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The Christian West and Its Singers: The First Thousand Years
Yale University Press, 2010
694 pp., $85.00
Soundscapes of Our Past
What kind of history of music can you write when there's no music? Odd as it sounds, this is just the question anyone trying to give an account of music in the first thousand years of the Western church will need to ask. For us today, "music" will tend to mean the sounds we hear or the dots and lines on a printed page. If we want to research the music of, say, Mozart, we go to recordings, or to scores—to the permanent traces of the sounds. Yet in the church's first millennium, not only were there no recordings, but for about nine-tenths of the period there were no scores, no written music of any sort. It was around the mid-9th century that we find little scratch marks appearing above written words, signaling pitches of the voice—the first stirrings of notation. Before that, the historian of music is forced to inhabit a world without musical texts.
However we come to terms with this, we are reminded that music, whatever else it is, is not basically a printed score, a fixed "object," a "work" (as we would say today). It is first and foremost something made and heard, something done by (and between) people. Our ancestors were singing and playing music long before they thought about writing it down, long before anyone tried to code it in a script that could be transported from place to place. As Nicholas Wolterstorff insists in Art in Action (and he is hardly alone in this), the arts are best thought of not primarily as works but as actions or practices—we sing praise to God, send wind through tubes, strum a guitar, dance to rave, sing along with U2. What is more, these actions are socially and culturally embedded. The way we make and hear music is profoundly shaped by our relations to others—our social setting, all the way from one-to-one relationships to larger social groupings. And because of this, the way we make and hear music is affected by the patterns of living and thinking that we use to negotiate these relations—"culture" in other ...