Friday, October 23, 2009

Scribes, Printers, and Digital Media

A special note of thanks to The Wanderer, which, incredibly, continues to run a weekly column of some length on the topic of Catholic music. I'm grateful to the editors there for seeing the value in this. Here is my column for this week:

At the San Esteban Dominican convent in Salamanca, Spain, the choir in the chapel is located in an upper balcony, where the friars sang for hundreds of years before the discovery and mission to the New World. Those choirs stalls are in a massive space that held more than a hundred singers. In the middle of it is a huge, rotating music stand. It held massive books of chant, 3 feet high with pages two-feet wide.

The chant books are stunning. They were made by many hands. The parchment has to be prepared by hand. Then the red lines were put on the paper. The specialist on notes got into action with pens and ink and put in the notes according to the ancient formulas. Then the artists would start with the decorations around the page, beautiful drawings in color that lasts forever. Each book was many years in the making, all done by scribes, the elite wonder workers of the time, who worked an average of eight hours per day, breaking only for sung prayer.

The choir area had three or four books, with notes big enough to see from ten, twenty, and thirty feet away. The music stand would also rotate, perhaps for when the choir only covered one side of the wall and pages could be opened to the liturgy then being celebrate and the music stand turned when the time came.

Today you can still turn it by hand with no danger of breaking that massive contraption.

It is very difficult for us today, in age of downloadable chant, to otherwise understand how such rooms with this furniture came to exist and why they existed. We forget just how priceless books once were. This was the age before the printing press. But it was the monks who first came up with the rudiments of modern printing, more than one hundred years before the Gutenberg Bible. They used woodblocks and potty to stamp the pages and color them in.

The innovation of Gutenberg in the 1450s was the movable type press, not printing itself. This made it possible to create molds much faster and then mold itself would last through many more printings. It reduced the cost of printing multiple editions.

It was revolutionary. Whereas it might have once been believed that the value of a book was embedded in the labor it took to make it, it suddenly became very clear that copies could be made, nearly without end, with nothing but the up-front labor costs. The additional copies embedded the cost of paper and machinery but the notes and words themselves were free for all. Here was the first glimmer of the great reality we live in today: the way that music and text is infinitely reproducible and thereby potentially immortal and free.

A little known fact is that the first known movable type document to carry a definite printing date was not the Bible but the Mainz Psalter , also produced by Johannes Gutenberg. This was the central book and the one most needed.

It was an amazing discovery but the scribes were initially unhappy about it. Every monastery in Europe had to deal with the central question of how and whether to embrace the new printing technology. One the one hand, the religious communities had the strongest interest in printing advances. On the other hand, their ways were very much bound up with the institution of the class of professional scribes, who of course opposed the advance and favored the retention of their services and the high status that came with them.

After the development of printing, and then movable type, German abbot Johannes Trithemius exhorted his monks to continue to copy books. He claimed that printing had a shorter life (he was wrong about that), and that the automated printing technique denied monks the discipline associated with hand scribing. He worried too that the monks would have idle hands if printing became more fashionable.

But this concern didn't last longer than a few decades. In time, and by the late 15th century, the printing houses were working for monasteries, and monasteries themselves had established printing houses. Only after this stage did the pure commercial sector of book distribution really take flight.

Far from having taken away work for the monks, it became obvious that the new tool made their work more efficient and hence they could produce ever more. Their jobs would change and the value of their lives as worker could be made ever more valuable. The works of Trithemius himself, on a variety of topics, would eventually be printed in many editions.

Movable type made possible an unprecedented explosion in literary works. Michael Clapham's three-volume work on the history of printing technology says that "A man born in 1453, the year of the fall of Constantinople, could look back from his fiftieth year on a lifetime in which about eight million books had been printed, more perhaps than all the scribes of Europe had produced since Constantine founded his city in A.D. 336."

Even then, we need to realize that books were not available to everyone and certainly not to every singer. That would wait until the late 19th century. Even into the 20th century, the great innovations in global distribution of music books would come under pressure from the Solesmes monastery, which had a burning passion to universalize the chant and make it available to everyone.

Two years ago, the work of those monks went online, with the first Graduale Romanum available at a click of a mouse. This Graduale has left the realm of the physical world altogether. It can be copied and copied instantly with a small computer program. It can be forwarded without end to anyone with an email address. Millions, billions, and trillions of copies can be made at any instant, and this text can be manipulated in an infinite number of ways.

The scribes of old could not possibly have imagined this strange and glorious reality. But it only exists because of their work, without which none of this would be possible. We are still, even at this instant, drawing upon the amazing productivity of those old scribes and the institutions that supported them. They are the foundational capital on which the whole of Western music rests. We are deeply deeply in their debt. The labor had value and that value will last until the end of time.

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