Fumeuse speculation. An Essay on musical Semiotics and a semiotic Analysis of the 14th Century Rondeau “Fumeux fume”, Freie Universität Berlin, 2007 [Abschlußarbeit zum Hauptseminar "Issues in Musical Semiotics" der Musikwissenschaften, geleitet von Herrn Dr. David Lidov (University of Toronto)]
This is an essay in the original sense of that word. I’m trying to cope with the task of analysing music with regard to its semiotic aspects for the first time in my life. Which are the scientific basics to build upon? Which are the analytical methods to adopt? I started my investigations in musical semiotics with the assumption that music and language are similar.
Though both are agreed to be systems of signs, there are reasonable doubts about their likeness. Yet, I had to rely on my knowledge of the one system to find out more about the other. After all, I’ve chosen a medieval rondeau to concentrate my attempt on. And in medieval music, lyrics and sound have a deep relation by tradition.
I have divided my essay into two parts. The first one will consist of general reflections on musical semiotics. Referring to two scientific sources, I will describe how processing of musical signs in the brain functions and how this strenghthened my conviction that musical signs have a Saussurian duality of form on the one hand and meaning on the other. Thereupon I will expose some ideas about musical form as a syntactic and musical meaning as a semantic problem. I will introduce the analytical points I chose for the second part of my essay – the analysis of “Fumeux fume”.
Though my task, in fact, was the semiotic analysis of a musical piece itself, I needed a general approach to come to terms with this complex challenge. Then, in the second part, I will regard the 14th century composition of “Fumeux fume”, a surprisingly early example of hallucinogetic aestethics, from a semiotic viewpoint. I will analyse its highly ambiguous lyrics and its eccentric music with regard to both syntax and semantics and demonstrate the relevance of the historic context to the meaning of the piece.
2. Part I – General Reflections
2.1 Neurocognition of Musical Signs
Music is language. Or at least something very similar, as a group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences has set out in 2004. Interested in the processing of music and language, they exposed listeners to music interfered with nuisances, like unexpected or dissonant chords. Everytime a nuicance occurred, the researchers detected a high brain activity in an area opposite to Broca’s Area. The latter is known to be involved in the processing of grammatical errors in language. Though this is no proof for the legend of music processing on the right site being an exact mirror of language processing on the left, it gives some semiotical clue: If the brain objects musical nuicances in the same way it protests against linguistic ones, this in an evidence of a musical grammar or syntax.
Musical syntax is the body of rules responsible for the assembly of musical signs, more precisely, the form-part of the sign. But is there, on the other hand, a musical semantic, too? Other experiments of the MPI researchers showed that the brain reacts faster to known melodies, while it literally broods over unknown ones. Thus they assumed some kind of library for musical phrases and high profiles resulting in emotions and affections, but couldn’t approve their ideas, yet.
I got another hint about musical semantics from reading Jeff Hawkins “On Intelligence”. In his book, the former AI researcher of the Messachussetts Institute of Technology descibes how the cortex works. Processing of visual, auditive or somatosensory sensations occures in different layers of the cortex. Those layers are organized in a stemmatic hierarchy. Their task is to recognize patterns and sequences of signals and to make a prediction about what might impact on the senses next. The lower components get a more fragmented, but therefore detailed concept of the real world. They identify the cluster of the signal and pass it to the next higher layer. While going up the processing tree, the concept (of the sensational input) gets less and less detailed and fragmented, until it becomes a wholistic concept, like a face, a melody or a felt item in the association area.
The feedforward of recognizing patterns and sequences of signals is answered by an immediate feedback – the prediction, which runs down the processing tree. Since the processing areas of the cortex are connected in a vast network, they interact in feeding each other back and forth. The information of cracking wood in a dark forest may evoke the prediction of an animal coming to focus. It might as well lead to the dumping of epinepherine and a feeling of fear. For reacting is a feedback of the cortex, too – a set of instructions from the motor cotex. Associating a shaggy quadruped when we read the word “dog” or “chien” or “Hund” is an action of recognition. Feeling something while listening to a melody is an action of recognition, too. What we associate with “dog” leads us to the semantics of language. What we associate when we listen to music leads us to the semantics of music, whether this association is an abstract idea, an image or a feeling.
2.2 On Musical Semiotics
Music is not language. Indeed, both are systems of primarily acoustical signs and have their graphical substitutes. Both have rules for form and meaning and both relate to time, frequency and rhythm. But unlike linguistic signs, musical signs are not symbols in the first instance. For Peirce, a symbol is a sign that’s associated with its object by convention, not similarity or contiguity. Signs of language are symbols first and foremost. But we weren’t told by our parents to feel sad whenever we heared a descending minor triad, as we were to say “dog” whenever we saw a representative of the canidae-family. Musical signs may be symbols, too. We can find agreements upon single aspects of music: My music teacher, for instance, claimed, that the “tatatada”, the first motive of the fifth symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, refers to knocking fate. Nevertheless, there is no general code we agreed upon, considering musical interpretation, as there is considering language.
At a glimpse, musical semiotics seems to be something very individual and subjective. Yet, there is room for scientific approaches. The fact that we can tell Greek from Indian music, that we expect a tonica at the end of a song, that we turn sad on a big gesture or even that we have an idea of measurement when we see a crotchet in a score, all this is evidence for some kind of collectivity in musical association – inborn, acquired or both. Meaning rises from its relation to form. Semiotic analysis will therefore concentrate on the quality of the relation between musical form and meaning and the associations this relation evokes or may once have evoked.
To a considerable extent music depends on local, temporal and stylistic conventions and paradigms. We can analyse it by checking concords with similar pieces, as well as marking exceptions, anomalies or concious violations. Referring to known patterns explicitly by title, lyrics, links to other artwork or by non-verbal structures may be analysed. The choice of a fugue, a whole-tone-scale or a marimbaphone may be an allusion to a known pattern. Even graphical dimensions should not be ignored. Referring to patterns implicitly, is harder to come by, since it is not investigated systematically by musicology, yet. Music recalls associations of emotion that are not always individual; sometimes it recalls affects kind of directly. This may function by referring to or imitating so called “sentic shapes”, neural concepts of emotion. But without any neurological data this is highly speculative and only guesswork until now.
3. Part II – Analysis of Fumeux
“Fumeux fume” is a rondeau by Solage (fl. 1380 to 1400) bequeathed to us in the Chantilly Codex, a compilation of the ars subtilior. At the end of the 14th century the rondeau is one of the so called “formes fixes”, besides ballade and virelai. Those are highly elaborated forms of french secular poetry mostly set to music. The rondeau had a tradition before 1350. Solage’s predecessor Guillaume de Machaut (1300 – 1377) was the one to standardise and heighten it for courtly use in the second half of the 14th century.
In its structure of verse “Fumeux fume” follows Machauts standards, being a poem of the form AB aA ab AB. The sections represented by the init-caps are the refrain. Traditionally refrains of rondeaus have the character of a saying. We can guess this character in the first
two lines of “Fumeux”, which build a more or less autonomous entity.
Within these two lines there lies the very essence of the poem itself, both in form and content. They make up five out of eight lines of the poem (62.5%), whereas the first line is repeated three times, the second twice. The remaining three verses are bound inbetween and refer to it by final rhyme. The repetitions lend it a circular structure, typical for rondeaux. In this case it is even enriching the content.
So what does fumeux mean? There are two ways of translating the old French word into modern English, the first being “smoky”, the second “fuming”. Neither tobacco nor pipes were known in central europe until the end of the 15th century. If we stick to the first translation, we have to imagine substances like opium or hashish burnt in a censer-like tool. But it was uncommon (not impossible) to inhale the smoke of such substances, rather they were consumed eating or drinking. So the second translation initially seems more likely. It points to the old model of the four humors stemming from the Greek physician Hippocrates. Human behaviour, he thought, was conducted by bodily fluids: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. Fuming may have been a fifth humor discussed in the period of the ars subtilior.
fumeux fume par fumee
qu’antre fummet sa pensee
fumeux fume par fumee
quar fumer molt li agree
tant qu’il ait son entencion
fumeux fume par fumee
A closer look at the poem would reveal a text about a wrathful fuming grouch, whose thoughts are filled with wrath and who is not satisfied until he gets his way. The circular form of the rondeau would illustrate the durable endlessness of this grumpy nature. But then there seems to be more to it, for the text floats between the literal and the metaphorical meaning of fumeux. Phrases like “par fumee” or “fummet sa pensee” reveal the ambiguous nature of the word we stumbled upon first. The exessive use of voiceless fricatives [f] and [s] and plosives [p], [k] and [t] is remakable, too. This usage evokes the association of inhaling, breathing and smoking by the mere sound of the language itself. Astonishingly, all the pregnant words not dealing with fume have something else in common. Speculation, pensee, agree and entencion derive all from an abstract, intellectual context. So “Fumeux” might not deal with just wrathful or just toxic vapours, but with clouding the senses in a broader meaning.
There is another interesting fact. Solage’s rondeau is not the only chanson in the Chatilly Codex dealing with fumeux. There is another one by Hasprois called “Puis que je suis fumeux”. Both fumeux-songs seem to allude to a set of poems by Eustache Deschamps. In 1368 he wrote “Le Chartre des Fumeux”, a kind of manifesto describing a society of eccentric, juvenile bohemians. Fume seems to be the humor of those drinking, dancing and debating aesthetes, expressing itself not in wrath, but in some kind of youthful jollity, folly and extraordinary way of life. It is not known wether this group really existed, it may as well be a pure brainchild of Deschamps. But then we virtually have a group of high-class poets, composers and aesthets at the end of the 14th century: Machaut compiling his own work, Deschamps debating poetry without music, Pizan criticising women’s role in the “Roman de la Rose”, the Duke of Berry appointing the “Très Riches Heures”, etc. All of them develop an extraordinary, artistic emanzipation and all of them point to the French royal court.
It is likely not only that Solage knew the work of Deschamps, but that his exclusive audience did, too. Whether it refers to smoking or to fuming it does especially one thing – presenting itself as an extraordinary piece of art. It is done by ambiguous arrangement, oscillation between literal and metaphorical meaning, by playful and creative exposure to features of poetical form and language, but especially by musical composition, as I will show now.
The rondeau is poetica per musica, which means the text is supposed to come forth with music. Pleasantly, the Chantilly Codex passes down “Fumeux fume” with musical notation. The graphical system is quite different from the system today: Music of the 14th Century has no bars and uses square notes – to mention only the most distinctive features. But unlike Baude Cordier’s “Belle, bonne, sage” from the same source, “Fumeux fume” shows no particularities, no symbolic meaning in notation. In fact, it looks quite normal with its three consecutively notated voices, its red notation and its prolatio. If it wasn’t for the accumulation of accidentals, the symmetric sequences and the low tessitura, none would expect a piece of extraordinary music from just glimpsing its source.
As every rondeau “Fumeux fume” musically consists of two parts, A and B. As the text is structured AB aA ab AB those two parts are repeated identically for performance, resulting in a 3 times repetition of A in the middle of the piece. Part A has a length of 126 brevis, while B consists of only 88. This makes B a little more than two thirds as long as A, yet, missing golden ratio by 0,11. The tonal range of A is one and a half octaves, it is nearly two in B. It is most interesting that the final of A is vertically seen one tone lower than the final of B, cantus and contratenor changing registers. This new and unique option of cadencing will have struck contemporary auditors beyond doubt. Peter M. Lefferts even thinks testing it for Solage was the raison d’être of “Fumeux”.
But there are more distinctive features striking the ear. The hoquet-like sequence of descending breves in the end of A is not to be ignored. The same rhythmical motive appears six times in all three voices shifted by a brevis. It descends sequential in the cantus. And when reduced to its tonal scaffold, cantus and tenor are forming a sequence of descending thirds.
Another descending sequence can be found in the middle of B. This time the rhythmical motives are different in each voice. But similar to the first example this one is dominated by descending thirds and complementary sixths between cantus and tenor.
Thanks to the marked sequences, both parts, A and B, have a structured disposition of constitutive character: hovering around a high note, descending in a sequence, cadencing on a low note. The sequential descent is a troublesome step by step execution of a strange tonal material. Performers had and have to deal not only with chromatic semitones, but even with enharmonics. “Fumeux fume” is musica ficta in its finest, recalling distant hexachords far off the Guidonian gamut.
It is not unusual for 14th century music to use musica ficta. Unusual is the consequency with which it is done here, the density of accidentals and the tonal distances reached therefore. The quantity of hexachordal mutation throughout the piece is remarkable. As the melody leads lower and lower, tonality leads far and far away.
All in all “Fumeux fume” is noted on a remarkably low tessitura, reaching the E fa below Gamma ut in the tenor and contratenor and forcing the cantus down to the A re in the graves. Though it is not the only chanson reaching as low, all other examples occur in the same source – the Chantilly Codex. Ursula Günther therefore assumes that Solage’s rondeau may have been written for a special group of singers. Peter M. Lefferts however concludes, that “there is no compelling musical reason for this notation“. Singers could have transposed any musical composition to any comfortable level.
Anyways, the descent of melody, the distance of tonality, the grave register and the circular, repetitive structure of “Fumeux fume” evoke an image of drowsiness, of fading away and loosing oneself. Music, by this realisation, destinctly embodies a hallucinogetic state, known to be caused by consumption of substances like hashish or opium. It is plausible to associate “Fumeux fume” with some kind of hallucinogetic aesthetics, when listening to the music, rather than ideas of wrath or even rage. On the other hand it plys the audience with its artistic elaboration as if it wanted to say: “Hey, look at me, I’m extraordinary!”
“Fumeux fume” is poetica per musica, finest poetry emphasised by excellent music. There are two main aspects of meaning in it. One arising from referential semantics, the other from some identificational process. Referential meaning points to two poles – the literal one of smoking and the metaphorical one of fuming. Both interpretations meet on a third point of vapoured drowsiness and/or confusion. May those confusing vapours be a result of drug consuming or the existence of bodily liquors. Some syntactical features of poetry and music encourage this assumption: the circular structure of the rondeau, the repetitions of refrain, rhyme and melody, the onomatopoetical use of consonants, the descent to remote tonality, the tonal and semantical ambiguity, and the allusion to intellectual contexts of fumeuse speculations and musica ficta.
Asides, there is this strong aspect of intellectual identification by defining correlation and differentiation. “Fumeux fume” alludes to a manifesto of a colleague, adopting its bohemian character and giving it an individual note or interpretation. Only a small group of listeners will have noticed this allusion, knowing the “Chatre des Fumeux” and perhaps understanding the complexity of alien and kind of “crazy” musical features exectued in the chanson. The rondeau does not only fit into Deschamp’s image, it is actively participating in the idea of “Fumeux” and addressing to insiders by marking itself.
Today, 700 years later, this second aspect of meaning could not have been noticed without the knowledge and investigation of medieval standards. Still “Fumeux fume” is highly inspiring – it sure was back then.
- Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences: “Spiegelbild der Sprache – Neurokognition von Musik”, Leipzig 2004; http://www.cbs.mpg.de/MPI_Base/NEU/institute/research_teams/team_koelsch
- Jeff Hawkins/Sandra Blakeslee: “On intelligence. How a new understanding of the brain will lead to the creation of truely intelligent machines”, Times Books, New York 2004
- Facsimile: “French Secular Music of the Late Fourteenth Century”, edited by Willi Apel, Cambridge/Massachussetts: Medieval Academy of America, 1950, plate V
- Ian Laurie: “Deschamps and Comedy”, http://tell.fll.purdue.edu/RLA-Archive/1995/French-html/Laurie,Ian.htm
- Ursula Günther: “Ars Nove – Ars Subtilior”, in: Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sachteil 1, Friedrich Blume, Ludwig Fincher [ed.], Bärenreiter, Kassel u.a. 1994
- Yolanda Plumley: “Solage”, in: Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Personenteil 15, Friedrich Blume, Ludwig Fincher [ed.], Bärenreiter, Kassel u.a. 2006
- David Fallows: “Rondeau – Rondo”, in: Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Sachteil 8, Friedrich Blume, Ludwig Fincher [ed.], Bärenreiter, Kassel u.a. 1998
- Peter M. Lefferts: “Subtilitas in the tonal language of “Fumeux fume”, Early Music, 16 (1988), p. 176 – 183
- Margo Schulter: “Hexachords, solmization, and musica ficta”, http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/harmony/hex1.html
Thanks to Prof. Dr. Martin Haase for translating some parts of Deschamps’ “Chartre des Fumeux” for me and thus helping me to understand it and to Prof. Dr. David Lidov giving his comments on this essay and thus helping me to improve it.