The composition on the left is “Belle, bonne, sage,” composed by Baude Cordier, a musician who fell into the “Ars subtilior” school — that is, the “more subtle” school of music, which flourished briefly right around the end of the 14th century, in southern France and Northern Spain:1 you’ll see some sources call that “late medieval” and others “early Renaissance,” though I think of it as the former in most terms… but in music, it’s kind of a toss-up, or rather, at that time and place, music straddles the divide between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.2
The comparative (“more subtle”) refers to the Ars nova school which immediately preceded it, which was already pretty subtle compared to what preceded it, all told. Ars nova was the stage of Western music when notation got ironed out enough for people to start seriously experimenting with it: layering different lines of music on top of one another, experimenting with rhythm, experimenting with notation itself. Ars subtilior kind of took that idea, and strapped boosters with solid rocket fuel onto it, and fed everyone on board a dose of musico-theoretical peyote. Predictably, the movement flamed out pretty soon after…
More about that in a second, but first, look up at that score on the right–the heart shape. A few noteworthy things:
1. The Notation. This is rather crazy notation. It’s sort of the late Medieval music equivalent of a homemade remote-controlled octocopter:
Cordier wrote it this way because GET A LOAD OF THAT!!! This is almost five minutes of music for three voices. And it’s notated in the shape of a heart. Don’t kid yourself: Baude Cordier was thinking, “Wait till they get a load of this!” (This seems to be the beginning of graphical music notation, which continues on as a minor experimental sideline in Western music right up to the present day; check out my brief note on George Crumb for a 20th century example.)
2. Clever Metatext. Yeah, “meta” isn’t new. It’s as old as writing, which makes sense since at first, writing (and music notation) were experienced as novel and as novelties brimming with weirdness, reference, imitation, and referential possibility. It’s only when texts became natural to us (when the novelty of the text died and we started using it to create, say, fictive dreams, or to construct iconoclastic manifestoes) that “meta” became notable or unusual.
Look first at the piece on the right side above–wait, I’ll include it below, for you.
This piece is a “ronde” (yeah, a “round,” as in “rounds” or what we called a “canon” when I was growing up… like “Row, row, row your boat…”) We see what you did there, Baude Cordier…
And as for “Belle, Bonne, Sage”–the lyrics are very well-translated here, and yes, it is a declaration of love. But the lyrics describe the song as a gift–the gift of a song in the composer’s heart. That song is written in the form of a heart, and is also a kind of performative utterance, as the composer is also giving his heart to the lady addressed in the song. Like they say (too often) these days, it’s totally meta. The only way it could have been more meta is if he’d written those red notes in his own blood. Which brings us to:
3. The Rhythm. If you can’t see the red notes I mentioned, this should help:
The red notes, in ars subtilor, apparently were a special code, a new code for rhythmic variation: basically, red means you’re playing 3-against-2, but only as long as there’s red notes. If you’re a musician, this probably makes some kind of sense, but here’s the conventional score so you can see how it works in practice.
If you’re not a musician, well: you know that trick where you pat your head and rub your tummy, and tap out a beat with one foot while singing? Try that, then switch and pat your tummy and rub your head, but only for the count of three, then switch back. And don’t drop the beat or lose your place in the song. It’s kind of like that.
Kind of. But hey, you’re in luck: no need to hire some musicians to decode this insanity, thanks to the wonders of the Internet:
If you haven’t listened to much medieval music, that just sounds like old church music, I’m sure, so you’ll have to take my word for it: this was bananas-in-the-chicken-soup weird-sounding for the time. It’s still weird-sounding today, for anyone who knows music of the 14th century. It has a reputation of decadence and excess. Richard Taruskin has characterized this school as having engaged in a “technical arms race,” and others have noted that–like a number of more contemporary composers and musicians, practitioners of ars subtilior conceived of their pieces as riddles or puzzles. The composers were also show-offs, in much the same way that some of the great jazz musicians have been.
All of that combined triggered historiographic backlash, one that is actually puzzling when you think about it, as Zach Wallmark points out:
It’s also perhaps the first musical movement to become so flamboyantly complex as to alienate people and provoke a historiographical backlash. For many years, music historians referred to ars subtilior as “the mannered style,” a term that denotes excess, self-indulgence, and decadence. (Interestingly, the word also came to describe the style of Gesualdo at the radical tail-end of the Italian madrigal, circa 1600.) While the standard terminology since the 1960s has changed to “the subtle art,” modern scholars (Taruskin writes) still find it “annoying as well as fascinating.”
Why is that? It seems that historians’ rebuke of “mannered” and “decadent” music is out of character, since every technical innovation up to this point has been greeted with approval. That the ars subtilior, one of the most complex Western styles of the millennium, would be met with disapprobation seems odd for a discipline that is often quick to heap praise on anything that smacks of innovation. Music historians, to my knowledge, have not labeled Perotin and Machaut as “decadent.” Why the ars subtilior?
If idea of historiographic backlash isn’t not ringing a bell, well: think of other weird, technically demanding musics that were made for small audiences, and their fates. Bebop remained controversial among a lot of jazz musicians even into the 1950s, though it eventually won out. Minimalist composers have had some influence on mainstream electronic music (the prominent sampling of Steve Reich by The Orb was both a tribute to that fact, and accelerant in the process)… but then, minimalists like Reich, Glass, and Riley were also already influenced by popular music.
But most of the abstract, weird, “difficult” schools of music sort of exploded, did their crazy thing, and then more or less either flamed out or took refuge on the sidelines. (Our artistic sidelines are much bigger, and maybe more accommodating, with seven billion of us on the planet.) Atonal jazz; the music of Schoenberg and his endless epigones; “prog rock” pretty much faded by the 1980s, and its various offshoots today enjoyed limited popularity: apparently most “math rock” bands mostly disbanded by the end of the 20th century, and disavowed the genre moniker, though there was a blip of renewed popularity again a few years later.
That last example may represent a compression of the lifecycle of this kind of music, mind you. We hear a lot about “the life cycle of the successful piece of pop music” (top chart to car commercial in a decade or less) but not so much about the life cycle of experimental music, which is weirder and more fungal. Spores transfer, and genes get propagated virally, showing up in unexpected places. An experimental artform dies out, or burns out, or seems to get run out of town… and the next minute, you hear hints of it cropping up somewhere else. It brings to mind Pando, that massive clonal colony that in fact is a single tree with a massive rootsystem able to survive fires and sprout again and again:
As Alexandra Coates explains:
The trees on the surface die, the root network is the real Trembling Giant, and it does not die. It constantly sends up new shoots, renews ill trees and stops supplying nutrients to those which are dead. The reason it cannot die is because the heart of Pando lies too far beneath the ground to be reached by the frequent forest fires. These forest fires are in fact a boon for Pando as they kill off the pesky invading conifers and free up space for many more extensions of Pando to be sent up.
Though I’ll be quick to point out that no, avant-garde or experimental music and art are not a single undifferentiated clump of identical biomass, Pando’s still an inspiring analogy to consider: there are waves of backlash that seem to wipe out one or another form of radical music from time to time, after all, and the artists must weather it. Punk, they say, killed prog rock. But the sprouts came up again in math rock. Atonal jazz hasn’t died: it’s successfully fused with funk and fusion, and its continued on as an acoustic form too… and even gained some acceptance in that place which was most prominent in leading the exclusionary historiographic backlash a few decades ago: the Matthew Shipp Trio is playing at Lincoln Center next month, folks. (Matthew Shipp is playing Duke Ellington at Lincoln Center. The very idea is a kind of musical Necker cube.)
It’s also a conclusion that fits well with the solution Zach Wallmark finally reaches, in his own inquiry:
I think that part of the fraught historical reception of the ars subtilior and Gesualdo comes down to the fact that these “mannered” styles can strike the modern ear as Modern. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that sets in when listening to Fumeaux fume – it defies expectations of what “Medieval music” should sound like. Similarly, Stravinsky famously reeled at listening to Gesualdo, finding in his music the soul of a fellow modern composer. That Solage in the 14th century could write music in the same subtle manner as Milton Babbitt in the 20th is a cup of cold water in the face of many deeply ingrained historical prejudices. “Mannered” movements like these are so fascinating because they vividly help us to see through the myth of linear creative evolution; they help explode the separation between the musical (and historical) Us and Them…
It’s not so much that any of these schools of music has “failed”–history isn’t over, and examples of revivals and explosions of influence exist, too: the world had mostly forgotten Bach till Mendelsohn led his revival, starting in 1829; Vivaldi, though less inspiring an example to me, was essentially revived in the 1930s. (I’ve discussed Ezra Pound’s role in the revival elsewhere.) The problem is that we like to think of music history as a sensible, ordered progression of styles that proceed, one from the next, in theorizable shifts and changes.
(A bit like how American brewers love to obsess over distinct “beer styles”–and even invent fantastical histories of specific styles–when the reality is much more complex and messy. See the comments on this post by Stan Hieronymous for a good discussion by people in the know. Wallmark is basically talking about the same kind of fetishization of styles or schools that Coryell and Hieronymous discourage. One thinks of the experimentation urged in Randy Mosher’s book Radical Brewing.)
Radical music (and brewing, and art, and narrative, and so on) kind of repudiates that whole taxonomic, regulative, Appollonian approach: it’s the Dionysian, the ecstatic that makes Great Leaps, it crashes through windows, it burns down in a massive fire and then sprouts up again not long after… difficult perhaps at times (or maybe always?) to monetize, but implacable, inexplicable, and eternal.
Yeah, the Lifecycle of Radical Music. The Fungal Lifecycle of the Avant-Garde. Something like that…
- Southern France and Northern Spain were, of course, the stomping grounds of the troubadours and the Albigensians, though this was long after the Albigensians were mass-murderer by the Northern French and the Catholic Church. By the time Ars subtilior was flourishing, there was in fact a Pope in Avignon. ↩
- The Renaissance arrived quite early in music, particularly in Continental Europe. ↩