Affect in Music

Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects

by Roger Mathew Grant

The essay begins:

Picture it: East Prussia, autumn, 1814.

I had been spending some time in the country there, and on quiet nights with moderate winds I used distinctly to hear long, held tones, which would begin to resemble a deep, subdued organ pipe, then also the vibrations from the ringing of a muffled bell. I often could discern precisely the deep F and the striking C a fifth above it, and often even the E-flat a minor third above that also sounded, so that this piercing seventh chord, in the tones of the deepest lamentations, filled my chest with an innermost penetrating melancholy, and even horror.

These words belong to Lewis, a central character in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “Automata.” In this tale, Lewis describes a fantastical encounter with the overtone series, or the “chord of nature,” as it was then called. The sounds of this natural phenomenon overtake him, producing in his body a sympathetic resonance—a sudden, gripping, visceral reaction that he cannot explain.

The critical term for the type of experience Lewis relates is affect. Twenty-first-century theorists describe affect as corporeal, immediate, and nondiscursive. Affect is said to relate conditions of feeling that cannot be adequately captured with the tools of language. Affect theory has recently benefited from a huge resurgence in interest among humanists and social scientists, and whether the apex of this new popularity has already passed or is yet to come, it’s safe to say that affect has not always attracted the attention it does today. As the story typically goes, critics have recently favored affect theory in their search for alternatives to the focus on discourse that characterized the linguistic turn. But this narrative is not exclusive to the twenty-first century; it is also the story of a less well-known movement in intellectual history that occurred in the middle decades of the eighteenth, when debates on music created a fundamental transformation within aesthetic theory.

Affect has a long and rich intellectual heritage, and its relationships to the objects that are said to generate it have been anything but uniform. In early modernity, the affects—or the passions, as they were also called—were important components of an elaborate semiotic system that explained the impact of aesthetic objects. Today, by stark contrast, affect is often explicitly opposed to theories of the sign and of representation; theorists construe affect as a matter of subjective reception that is fundamentally objectless or nonintentional, occasionally even contrasting affect with ideology. The narrative traced in this article draws attention to an earlier moment during which affect was slowly separated from representations of aesthetic objects, and it illustrates the central and surprising role that music played in this separation.

Unfolding two parallel transformations within affect theory’s history, I endeavor to highlight formal features of affect theory that we have been given to repeating. I also aim to draw the history of affect theory into conversation with another, equally vexed archive: the history of music theory. Affective experience and musical sound have created similar problems for theorists. Both are said to act on the body in a material fashion that can be explained with a certain degree of specificity, and yet both are also said to produce transformations within us that exceed and overspill linguistic or rational containment. Music theory and affect theory, I will suggest, have much to teach each other.

Music scholars have not completely neglected the early modern turn to affect within music theory; it used to be called the Affektenlehre, or the “doctrine of affections.” But work on this phenomenon came to a halt in the 1980s, when George Buelow and others decided that its documents contain too many internal contradictions to be considered a cohesive doctrine. Buelow was correct about this, but he underestimated both the importance of those thorny, contradictory treatises and the scope of the intellectual movement they represent. The Affektenlehre was bigger and messier than we had previously thought, and it is now more pertinent to our contemporary discourse than we could ever have imagined. The time has come for a careful reconsideration of this vital and challenging intellectual moment.

In what follows I first elaborate the relationship between affect and the objects that induce it within the classic formulations of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. Tracing the lineage of this thought through eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, I demonstrate the crisis that musical tones created in failing to conform to the period’s prevailing aesthetic doctrine of imitation—the perceived failure, that is, of music to imitate any objects or create representations with any regularity. Within the critical quarrels that occurred during this tumultuous period of music theory’s history there emerged a new and much overlooked stage in the Affektenlehre. Certain eighteenth-century music theorists began to posit a mode whereby music aroused affect in listeners through sympathetic resonance. This theory of affective attunement, which reached its fullest elaborations in the writings of German Romantics such as Hoffmann, is closest to our contemporary, corporeal, nondiscursive understanding of affect. Drawing these two moments into conversation, I argue for a refraction of our current thought through earlier models of affect and a renewal of attention to the objects that generate affect in subjects. Continue reading …

This article places the recent turn to affect into conversation with a parallel movement that took place in eighteenth-century music theory. Because theorists in that period struggled to explain how music functioned as a sign, they began to propose an alternative, materialist theory of vibrational attunement in order to account for music’s affective power. By refracting contemporary affect theory through this historical antecedent, the essay argues for renewed attention to the objects in the world that generate affects in subjects.

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the turn to affect within eighteenth-century music theory.

“My Heart Is Swimming …”

Heartfelt Musicking: The Physiology of a Bach Cantata

by Bettina Varwig

The essay begins:

There is a notational oddity in the autograph score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (My heart is swimming in blood). Instead of writing out the word “heart” every time it appears in the text, at several points the composer used the familiar heart symbol—not exactly shaped like the physical organ, but apparently as instantly recognizable then as it is now. In some instances, the abbreviation may have resulted from pragmatic considerations of space, but in others clearly not. Instead, perhaps Bach was invoking, in an inconsequential and semi-private manner, the rich significatory potential of this pictogram. Already by the early seventeenth century, the heart image had come to appear frequently in a variety of contexts, from courtly chivalry and religious iconography to sets of playing cards, encompassing an extensive field of associations and meanings. Severed from the human body, the organ could be subjected to a dazzling variety of treatments, as in the extraordinary Emblemata sacra (1622) by the German Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer. In this widely distributed volume of devotional emblems, the heart appears in no fewer than fifty different scenarios, demonstrating its protean capacity to stand in for the believer’s life, soul, conscience, consciousness, memory, earthly existence, or inner self: the heart as a rock being softened by God’s hammer, a winged heart escaping from the claws of earthly demons up to heaven, the heart with a seeing eye, Jesus inscribing his name on the heart, the heart adrift in a stormy sea, a burning heart filled with cooling liquid from the Holy Spirit, the heart’s mettle being tested in a hot oven, and so on.

As the seat of life and the source of sin, the heart in the Christian tradition mediated between flesh and spirit. It could taste, sing, sigh, and melt; it could be given to God or cleaned out and inhabited by Christ. And so one might also imagine a heart “swimming in blood,” as the German poet Georg Christian Lehms wrote in his cantata libretto of 1711; a text set to music not only in 1714 by Bach but also two years before by his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, and subsequently heard by congregations in Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig, and Darmstadt. Lehms’s poem draws on a long-standing Christian devotional tradition that conjoined hearts and bodily fluids, in visions of faithful hearts crying blood or sinners’ hearts drenched in waters of fear. But what was it like to be a body whose heart could undergo such procedures? What kind of physiology underpinned the veracity of these formulations? Simply casting them as poetic flights of fancy would mean disregarding the fundamentally embodied nature of such metaphors, which acquired their meaningfulness precisely through a more or less tangible link to a perceived corporeal reality. In heeding Gail Kern Paster’s call for an “interpretive literalism” in approaching early modern tropes based on bodily parts and functions, we might instead start from the assumption that experiences of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bodiliness were historically particular in such a way that they could give rise to this kind of imagery without too great a sense of rupture or alienation. If Lehms’s poetry strikes some present-day listeners as “repellent,” this response may exactly map out the distance to be traversed in order to recover those past modes of being-in-the-body that could produce and sustain such language.

Recuperating these historical forms of bodiliness has formed a key preoccupation of early modern scholarship at least since Thomas Csordas’s programmatic call in 1990 for a focus on “embodiment” in the study of human cultures, approaching the body less as a text to be deciphered than as the locus of lived experience. Of course, as Mark M. Smith has recently reminded us, any claims toward the recovery of a usable, consumable sensory past, potentially culminating in “lickable text, scratch-and-sniff pages, touch-and-feel pads” to convey an authentic historical experience to present-day readers, must be treated with extreme caution. My argument here, too, stays well clear of an attempt to recreate for current listeners any of those past corporeal habits of which a careful historical investigation might offer some glimpses; music already went through its own “authenticity” debate some decades ago, after all. Still, Bruce R. Smith’s invitation to “project ourselves into the historically reconstructed field of perception as far as we are able” can seem particularly intriguing in the case of music, since it not only encompasses the duality of presence and pastness in uniquely challenging ways but also ostensibly performs that effortless merger of sensation and meaning, both of which it produces in abundance, every time it sounds. Past musical practices and sound worlds in this sense offer an especially promising access point for a historical inquiry that aims to steer a course between the two extremes of positing the body either as pure presence or as mere representation.

In the early modern context, such an exercise in retro-projection initially requires a fundamental repositioning of the category of “body,” by which that post-Cartesian self- contained entity separate from the mind is refigured instead as “body-mind,” or, in Susan James’s terminology, “body-soul composite.” The wealth of physiological and psychological processes that constituted these body-souls comes into sharp focus when setting out to reconstruct the ways in which music acted upon or within them. Since the historical record is frustratingly slim with regard to actual flesh-and-blood listeners caught in the act, their experiences of engaging with music (in particular in the context of a worship service) are pieced together here from a range of theological, scientific, and musical sources chosen for their proximity to the German Lutheran milieu inhabited by Bach. If, as Daniel Chua has observed, by the middle of the eighteenth century music would by and large come to be understood as only that which is heard, it is this later reduction to the acoustic that needs to be reversed (unthought and unfelt) in order to recapture how music’s sounding materials reverberated not only through “throats, mouths, lungs, ears, and heads” but also through hearts, guts, and limbs, as well as spirits and souls. Although the study of music as a performed, sounding activity has recently become something of a new orthodoxy within musicology, and this focus on performance has made the bodies behind (or, rather, in) music more immediately tangible, those bodies are still in need of much more nuanced historicization. Like James Q. Davies in his recent study of nineteenth-century virtuosity, I suggest that acts of musicking, in their capacity not just to reflect but to generate particular modes of inhabiting the body, offer a hitherto underused resource in coming to grips with the animate bodies of the past. What I envisage, then, is a kind of somatic archaeology that pushes Elizabeth Le Guin’s proposal of a “carnal musicology” to a new level of fleshliness. Such an approach might thereby begin to address that “huge gap in early modern sensory history” to which Penelope Gouk has recently alerted us, moving toward a radically revised, somatic ontology of early modern music making. Continue reading …

This essay proposes a somatic archaeology of German Lutheran music making around 1700. Focusing on a single cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, it sets out to reconstruct the capacities of early modern body-souls for musical reverberation, affective contagion, and spiritual transformation.

BETTINA VARWIG is Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a book project entitled An Early Modern Musical Physiology.

Visionary Dylan

Absolutely Modern: Dylan, Rimbaud, and Visionary Song

by Timothy Hampton

The essay begins:

In December of 1965, Bob Dylan gave a news conference in San Francisco. Following his rise to fame in the early 1960s as a writer of politically themed “folk” songs, Dylan had caused a stir several months earlier at the Newport Folk Festival by appearing on stage in a black leather jacket, accompanied by an electric blues band. Now he was beginning an extensive tour to play a new kind of music—music that he described in his press conference as neither folk, nor rock, nor folk-rock, but something called “vision music.” In this essay I want to consider what that phrase might mean.

images-2In what follows I will argue that Dylan’s famous turn to “electric music” is part of a larger stylistic shift in his approach to writing and performing—a shift that unfolds across the middle years of the 1960s. Imagery, lyric form, musical structure, and even the dynamics of performance are recalibrated through new strategies that emerge to replace the earlier interest in topical songs. This is what I will call a “visionary poetics.” It places Dylan in a tradition of visionary poetry reaching back as far as Dante. However, as I will show, Dylan’s development during this period takes shape through his dialogue with literary modernism. For mid-1960s Dylan, the visionary is the modern. My focus will be, principally, on the trio of great “electric” albums produced in the mid-’60s: Bringing It All Back Home (1964), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). What interests me is less the notion of “poetic inspiration” (often assumed to be part of some generational Zeitgeist) than the development of the specific literary techniques and musical innovations through which Dylan expands his songwriting range. I will trace the ways in which the expansion of his songwriting palette during this period generates a set of aesthetic and ethical problems that place pressure on the forms of popular song.

Certainly, Dylan’s expansion of his lyric range owes something to the work of the Beat Generation and, in particular, to Allen Ginsberg, who was seated prominently at the San Francisco news conference. It was no accident that the San Francisco visit included a pilgrimage to the beatnik mecca of City Lights Books, where Dylan was photographed in the alley behind the store with Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure. This was the already aging royalty of the Beats, who had, in their own time, rejected the collective activism of the Old Left to pursue individual beatitude or “beatness.” Dylan was bringing Greenwich Village intellectualism to the epicenter of the emerging sensory-based West Coast counterculture, casting himself as the heir to an earlier visionary generation. Yet Ginsberg had been working in a visionary mode from his very first published poems. Dylan now had to make himself into a visionary; he had to develop a new poetic vocabulary and link it to the limited formal capacities of the popular song.

arthur_rimbaud_gThe touchstone for any study of visionary self-creation is neither Ginsberg, nor Ginsberg’s idol William Blake, but Arthur Rimbaud. It was Rimbaud who had given first voice to the brand of visionary modernism that Dylan would embrace. It was Rimbaud who had announced that the poet “makes himself into a visionary” (Illuminations, xxx). And it was Rimbaud who had codified, in his letters about poetry, the procedures and limitations of the visionary mode. My discussion here will set Dylan and Rimbaud in dialogue, less as a study of influence—though influence is part of the story—than one of affinity, using Rimbaud’s canonical accounts of visionary poetry as a template for tracing Dylan’s development. Continue reading …

Bob Dylan’s turn from “folk music” to “electric music” in the 1960s involves the development of a new visionary poetics. Through a consideration of his affinity with the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, this essay traces Dylan’s recasting of himself as a visionary and studies the pressures placed by this process on lyric form, on poetic diction, and on the representation of the self in popular music.

TIMOTHY HAMPTON is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of French at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Fictions of Embassy: Literature and Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe (Cornell University Press, 2009). He is currently working on a study of the history of cheerfulness.

Children’s Opera as Political Education

Brecht for Children: Shaping the Ideal GDR Citizen Through Opera Education

by Anicia Timberlake

The essay begins:

In the spring of 1969, students from the fifth through seventh grades at the Käthe Kollwitz Secondary School of Greifswald took the stage to perform the new children’s opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The performance was well received: reviewer Gudrun Hillemann praised the music’s “simple melodic and memorable rhythmic Gestalt” and concluded that, overall, “theatrical performance with music is excellently suited for aesthetic education and for supporting the artistic [musisch] climate at a school.” Although the piece was not new to local music circles, Manfred Vetter, a professor at the Institute for Music Education in Greifswald, raised a stink a few days after the secondary-school performance. How was it possible that the librettist Hella Brock, a progressive socialist, a member of the Socialist Unity Party, and Vetter’s own colleague at the institute, had chosen a fairy tale in which an emperor, the head of a feudal society, was moved—and redeemed—by music? The opera portrayed the emperor far too sympathetically and conveyed the wrong idea about the progress of history. When other faculty members endorsed Vetter’s opinion, further performances of the opera were canceled. Several months later, after the summer vacation, the secretary of the local party organization announced that the decision had been revoked, and the opera could be performed again. But it was too late: the children were half a year older, their voices had begun to change, and they had already put the disappointment of the canceled performance behind them. Brock suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the incident and in 1972 left Greifswald to become a professor at the Karl Marx University, Leipzig.

kurt-schwaen-the-horatians-and-the-curiatiansOn one level, this was simply an example in miniature of the kind of late-stage attack common in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as well as in the Soviet Union. Performances often made it through planning and rehearsals only to be savaged after the premiere. The classic Soviet example is Dmitry Shostakovich’s immensely successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which premiered in January 1934 and was denounced by Stalin two years later. Similarly, Bertolt Brecht and Paul Dessau’s opera The Trial of Lucullus was suppressed on ideological grounds in the GDR in 1951 due to accusations of musical “formalism.” Where these famous cases demonstrate the arbitrary cruelty of official censorship, the silencing of The Nightingale shows how an individual, supposedly acting in the interests of the state, could transmute personal convictions about ideology and representation into official dictates on cultural policy. But even more, Vetter’s attack against a children’s opera—surely the most harmless and charming of performances—reveals the unsteady foundations of GDR citizen formation through music education. If we look a little more closely at the educational theories and practices that underpinned this incident, the idea of a coherent or unified GDR cultural and educational policy begins to unravel in disorienting and fascinating ways. In this article, I focus on children’s operas as a site of political education. The surviving documentation around the operas for children created and performed between 1950 and 1979, and policies and debates on children’s music education more generally, reveal considerable confusion about how best to mobilize German cultural heritage for a socialist purpose. These sources show educators drawing from diverse prewar pedagogical traditions to develop techniques they employed in addition to those that state policy had mandated for use in schools. As we shall see in the article’s final sections, Brechtian dramatic theory was an important element of these performances, and the study of the rehearsal process for a Brecht Lehrstück with which this article concludes shows how the theory of estrangement sometimes proved irreconcilable with older convictions about how children felt, moved, and behaved. What is more, the vicissitudes of pedagogy and rehearsal in the staging of Brecht’s The Horatians and the Curiatians make a revealing case study of what East German musicians, educators, and performers thought Brecht’s (vexed concept of) gestus actually was, and how it might function through music. Continue reading …

East German music educators developed new children’s operas on the model of Brechtian Lehrstücke to teach critical, “dialectical” thinking, a skill they considered essential for young socialists. This essay examines how the operas offered an alternative political education to the GDR’s official program of state-loyal patriotism and explores the conflicts that arose when Brecht’s theories of gestus and estrangement came into contact with the fairy tale tradition long thought to be the center of German children’s culture.

ANICIA TIMBERLAKE works on the politics of children’s music education in the German Democratic Republic. She is a C3: Creating Connections Consortium Postdoctoral Fellow at Williams College.