Orality and literacy

Phil Ford

So I ended my last post on sound/media/performance by wondering how the literate notion of a musical work would appear to someone who had never encountered written music. Or, to turn it around (and this is one problem that musicology is now facing), how would oral, non-literate music appear to someone completely conditioned by musical literacy? This is much like the question that Walter Ong asks at the beginning of Orality and Literacy as he ponders the unfortunate term “oral literature.” It’s an unfortunate term because it seeks to define orality—the experience of language as it is spoken and heard, not as it is written and read, which is to say, language as an auditory and not a visual phenomenon—in terms of “literature,” which is a concept only possible when you can write words down. It is only through a great exercise of the imagination that we can begin to understand what it would be like to life in a word where not only can we write words down, but the very idea of writing has never occurred to you.

Think about it. What can you tell me about dogs? Like, how many breeds are there, what are their characteristics, what kinds of jobs are dogs made to do,  etc. Imagine telling me verbally, person-to-person. Maybe you’d have a fair bit to say (or maybe not), but it would be a miniscule part of the total amount of information contained in the AKC Dog Breed Bible. If you wanted to ask a particular question, like “what is the ideal range of hind leg length for a miniature grayhound?” you’d have to look it up. Now, imagine you can’t look it up. Not because somehow, mysteriously, all the AKC publications in the world have vanished, or you’re shipwrecked on a desert island without books, or whatever, but because no-one has ever written anything down. Indeed, you don’t know what it would mean to write something down: in this case, the very idea of “looking something up,” seeking knowledge external from your own physical presence, would be incomprehensible. Even the kind of information I asked about — hind leg lengths — presupposes some external, objective system of measure that can be written down . (“Long enough to run fast” is not enough for a reference book, but it is just fine as a rule-of-thumb.) In a state of pure orality, knowledge is never something external from a memory — it is always corporeal. Word is always made flesh. And the implications of this are profound and difficult to imagine.

So with that in mind, here’s what Ong says:

Thinking of oral tradition or a heritage of oral performance, genres and styles as ‘oral literature’ is rather like thinking of hoses as automobiles without wheels. You can, of course, undertake to do this. Imagine writing a treatise on horse (for people who have never seen a horse) which starts with the concept not of ‘horse’ but of ‘automobile’, built on the readers’ direct experience of automobiles. It proceeds to discourse on horses by always referring to them as ‘wheelless automobiles’, explaining to highly automobilized readers who have never seen a horse all the points of difference in an effort to exercise all idea of ‘automobile’ out of the concept ‘wheelless automobile’ so as to invest the term with with a purely equine meaning. Instead of wheels, the wheelless automobiles have enlarged toenails called hooves; instead of headlights or perhaps rear-vision mirrors, eyes; instead of a coat of lacquer, something called hair; instead of gasoline for fuel, hay, and so on. In the end, horses are only what they are not. No matter how accurate and thorough such apophatic description, automobile-driving readers who have never seen a horse and who hear only of ‘wheelless automobiles’ would be sure to come away with a strange concept of a horse. The same is true of those who deal in terms of ‘oral literature’, that is, ‘oral writing.’ You cannot without serious and disabling distortion describe a primary phenomenon by starting with a subsequent secondary phenomenon and paring away the differences. Indeed, starting backward in this way—putting the cart before the horse—you can never become aware of the real differences at all. (Ong, Orality and Literacy 12-13.)

The connection to music should be obvious.* If we begin with the assumption (usually unconscious and unexpressed) of the musical Work, then the dimension of performance, the aural experience of the music (and oral, too, since performance traditions, however grounded in the score, are transmitted orally, the the master-teacher’s atelier), is defined negatively, becomes all that is not-Work. Thus we have a strange and pitilessly restrictive conception of what it is performers do: they exist only to make the work audible, and succeed only when they transmit no more or less than the work itself (which invariably means what’s in the printed score). Or, as Arnold Schoenberg put it, “music need not be performed any more than books need to be read aloud, for its logic is perfectly represented on the printed page; and the performer, for all his intolerable arrogance, is totally
unnecessary except as his interpretation makes the music understandable to an
audience unfortunate enough not to be able to read it in print.”** In this view, there is no room for a performer to be any sort of creative artist, and the performer’s contribution becomes seen as a kind of contamination: the work is a pure immaterial timeless inhuman thing to which performers introduce grubby human contingencies. As Richard Taruskin put it in his classic essay “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past,” this is an ideology for which “people are dirt.”

Avior Byron commented on my last post:

When a performer performs different scores, he or she create different versions of their music, of their work. My point is that it is misguided to try to reduce all performances to the score. There is something very unique and creative in performances. People can hear Gould in many pieces that he plays.

And this is exactly right. So the question for musicologists becomes, why study compositions alone? Why not study performances of compositions? And indeed a number of scholars late have been thinking along these lines: Taruskin himself, John Rink, Jose Bowen, and Nicholas Cook, who has suggested that studying, say, Beethoven 9 means studying it as it has come down to us at the hands of its exemplary performers. “When we hear [Beethoven’s] Ninth Symphony, we hear it against a horizon of expectations established by past performances and especially by recordings: a new interpretation signifies by virtue not only of what it is, but also of the pattern of differences it establishes with respect to the interpretations of Mengelberg, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Karajan, Norrington, Hogwood, Harnoncourt.”***

The alert reader will have noticed, though, that what Cook is talking about isn’t performance: it’s recorded performance, and this makes a very big bit of difference. And this leads me to the second part of my tripartite sound-media-performance topic: media. I will continue thinking about this in my next post . . .

*Ah, I can her you saying, but there is no such thing as pure and pristine orality, in music or anywhere else, least of all in the western art music tradition. Very true, but my point here is that there *is* an oral/aural dimension of music, even the music of a literate tradition, which is hard to think about clearly when music itself is defined entirely in literate terms.

**Dika Newlin, Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76) (New York: Pendragon Press, 1980), 164.

***Nicholas Cook, “Words About Music, or Analysis Versus Performance,” in Cook, Peter Johnson, and Hans Zender, Theory into Practice: Composition, Performance, and the Listening Experience (Leuven: Leuven University Presss, 1999), 38.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Sound. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Orality and literacy

  1. glen says:

    This was a really enjoyable post, I’m really glad to see you work through these ideas since they were a very central portion of my own graduate study. I think it gets to the heart of the perceived irrelevance of “traditional” musicology, the inability to directly experience and study music without relying on the (mostly) admittedly flawed medium of notation.
    I’d like to hear more about the educational aspects, whether or not “western” musicologists of today have a hard time comprehending an oral tradition because their training is so overwhelmingly based on literacy, and what changes to curriculum or academic culture would allow for greater understanding of this kind of musicality?
    Also, it seems like the concepts of absolute knowledge (book smarts, proficiency, etc) are juxtaposed to expertise (competency, creativity). Reminds me of a paper delivered at the 2007 NASM conference entitled “assessment on our own terms”, in which Mark Wait describes the subjectivity and TRUST involved in learning music.
    Excellent thoughts Phil, looking forward to more.

  2. ADA says:

    Phil – excellent riff on Ong and the conceptual disconnect between a “literate” musical tradition and the paradox of the inherent oral power of sound. While your first asterisked note is well taken, I’ll float an interesting exception that actually connects to what I’m working on right now: there is arguably a move in a particular historical frame (17c Rome) to claim primacy for the listener and actually reject (at least to some degree) the “musical expertise through musical literacy” argument.
    It’s a complex argument that I’m still sorting out,and I don’t want to hijack your blog, but the upshot (and thank you for triggering this thought in my head) is this: it is indeed very difficult to reject musical literacy as a privileged mode of engagement with music, and I’m not saying that these folks succeeded in changing the dynamic, but they tried to do so by developing an entirely non-technical descriptive discourse, one that draws on evocations of transcendence and immediacy, and veers toward the subjective (or at least the mystical) rather than the objective.
    For sure, however, that’s not how the privileged discourse works these days… But this is perhaps to say that musical literacy may *not* be an impossible-to-resist hegemonic force.
    Back to lurking, thanks again for this series, which I’m going to make sure to recommend to folks — missing ya, take care,

Comments are closed.