Thursday, September 08, 2005
The Rhetorical Question
Rhetoric in music is perhaps the soul of narrative music – particularly where vocal music and texts are concerned. I believe it’s one of the reasons that much musical evolution takes place in vocal genres.
Musical rhetoric derives originally from the oratorical arts. It was included in the original trivium of the liberal arts. It migrated naturally to music, I think.
Bach, Crumb, and others have indulged in math games in their music. Debussy has his “rain” music in “Il pleure dans mon Coeur.” Britten has his four “Sea Interludes.” Barber, in “The Monk and His Cat” and other composers have incorporated the kitten on the keys idea. Bach used rhetorical devices as a structural element (“Kreuz” forms, four sharps, cross motives, etc.). Schutz used musical rhetoric to illustrate starlight, the rocking of cradles, or whatever. The list goes on.
But rhetoric can reach deep into the human psyche, far beyond references to rain or cats or waves crashing on the shore. And while many composers have used rhetoric as a form of surface text painting in their music, it’s perhaps most effective, if not immediately understood, when it dives beneath the surface of human experience. Debussy’s rain is present and constant in the piano, while the singer explains the metaphor of rain, crying, and sorrow. The device becomes an allegory for the experience. When applied in broader and deeper levels, the affekt of rhetoric can be extraordinary. It quite literally “speaks” to people.
But rhetoric and its use in language and music has changed and adapted through the ages, so Alex’s question speaks to the issue: What is the rhetoric of our time?
Rhetoric and politics go together hand in glove. Rhetoric establishes policy, enthrones and dethrones kings and presidents, and incites revolution. (With this in mind, then yes, music is political. Any art is politically or economically based on some level.)
In the music since 1945, I’ve noticed that the rhetoric of contemporary music, especially instrumental in its conception and construction, has focused on the experience or the sentimentality of despair (there’s another essay in this phrase, later) by people for whom life has been, on the whole, pretty good. I’m glad to see that this particularly strange and morbid sentimentality is disappearing, largely from neglect and disinterest.
In recent times, of course, there have been threnodies to the victims of 9-11, and Katrina pieces will be along soon. It is right that we should honor and remember such tragic events in this way, while at the same time, we should remember in music that which has been lost in them: love, living, light, joy, etc. It's the contrast that enhances the affect, I think.
So what is the rhetoric of our time? Or do the different musical streams of musical thought (post-modernism, minimalism, neo-classicism, pop, jazz, funk) have different rhetorics for our fractious times?
(Be sure to read George Buelow’s excellent article on rhetoric in Groves.)