27 October 2021

Bodies and Artifacts (ii)—Partch's Corporeality

Harry Partch
Genesis of a Music (1974, orig. 1949)

For the essentially vocal and verbal music of the individual—a Monophonic concept—the word Corporeal may be used, since it is a music that is vital to a time and place, a here and now.
(p. 8)
Hmm. I thought corporeal meant something like "relating to a person's body, especially as opposed to their spirit." (-Google)
The epic chant is an example, but the term could be applied with equal propriety to almost any other important ancient and near-ancient cultures—the Chinese, Greek, Arabian, Indian, in all of which music was allied with poetry or the dance. Corporeal music is emotionally "tactile."
So, as regards emotions, this music is "of or connected with the sense of touch?" (-Google again) That's pretty weird, because we feel emotions but we can't actually touch them. Also, some people are known to feel emotions apart from poetry or the dance.
It does not grow from the root of "pure form." It cannot be characterized as either mental or spiritual.
Yep, that's what google says.
The word Abstract, on the other hand, may be used to denote a mass expression, in its highest application, the spirits of all united into one and transported into a realm of unreality, neither here nor now, but transcending both.
Already Harry is kicking the cigarette machine, or perhaps just stuffing strawmen. None of these presences (mass, highest, united, transported, unreality) follow necessarily from the mere absence of corporeality.

The spirits of all united into one
Criminy, sign me up for that. What is he smoking and where can I get some? And can you mainline it rather than smoking it? I need to preserve my lungs for making Abstract tuba music.
The symphony is an example. Abstract music grows from the root of non-verbal "form," how "pure" being a matter of individual opinion. It may be characterized as either mental or spiritual.
I mean, that's just...horrible? Actually it sounds rather essential to a full human existence.
It is always "instrumental," even when it involves the singing of words, because the emotion of an individual conveyed through vitally rendered words would instantly end the characteristic domination of non-verbal "form."
This is very true, but it is dangerously incomplete. The missing part, perhaps more morally urgent and relevant now than in Harry's day, is that
the emotion of an individual conveyed through vitally rendered words
unavoidably directs attention to the
in question in a way which abstract music cannot quite achieve.

Abstraction swallows the self, which is why it is feared and despised with equal fervor by petty-bourgeois conservatory extroverts, activist singer-songwriters, racialist jazz critics...

And yet it can also be said, without contradiction, that instruments making the most abstract of musics can just as reliably be counted on to elicit
in a way that violates the conceit to abstraction, at least as Harry presents that conceit here. This is perhaps counterintuitive, but it is not controversial or interesting. What is interesting is whether anyone (listener, performer, composer, critic, laboratory scientist) can wrest control of all of this for the purpose of expression. (Harry fools no one when he slips in conveyed where expressed or communicated are more conventionally deployed.) I don't think we've figured this out yet, despite the repeated claims emanating from one and all of the aforementioned groups that they have figured it out, claims which tiresomely recapitulate something like the literary Intentional Fallacy; and I think that if and when someone truly does figure it out then the party really, truly is over at that point. I expect that even the aforementioned factions would not fail to notice this and hence would then become even more hysterical and intolerable than they already are, but without realizing that it was the thing they wanted for all the world to be true finally coming true that actually ended the party. All of which is to say that Harry, despite being a pantheon artist, probably hasn't figured it out either, hence his division between abstract and corporeal is functionally an individual, chaotic, moment-to-moment matter, one of those paradoxical byproducts of consciousness which can exist only in the past and never in the present or future. It's not that the distinction doesn't exist, it's that it is very difficult for actual people to isolate it on a pragmatic, phenomelogical level (as becomes abundantly clear whenever we try).
Thus the mere presence of words in music is not itself the criterion of its classification. The chants of the Roman church, early in its history, were actually in a language that none but the learned clergy understood, though some of them were sung with the natural rhythm and inflections of the Latin words. An important distinction, then, as regards the Corporeal and the Abstract, is between an individual's vocalized words, intended to convey meaning, and musicalized words that convey no meaning, whether rendered by an individual or a group, because they are beyond the hearers' understanding, because they have been ritualized, or because of other evolvements of rendition.
(pp. 8-9)
Right. So basically, the rules he has just laid out have only exceptions and no exemplars. I suppose he is the exemplar?

Whether one interprets history in such a way as to ascribe the "independence" of music to the beginning of the Christian era or to a later time, there is no question but that, very close to the beginning, it became a new art. It became a language in itself. The insistence with which this simulation was carried on is manifest in the "motives," "subjects," "phrases," "questions," "responses," and "periods" of our musical forms, all entirely apart from the circumstance that sung words might be involved.

The fact is that the ancient spirit was gone. And it was gone because the ancient, lovely, and fearless attitude toward the human body was gone. Musical "morals" denied the human body—through the one agent of the body that they could control: words from the vocal organ—because the "mother morals" denied it and have succeeded in nursing this denial, yea these many centuries. D.H. Lawrence advises us never to forget that "modern morality has its roots in hatred, a deep, evil hate of the instinctive, intuitional, procreative body." How could the "morality" of music conceive anything different, anything different at all, than occasionally a bastard exception?
(pp. 15-16)
So, it was a conspiracy. Of course it cannot have been. To the extent that "mother morals" are organic/endemic, it is believable that some functionally essential self-hatred might lie at the root of music reception across modern history, and there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence to line up behind this theory. Still, the notion that Abstract music arises directly from this, or that having once, sometime, arisen directly from it we may never again for any reason take it seriously should it arise from any number of other pathways, for any number of other reasons, this strains credulity. What strains credulity further yet is the notion that even if this were the case the Abstract can have no further potential even as the social world continues to change at a dizzying pace. e.g. Far too many bodies invading my various screentimes these days, exploiting my instinctive, intuitional, procreative side to get me to look at and, perhaps, purchase some product I don't really need or want. At that point, I may well decide that it's time to leave the house and go sit in silent, rapt attention in the presence of hundreds or thousands of other human beings, contemplating sound as an abstraction, having a bodily experience of sound that is highly dependent on the presence of so many others' bodies while prescribing only their presence in the space and a minimum of ritual etiquette, without prescribing any further normative conventions aside from the mouth part of the body needing to fucking shut itself without great strain or struggle for a statistically negligible portion of its total time on earth. Robert Perine: "isolation in the midst of hyperactivity paradoxically means a chance to create one's own beauty, or to react against one's own choice of exposures." I am committing the sin of reasoning my way to this choice, as if I had not already been jointly delivered there by a conspiracy of nature and nurture. But seriously, I don't ever want to see another YouTube ad for Car Chase Warcraft Mythos if I can avoid it. And if I can't avoid it completely, I'm going to need to equlibriate from time to time.
This faculty for putting himself—his Corporeal self—into his music, [Hugo] Wolf acquired "from no teacher," says the biographer Ernest Newman. "It was clearly congenital in him." Like Moussorgsky, Wolf embodied a deep and broad sympathy for humanity, and also like Moussorgsky, "his music needed . . . constant fertilisation of the actual word if it was to bear its richest fruit."
(p. 34)
I personally cannot reconcile the lines "putting himself...into his music" and "a deep and broad sympathy for humanity." The best I can do is to grant that these two traits are not, in theory, necessarily mutually exclusive, even though in practice they do seem to be pretty much mutually exclusive in the world I have lived in.
Eighteenth-century classicism, compounded of the spirit of Abstract esthesia in the early ecclesiastical music and the mechanics of Corporealism in the popular forms—the innovations of discant, rounds, faux bourdon, dances—produced an abundance of Abstractionist technicians in the execution of "form": conductors, instumentalists, singers. Consequently those composers whose individualities fitted the bill of Abstract goods—like Bach, who enhaloed all he touched, from jigs to masses, with the polyphonic nimbus of the Abstract—got assurance of authentic reproduction and posterity for their music from the Abstractionist technicians, whereas those composers who did not fit this particular bill, like Moussorgsky, got—Abstractionist technicians!
Very true. But really, how can
music that is vital to a time and place, a here and now
reasonably expect
assurance of authentic reproduction and posterity

Don't hate the

hate the

This is not to suggest that anyone is proposing an ecumenical prohibition of the Abstract. There is nothing wrong with Abstract music as such, but it deserves a better fate than to serve as the testament of the scribes and the pharisees, the press-badge of gratuitous "emcees" at circumcision, the squire of the musicians' union, and an article of merchandise for the minions of the subscription series and for those other more obscure "lovers of music" whose "loving" ears are tuned in only on the cash register.
(pp. 49-50)
Funny, that sounds like the customary list of shills for corporeality. But I imagine things were quite different back when Harry was writing this.

This would be the appropriate time that to point out that the specter of the Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence lurks in the shadows surrounding both sides of this polemic. Granted leeway to be Incomplete, it is simple enough to play the victim (or the oppressor) at any old point along the Abstract-Corporeal continuum. My ambition here is that, although true completeness of evidence is impossible under present conditions of saturation, it might still be possible to say fairly solidly just what each kind of music does (or doesn't do). Beyond that, sometimes it's just plain interesting to spar with other people's words and to see where this leads.
In view of this situation, which has been general for some little time, it is not congenital pessimism which has prompted the repeated assertions of defeat for the Corporeal spirit in music; it is simply knowledge of the "technical" situation.
So, where is the line between Harry's corporeal[ity] and the SELF-ness that later ME-generations have brought to—pretty much everything

Is it possible to end the characteristic domination of non-verbal "form" without bringing the SELF into higher relief? Conversely, is there any aesthetic regime aside from the Abstract which does a comparably good job of unleashing the personality while denying the self?

In short, under present conditions (if not under certain others), is corporeality not unavoidably also an extra or a particular emphasis on the SELF as CONTENT

Any "no" argument would seem necessarily to depend on appealing to some universal experience of the body, or of one of only a couple/few bodily archetypes; and/or it would depend on some similarly universal experience of emotional "tactility", etc.; such that any peculiarities of individual bodily experience and/or emotional "tactility" could be either explained away as unimportant or just erased altogether. But it would seem to me that it is precisely in these bodily and cognitive peculiarities, precisely in the intractability of such matters as expression, where the essential diversity-within-unity of human artistry lies.

Further, certain lines of anthropological and psychological evidence vis-a-vis the origins of "music" suggest that, in Harry's terms, ALL music is ultimately "corporeal" in terms of the listener's reception equipment. As always, what happens on the receiving end of the transmission is only minimally a function of the sender's various conceits. There is a moment where he seems to realize this:
It must be said that Corporeality is present beneath the Abstract habiliments of many other compositions. ...

Superficially, [such] judgments are suspect, but actually they betoken a healthy procedure—to admit, maintain, and proclaim that no preconceived end result can be achieved through formula, any formula, that is unvivified by the systole and diastole of spontaneity, purpose, thought, emotion, or whatever the symbol of the ingredient which has significance for some section of humanity. The formula for Corporealizing music through preserving the vitality of spoken words is actually as much a cliché as the sonata, and is lacking in imaginative, emotional anima unless the composer himself releases it.
(p. 36)
By this logic, the Abstract-Corporeal distinction would line up not along the metaphysical lines laid out in the opening, but rather along cold, hard spectromorphological ones. In such heavily reductionist terms I don't think this idea is all that radical or debatable, though it does evince a certain Determinism which is not too easy for us workin' artists, given our various conceits to SELFhood, to make peace with.

The corporeal qualities of horns and strings are well-known, much-discussed, and frequently deployed. In light of the hard version of the Evolutionary Accident theory of music's origins, the historical development of the design and deployment of said instruments clearly demonstrates a certain convergence or teleogy toward an ideal which is strictly determined by anatomy-physiology: Anatomy Is Destiny, this time above the belt as well as below. (This thought can be extended right through the present day more easily than it might first seem, given the pop music emphasis on production and the advent of the affordable laptop supercomputer.) Of course this is too "hard" a version for my tastes, as it also is, incidentally e.g., for Steven Mithen in The Singing Neanderthals. But I have often wondered just how Partch could reconcile his corporeal ideal with what is, to my ears, the quite UN-coporeal quality of most of his instruments; un-corporeal, that is, in being very un-voicelike spectrally, and in having quite distinctive morphologies which make this assessment unavoidable. Quite unlike the nontransferable experience of bodies and emotions, the morphologies of blocks and bowls are rarely lost. (Or is that just because we already have a pretty good idea of what these things are supposed to sound like?) Hence the ultimate irony: these are not bodies but objects. They are as dead as any Baroque composer. They are the ultimately abstract sound sources. By insisting on starting over vis-a-vis instrument design and construction, the most radical break Partch makes is actually a break with hundreds or thousands of years of development TOWARDS HIS OWN CORPOREAL IDEAL. And in print too, here it is as if he has swallowed whole the various Poietic Fallacies of all of the Abstractionist technicians whose music deploys voicelike horns and strings, musicians who cannot quite be said to be ignorant of their own creeping corporeality, nor fully in touch with it. Indeed, if corporeality is so natural, then complete ignorance and complete awareness are both bound to be elusive. Harry accepts their contention that their music is abstract, because the making of it was abstract to them, and he opposes this to his notion of the corporeal. Perhaps there is even some talking past each other here, as the central issue of "abstraction" in European music and art, once anyone became aware of it as an idea in itself, was in explicit opposition to narrative or representation, not necessarily (though perhaps also?) to corporeality. In any case, calling them on their fallacy would mean preempting his own project, something no artist of his caliber would ever do to themselves. They are much better at taking one side of an irreconcilable polemic and digging in. This is also what I am doing right now. But I do wonder if given a time machine and a chance to hear some top-40 radio and some pop-music-major graduation performances from the 1990s and on, Harry might have been jolted into noticing this alliance between corporeality and the self. I will say for myself, at least, that since attaining my artistic majority I have noticed little else with such acuity as this.

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