The Study Of Literature And Music

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28th Apr 2017 English Literature Reference this

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The capacity of music to disclose the inner workings of the universe has a strong place in early Christian thought, inspired by its even earlier role in Greek philosophy. Over the millennia since ancient Pythagoreans imagined the music of the spheres; these being the greatest of all instruments ; aesthetic philosophers have debated the idea of raw musical power, the relationship between music and the word and the capacity of a literary work to be imagined as a performance. Even in non-western aesthetic theories like Sanskrit poetics, Sarngadeva identifies music consisting of a subtle buzz or drone called nada. Of a much wider claim, nada is the reservoir out of which phonemes ( varna) emerge (vyajyate); and since words (pada) emerge from phonemes and complete utterances (vacas) from words, and all of everyday life (vyavahara) comes out of language, the world itself (jagat) is entirely dependent upon nada. This all-pervasive, fundamental force of nada exists in two forms or modes, “struck” (ahata) and ‘ unstruck” (anahata) perhaps in the sense that a string, or the vocal chords, can be “struck” to produce audible sound. Nada is thus both audible and inaudible, and its inaudible mode retains a certain primacy. A synopsis of Ayurvedic thinking even describes the well-known series of Yogic cakras in the subtle body, in their relation to the self (atman), and to the production of sound.

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For centuries, music has been a determining factor in the shaping of our literary landscape. Throughout the intellectual history of the comparative arts, critics and authors alike have referred to music in relation to literature: mainly poetry, usually considered intrinsically ‘musical’ in its attention to the sonic qualities of words though there are conceptual as well as historical differences between both art forms. It has been widely recognized that music and poetry sprang from the common origin of chant or incantation. These two arts are similar in the sense that they both are presented through the sense of hearing, have their development in time, and hence require a good memory for their comprehension. But, poetry, in medieval thinking, is oriented toward grammar and rhetoric and music has a mathematical and scientific origin. Musical and mathematical experience may be seen as subliminal actions within our on-going quest for meaningful life , though in many cases hidden from the view of conscious deliberation. Leibniz uses Mathematical imagery in his observation that “music is the secret exercise of arithmetic of a soul which does not know it is counting.” In music , its tones have intricate relationships among themselves, but often, no relationship to anything outside the musical composition: as Schopenhauer once pointed out. They inhabit and form a universe of their own which has only remote relationships, by analogy, to the general universe in which we live. Often, words in a poem are representative of reality, whereas the language of music is abstract. But apart from these constructive differences music and poetry have always shared many similar ideas- like repetition, rhythm, accent, pulse, meter, sequence and dramatic climax.

Throughout the ages, the sister arts sometimes went hand in hand and sometimes parted company, but since the end of the nineteenth century musical aspects have been used quite extensively in literature, either as a subject matter or as accompanying its inherent structure. Many poets have continued to conceptualize their art in musical terms-Romantics (Blake, Keats), Victorian (Tennyson, Swinburne, Pater) and Modernist ( Hopkins, Eliot ,Yeats, Pound, Loy, Stevens, Hughes) to name a few. Over the past decades, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to aesthetic and cultural interactions between literature and music, and the value of both the scholarly fields have been immensely enhanced by the way in which critical theory has provided new methodologies for musicology and strengthened music’s value for literature . Though this connection sometimes has turned metaphorical, overall , in today’s interdisciplinary world of academic research, ‘music and word studies’ has emerged as a particularly popular field of enquiry.

Virginia Woolf had once proposed that ” the artistic merit of prose is often demeaned or overlooked for the simple reason that it uses the same prosaic practical language of everyday communication, prose having ‘taken all the dirty work on to her own shoulders; has answered letters, paid bills, written articles, made speeches, served the needs of businessmen, shopkeepers, lawyers, soldiers, peasants’ (Woolf, ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’. Collected Essays. 1966) , but the number of musically inspired nineteenth and twentieth-century novels have rather contradicted and strengthened musico-literary relationships. From De Quincey’s ‘Dream-Fugue’,in The English Mail-Coach, Huxley’s Point Counter Point, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and James Joyce’s Ulysses, to more contemporary works by Peter Ackroyd’s English Music, Toni Morrison’s Jazz, Anthony Burgess’ Napoleon Symphony, Robert Pinget’s Passacaille, Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg Variations and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music ; works derived from music, inspired by music, or thematically ‘musical’ prose pieces have shown a very curious interactive, interdisciplinary, and multimedial nature that testify a closer sisterhood between the arts. This phenomenon has come to be called intermediality, defined as using more than one artistic medium in the creation of a work of art. And it won’t be wrong to propose that a constant preoccupation with the concept of ‘musicality’ might have played a central role in interpreting these texts on “musical’ terms linked increasingly with the interpretations of narrative techniques.

From Roland Barthes’ theory of literary counterpoint to Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of polyphony in Dostoevsky’s novels , the concept of musicality in literature has been a major preoccupation of many literary critics and theorists. Given the presence of narrative in almost all human discourse, musicality draws heavily from narrative theory that places music next to language itself as distinctive human traits. Fredric Jameson writes about the ‘all-informing process of narrative’, which he describes as ‘the central function or instance of the human mind’ and Lyotard calls narration ‘the quintessential form of customary knowledge’. Researchers in the field of word and music studies strive to uncover or to posit narrative elements in musical texts, to various effect in which music serves as an foundation or organizing metaphor which serves hermeneutic, even heuristic purposes. [ii] However, used as in interdisciplinary studies, the very concept of ‘musicality’ is still considered particularly nebulous and problematic. Emilie Crapoulet, in her essay “Voicing the Music in Literature” [iii] writes – ” Musicality as a concept is often understood to refer directly to the art of music and yet it is so general that it encompasses a range of different styles, genres and understandings of what music is and often contradicts the traditional musical analyses, the most extreme of which assert that music is a closed , self-referential system which can only be understood from within with a technical internal vocabulary, or from the psychological or neurological experiments involving brain scans, which endeavour to describe what happens in the brain when one listens to music.” One can easily trace this tendency of interpreting music as “the” self contained art in excellence from the nineteenth-century and Modernist European literary landscape that voiced and fuelled discussions of the potential musicality of language, most succinctly in Walter Pater’s aestheticist dictum of 1893, that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ (Walter Pater, The Renaisance ,1967). Invariably, such understanding of music as an apolitical and impersonal form of art, with some absolute associations, some “otherness” in relation to non-musical falls short in appreciating the gap between music itself and the meaning(s) and value we attribute to it . Whereas, music has always has been a part of life, not as autonomous patterns of sound but as embedded in the rest of the world , as culture, as structures of ordinary human affairs, the very concept of ‘musicality’ being particularly problematic has overlooked the fact that music itself has borrowed forms and meanings derived from literature, narrative and language ; the visual arts and sculpture throughout the ages . And therefore, interpreting texts in terms of ” musicality” remains elusive unless one takes the contradictory and multifaceted nature of the interaction between text and music a little more critically and plan to develop a clear conceptual framework that involves the different directions the two art forms can take, based on the desire of the artist or that of the thinker. [iv] 

Looking at this history, it is not difficult to comprehend that traditional, musico-literary research carried out by literary critics consequently had a strong literary bias. The most common nature of this early research was committed to collecting evidence of references to, or occurrences of, music in individual literary works, and to expounding their uses and functions. The major player in the field of history of musico-literary ‘interart studies’ [v] was Calvin S. Brown, whose seminal comparative study on Music and Literature, focused on structural analogies between the two arts. Calvin , exploring the poetry of Walt Whitman and Conrad Aiken showed how the natural poetic methods of handling word symbols resemble musical development, and how these poets have, on occasion, produced close musical analogies by a heightening of these methods. According to Brown, in so far as the poet is concerned- with such technical matters as meter, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration, he affords a close parallel to the composer; but the composer has at his command a far greater variety of sounds than the poet, and far greater freedom in his arrangement and combination of them, but as a rule his sounds convey nothing which is not a part of the audible world. The poet invariably deals with sounds which do convey something beyond themselves, and this fact, while greatly limiting his achievements in the realm of pure sound, opens up to him other possibilities which are closed to the composer. He notes that between 1848 and 1855 Walt Whitman had developed an unique style of poetry writing that astonished his readers and a great deal of influence on Whitman’s poetry was music. It was not only one of the major sources of his inspiration , but often worked like the central metaphor in his life and work, both as a metaphysical mindset and as a practical reality. Many of Whitman’s four hundred poems contain musical terms, names of instruments, and names of composers and over 1200 settings (in preparation for performances and a recording Thomas Hampson unearthed over 400 settings for voice and piano alone).

Calvin also feels, Whitman must have been practically a musical illiterate, for his references to music are of a uniform expectedness: “The conductor beats time for his band and all the performers follow him,”-“The jay in the woods never studied the gamut, yet trills pretty well to me,”-“With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums.” But, he foregrounds the fact that poets like Whitman are blessed with an extraordinary ear for inner rhythm(s) which they can articulate in radical free, rolling, thrusting verses capable of revitalizing the entire world of poetic language. He relied on both his innate musicality and his experience as a music journalist to formulate aesthetic principles that would carry over into his poetry. His singer is poet, prophet, bard, mystic celebrator of the self-; the poet in everyman, in the worker, in the individual. To sing is to articulate both the soul and the Self. His analysis of Whitman’s magnum opus Leaves of Grass gives a conceptual framework of Whitman’s “poetic” styles often termed as ‘musical’ in an attempt to transcend one’s limited disciplinary outlook in order to better analyze the elusive fluid boundaries that exist between the arts.

For Calvin, Conrad Aiken’s interest in music is visible even in the titles of his poems, where we find nocturnes, tone poems, variations, dissonants, and symphonies. He describes Aiken as probing for musical effects from the beginning of his poetic career, and though many poets have used titles containing musical implications, and many have been fond of musical references and intricately developed symbols, Calvin shows that no one has been as successful as Aiken in conveying the musicality of his themes. While analysing the collections Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems ( 1917) and Selected Poems (1924) , he shows how the formal arrangement of a good deal of Aiken’s poetry is based on musical principles rather than on the more widely accepted poetic ones. Calvin writes- ” His symbols are developed and combined in ways parallel to the composer’s handling of themes in which music is that epitome of the individual and the universe which it was to Schopenhauer.”

In the wake of Brown, a growing number of scholars and critics cultivated this field and one of the most outstanding scholars among them is Steven Paul Scher. Scher’s first contributions to the field of word and music studies, his work- “Notes Toward a Theory of Verbal Music”, though still literature centred, managed his successors to open up to more general subjects, represented, for example, by John Neubauer’s explorations of the possible narrativity of music ,Lawrence Kramer’s work in the area of a “Musical Narratology”, Michael Halliwell’s transposition of Patrick White’s classic Australian novel Voss into an opera “Singing the Nation” and many more after that. And today , the diversity of contemporary critical theories including cultural studies have opened up even newer ways of conceptualizing the relationships between literature and music. One way to describe this culturally-oriented study of music and text is the stance of taking active interest in a list of compelling contemporary topics or interests that the dominant forms of understanding music since the Enlightenment had left out. The omitted issues include cultural practice, ideology, identity formation, narrativity, race, sexuality, gender, and the body, etc. In this manner , the legacy of cultural studies has vastly increased the range of works and contexts offering possibilities of different kind(s) of ‘translations’ between literary and other forms at the same time as they draw attention to what is unique about each [vi] . Lawrence Kramer writes in Signs Taken for Wonders , Words, Music, and Performativity , “Contrary to certain common objections, cultural musicology has never denied the existence of past interest in ‘extramusical’ or contextual issues. Nor has it shown any lack of interest in, indeed fascination with, the internal dynamics of musical works or genres. But it breaks with earlier approaches, including the ethnomusicological approaches to which it has sometimes been compared, by regarding music not as a vehicle or reflection of a relatively stable set of social, cultural, or historical conditions, but as a form of human agency that shapes and intervenes in such conditions, and does so, not exceptionally, but as an ordinary consequence of musical practice. The result is to disable the distinction (which is admittedly a practical convenience) between ‘music’ as a self-contained whole – whether that be the whole of the musical artwork or of genre or style or of organized sonority conceived on the largest scale – and the social and historical fields of the ‘extramusical’ “

Another way that Krammer defines this new trend is to say that it has sought to “reconceive the semiotic capacities of music, and in particular to redefine the relationship between music and signs”. Sceptical of the semantic power of signs, the cultural approach has tended to diminish their value in favour of a less restrictive hermeneutics; for hermeneutics has tended to assume the priority more commonly granted to semiotics. This reorientation is a step in the right direction. Its important consequences include:

1) a positive revaluation of the long-disparaged relationship between music and the words – the necessary vehicles of hermeneutics , and

2) an extension of hermeneutics into the domain of a type of language not traditionally considered when in discussions of words and music: the performative speech-act.

Delia da Sousa Correa, Katia Chornik and Robert Samuels in the essay “Literature and Music: Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching at The Open University” writes – “Theories that emphasise the unstable referentiality of language have revived and enriched analogies between music and literature. [vii] Now, language is valued for the referential uncertainty that was previously music’s prerogative, and music offers fitting, if complex, analogies for literature. Indeed, a magical signifying power is often taken as a defining feature of literary as opposed to practical language, whilst the nineteenth-century conviction that music can embody rational thought has enjoyed a revival amongst music theorists. In Wittgenstein’s phrase, as Daniel Albright puts it , ‘Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’ [viii] . ” According to Lawrence Kramer, : ‘the resistance to signification once embodied by music now seems to be an inextricable part of signification itself’. [ix] Accredited with a ‘new musicology’, during the 1980s, Kramer’s major project over the past fifteen years and after, has been to apply a diversity of critical theories to musical texts. [x] Music itself, Kramer proposes, ” taking a stance that might be traced back to the American Pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, should ‘be understood as part of a general signifying process’ [xi] . Thus Music’s ‘meaning’ can be discussed as a ‘cultural practice’ in a way not previously encouraged either by systematic music analysis or by music historiography. It becomes possible to discuss the cultural contexts and significance of works such as Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio, in relation to which Kramer analyses how narrative constructs might help to contain the admired, yet perilous, powers of transcendence attributed to instrumental music.”

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In the case of word and music studies, a resolve to move beyond disciplinary boundaries emphasizes a variety of challenging theoretical responsibilities. For some, the impact of cultural studies is more problematic than for others. Delia da Sousa Correa, Katia Chornik and Robert Samuels in the essay “Literature and Music: Interdisciplinary Research and Teaching at The Open University” writes – ” Peter Dayan sees work informed by cultural studies and the tradition of post-romantic criticism with which he is engaged as two separate modes of studying text-music relationships. His concern is that cultural studies’ apparently value-neutral preoccupation with historical context, and particularly its disavowal of aesthetic judgment, tells us little about the intransigent questions of what literature and music are and why and how they matter to us – essentialist questions from which many of us shrink, but which are the explanation for the presence of our students before us in class.” Related concerns have been raised by scholars who are themselves engaged in the cultural study of music. Kramer identifies this dilemma as both welcome and yet problematic because the current emphasis that ” inquiries about ‘how’ music is performed ‘displace’ rather than ‘complement’ questions about ‘what’ constitutes ‘the social force of the musical work’. The musicologist Rachel Cowgill has commented that there is , ‘a tendency in musicology for us to define ourselves as “contextualists”; but then the context becomes the area of study, and there’s a big hole in the middle which was the music”.

From a non-western perspective , however, my reading of Sanskrit Poetics affirms , that though primarily philosophical and speculative in character , it can provide some lateral scope and encouragement for critical theorising in the field of poetry and music. From the earliest beginning of Bharata and Bhamaha , up to the present day , a long tradition of creative thinkers have come up with works of deeply analytical and literary merit. Yet, when it comes to the application of these theories to existing literary or musical works, Sanskrit critical theories do not receive much enthusiasm in terms of response. K. Krishnamoorthy traces the reasons behind this curious phenomena in The key terms of Sanskrit literary criticism reconsidered that it is due to the inherent ambiguities and contradictions within the available meanings of the key concepts that by denying any unanimous or precise understanding hinder the idea of concrete application in practice. He emphasises upon the changing status of terms like alamkara and rasa by various Sanskrit writers through the centuries while establishing this argument. The criterion of good poetry and the nature of creative delight were two pressing issues that constantly preoccupied the analytical writings of Sanskrit poetics and to arrive at a satisfactory solution to these problems , almost every critic was preoccupied with the notion that words and meanings (sabdartha) form the body of poetry and with the search for what constitutes its soul (atman) . In other words , the equation of poetry to a human being (kavyapurusa) with a body and a soul was in the mind of almost every critic.

Consequently , all literary theories were built up with this presumption as the base which accounts for some of the drawbacks inherent in them. Various concepts like-alamkara, rasa, guna , riti, dhvani , anumiti , vakrokti and aucitya came into existence and writers at different times upheld and maintained different concepts as the “soul” of poetry or the main underlying poetic appeal . The adherents of the alamkara school , like Bhamaha , for example thought of poetry as having a body (kavyasarir) which required adornment. Constituted of two basic elements sound (sabda) and meaning (artha) , it was a fusion of elements of poetic art and poetic theme or subject. Though this was the foundation on which the later theorists began to attempt deeper analysis , being theological in character, the whole thought of poetry seemed ambiguous and wanting in explanation in terms of modern ethos. Thus , between the representation and the reception of the key-concepts of application of these theories to Sanskrit poetics, there emerged a gap in the understanding denying it the fruitful enthusiasm that it should have received from the later generation.

Krishnamoorhy notes that the first and foremost critical concept in Sanskrit literary theory is alamkara . Though usually translated as figures of speech , it in the actual sense was used in the widest aesthetic application to include everything that brought about poetic beauty or kavyasobha, especially imagery and emotion (rasadi) . Moreover, while imagery as the vital language of poetic emotion , its atman rather than only serving as superimposed embellishments. The very core of alamkara theory provides equal importance to sound impressions as well as to poetic images, It also emphasizes how vakrokti , or the indirect use of language constitutes the very essence of the poetic process . Though in later times , the term loses all its wider significance and comes to mean as a generic term signifying only two types of figures (arthalankaras and sabdalankaras) , it is apparent that they seem to have possessed some knowledges of rasa . Krishnamoorthy says-“It also keeps the door open for a few exceptions which may be pure poetry by sheer sweep of personal or universalized emotion (rasavad, preyas , urjasvin , samahita and bhavika alamkaras ). The existence of suggested and suggestive senses and their ability to produce poetic appeal. With Vamana , the significance of the word alamkara , gets narrowed down into the concept of Guna-riti. He analyses Bhamaha’s ambiguous assertion of the poetic beauty of sabda and artha into gunas or qualities relating them to the interior persona of the poetic body as a whole. He distinguished gunas into two kinds. His ten gunas of sabda included ” features of craftsmanship like verbal felicity ,dignity ,compactness and gradual ascent or descent in syllabic quality and quantity ” and on the other hand the ten gunas of artha covered “diverse elements of poetic art like- compactness of idea looseness , clarity , witness , evenness of thought, the creative spark , indirect manner , impressiveness and emotional fervour. The concepts of guna and riti , intimately linked and both being abstractions could not find support . It is only with Anandavardhana, that the indirect element in poetry has been expounded as dhvani. He had seen while emotions and feelings could only communicate through indirect mode, alamkara and vastu could be directly conveyed. The use of suggestive imagery in three gunas that he skilfully retained from Bhamaha sweetness , lucidity and brilliance can be used not only with style , but with the poetic emotion or rasa, a concept that found its first impression in Bharat’s Natyasastra as being a thought-feeling synthesis emerging out of acting and producing musical effect. Though Bharata has also dealt with music extensively in Natyasastra and it is true that after the Samaveda that dealt with ritual utterances of the Vedas, the Natyashastra is the first major text that deals with music at length, much of the discussion of music in the Natyashastra focuses on musical instruments, emphasizes several theoretical aspects that remained fundamental to Indian music: like establishment of Shadja as the first, defining note of the scale or grama, principle of consonance and the notion of musical modes or jatis which are the origin of the notion of the modern melodic structures known as ragas. Several aspects of musical performance are also mentioned, particularly its application to vocal, instrumental and orchestral compositions, though it does not deal at length on the rasas and bhavas that may be evoked by music. One needs to turn to Abhinavagupta’s treatise , who by making rasa synonymous with aesthetic experience has opened up discussions regarding the use of poetic imagery.

Keeping all these different perspectives in mind, we therefore need to approach a single, complicated question: what is the relationship between literature and music? Can music allow us to combine the reading of culture with literary reading what is involved in the formation of a specifically literary language? Is it possible to recover a sense of music’s traditional affinity with `the literary’ and the `musical’ in literature ? The paradoxical sense that literature is most distinctively ‘literary’ where it is most ‘musical’ reaffirms the longstanding association between music and poetry as sister arts. Whilst the notion of a uniquely literary language may be theoretically palpable, music offers a vocabulary that denotes effects of language that are difficult or impossible to articulate as meaning. As an insignia of indeterminable meaning, music functions almost as an equally powerful code in the interface between writers and readers . Work in literature and music therefore extends a very wide range of approaches, from explorations whose principal aim is historical analysis to close textual and theoretical analysis of the relationships between the literary and the musical with the sudden emergence of cultural studies somewhat complicating the entire process. While by going beyond a historicist conception of music, and considering it in terms of cultural phenomena we can rightfully study the implications of a musical conception of art in a large cultural context, looking at alternative non-western aesthetic traditions can also open up some more daring approaches and urgent theoretical issues within both disciplines – whether comparative receptions of musical and literary figures, musical settings as `readings’ of texts, or closer definitions of narrative techniques and generic alliances that might into account the musical aesthetics of both past and present. The multiplicity of subjects of word and music studies offers amazing richness; and that it is a growing and vibrant area of research is beyond doubt though can be somewhat puzzling in its apparent heterogeneity.


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