Saturday, January 05, 2008

The uses of enchantment

More musings from a fever'd mind. The talk these days is of Barack Obama's win in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses and his victory speech, and for good reason: we were treated to a bit of now-rare oratory in which speech sometimes aspires to the condition of music. In these moments of aspiration words acquire definite pitches, sequences of words melodic contour, and vowels are sometimes extended in time to allow a contour to form a distinct rhythm. But Obama, to his complete credit, has absolute control and never quite allows his speech to become song. His rhythms never relax in an easy metre and his word choices favor quasi-repetition over exact reiterations. He is a serious man and respects the line between logic and rhetoric, applied to convince an audience of an argument, and rhapsody, which -- as Plato warned in the Ion -- is designed to go beyond conviction to the non-rational states of possession, whether by muses -- amusement -- or the gods -- enthusiasm.

Music and speech are too easily confused, and that confusion has its uses, both for better and for worse. Music and speech often share acoustical features and -- perhaps evolutionarily "piggy-backed" upon one another -- a set of perceptual and cognitive organs, but beyond those organs, music and speech appear to light up entirely different pathways through the brain. The important counter-example of sign languages shows that an acoustic component is not necessary to language and the capacity for music to function in entirely non-communicative contexts as well as to use sounds that are linguistically meaningless shows important material and semantic distances of music to speech. Nevertheless, there will always be forms of music which are informed and enriched by a relationship to language, and there will always be forms of speech will aspire to the condition of music.


Civic Center said...

You wrote: "Nevertheless, there will always be forms of music which are informed and enriched by a relationship to music..." and I think you meant "speech" in place of that second "music," but I love the phrase nonetheless.

I haven't been able to watch any U.S. national politicians on the television without feeling ill since at least Bill Clinton, so thanks for your faraway report on Obama's rhetorical skills.

Elaine Fine said...

The beautiful thing about Obama's oratory is that there is real structure and meaning to what he has to say. I'm really looking forward to hearing his next "victory" speech. I'll make sure to pay attention to the music in his voice

I have heard Obama speak in person and unamplified a couple of times (I live in Illinois). He has a very beautiful voice.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the south listening to the cadences of southern preachers. I have seen these public speakers move back and forth between speech and song, even to the point of having an accompanist waiting at a keyboard to improv behind them.

As an adult, I learned to teach my choirs to sing chant with natural speech rhythms and taught Music Ap students to think of chant as heightened speech. I definitely see a basic relationship between vocal speaking and singing.