Rhetoric by Microtones

Utrecht Colloquia in the Musicologies 2017-18

Thursday, 21 December 2017, 4.15 pm
Location: Janskerkhof 13 – Stijlkamer (0.06)

Rhetoric by Microtones:
Exploring Otherness in Medieval Gregorian Chant
Leo Lousberg (Utrecht University)

The microtonal interpretation of neumes in medieval Gregorian chant has been subject
of an extended debate since about 1860. The preliminary conclusions of my PhD project
are in favour of a microtonal interpretation by chronicles reflecting contemporaneous
reception, by re-assessing the meanwhile digitised sources underlying the recent
debate and by a functional analysis of the phenomenon.
It frustrated musicological analysis that microtones (‘quartertones’) did not seem to fit
in any known musical system of Gregorian chant, apart from the fact that their positions
are in line with those in the Greek enharmonic genus. A scholar complained: “It looks
like the notators only applied them when they felt like it.”
My functional analysis, which focuses upon text-melody relations, indeed seems to
confirm that auctors (notators/performers) applied microtones “when they felt like it”.
They applied microtonal pitches in order to accentuate their feelings and
considerations about text elements. Their decisions were guided by the rhetorical
methods based upon affect, logic and loci when to employ them and by musical
prescriptive syntagmatic rules where to position them in the melody. Within these
constraints, the system allowed for individual choices, a new perspective for the
analysis of Gregorian chant. Musicological terminologies are incapable of describing
this tradition; semiotics appears to be very helpful analysing Gregorian chant, as Leo
Treitler suggested in 1987 already.
Microtones were signals rather than aesthetic elements of a musical composition. Pitch
beyond melody, narrative beyond words: the microtone as parapitch.

Leo Lousberg (Urban Planning and Construction Economics, University of Amsterdam
1975, Musicology and Medieval Studies both with distinction, Utrecht University 2013)
is a PhD candidate and affiliated researcher at Utrecht University. A redraft of his master
thesis ‘Verklonken Utrechts Erfgoed’ won the Utrecht History Prize 2013.

Upcoming event:
Colloquium Dr Loes Rusch (University of Amsterdam/Utrecht University)
on 22 March 2018, 4.15 pm
Janskerkhof 13 – Stijlkamer (0.06)