godfre: In Reverse Order: How to Dress Well, a Theory of the Baroque, and a Memory of Rochester

When I was in graduate school in Rochester, NY, I briefly taught at the Eastman School of Music.  To get to my classroom, I had to walk through the world famous Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.  In the dead of Rochester’s suffocating winter, I’d pass through the walkway behind top row of seats in the hall’s orchestra level to get to the staircase that leads to the annex building, and even at 8:00 in the morning, before the sun had come up, there would be a woodwind ensemble rehearsing.

It goes without saying that hearing a live woodwind ensemble comprised of students at one of the world’s best music conservatories on your way to work is a fantastic way to start the day.  But it was the concert hall itself that has stuck with me.  I don’t think that musicians ever noticed me passing through.  At the time, it was the only way from the school’s main entrance in Eastman Theater to the annex building, where the humanities classes were held, so a lot of people had to constantly pass through.  But the acoustic dimensions of the concert hall also helped to ensure that while I heard them loud and clear, my intrusion wouldn’t disturb them.  At that time, the walkway leading out to the lobby was the best “seat” in the house; Eastman has since spent tens of millions of dollars to renovate the hall to redirect the sound from my vantage point passing through on my way to class back down to the expensive orchestra seats. [In the middle of the Kodak Hall renovation, an Eastman professor remarked to me that the hall’s new distribution of sound was in fact an overturning of the “democratic” distribution originally envisioned by George Eastman when he commissioned its design in the early 1920s.] Walking behind the orchestra was a stunning listening experience, the clarity and control of sound emanating from the tiny seated ensemble on the stage seemingly directed solely at me, thirty rows up.  My distance from the stage actually made the tones sound warmer, crisper, and more refined than if I had been right there on the stage next to the ensemble.  Long after I’ve now forgotten what the music sounded like, I can still “hear” that space: the precision and control of some master builder’s acoustical engineering, and not the highly refined technique of the country’s most talented and hardworking young concert musicians.  My sense of hearing was autonomized, as if the world was oriented perfectly to my ears.  I thought of Raphael after completing The School of Athens, contentedly looking upon his perspectival masterwork for the first time.

That bi-weekly walkthrough of Kodak Hall is one of my three most indelible memories of listening from my five years in Rochester.  I also clearly remember an awful dive bar and music venue called the Bug Jar, which sounded like you were in a giant cinder block—its cement walls ate up sound and gave nothing back.  On more than one occasion, I was moved to apologize for the space to old friends from Portland passing through Rochester on tour.  It didn’t matter if it was the dense sonic onslaught of Wolf Eyes or the late Jeff Hanson’s delicate chamber-pop, both of whom I saw at the Bug Jar; either way, it was going to sound like Tyvek. [The scrappy lo-fi Michigan punk band Tyvek was one of the very few bands I saw in my five years in Rochester that sounded “right” at the Bug Jar.] My third and fondest listening memory from Rochester is of the Italian Baroque organ installed in the Fountain Court at the Memorial Art Gallery.  When the organ, which is the only full size Italian organ in North America, was first restored, I lived two blocks away and my University ID got me into the weekly Sunday afternoon organ recitals for free.  One doesn’t hear the organ so much as feel its drones reverberating through the space.

The skill of the Eastman students performing at these recitals is unmistakable, but the experience is wholly unlike that of the Kodak Hall.  Instead of measure and control, I heard contingency: the tones emanating from the instrument’s pipes filling up the Fountain Court, bouncing off the walls, and ringing through your ears and body.  I often found myself wishing that the organist were a young La Monte Young or John Cale, locking down a few low keys to form a chord and then walking away to let the instrument and the room do the rest.  The organ’s big drawing point was its exquisitely crafted pipes, which produce beautifully clear tones; but the massive instrument seemed to have been designed for a much larger space, and so the sound, despite the best efforts of the virtuoso controlling the stops, uncontrollably echoed.  I heard the thirty-foot high ceilings, the limestone bricks that made up the walls, the marble floor, and as I felt the sound moving through my body, I was made to imagine the enormity of the Baroque chapel that this organ’s giant pipes must have been built for.

 

Our greatest theoretician of the Baroque, the Swiss-born German art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, defined the Baroque as a decentralization of the Renaissance aesthetic.  The clarity and order of Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, with its intersection of orthogonal lines at the dead center of the canvas between Plato and Aristotle’s heads, speaks to the Renaissance’s pursuit of timelessness, posited as the realization of compositional perfection.  In contrast, the Baroque was based on painting’s inapproachable other: movement, and with movement time and space.  If we follow Wölfflin’s neo-Hegelian history of art, the stillness and contemplative immersion of Raphael was overturned by a radical new age exemplified by Bernini.  Where Raphael was all order and idealism, control and self-referentiality, Bernini’s sculptures were founded on gesture, dramatic action, and ultimately emotion and affect. [Wölfflin partially attributes this shift in attitude to the convictions of the Counter-Reformation and the influence of its master artist Michelangelo, whose fresco The Last Judgment was commissioned for the Sistine Chapel as an emotionally manipulative warning against the twin threats of de-institutionalized Protestantism and the humanism associated with Raphael and Leonardo.] 

Wölfflin writes in his 1888 study Renaissance and Baroque:

. . . the aim of [the Baroque] style is not to represent a perfect state, but to suggest an incomplete process and a movement towards its completion.  This is why formal relationships become looser, for the Baroque is bold enough to turn the harmony into a dissonance by using imperfect proportions. [Wölfflin 1966, 67]

Wölfflin calls this “open form,” which he counter-poses to the “closed form” of the Renaissance aesthetic.  The stakes behind the principle of stylistic development in Wölfflin’s thinking can be found in his preface to the 1922 sixth edition of Principles of Art History: “It is greatly to the interest of the historian of style first and foremost to recognize what mode of imaginative process he has before him in each individual case.  (It is preferable to speak of modes of imagination rather than modes of vision.)” [Wölfflin 1950, vii] This insertion of the imagination distinguishes the traditional art historical sense of stylistic development as eminently perceptual—and, thus, following from Enlightenment models of empirical, positivist ontology—to an expanded phenomenologically-oriented theory of aesthetic experience, of which style is both expressive and productive.  There is a duality in Wölfflin’s thinking, known to art historians as the “double root of style,” wherein the imagination is conditioned by both external, usually historical factors on the one hand, and on the other factors internal to form and its deployment by the individual artist.  He writes in his conclusion to Principles of Art History:

. . . the human imaginative faculty will always make its organization and possibilities of development felt in the history of art.  It is true, we only see what we look for, but we [also] only look for what we can see.  Doubtless certain forms of beholding pre-exist as possibilities; whether and how they come to development depends on outward circumstances. [ Wölfflin 1950, 230]

We can also see the mutual implication of what Wölfflin calls the internal (“inward development”) and external (“attitude to the world”) roots of style in his wording: he refers to the founding worldview that underlies artistic styles as an “apparatus of apprehension” (in the original German: Auffassungsapparat). [Wölfflin 1950, 229]

What is missing in Wölfflin’s account of the Baroque’s emergence is a theory of aesthetic perception.  For Wölfflin, whose two major studies on the Baroque straddled the dawn of the 20th century, the Baroque style was expressive of a Zeitgeist, and his perspective is solidly that of a historian of artistic production, not reception.  When he speaks of perception and the imagination, he means a founding perception or act of the imagination by the artist that precedes the work of art.  But between the lines of Wölfflin’s teleological model of stylistic development lies a treatise on aesthetic experience, for as the art historian Michael Ann Holly points out, the Baroque that we get from Renaissance and Baroque and Principles of Art History is Wölfflin’s own imagining of the Baroque. [Holly 1996, 91-111]

The basis of Wölfflin’s theory of the Baroque, founded in its self-differentiation from the Renaissance, reveals not only the workings of the art historical principle of stylistic development, but the very basis of our narration of art history as a succession of styles: the new emerges from what cannot be seen in the hegemony of the old.  Wölfflin himself would articulate this as a shift in the apparatus of perception: what cannot be seen in the old age emerges from a historical shift first as something that can be imagined, then something that can be made—through form—to be seen.  But to follow Holly’s historiographical reading of Wölfflin’s writings on the Baroque, this is not just about the Renaissance and the Baroque; this is also about Wölfflin’s relationship to his teacher, the seminal 19th century art historian Jacob Burckhardt, and an attendant shift in art historical paradigms, namely from a positivist art history that “reflects” the spirit of its age in the inventiveness of its protagonists to a conception of history founded on epistemological rupture and the retrieval of what could not be imagined in the previous era.  In effect, the ultimate purpose of Wölfflin’s writings on the Baroque may not have been to comprehend the Baroque at all, but rather to pursue a deconstruction of the Renaissance through its fault lines that takes it not, as Burckhardt did, as containing within it an ideal model of artistic viewing outside of which one can afterwards not see, but rather as a hegemonic model that, as Holly points out, served both as a founding framework for the very meaning of a “picture” in much future art, and as the dominant paradigm of how an art historian sees and analyzes. [Holly 1988] In his preface to the 1922 edition of Principles of Art History, Wölfflin invokes Leibniz, the great Baroque philosopher: “The course of imaginative beholding is, to use an expression of Leibniz, ‘virtually’ given, but in the actuality of history as lived, it is interrupted, checked, refracted in all kinds of ways.” [Wölfflin 1950, vii]

 

Two and a half years ago, an artist calling himself How to Dress Well emerged with a succession of home-recorded EPs posted to his blog through links to online file-hosting services. His first physical release, in Autumn 2010, was a 7” vinyl single on the record label Transparent.  The cover of this single featured a reversed mirror image of a detail of Bernini’s Baroque sculpture Beata Ludovica Albertoni

 

Listening to How to Dress Well’s music, and seeing Ludovica Albertoni’s ecstatic visage draped in the kinds of folds that Deleuze described as “[borne] to infinity” and “[unexplainable] by the body, but by a spiritual adventure that can set the body ablaze,” I couldn’t help but think of Wölfflin’s recursive reading of the Renaissance (and, moreover, of Burckhardt’s version of the Renaissance) through the Baroque. [Deleuze 1993, 121-122] For How to Dress Well’s music also speaks to a condition of pursuing a kind of aesthetic experience that cannot be imagined.

The emergence of How to Dress Well and his quick rise to prominence through well-placed shout-outs and reviews in mp3 blogs and Pitchfork speaks to the new condition of pursuing a D.I.Y. music career in the 21st century.  The early How to Dress Well EPs were circulated freely, and through their circulation reached an audience that a generation earlier would have been limited to word of mouth, fanzines, the limitations of physical mediums of recorded music (usually individually-dubbed cassette tapes), and a much smaller network of listeners bound by geographical constraints, as well as the slower and more cumbersome circulation apparatus of the postal industry.  It is significant, furthermore, that How to Dress Well had played only a handful of live shows when his music reached a relatively wide audience two years ago, and if a performance I caught last year in Toronto is any indication, How to Dress Well’s live show remains a work in progress.

How to Dress Well, “I Wish/Ready for the World” (medley), Drake Hotel, Toronto, January 29, 2011

The condition of How to Dress Well’s emergence in the digital age is at odds with the seeming aims of his music, which, borrowing from late ’80s and ’90s R&B, is consumed—haunted, even—by the pursuit of presence, empathy, and affect.  The most obvious and most talked-about elements of How to Dress Well’s music pursue the interpersonal critically, and are acutely aware of the mediation of the music through its conditions of production: How to Dress Well sings most of his lead melodies, if they can truly be referred to as such, in a whispery falsetto, like somebody quietly singing to him or herself while listening to an iPod on a crowded bus.  These melodies are further obscured by layers upon layers of equally paper-thin backing vocals, sometimes featured higher in the mix than the leads, and all of this behind barely penetrable atmospheres of reverb, adding not only a ghostly or spectral effect to the music, but also a sense of disembodiment and fragmentation.  The affective quality of the R&B music from which How to Dress Well draws (think: Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige) possesses a kind of immediacy in the centrality of the vocal lead as the crux of the listener’s identification, confidently delivered and expertly controlled in its conveying of emotion.  How to Dress Well, on the other hand, is plagued by hesitation; the fragmentary nature of the compositions defers the affective quality that the melodies suggest should be being experienced.

How to Dress Well, “Can’t See My Own Face,” Can’t See My Own Face: The Eternal Love 2 EP, self-released, 2010

Part of this, whether he intended it or not, draws from the tradition of “bedroom music” and the D.I.Y. tradition of lo-fi home recordings associated with Daniel Johnston, the Lou Barlow of the early Sebadoh tapes, Liz Phair when she was calling herself “Girlysound,” and the very early Elliott Smith.  This music, usually recorded on 4 track cassette recorders or sometimes even the external microphones on cassette decks, presented extreme conditions of intimacy (the studio is a sometimes real and always imagined bedroom) that were circulated within a limited public.  On one level, these recordings were a very muted cry into the abyss; on another, they were love letters to the very networks through which they circulated (social theorists would call these “social imaginaries”): the D.I.Y. punk subcultures and scenes that served as an alternative to the more industrialized and overtly public channels of musical dissemination.  This publicizing of the intimate, and the attendant search for an audience while pondering the impossibility of communicating the conditions of privateness, also exists in How to Dress Well’s music.  But where the punk tradition of the 4 track recording displaced the idea of a “live” and public musical event in its suggestion of an imaginary bedroom that is at once embodied in its intimacy and disembodied in its circulation as cassette, How to Dress Well has nothing of this embodiment, and accordingly none of its projected presence. How to Dress Well’s digital tracks, particularly in their intricate but incomplete-feeling layerings of vocals, project neither an imaginary space in the D.I.Y. bedroom sense, nor in the sense that what we are listening to once was or ever could be a live performance.  The fabric of an original performance time that precedes musical time is ruptured here by the simultaneity of vocal fragments that are not only all delivered by the same voice, but moreover delivered in the same idiosyncratic manner.  And with this rupturing of time comes a canceling of the listener’s imagining of an original space that this performance-which-is-not-one could exist in.

What intercedes in place of How to Dress Well’s endlessly deferred presence is another kind of presence; those original digital EPs, certain tracks of which were touched up and collected on a physical album-length release called Love Remains by the record label Lefse in late 2010, featured what is known as “digital clipping.”  This is where the sound input is recorded louder than the recorder can process, causing a peculiar kind of distortion that cannot be confused with analog distortion or overdrive.  This clipping, when these tracks are listened to on headphones (presumably connected to a portable device—remember, they were all originally mp3s), physically hurts the ear.  It is not overly loud, and it is not “ugly” in the sense that analog distortion can be; I can only compare the experience of clipping to that of nails scraping against a chalkboard.  The two don’t sound all that similar, but our perceptual processing of these sounds—or our failure to process them—produces a similar cognitive dissonance, in the most literal sense of that term.

I want to liken the clipping effect of How to Dress Well’s music to a kind of apostrophic address in the poetic sense; both exist, I think, tropologically to bridge a metaphysical divide effected by time and space, which is to say: the mediation of an original “event” (the performance that is recorded, the poetic act of writing) and the deferred experience of its audience through the mediation of its disseminating apparatus (the recording, the written word).  The digital clipping in a sense “touches” our ears and our brains, and produces affect in a literal, physical way.  The key distinction between this physical “touching” and apostrophe is that the apostrophic address transcends the literal situation of deferred and absent reading and invokes the co-presence of the poet and reader through the latter’s imagination.  Contrastingly, How to Dress Well—who is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at DePaul University and, interestingly, works on German Romantic philosophy—meditates on a kind of tyranny of the digital: the failure of the 21st century paradigm of home recording and online circulation to effect the kind of imaginative act that Keats or Rilke did.

This tyranny of the digital arises from its infinite replayability, reproducibility, and circulability.  The listener’s experience of embodiment is lost in these (sometimes imagined) infinitudes of digital recording.  The grand fiction of digital music recording—that each instance of playback is the same—displaces the temporal, spatial, and social aspects of music listening.  If I have articulated this problem as a concern of How to Dress Well’s early EPs, it is only because I saw this retroactively while listening to a later EP, entitled Just Once, released in 2011 on the label Love Letters Ink.  Just Once, whose title is taken from Rilke’s ninth elegy, features re-recordings of three tracks from the early EPs and adds a new, fourth song.  All of these recordings feature analog instruments; most strikingly, the obscurantist layering of keyboard textures from the EPs are replaced here by a real live piano, and at times embellished by string arrangements.  For the first time in How to Dress Well’s music, we hear space in his recordings; the dense layering of the early EPs seemed breathless in a sense, exacerbated by the uneven and idiosyncratic mixing of the layers, as well as the breathy, gasp-like whispers of his vocal style.  What touched us in those recordings, the digital clipping, usually felt like an extension of the suffocating obscurantist echo effects, as if the reverb—the studio device that conventionally simulates the traveling of sound through an actual space—had developed a mind of its own.  On Just Once, we encounter a relative clarity; the arrangements are less cluttered, the reverb is dialed down a few notches, the backing vocals are both more organically (that is, conventionally) phrased and more subtly integrated into the mix.  Furthermore, the often high-pitched and tinny timbre of the original EPs is replaced by a “lush”-ness of studio recording on the one hand, and the suggestion of organic space by analog instrumentation on the other.

How to Dress Well, “Suicide Dream 2,” Can’t See My Own Face: The Eternal Love 2 EP, self-released, 2010

How to Dress Well, “Suicide Dream 2” (orchestral version), Just Once EP, Love Letters Ink, 2011

We thus can project an imaginary space, and the precedence of an original “live” performance, onto the tracks of Just Once, which was impossible with the early EPs.   And this condition of impossibility in the early EPs speaks also to an impossibility of affect in the digital.  When Wölfflin wrote of the founding experience that preceded the creation of Renaissance and Baroque works, he called its mediating mechanism an “apparatus of apprehension,” and anachronistically, I want to project onto this idea the discipline of media theory’s foundational concept of the apparatus.  The digital presents a new epistemology of musical listening, one that haunts those early EPs by How to Dress Well.  For Wölfflin, the apparatus of apprehension mediated the artist’s imaginary relationship to the external world, and the “worlds” we encounter in Renaissance and Baroque works of art are not representations of the world per se, but imagined and imaginary worlds in which to aesthetically inhabit.  How to Dress Well speaks to apparatus in both the technological and epistemological senses (can these be separated?), and within his musical project, we can see a theory of aesthetic experience, especially as it relates to our (imagined) digital world.

What we gain in this theory, retroactively from Just Once back to the early EPs, is our own projection of presence as figured in time, space, and the social.  The absences first marked by the early EPs and later imaginatively projected onto Just Once are retroactively hypostatized as we re-listen to the original digital versions of these songs.  And this projection takes a material form in the technological apparatus: the flattening of our listening experiences by the digital metanarrative recedes as we begin to listen anew to these platform-crossing digital tracks on different devices, which then extends to our experience of this music in specific and actual spaces (this includes our experiences on headphones), and, moreover, with real, actual people and not just in the social imaginary of blog comments and the imagined community of Pitchfork readers.  Each listening experience then becomes a unique “event,” echoing the spirit of the EPs title.  Its epigraph:

Once for each thing.  Just once; no more.  And we too,

just once.  And never again.  But to have been

this once, completely, even if only once:

to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing. [Rilke 2009, 55] 

I began with a memory of the Baroque organ at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, and, in a way, I have ended back there.  The sense of physical embodiment, and sense of presence that I encountered through the excess of sound in the too small museum space, was a much welcome respite to the atomizing and almost clinical experience that the George Eastman Theater was designed to produce.  Something of the social character of religious mass that was the organ’s original function to collectivize returns in How to Dress Well’s music.  In the affective absences that it marks—and in its transubstantiation of these absences as desire and projection in the listener’s imagination—we might see the necessity of our own Baroque age.

 

Sources: 

1. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

2. Michael Ann Holly, “Burckhardt and the Ideology of the Past,” in History of the Human Sciences 1:1 (1988), 47-73.

3. Michael Ann Holly, Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984. 

4. Michael Ann Holly, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

5. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage, 2009.

6. Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art, trans. M. D. Hottinger. New York: Dover, 1950. 

7. Heinrich Wölfflin, Renaissance and Baroque, trans. Kathrin Simon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966. 

 

Godfre Leung –  Assistant Professor of modern and contemporary art history, theory, and criticism at Western Michigan University. He is a recent graduate of the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester.  His doctoral dissertation was entitled The White Wall in Postwar Art: The Aesthetics of the Exhibition Space. 

 

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