Tuesday, December 22, 2015

For and Against Example 5.7

by Anna Zayaruznaya

There is a small but distinct possibility that my Example 5.7 is the stupidest thing ever recorded in a studio. It lasts about 5 seconds and comprises the four-measure midpoint of the motet Hélas/Corde mesto by Guillaume de Machaut (download it here). A full recording of the motet exists, but Example 5.7 is not an excerpt from that. No, mezzo-soprano Clare MacNamara, viellist Michael Rigsby and I actually sang these four measures, and only them, abruptly stopping when our music ran out, and smiling at each other at the end of the take. It was absurd, and we knew it.

The back-story is that the book whose argument this tiny sound-byte purports to forward is about fourteenth-century motets (and monsters, too, though that isn’t pertinent here). Medieval motets are musico-poetic objects deeply connected to the cultures that produced them, and those of us who write about them do our best to target a multidisciplinary audience: my hope is that my musicological and music-theoretical colleagues as well as those in medieval studies, literature, and history might find something to like in these dense, polytextual songs, as might graduate and undergraduate students in some of these fields. So I do my best to make motets accessible to the widest range of audiences.

Colleagues who have presented music-analytical arguments at interdisciplinary conferences know what sometimes happens when a music example turns up in a paper: half of the audience shuts down. (I’m not talking about you, you hidden musicians with decades of experience on the violin or piano, though you happen now to study Augustine. I’m glad you are in the world, and I hope you enjoy my music examples.) And even some musicological colleagues get antsy when they see my examples—chimeras that preserve fourteenth-century note-shapes but use modern clefs and staff alignment (see Example 5.7, below). So when a colleague who studies medieval French chansons de geste asked whether my book’s music examples would be recorded, I said “sure!” and thought “why not?” There are singers in the world, and vielles, and the AMS kindly gave me a subvention to pay the performers and engineer. And now some 38 recordings accompany The Monstrous New Art on its companion website. Four of them render whole motets, others give significant sections of music including first glimpses of motets which have not previously been recorded. They are not all, in other words, as ridiculous as Example 5.7.

Example 5.7: Machaut, Hélas/Corde mesto (M12), mm. 79–83. Reprinted from Zayaruznaya, The Monstrous New Art: Divided Forms in the Late Medieval Motet (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 190.
“And anyway,” I thought hopefully, “maybe no-one will listen to the short ones.” After all, my argument does not require that the reader hear these four measures—it only asks that she believe my prose about them. Hélas/Corde mesto is an unusual piece in that its motetus (usually a middle voice in Machaut’s motet) spends the first half of the piece as the highest voice. During Example 5.7 it finally descends to its natural place, while describing the bad people (“malis,” m. 80) whom the goddess Fortune elevates and the good ones (“bonis,” mm. 82–3) whom she unfairly casts down. So the movement of voices in pitch-space is mapped onto the movement of people in the metaphorical vertical space of Fortne’s wheel. Graphical apparatus in the printed example helps communicate this—the dotted line at the midpoint, the gray arrows indicating the motetus’s unusual place above the triplum.

If I attempt to make my point in three different ways, it’s because of a cynicism (pragmaticism?) I have about whether anyone ever looks at my music examples. Medieval scribes often left examples out of their music treatises, signaling them with the words “ut hic” (“as here:”) but then allowing these “hic”s to remain as dangling indexes (see the blank staves in the image below). And we modern writers of texts about music sometimes skip them too, noting for ourselves that we need to return later or referring our reviewers or editors to a different file. “Place Example 5.7 here” can stand in for Example 5.7 until proofs. Then at the proof stage we are reminded of the million ways in which examples can be wrong (pitch, rhythm, text alignment, fonts, sizing…). Was it ever worth it?

Seville, Biblioteca Capitular y Colombina, Sign.: 5-2-25, fol. 63v.
I hope so. For all their being left out by scribes, skipped over by readers, or mangled by publishers, music examples do something unique and important. They allow us to point to a particular place in a musical work, to stop time so that we can observe in detail something which in its natural state goes by too quickly to be reckoned with (like cooling down particles to observe them, or being Quicksilver in X-Men). And for all that some readers will skip my examples, others, I know, will look only at them. A music theorist friend who is also a journal editor once told me that he always looks first through the examples in an article he reads, skipping the text and allowing them to tell their own story. Examples constitute an important, discipline-specific way of “showing our work.” Carefully selected examples can make the difference between a seemingly unsupported observation and a specific claim upon which others can be built. But they also leave us vulnerable to the reviewer’s caustic charge “I don’t see that in your example.” A music example, then, can seem like a gamble, but it is one worth taking.

So how do we improve our odds? Can we guarantee that our examples will do us more good than harm, or that anyone will engage with them seriously? I always advise my students to write their analyses in such a way that a reader skipping the examples would still get the point. (“It’s your point to make, not the example’s—don’t count on your reader to do the work.”) But by the same token, and keeping my editor friend in mind, we can help our examples tell their story convincingly by using boxes, arrows, and careful captioning. We can excerpt just the right amount, giving enough context but not too much, so that the reader’s careful attention will be rewarded. Rather than seeing the variety of possible readerly approaches as a liability, we can think about the different learning styles of those with whom we are in dialogue—just as we would in the classroom—and do our best to make our argument multiply accessible. For me, one tool for keeping my examples organically embedded in my text is to avoid deferring their selection and insertion. A note to “find the right example and insert here” will lead to generic text that begs the question “do you need this example?” Instead, I stop writing, go to the edition or manuscript, actually do the act of selecting, scanning or editing, and then import the image back into my file.[1] Yes, this can take hours or days, and in a climate where generating text is billed as the highest good, it can feel counter-productive. But it is not: appropriate examples produce text, just as text creates the opportunity for examples, and there is nothing so satisfying (to me, anyway) as writing paragraphs that accompany an example. They almost write themselves.

By combining examples and text into the same file, the writer places herself into a similar reading situation to that of her reader, and can make the most intuitive decisions about what needs to be said before the example, and what after; which measures to mention in the prose and when to use a box or highlighting; when exactly to invite the reader to look below at example 5.7. You will not always have your way, of course—publishers may wish you to place an example later in the text than you intended. But at least knowing what you want will help you determine when to fight back and when to yield. And dissertation writers: this is the last time you will have full control over the placement and appearance of your examples. Revel in it, and use it to make the most convincing possible document.

But it’s not all about the product: there is also the process. One of the results of making examples, of performing them or listening to them repeatedly, is that their content is rendered familiar—even intimately so. Now when I listen to a recording of the entire Hélas/Corde mesto (disk 2, track 12 on this album), the midpoint moment jumps out at me, winking like an old friend, arresting my attention, grounding me in the work’s larger narrative, telling me exactly where I am. This is a new phenomenon, and, considering that I have been thinking about this particular motet for about 12 years, it is noteworthy. We can write about whole pieces of music, edit them, typeset them, perform them, assign them, and translate them; but tiny, focused examples allow us to internalize them. That’s four more measures of the fourteenth century that I really know. Not a huge boon, sure, but considering the temporal, cultural, and geographical remove involved, it’s a start. And some of my examples are longer. When all is said and done, then, I suppose that I stand grudgingly behind my Example 5.7. At least it didn’t take us many takes to record.


Anna Zayaruznaya is an assistant professor in the department of music at Yale University. Her first book, The Monstrous New Art: Divided Forms in the Late Medieval Motet, was published by Cambridge University Press in Summer 2015.



[1] One problem, of course, is that Microsoft Word hates images, especially when there are many of them and they are large. I avoid drafting in Word, and use InDesign and Scrivener instead. These programs are opposites in many respects: InDesign is expensive and focused on the page and its appearance (amazing for dissertations, if your institution will help you to a license—it’s part of Adobe Creative Cloud now) while Scrivener is cheap and wholly foregoes the concept of the page, allowing you to compose into a scroll. Both programs make inserting images easy and painless, and both are less likely to crash than Word. Both have something of a learning curve, but this is 2015, people. Learn your software. If you must use Word, take the time to make lower-resolution versions of your examples for the purpose of writing.

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