Song Phenomena: Various Approaches to Understanding Song.


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Works Reviewed.  Jean Nicolas De Surmont. From Vocal Poetry to Song: Towards a Theory of Song Objects. Translated by Anastasija Ropa . Stuttgart, Germany: ibidem Press, 2017.

The vocalized song, among the most ubiquitous of cultural objects, is also one whose form remains remarkably undefined and insufficiently researched. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, that the research, spanning a number of different approaches and fields of study, suffers from a lack of lexical unity, as well as the near insurmountable divide between musicological and sociological approaches to studying song.  The song, particularly in its relationship to the ambiguous notion of the popular, is thus often sidelined in the field of musicology, while sociological approaches are little concerned with the musical and lyrical content of song, preferring a contextual to a textual analytical approach. (10)

The study of song, then, is rife with the potential for debate, but also with possibilities for exploration in a number of fields and from a number of different angles. Jean Nicolas de Surmont, in his book From Vocal Poetry to Song: Towards a Theory of Song Objects” makes significant inroads to highlighting some of the debates current in song research as an interesting and worthy cultural form, as well as laying some tentative groundwork for overcoming research limitations through what he terms a neological solution. De Surmont hopes to pioneer a supradisciplinary approach to the song object through lexical engineering, that is, through providing terminology that is transferrable across different approaches to the study of song. He is concerned with preserving the polysemiotic status of the song object – leaving it open to the concerns and interests of a variety of disciplines – while at the same time sufficiently fixing the terminology so that all those interested in studying song, be it from a principally musicological or sociological bent, are speaking roughly the same language. The “towards” in Towards a Theory of Song Objects is meant to be taken quite literally; De Surmont does not purport to offer a full-fledged metholodogy, but rather aa set of terms available to research communities with quite diverse interests in song phenomena.

Nevertheless, the elaboration of a new meta-language with respect to song does result in staking some definitive claims into the nature of song and the way it has evolved over time. The lexical approach which De Surmont allows for considerable historical exploration, as he traces the change in the concept of song over time, outlining some of the geographical and linguistic contours of that development. The particular claim at the centre of the book, as Geoff Stahl indicates in the introduction, is that the notion of “vocal poetry” should supersede that of “oral poetry” as a more comprehensive analytical category. The notion of vocal poetry allows a conceptualization of song that includes the literary and learned aspects of song – including song that is often bracketed under the catch-all rubric of “popular.” In addition it has the advantage of considering the performative aspect of song, and the complex ways in which writing and oral tradition interact.

Whether the book is successful in the claims it makes is, of course, another matter. In my own estimation the ideas present in the book are intriguing and compelling, but the execution of those ideas is poor. This is partly accounted for by the fact that De Surmont has not set out to compose an independent model of song analysis. However, the number of times when I had the impression of reading a series of loosely related notes, rather than a developed line of argument, was excessive even in light of the proposed project of providing a unified lexicon. The criticism, here, relates more to the style of presentation than to the content. In keeping with the desire to preserve the polysemiotic status of the song object De Surmont provides a wealth of information and a heavily peopled bibliography which includes not only researchers in the areas literary theory, ethnomusicology, and cultural studies, but also numerous references to the study of French and Quebec song, De Surmont’s principal area of study. At times, though, this wealth of information seemed displayed to no discernible purpose.

At other times claims were made which, at least in my reading, were meant to be taken as settled but which, in fact, lacked sufficient development or basis. One key example occurs in a discussion of Theodor Adorno’s analysis of the function of standardization and pseudo-individualisation. De Surmont levies the sheer diversity of song practice as a counterargument o Adorno’s sociological approach, but then goes on to say that

“it is not the complex relationship between oral traditions or popular culture and the dominant learned culture that shapes aesthetic and cultural  evolution but the mediatisation of mass culture industry, which governs the criteria of song phenomena circulation and facilitates ideological unification around the average of national culture.” (123)

De Surmont  judges this  statement sufficient to counter what he terms the “Marxist determinism” of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, who fail to see that traditional song and “signed popular song” (meaning song that is identified as popular but also has a known author) can be subject to common rules of a song production according to market demands. This may be the case, but the appeal to an undefined “national culture” is surely not a very strong place from which to make an argument for diversity, particularly as the whole concept of a “national culture” is bound up with the process of standardizing and normalizing cultural diversity. The issue of cultural domination and hegemony, then, is one to which De Surmont alludes but does not appear fully willing to confront. This is rather unfortunate in a book which begins –though  admittedly in the Foreword and not in the central text, with a quote from Raymond Williams, who was quite attentive to the different forces of power at work in cultural production. Still, the suspicion remains that De Surmont may be fully cognizant of the ambiguities involved in the claims he is making and prefers not to delve into them because he is embarking on a lexical rather than a sociological project. As a reader, though, I found this decision profoundly unsatisfying.

Admittedly some of my frustration in reading the book may have derived from my own limitations in the field of study. The musicological and many of the historical conversations which De Surmont referenced were largely unknown to me, which means that my comprehension of the material could at times be improved by referring to the works referenced in the book. As a reference source From Vocal Poetry to Song is quite valuable, particularly for those interested in the history of the French and Quebec song, but also for those with a more general interest in the history of the concepts of traditional song, learned, song, and popular song and the transitions which those concepts have undergone in the age of mediatisation. However, my frustrations were compounded by some fairly significant editorial oversight and infelicities in translation. From Vocal Poetry to Song is a book that needs to be edited more thoroughly.

Geoff Stahl in his introduction, implies that Jean Nicolas de Surmont has done a significant service to the Anglophone musical community due to his ability to “translate the work of scholars otherwise unknown to many Anglophones” thereby opening up a new world of francophone musical study. As I read through the book, then, I was surprised at the number of times when not only the translated passages but the book itself struggled with English syntax. Looking more closely at the title page I noticed the inscription “Translated by Anastija Ropa.” The Foreword had offered misleading information with respect to the book’s own origins. This is a fairly sloppy editorial oversight, and it is particularly significant given the lexical concerns of the book.  The French effort at lexical unity and coherence could be successful, without its English translation sufficiently developing and unfolding the nuances and history present in the lexical decisions. As the book itself demonstrates with respect to differences of approach within fields of study, linguistic terminology does not completely overlap even within different scholarly fields in the same language. This is compounded when one has to navigate the complexities of translation. This is not to say that De Surmont’s efforts are not to be appreciated by speakers of English, but the claim the Stahl makes in the introduction is invalidated. Anastija Ropa, not De Surmont, has done the work of translation.

In conclusion, From Vocal Poetry to Song offers a significant contribution to the study of song, its relation to vocal poetry, and provides a concerted effort to fix the terms of study so that research from communities with a sociological bent will be available to those studying some from a musicological angle and vice versa. It may be of particular value to those with a specific interest in the history of song in France and Quebec. Although the work contains many interesting concepts and opens the reader – particularly if they are able to speak French, to a number of ongoing discussions on the history of song, it is a book that would have benefited from a longer and more thorough editorial process