Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier (2014) Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press.


The nineteenth-century Colombian writing discussed by Ochoa Gautier, like Western convention generally, opposes “art” and “folk” musics. “Art” music is comprised of works created by named authors, transmitted visually via scores, and speaking to transcendent experience beyond mundane reality. The work is an autonomous object that can be considered free of context. “Folk” music is a mass of common property, transmitted orally/aurally, and is of a part with daily life. Indeed, the folk object only makes sense in its social and cultural context. The folkloric voice is authorless, and therefore lacks authority. While the aesthesis of folklore may represent an ideal of “heightened sensorial perception and emotional expressivity” (172), its anonymity and adherence to tradition limits its potential for creativity.

In Ochoa Gautier’s framing, the distinction between art and folk split maps onto Jonathan Sterne’s “audiovisual litany,” the domains of vision and hearing respectively. Vision is concerned with surfaces, perceiving them at a distance, giving us perspective and thus a removed objectivity. Hearing requires direct physical contact (it is literally a form of touch), putting us inside an event, with a subjective immersion. Orality is “a theory and methodology for lettered elites to generate a notion of alterity” (14). Literacy is visual. Orality is aural. The indigenous and slave populations of the Americas have a voice, but it is a folkloric voice, not authorial, not objective.

Through the “gift” of music and dance, people of color become alluring and exotic. The lettered elites draw “boundaries of race and reason” (100) to distinguish their own cerebral and visual selves from the sensual and instinct-driven bodies of the “racialized other.” Gaultier points to this epistemological move as a source of the Western notion of absolute music, defined in opposition to the carnal musicology of black and brown peoples. Since folkloric expression is oral, the autonomous art object must be as non-vocal as possible. This is how it is possible for Roger Scruton to assert in The Aesthetics of Music (1999) that, since Beethoven, it has been impossible to think of the human voice as the source of music, or of song as the goal of melody. This idea represents a dramatic break with concepts of Western art that existed in Europe before the eighteenth century, when music was regarded more in the terms of embodied affect and “music as language.”

Popular songs pose a problem for the visual/aural split. In the period Gautier discusses, songs “lived in the literary rather than the musicological domain” (79). The same is true today; consider The Norton Anthology of Rap, or Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize. But song is not just “the heightened orality of poetry,” it also involves “the aurality of music.” Music and language are “different fields of signification that intersect in song” (80). While the acoustic sign may be arbitrary, it nevertheless is doing some kind of work as it “simultaneously enacts the indexical and iconic capacities of language and music” (81). What is that work? Is the music a transmission vehicle for the semantic content of the lyrics? Or are the lyrics a mnemonic handle we use to grasp the music? Ochoa Gautier’s interlocutors might point to the former explanation, since popular songs of the eighteenth century tended to be literal narratives. But in the contemporary world, it is easy to point to extremely popular songs whose lyrics are obscure, multiply determined, or overtly nonsensical.

Ochoa Gaultier argues that “the separation of popular song and music is not an effect of the rise of musical technology; it precedes it in the separation between song as popular (product) and music as (work of) art, preparing the way for the rise of song as the main carrier of mass music” (103). When popular songs take the form of recordings, they confuse the art/folk distinction beyond recognition. Recordings of popular songs, or even ethnographic field recordings, can take on the status of autonomous works even more free from context than notated scores. The most abstract classical work must still be interpreted by musicians who belong to some performance tradition or another. Recordings can and have been wildly and creatively misheard out of context, as listeners wrench nonsense into sense. Entire genres of electronic music are predicated on the radical decontextualization of audio samples. Will Western musicology find a way to embrace this disembodied technological orality?

One thought on “Aurality

  1. For the record, Western classical music only makes sense in its social and cultural context. Perhaps is even less portable than popular or “folk” music. See also Christopher Small.

    The stripping away of an author from a work via the process of “folklore” can also be examined from a production/benefit efficiency that extends more or less without regard to technology, drinking songs of the middle ages becoming authorless and then hymns in Protestant churches. Contemporary recordings becoming intangible and in practice rights-less to help sell computer and phone hardware or to bolster the revenue of corporations.

    The process by which authorship is stripped from a creative work, and the justifications given for this, can yield interesting commentary on how societies create “winners and losers.”

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