Subjectivation and Music: Suggestive Song and Care of the Self

This paper is in two sections. The first briefly considers the methodological and theoretical challenges that examining subjectification poses to musicological work on Renaissance and early modern music. Most music published in the sixteenth century was vocal music, much of it written for specific liturgical or political functions, including broadcasting the public persona of an individual patron. Thus, sixteenth-century music is not a straightforward expression of a composer’s interiority. Rather, composers balanced their own interests with, first, the reality of their subordination to a patron or the needs of their audience; second, the demands of other creators and performers; and third, the demands of the text and any characters therein. Susan McClary has demonstrated that composers of Italian madrigals used music to create complex interiorities for the subjects in the poetry; a similar methodology could be developed and integrated into studies that also consider the complex power dynamics around patronage, and the selfhood of patrons, composers, performers, listeners.

The second section takes an aside in Michel Foucault’s 1982 article ‘The Subject and Power’ as a starting point. Foucault suggests we can learn more about a thing from studying its opposite: legality/criminality, sanity/madness. Musicality and music are challenging to study in this way: not only is there no simple opposite to musicality, but there were many competing regulatory bodies overseeing music. I briefly review concepts and uses of silence and noise, and demonstrate similarities and differences in the view of the relationship between music/noise/silence and the self in the proceedings of the legal court of the Old Bailey of Restoration London and in the records and treatises associated with sixteenth-century Italian academies (particularly of Vicenza and Venice). These arenas share an understanding that music can reveal something of the self, for listeners as much as performers, and that music should be used judiciously to care for the self. They disagree about what kinds of music are appropriate in caring for the self. In sixteenth-century Italian academies, it seems, any and all music is appropriate, including lowbrow suggestive song. Humanist literary and music theorists did not rule out low matter dealing with physical desires as long as it was written in an appropriate genre and stylistic register. In the eyes (and ears?) of the Old Bailey, however, lowbrow musicmaking was highly questionable and could reveal a truth about an individual’s capacity for sin.

Foucault argued that the Reformation brought about a new form of subjectivity. Martin has suggested that there was not a clearcut break, rather, the “prudential self (a rhetorical posture that subordinated honesty to decorum)” was reformed during the sixteenth century; and a new self, the sincere self “which subordinated decorum to honesty”, developed. I suggest that context is also important: multilayered, dissimulating selves appear differently under the gaze of different regulatory bodies. That is, different lenses highlight different aspects of selfhood.

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