivation of creativity rather than an intersubjective (her word) creative but sad state. This makes some sense—the first is disconnection, and the second a sense of connection to other people feeling the same. She points out that treating depression with drugs changes the emphasis from mind to body. 
One of the more interesting things for me was the notion that the melancholic is engaged with a lost “other,” while the depressed person is constantly preparing for loss. The melancholic is therefore in a state of deep connection, while the depressed person is numbing themselves as a defence against a nebulous but impending loss. One is highly emotional, the other highly disconnected. 
Aesthetically, what is interesting is that we associate Romanticism with subjectivity and call the Classical and Baroque the Rhetorical, emphasizing the communal nature of the passions—we say abstract now though. But communal is perhaps more accurate, because abstract implies a disconnectedness, but rather I think that when someone looks at the depiction of melancholy or listens to sad music, they are engaging in a shared experience. Of course. Why do we say abstract? Maybe we say idealized... People who like art tend to have an idealist streak so that makes sense.
Anyway, Ross's book is making the case that the kind of intense individuality and subjectivity we associate with Romanticism (think Beethoven) actually came about some time later. This makes a lot of sense—it's also when I found, in my paper on when and why performers became obsessed with following scores to the letter, the idea that it was necessary to negate one's own personality in order to do justice to the composer. Suddenly there is no shared experience, just a sole subjective one to be honoured. I'm thinking around WWI, by the way.   
I'm sure you're wondering why I'm starting with this book, when my dissertation is about musical expression in the Renaissance. There's a simple answer—because it's just been recalled to the library! It is not the first book I've started reading, but it's important to get a little way in, I think, to rack up enough confidence to start publishing one's own ideas and interpretations to the Internet. 

It occurs that writing into my blog might make dissertation writing a less lonely process than I fear it might be—I'm sure that is the main reason many people have for avoiding it. Not that I expect you, loyal readers, to comment in order to entertain me, but I am likely to be a bit better of a writer knowing you might be reading. I just realized I ought to be making notes of page numbers and such for myself—I'll put those in the comments. Oh, and I can use the tagging function to help me later on too. Interesting experiment. And here's how it continues...
I've been astonished to learn that the connection between melancholy and the idea of genius or divine inspiration didn't start with the Romantics, but way back as far as Plato ("divine frenzy") and Aristotle—actually pseudo-Arisotle, in his "Problema XXX" which starts with the quote: "Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes?" (Problemata XXX.1 953a10-14)
These writings (and others) were carried through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. They became really important again with Marsilio Ficino, who was both a court physician (to the Medici, I think) and a musician—he recited Orphic Hymns to the lira da braccio. (Quite a new reconstructive recording of this little-known repertoire has just come out and is getting all sorts of stars: Sulla Lira.) Ficino had good reasons for combining music and medicine, which I'll tell you all about tomorrow, as I sum up Brenno Boccadoro's chapter on the same. 
It's 10 already—I didn't expect I could do more than 20 minutes, but I think it is more fun to write into a blog. When I was writing my notes this morning (I am now trying to read a mere 45 minutes a day—not nearly enough but just over the threshold of worthwhile). I mused in my margin that it would be far more entertaining to read a dissertation in the form of correspondence. Such a better literary genre than the essay. I think this blog will have to be the halfway point—the final version will become an essay of course—it must—but perhaps I'll be able to write it in a digestible way.

Re-reading a tiny bit "They became really important again" seems too far off in the other direction—reads like a children's book, no? I'll try to become a better writer in the course of all this.

Here's the picture I put on my desktop, btw. From a hike near Interlaken in 2009 I think. The first crocuses are just starting to bloom in the front garden here.

(Shortly after...)
 It occurs to me (and now I really have to go into McGill, so, quickly!) that the medicalization of melancholy is not a 20th-century phenomenon at all, but that "black bile" is a bodily syndrome too. I wonder if there is a parallel between Ross' ideas and the ideas of melancholic temperament vs. melancholic disease that were being thrown about by poor old pseudo-Aristotle (better to be forgotten by posterity or be pseudo someone else?)—the former still had associations to genius, but the latter was a bodily thing to be cured (all from Saxl et. al.—will surely rehash later. So much to investigate!

Saturday 3 January 2015

I have a hankering to write, which is a good thing, because it's time to start thinking about the big "D" word: "Dissertation." Last year—a barren wasteland as far as blog posts go—I conquered "Comps" or "comprehensive exams." And yes, we do refer to it as the "C" word, from time to time.

I should have been delighted to finish the coursework part of my studies and plunge into dissertation-land, but apart from the basic exhaustion to be expected after absorbing information on 6 topics (actually 8, but I took a risk and abandoned two before reaching "expert" level), there was something about comps which took a while to get over, i.e., becoming so involved in something that I didn't have any time for myself.

Those of you with kids can stop snickering.

With music-making it's more comfortable: you try to become immersed in your rehearsal, concert, practice session etc. for concentrated stints. In comps preparation, you get the feeling that if you step back for a moment, you'll never recover your momentum. Thinking about stuff starts early in the morning and continues into the night, and any time not reading or reviewing is laced with anxiety. I think a lot of academics feel this way, and am glad I became a musician first. I find the idea of being enthralled by anything rather terrifying, and at least with music it comes with an end-time and a lot of dopamine along the way. After a resistance I did not imagine I possessed, I finally let myself get sucked into my comps for the last two and a half weeks or so, when I finally decided not to treat it as a loop I had to jump through, but as an immersion in the study of writings on music that actually, when I stepped back for a moment, I loved.

If the lack of posts over the past years missed documenting anything, it would have been the slow transition to accepting that I can be a scholar as well as a musician. There is still a lot of BS in academia—a lot of politics, navel-gazing, buzzwords, and sadly a lot of dashing to publish material when it is still too green to know how it may ripen—but there is also a lot of honest delight in scholarship. I am trying to remind myself that this is what has to carry me through—and to a certain extent it's working, I think.

Thursday 21 November 2013

Discovering Canada

Since I've moved back to Canada, It's been an absolute delight to explore my own country for a change. Here are some pictures from my North American travels of the last two years:

After so many trips to Scotland,
at last I went to Nova Scotia.
As you can see, the weather is
exactly the same.

This is in the Bay of Fundy. There be dragons.

Clams are very rich, and I cannot recommend
eating more than forty in one sitting.

Quebec and Ontario are too close to home
to be interesting in landscape,
but it has been a treat to rediscover them
from a "Terroir" perspective. Quebec cidre
is particularly good.

Ontario wine.

For the first time in ages I have
participated in my country's local 

I've seized a few opportunities to head south of the border. 
Here is Philly, with old and new very much side by side.

At last I made it here! 

Visiting friends from the Old World are an excellent excuse to head to Quebec City,
Canada's "see, we are old too."

Also a chance to introduce friends to the cultural baggage that is our bread and butter.

Ontario's beauty is small-scale.

No room in the family canoe,
but I was pretty happy to be the
odd one out (Georgian Bay).

Ontario also holds the gateway to Narnia, by the way.
Not telling where.
Let's play "find the lamppost."

The West Coast is over-the-top stunnery.
This is the ferry coming through
Action Pass at dusk.
The US border is everywhere
when you're Canadian.
Mount Baker looms in the US Cascades.

Impressive as a thousand year old church
is a thousand year old tree.



I always though "Crazy Canuck" was a ä
British term of endearment.
Only in Canada would we embrace it
to such a level.

British Columbia is gorgeous, and it knows it.

And this is home.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

100th Blog Post!

I mustn't let a year go by without posting on my blog, so here it is, and not a moment too soon.

It's been a chaotic and highly-themed year, the main theme being trying to find a balance between many different things. Music and academia are at the top of the list of crisis-inducing imbalances (my frustration with the latter are apparent in my last posts of 2011 I think), while being in a relationship now (a year already) after many years alone has been wonderful and quite new, but has of course taken time away from certain solitary activities like, say, blogging. Add to these daily chores, trying to stay fit and healthy, making and keeping friends, plotting world domination and having a few adventures and soon I wonder, Is there a time and place for everything?

Let's see. As it happens, now is not the time or place to blog, but that this post is here anyhow bodes well for my loyal followers. Let's see what the coming days bring...

In the meantime some pictures of the edgier side of Vienna, all from the last few days:

Molly in—Oh goodness, what a liberal toilet stall!
(at the famous Café Diglas)

The wonders of electrochromism.

This one scared me off completely.

Monday 21 November 2011

In one week I'll be flying back to Europe again, and I hope very much that I'll be able to partake a little bit in the slower pace of life over there. I have no regrets about coming back to Canada, but the sheer volume of interesting, urgent projects which fill the same mental and chronological spaces here is astounding. The musicologyology class which featured in the last post has had a few ups, in particular an article by Rob Wegman, writing that just because we've identified our own narcissism in music research doesn't mean we should just abandon it altogether. Amen. Most of my margin notes were batmanesque onomatopoiea: "Pow!" and "Wham!" annotations whenever he wrote something that poked a hole in new musicology's self righteousness. The next few presentations involved music that could be heard, too. Which reminds me that I mustn't write too long as I have to prepare a presentation on Schubert's homosexuality. I'm slightly offended by the idea that someone's sexual orientation necessary changes the meaning of someone's music --which is excellent I suppose since I tend to absorb a lot more information once I've begun situating my position in relation to it.

My other work at McGill, on the SIMSSA project, has been more and more interesting as I get more involved. I'm slowly getting used to being called "our resident musicologist" too.

Now I'm preparing editions for Saturday's concert, which is a bit of a shocker as I thought it would take me 10 hours and I think it'll be more like 30. I always forget that being a little myopic and not liking page turns is a recipe for endless tinkering layout perfectionism. I've also made a little page on Facebook for La Rose des Vents to tide us over until I can organize a proper website, which has the interesting effect of making having just founded a band seem much more real.

Among the many headaches involved in getting this concert together has been working out which organ to use and in which tuning. Instead of the ideal 466 organ at meantone, we'll have a 415 organ in Valotti, which sounds out of tune to me (because it is) and means making lot of transposed parts with lots of sharps in them. After losing some hours of sleep to being riled up about this I was reminded by a friend that letting myself be offended was in this case not very productive.

I went to Kitchener a few weeks ago for the sole purpose of admiring my nephew and my newborn niece Audrey, which was lovely. I was very happy to see that the government has finally pumped nearly a billion dollars into improving passenger rail. Still not enough to give us high speed nor, it would appear, to upgrade the luggage carts in Toronto Union station from disused Victorian farm equipment:

At least they've replaced the horses

One thing that I love about being back in Montreal is the sheer quantity of sushi available. There is good sushi in Kitchener too, but with small children it was better and more fun to make it at home.

Liam about to tuck in

I got distracted this afternoon from edition making and started looking up the easter eggs hidden in software and operating systems - beware! If you click, don't get carried away. But if you're on OSX, do hold down ctrl+option+command and press 8...

Now I've practised too and am feeling quite lightheaded. Lots to do in the next week before I go again, so please pardon if this spot continues to be sparsely populated... once I'm in Vienna I hope I'll have a bit more time to write!

Sunday 23 October 2011

Hermeneutics, Ontology, Post-Structuralist, Semiotic Tri-Partition, Invagination (!), Commodification, Cultural Hegemony... still there?

It's all just a little bit too much, if I may say. These are all topics we're dealing with in Proseminar in Musicology, or as I like to call it, Musicologyology. After complaining to some colleagues that it's all quite absurd ("in the existential or the dadaist sense?"), I realize now that Musicology is just insecure. It's trying to validate itself by situating itself in the domains of literary theory, sociology, and linguistics, taking all their big words.

I realized yesterday that my problem is that, taking a look at the above domains, I don't have any background in any of them. I presume that at one point this was taught in school, I must have been ill that day. So all the musicologyology articles which explore the transposition of their concepts - each with as many contentious meanings as syllables - onto music, I can understand the mapping going on but I don't understand the original concept. They are slowly being taught (actually very well, from a professor who deals very diplomatically with our ignorance), but I have to admit that I find it depressing to be learning these concepts in a music class. I'd much much rather take a literary theory class first where all these concepts are at home, and then have a few sessions on how concepts like "reification" get mapped onto musical discourse (whatever "discourse" is). By learning all these concepts in a music class, we're learning them with all the baggage of musicologists trying to negotiate the awkwardness of making them fit music. I've been leaving every class and going up to the harpsichord rooms to bang around until I feel like living again.

I don't mind that musicological discourse exists on this level, of course people should get embroiled in clever philosophical discussions. What I don't like is that it so easily slips into being antimusical. There was a presentation this week on three articles pertaining to a short Chopin prelude. The presenter managed to talk for about half an hour about three views on this piece, while never once letting the class listen to it, despite every kind of audio-visual device being present in the room. She did affix a one-page photocopy to the back of the handout, though, cementing an implicit message that in the context of this class, music is like children: to be seen and not heard. But music can't be read off a page like a book, and even if I can imagine a great deal of what notated music sounds like (do I dare admit when I can't?) my physical and intuitive reactions are just as valid as anything I might be able to analyze visually, and I'm upset when they're brushed aside and ignored.

It was early in my university career that I figured out that I wasn't going to make it as a professional musician unless I let go of being cerebral all the time and gave some clout to my intuition too. A scary concept back then, and it still is, because it means not being a control freak about the passage of every moment in time. As David McGuinness once helpfully reminded me, we can't dictate everything that's going to happen in performance, the only thing we can guarantee is that Something will happen. This kind of letting go seems a rather obvious pre-requisite to performing, but I think that for academic study it's just as necessary. And just as scary. After all, you can control the words and notes that someone reads, but once you let people listen to music and intuit a response, you lose control over what is going through their heads. In jargon you'd say you're letting your audience collect its own empirical data, which is necessarily different from yours. (But I do like "you lose control over what is going through their head" better.) It's not necessary to have that level of control, fortunately. A musical analysis is about teaching new ways of listening and understanding, and its success is not dependent at all on whether it's the best possible way (though perhaps it was in Theodor Adorno's time) but on whether it could be convincing to someone, that is to say, if it wins its audience over by presenting an idea in such a way that it rings true with what their intuition tells them. (All a question of hermeneutics - someone make it stop). It means that the presenter should have played a recording of the piece in order to awake my intuition and bring it into the conversation. By not doing that she had no hope of winning me over to any single one of the points of view she was presenting.

Fortunately this quote of Albert Einstein is all over Facebook this week to show me I'm not alone in my desire for intuition to be granted validity:

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."

(You can decide for yourself if the fallacy of an authoritative appeal makes any difference for you in the force or validity of the statement.)

I apologize profusely for the degree of jargon that has gone into this blog post. I hope it convinces you at least that I'll be an effective spy, infiltrating academia, learning their language if anything in order to stand up convincingly for music to be both seen AND heard. After all, as Frank Zappa said, Music is the Best.