Further Thoughts on Alfred Gell 2


I appreciate Julie drawing my attention to musical ornamentation in the technical sense, and, if I remember correctly, this is often left to the player’s discretion and not noted, right? Once again we are bumping into the problem of aurality’s relative “untraceabilty.” But I wonder about “captivation” effects in the notated music as well. As I understand it, ornamentation proper was often an opportunity for the display of virtuosity, something the Gell certainly discusses as part of captivation: the “I-couldn’t-do-that” phenomenon… But other aspects of captivation, such as reflection and rotation, for example, should also apply to music, too: this should play a part in the effect canons produce, shouldn’t they, and many contrapuntal compositions?

I realize of course that Gell’s methods, ingenious though they may be, mostly seize on simple formal figures: inner vs. outer, symmetric vs.  non-symmetric, etc. This seems to me to inherently spacialize sound, something I expect a number of you would object to here. I suppose one might reintroduce some of the period “grain” back into these formal analysis, but one might elect an entirely different approach as well: somatics have already been mentioned. The body’s response would seem particularly tied to rhythm (Evelyn’s posting on musters, etc.) and that involves modulations that fall outside Gell’s type of analysis.


2 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on Alfred Gell

  • Julie Cumming

    I don’t have any problem with spatializing music — music notation on a page is inherently spatial, and many formal structures in music can be explained or constructed using spatial metaphors … palindromes, arch structures, etc. While some ornamentation is all about astonishing or captivating people, it could be said that all music (every very simple) involves “ornamentation” of simple background structures …

    How could we develop this parallel between visual and musical ornamentation with respect to actual works? Could you explain how it works for a piece of visual art, and we could see if we can do something like that for a piece of music?

  • Catherine Motuz

    I replied in the comments on the first post on Alfred Gell, giving some examples of Burmeister’s “Ornaments of Music” and how they relate to ideas of rotation and repetition. What I didn’t mention is that Burmeister is talking about “ornamentation” as the use of rhetorical gestures in musical composition, that is, most of his “ornaments” are multi-voiced compositional devices and not left to the performer. Certainly some compositional devices, including the idea of canon that George mentions, could be understood as virtuosic, and I certainly am captivated when I hear melodic or retrograde inversion, triple counterpoint, or diminution in pieces. Burmeister also implies, I think, that the best composers (Lassus seems to be king of all of them) use these devices everywhere, and to good effect. It’s a short chapter (Latin on every left page and lots of musical examples) and can be found here:

    Burmeister, Joachim. “Chapter 12: Musical Ornaments or Figures.” In Musical poetics, edited by Benito V. Rivera, 154–97. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

    In terms of performer ornamentation, while diminutions are un-notated in most compositions until the seventeenth century, we have treatises from as early as 1535 showing ornamentation possibilities. The later prints, from 1590-1621 (Dalla Casa, Bovicelli, Bassano, F. Rognoni etc.), show how entire pieces might have been ornamented from beginning to end, so while subtle nuances of music making are still elusive to us, we actually have an astounding amount of information about how ornamentation practice worked.

    I have been thinking for a few years about analyzing melodic, performer-initiated ornamentation with the question of asking what purpose it serves. Surely it did play a part in captivating people, and surely virtuosity was part of that (Zacconi gives instructions in 1592 on how to be a show-off without annoying your colleagues). In addition, some ornamentation seems to exist simply in order to provide variety to musical lines, and other kinds in order to emphasize words, whether through word-painting or by setting them off from surrounding text. As a performer I have used ornamentation to provide motion when I felt a piece was getting stagnant, and early writers thought of quick-moving notes as creating motion: Bovicelli writes in 1594 about ornaments having momentum when he says that stopping an ornament abruptly is like stopping a galloping horse in its tracks:

    [Stopping an ornament abruptly on a long note] would produce a contrary and ugly effect, rather in the same way that one uses in riding a horse: when in the middle of running a long race, a rider does not attempt to bring his horse to a sudden stop, but rather pulls the reigns little by little in order to slow its steps.

    In terms of symmetry, rotation, and the other figure manipulation that George describes, it is interesting to look at instructions for ornamentation as reflecting different aesthetics: Renaissance and Early Baroque ornamentation tends to prioritize using a variety of figures that produce asymmetric lines, while later Baroque ornamentation will repeat the same figures over and over, with the effect of creating more symmetry and more organic compositions (though I don’t go so far as to assert that “organicism” was an aesthetic goal so early—not yet anyhow!).

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