Theory of Timbre: Wittgenstein, Barthes, Lorca
"Timbre, of all the parameters of music, is the one least considered. It lacks not only an adequate theory, but even an inadequate one." (Robert Cogan)
"The grain of the voice is not—or is not merely—its 'timbre.''' (Barthes 185)
Timbre is a qualitative judgment about the properties of the tonal shadings of a given sound. In fact, it is one the best examples I know of what the word "qualitative" might mean. Timbre has an objective counterpart, as defined by the specific harmonic components of the sound in question. But that is not really timbre, is it? The qualitative experience of seeing bricks of that particular shade of red out the window right now is not defined by the length of the waves of light that produce the experience. There's something irreducibleabout the qualitative, so that if you attempt to translate it into other non-qualitative terms, you've essentially missed the point.
All sounds have timbre, but the term is most often applied to music and to the human voice, whether singing or merely speaking. (The relation between music and the human voice is, in fact, a crux of my argument in what follows.) The difference between various vowel sounds is almost entirely a function of timbre, so the ability to perceive quite subtle differences of timbre is fundamental to phonological perception, to the aural processing of language. There's also a material or environmental aspect: just as you can hear a glass crashing to the floor and hear it as glass, you can hear the woodsiness or metallicness of a musical instrument. You can hear friction and smoothness, hardness and liquidity, aurally perceiving the material textures of the lived environment.
Various elements go into the production of timbre. A musical sound is composed of a fundamentalpitch and a series of harmonic overtones based on certain ratios: 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, etc... This is called the "overtone series." A second element is articulation, or the relation betweenattackand sustain. Think of a piano note, which has a strong percussive onset, followed by a relatively quick decay: it begins to fade away immediately after that percussive attack. Now think of an organ note: it lacks the percussive onset, and continues to sound at the same volume as long as the note is held. A third factor is vibrato, or the vacillation of the fundamental pitch. In evaluating timbre we would have to describe presence or absence of vibrato, its speed and "wideness" or "narrowness." Yet another possible element to be considered is the presence of "noise," or sound that does not seem to be an inherent part of the pitch: the raspiness of a voice or the breathiness of a saxophone.
How is timbre relevant to "Philosophy and Literature"? My purpose here to use it as an example of aesthetic phenomena that are not discussed very often because they lack an adequate theoretical or descriptive metalanguage. Much of literary theory is concerned with questions of hermeneutics: what is a valid interpretation? Is the meaning of the text in the author's intention, the text itself, or the reader? Theoretical questions that are not related in some way to hermeneutics, or that cannot be placed in the service of hermeneutics, tend to be seen as marginal. Susan Sontag, in her well-known essay "Against Intepretation," proposed that "in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." For me thepoint is not really to be against interpretation, because interpretation is close to inescapable, but to turn our attention to elements that aren’t easily recuperable for hermeneutics.
In my own view, such nonrecuperable elements are actually (among) the more important features of a literary work, although they are the hardest to talk about in a meaningful way—precisely because they seem to escape the tyranny of meaning. From one perspective, it might seem that "meaning" of the song is in the words themselves. Yet this is only part of the story: what makes the song "meaningful" for a listener is, typically, the overall gestalt, including the texture of the singer's voice, his or particular interpretation of the lyric, the phrasing, pacing, and rhythm, and the evocation of particular cultural and musical traditions. Timbre is the quality that makes something recognizable as itself. How do you recognize someone's voice on the phone? (My mother, wife, or daughter, not just a generic female voice.) The recognition of a voice is similar to the recognition of a face, for which humans have a highly developed capacity. Voices and faces are charged with social and personal meanings, and the average human being is an expert in reading and interpreting this information.
The timbre of the voice is analogous to that of a musical instrument. Let's listen to the difference in timbre among three major tenor saxophone players: John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and Coleman Hawkins. Trane is metallic and saturated, with a very tight, controlled vibrato that only becomes perceptible on longer notes. Getz's tenor sax sounds almost like a bassoon. He favors the upper register of the tenor so that it sounds almost like an alto. Note, also, the softness of his "attack": the onset of the note is extremely smooth. Hawkins is rougher, raspy, with a vibrantly warm vibrato and an assertive attack more typical of jazz articulation.
From Coltrane, Getz, and Hawkins it is somewhat of a leap to the figures promised by my title: Wittgenstein, Lorca, and Barthes. None of these three authors proposes a theory of timbre, per se, but each has contributed something to my thinking about the set of theoretical problems I naming "timbre." From Ludwig Wittgenstein I take a few key ideas. In the first place, aesthetic perception is rooted in particular cultures or "ways of life"; it cannot be reduced to a universal definition of the "beautiful," which for Wittgenstein is a fairly useless concept: "You might think Aesthetics is a science telling us what's beautiful—almost too ridiculous for words. I suppose it also ought to include what sort of coffee tastes well" (Lectures and Conversations11). Wittgenstein is interested in the "click" or "fit" that leads to aesthetic perception. What makes us say, for example, that a particular tempo is the right one? It is the one that "fits," but, as he points out: "We are again and again using this simile of something clicking or fitting, when there is really nothing that clicks or fits anything" (Ibid. 19). In other words, there is no pre-existing measure by which we can say that a particular tempo is the right one. Wittgenstein can lead us to a consideration of aesthetic judgments that seem to rely on indefinable criteria, judged in ad hoc situation and lacking universalizable justifications.
Roland Barthes's short essay "The Grain of the Voice," originally published in 1972, is one striking example of an aesthetic criterion that seems entirely idiosyncratic, that it would be difficult to apply outside of the particular cultural context in which Barthes was moving. He begins the essay by complaining about the tyranny of the adjective in music criticism: the dominance of this part of speech seems reductive to him, and he proposes the concept of the "grain" in order to enact a "displacement" of a certain standard rhetoric that labels music by deploying a series of predictable predicate adjectives.
Barthes borrows a binary opposition from Julia Kristeva, thegeno-text and pheno-text, in order to contrast two dimensions of vocal art and two distinct approaches. The pheno-song is identified with everything conventional:
The pheno-song[...] covers all the phenomena, all the features which belong to the language being sung, the rules of the genre, the coded form of the melisma, the composer's idiolect, the style of the interpretation: in short, everything in the performance that is in the service of communication, representation, expression, everything that is customary to talk about, which forms the tissue of cultural values. (Barthes 182)
The "geno-song," in contrast, is
the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate 'from within language and its very materiality'; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation, (of feelings) expression. (Ibid.)
Barthes identifies it, more particularly, with the encounter between musical expression and phonology: "It is, in a very simple word that must be taken seriously, the dictionof the language" (183; original emphasis).
To illustrate this dichotomy Barthes contrasts the styles of two singers, the German baritone Dieter Fischer-Dieskau, who represents the pheno-song, and the Swiss-born French baritone Charles Panzéra, who sings at the level of the geno-songand thus exemplifies the "grain of the voice." What Barthes values in Panzéra's singing is a particular relation to the phonetics and prosody of the French language. [Musical example]. Barthes felt that the French were losing a certain relation to their own language: "the French are abandoning their language, not assuredly, as a normative set of noble values [...] but as a source of pleasure, of thrill, a site where language works for nothing, that is, in perversion [...]" (187; emphasis in original). It is interesting that Barthes locates a certain libidinal relation to language in the past, employing a decidedly nostalgic tone. There is also an admittedly "hallucinated" quality in Barthes's description of Panzéra's voice:
This phonetics—am I alone in perceiving it? am I hearing voices within the voice? but isn't it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated? isn't the entire space of the voice an infinite one? [...] does not exhaust signifiance(which is inexhaustible), but it does at least hold in check the attempts at expressive reductionoperated by the whole culture against the poem and its melody.
(184; original emphasis).
Fischer-Dieskau, who represents the conventionality of the pheno-song, gets to be the straw man in Barthes's argument. [Musical example]. The contrast between the two singers is also a contrast between two national cultures—French and German—with their two genres: mélodieand lied, and between two epochs: Panzéra was born in 1896 and "FD," as Barthes calls him, in 1925. This use of a German singer as straw man is significant, I think, because Barthes is making an argument specific to the French language and to French culture rather than proposing a universal aesthetic principle. Because he is proposing an aesthetic criterion wrapped up, clearly, in his own libidinal relation to the French language, the concept of the grain is untranslatable. Of course, Barthes must also rely a bit on the romantic heritage of national essences: if Panzéra is prototypically French, then, to what extent does it make sense that his voice transcends culture itself, as Barthes seems to be claiming? If Panzéra wrote treatises on vocal art, as he did, does not this lead to a new sort of codification or pheno-text?
I do not mean to propose Federico García Lorca's duendeas another name for Barthes's grainde la voix. The two concepts are conceptually and qualitatively distinct, and each is linked to a separate variety of cultural nationalism and to a particular genre of song: the Spanish cante jondoand the French mélodie, respectively. At the same time, however, there are some suggestive similarities that justify my linkage. The primary reason for juxtaposing these two essays is that they are two of the most significant essays that I know of that address the performative dimension of poetry through the medium of song, and argue for the virtues of a particular vernacular tradition. Both, in fact, contrast their own national traditions to German ones. It is perhaps no coincidence that both Lorca and Barthes were piano players. [Musical example.]
Lorca contrasts skill, technique, mastery (las facultades ... la técnica ... la maestría) to the duende. It is tempting, then, to identify Lorca's musewith Barthes's pheno-text. It is not that these concepts are, in any strict sense, synonymous, but rather that they occupy parallel functions in the two essays: they are structurally and rhetorically equivalent. Barthes says that the grainis not in the lungs ("a stupid organ") but in the throat and the speech organs. Lorca, on the other hand, maintains that the duendedoes not come from the throat but from the soles of the feet. Both, however, are speaking of a corporeal force that breaks through a conventional system of performance in order to present a bodily force that is, in some sense, prior to cultural codification. The museis mere intelligence, in contrast to the telluric force of the duende:[i]
Todas las artes son capaces del duende, pero donde encuentra más campo, como es natural, es en la música, en la danza, y en la poesía hablada, ya que éstas necesitan un cuerpo vivo que interprete, porque son formas que nacen y mueren de modo perpetuo y alzan sus contornos sobre un presente exacto.
[Every art form is capable of duende, but where it finds more terrain, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, since these require a live body to interpret, being forms that are born and die perpetually and erect their shape onto an exact present.]
For Barthes, similarly the grain of the voice is linked to the present of performance: it is "the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue" (182) or "the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs" (188).
The subjective perception of the presence of absence of the duende is related to the certain "grain of the voice," even if this grain might not be exactly what Barthes meant. In other words, the same kind of artists said to have duende will also have a certain granularquality. This might be a kind of parlor game: who has duende? Who has the grain? Will the same artists end up having both? (Perhaps not...) For me, for example, Pau Casals' cello has that itwhich is lacking in Yo-Yo Ma. Ma is a magnificent player, of course, but, to use Barthes's terminology, he remains a little too much at the level of the phenotext. Here they are playing the Bach cello suites [musical examples].
There are very few concepts in literary theory that have address the materiality of performance. Materiality and corporality are tricky concepts, since they lend themselves easily to metaphorical appropriations that, in essence, dematerialize them once again by reducing them to certain ideological positions. These concepts are also subject to excessively romantic readings, in that the body is meant to stand for a kind of authenticity that stands apart from culture. In reality, conceptions of the body are themselves culturally contingent, in other words, unimaginable outside of the particular cultural frames in which they are inscribed, as Wittgenstein might argue, and the examples of Barthes and Lorca demonstrate. As I completed my forthcoming book on the influence of Lorca on poetry of the U.S., I become convinced that Lorca's duendecould not be applied as a theoretical concept to any other cultural context: the new context (in this case the United States) alters the meaning of the original concept so as to make it unrecognizable. There is no American duende, then, that is meaningfully Lorquian. Yet theoretical coinages like the grain de la voixand the duendehave a certain suggestive elasticity that makes people want to apply them somewhat recklessly across cultural boundaries.
Where is this line of research headed? In the first place, toward a theory of the performance of poetry. We tend to think of any potential performance of a poem as an after-thought, and therefore of aspects like timbre and rhythm as inessential or ornamental. The articles collected in Charles Bernstein's edited volume Close Listeningproposes an alternative or supplement to the traditional concept of close reading, so I am building on foundation already established by other poets and critics. One example from my own research is a forthcoming article on Claudio Rodríguez, where I look seriously at rhythm. If I were to apply Barthes concepts to Rodríguez I would be looking at the pronunciation of certain consonants, like the intervocalic d in words like vida, along with the use of a particular intonational melody, and the granular character of his voice. These elements do not help me, necessarily, to better interpret his poems. At the same time, they point us toward something that might be even more important than this hermeneutic task (audio example).
The performance of poetry is bound up with musical concepts, or, more precisely, in concepts that have their other most significant manifestations in music. We can talk about other things having rhythm, but we still think of poetry and music as the paradigmatic cases of rhythm. So too with tone quality or timbre. Language (speech) and music are where we look for these things, and so writing that seems to be about music (as in Wittgenstein, Barthes, and Lorca) might actually at least as much about poetry than about music itself.
A final point I would like to leave you with is that Cultural Studies needs to be pay closer attention to the material and formal aspects of cultural texts, rather than seeing poems and songs primarily as documents of issues defined mostly in political terms. Barthes and Lorca suggest a way to begin to think about the "aesthetics of cultural studies" (Bérubé) in relation to cultural practices situated within particular cultural contexts.
Barthes, Roland. Image - Music - Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
Bérubé, Michael, ed. The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.
Bernstein, Charles, ed. Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Cogan, Robert. "Toward a Theory of Timbre: Verbal Timbre and Musical Line in Purcell, Sessions, and Stravinsky." Perspectives of New Music8: 1 (Autumn - Winter, 1969): 75-8.
García Lorca, Federico. Conferencias. Granada: Huerta de San Vicente, 2001.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. New York: FSG, 1966.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Berkeley: U of California P, 1967.