New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Part the First: in which we talk Twitter, cyborgs, and the uncertain future of art music

I recently began reading The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (OHNAA) for a book review for Notes: The Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. One of the ways I hope to gestate the book’s essays is by reflecting on them here, processing and synthesizing ideas it contains with those I’ve encountered elsewhere, with the intention of making a proper review easier to write. We’ll see how successful the outcome. But I should be clear that what I will write here is not so much a summary of the authors’ points, perspectives, or arguments, as it is my impressions, contemplation, and response to their essays. I’m less concerned with accurately representing the authors’ position (although there will inevitably be some of that) and more concerned with being able to articulate what I got out of their essays and where it sits in my larger experience.

Today’s essay: “Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition” by Lawrence Kramer of Fordham University.

This essay begins Part II of the Handbook. (For reasons I don’t unite understand, Part I was the introduction to the rest of the book. Why it wasn’t simply called “Introduction” and Part I given over to first contributed essays, I don’t know.) This essay is about classical music (in the broad colloquial sense of the term, which I don’t prefer; henceforth, I’ll be using the term art music in its stead), social media, cyborgs, and humanity. Yeah! All in about fourteen pages. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed a flurry of tweets today making reference to these concepts.

Music as Space

One of my increasingly favored areas of inquiry is that of conceptualizing music in metaphors of space, distance, weight, and other physical properties that it does not literally have. I don’t mean the physics of sound, which has various properties that operate in actual spaces. I mean the metaphors of physical bodies through which we perceive and experience music, not mere sound. Not the cold rationality of quantifying a sine wave, but the rich warmth of an encounter with, say, Beethoven.

One of the first elements Kramer raises is that of distance. The distance between man and machine, between person and person, between art music and modern audience. These are, of course, not literal, physical distances; they are psychological, emotional, technological ones. It is here that Kramer posits a possible reason for the long-trumpeted “death of ‘classical’ music” (which should also not be taken too literally). He states:

Digital media project a model of mind drastically different from the model that has informed classical music for more that two centuries. The music acts through time and depth; digital media act through space and surface.

—OHNAA, p. 39

Typically, Twitter and other social media consist of rather shallow interactions—probably why many academics have been so slow to adopt Twitter as an academic tool. This shallow interaction seems at odds with the profundity associated with the great works of Western art music. Live-tweeting a concert or recital, then, might seem to ensconce the sublime amid the ridiculous.

Like all new-media technologies, Twitter involves a collapse of distance. Tweeting is prosthetic telepathy; it transports virtual thoughts like a kind of mental telephone. But the collapse of distance is also the collapse of nearness.  In the twittersphere, ‘near’ and ‘far’ become meaningless terms.

—OHNAA, p. 40

Kramer then invites us to consider how much we are “near” the music—near in the sense of timely. A live performance of a given work only happens once in the history of the universe; the experience is unique to its time and place. Are we near that place when we attend such a performance? From my own experience, I know that even though music recordings may be note-perfect, I have been more often moved at live concerts than when staring at my iTunes playlist. But this metaphor of distance conjures feelings of the immediacy, intimacy, and subjectivity of being “near” the experience of those fleeting moments, or else the detached, remote, and objectivity of being “far” from them.  Kramer points out that Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which he has been using his point of departure, is itself a study in distance. He says:

The symphony is a musical essay in distance: distance lost and won, distance enjoyed and regretted. There is the distance sought in nature from the troubles of urban life and moral confusion, and the distance from nature imposed by the artifice of representing it. There is the distance in history that prevents us from being too credulous about the pastoral ideal (the pastoral is dated, and always was), and the distance from history that gives the ideal its continued allure (the pastoral is timeless, and always will be).

—OHNAA, p. 40

Posthumanity

“My name is C-3PO: Human/Cyborg Relations.”

This dichotomy between distance in and distance from mirrors the dichotomy I’ve been alluding to all along,—that of  the rich, warm, subjective, immediate, qualitative human-ness of the “near” versus the rational, cold, objective, recorded, quantitative machine-ness of the “far.” I don’t mean to imply one of these is inherently better than the other, or that an event can only be experienced through mutually exclusive bifurcation. After all, the idea of warm has no meaning if we do not also have an idea of cold.

Kramer points out that humanity has increasingly used machines for music making, graduating from voice to ever more complex instruments to increasingly sophisticated sound reproduction technologies. We are becoming posthuman as our lives are increasingly mitigated by technology. The distance between human experience and machine becomes ever smaller. This is where the cyborgs show up—the singularity—an event forewarned by numerous writers of science fiction and hailed by some futurists like Ray Kurzweil.

The increasing naturalization of the machine–human interface has led to an emergent reconnection of the body.

Thus the body is merely extended by the technology we use as a kind of prosthesis. In what ways, then, has recording technology altered the way we experience music. In some ways, music recording has opened up new vistas—wider dissemination, new audiences. At the same time we have had to pay a price for those vistas—orchestras around the U.S. (and other countries, I expect) are closing because attendance is too low to sustain local ensembles. Why go to a live performance when I can download the songs I actually want, keep them, and  return to over and over again?

Kramer suggests:

The distance of the machinic—the distance from the human that becomes the distance of the human—is now lost. In its absence the distinctions between the human and the machinic and between consciousness and the flow of information become meaningless.  . . . the music loses its audience, not in the sense that fewer people listen to it, but in the sense that the figure of the human, the fiction of ‘man,’ to which the music is addressed has become vestigial.

—OHNAA, p. 45

Even in the use of earbuds, says Kramer, we merge machine with man.

Earbuds exceed the older headphones in this respect; with earbuds the apparatus is taken into the body cavity and thus literally incorporated. The earbuds become prosthetic eardrums in which the music itself becomes prosthetic, less a sound transmitted to a listener than a making-audible of what might otherwise be heard only in the mind’s ear.

—OHNAA, p. 46

The Musical Work

. . . it involves the transmission not only of the classical work but also of the distance between music and audience on which the concept of the work depends. The work asks to be contemplated; contemplation requires distance.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

That last sentence in particular struck me, as I have considered the notion of contemplation, or rather Contemplation, in earlier posts (1, 2). C.S. Lewis’s “Mediation in a Toolshed” seems to be becoming a theme for me. The work asks to be contemplated, and that contemplation demands a certain distance. If I understand rightly, this is very much in line with Lewis, who says that in order to Contemplate the beam of light, one must move outside of it. When one is within the beam of light, one cannot Contemplate it because one is experiencing it; we must have distance. At the same time, distance, in this sense, seems to fall more on the side of objectivity, rather than the subjectivity I’ve been ascribing to the moment-to-moment experience of live performance. Perhaps the distinctions I’ve ascribed to these different modes of thought are false, but they at least help me think about it.

Kramer describes five conceptual pillars that supported the traditional modus operandi of art music:

  1. the music is a psuedo-object
  2. the musical work is an integrated totality (i.e. works made up of movements or sections that go in a particular order)
  3. the music addresses the listener from a psychological distance to allow contemplation
  4. the musical work is mysterious, requiring musical and conceptual interpretation
  5. The music is to be attended to in activity of nothing but listening

The cyborgian nature of the way in which we now experience most of our music distorts these. (1) Music is less like an object than perhaps ever before. We cannot even pretend to hold it; there is no record or cassette tape or CD. We still call them “tracks” even though the term is the remnant of when records actually left analogue tracks visible to the eye. We may have purchased the right to listen to our digital recordings forever, but that is hardly the same thing. (2) With the iPod’s shuffle feature, the connective tissue between the many parts of a musical work begin to dissolve.  (3 & 5) I think the third point may be closely related to the fifth, in that focusing attention, what we might call active listening, provides space for contemplation. In contrast, passively hearing the same music does not prompt one to cognitively engage with it. (4) How many people buy all the available recordings of a given Schubert song cycle? Or even just all the recordings of a single one of his songs? Not many, I’d wager. This limits one’s experience of the piece to probably one (at most, a handful) of interpretations of the work.

Doom and Gloom or Unprecedented Opportunity?

Kramer suggests we “rebrand” (my choice of word, not his) art music as “something that cannot be recorded but only simulated” (p. 49). This nebulous ideal of the standard-by-which-all-other-performances-are-measured might be traded in for a conceptual approach that looks at the uncertain and potential of each unique performance experience.

In concert [the body] would be charged with making the event of music happen and making the music happen as an event, with the outcome uncertain until the last note has sounded.

—OHNAA, p. 44, emphasis added

Reminds me of Schrödinger’s Cat. The musical work is both alive and dead until we hear the final strains and open up that box. That very reframing of the the live performance in these terms fills me with greater anticipation of such an event. As we become increasingly disembodied in our interactions with other people, and increasingly integrate technology in our everyday lives, perhaps the live performance will become again the unique and exciting exception to the rule of recorded monotony. Art music would again be an “uncertain adventure” (p. 51).

So I will end with the apt words with which Kramer himself ends his essay:

. . . classical music may claim a renewed value not by invoking long exhausted claims of transcendental expression, but by securing a space in which the infinity of the posthuman interface yields to the plenteousness of a simply human finitude.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much joy I got from Kramer’s use of Brobdingnagian in his last footnote. Until this morning, I had never seen the word in print, but was even more delighted than I knew what it meant (thanks this scene from The Big Bang Theory).

—OHNAA, p. 51

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There’s Always a Lighthouse: in which we reflect on the study of video game music

This past weekend, I attended (and presented a paper at) the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music in Youngstown, Ohio. It gave me an outlet for writing about some of the music in BioShock: Infinite, which, as my three long-time readers know, has been on my mind since I played the game nearly a year ago. At last, I have been energized to get off my duff and write (and maybe collaborate?) with others who are interested in this topic. Some of my initial thoughts about the game can be found in the posts “Levine Shall Sit the Throne and Drown in Reflection the Musings of Man” (on story) and “Would You Kindly?” (on religion, faith, and theology).

I was quite pleased by three aspects of the conference:

1) to learn of the depth of other scholars’ (and emerging scholars’) interest and work in video game music. I feel rather new to an already new subfield of study, so I have a lot of resources and reading available to me now.

2) at the collegiality and warmth among the small gathering. This is often more common, in my experience, at smaller academic conferences—rarely at the larger ones—but I found this particular group to be even more so than other smaller conferences. I don’t know if that’s due to the generally younger average age, perhaps implying that the dog-eat-dog mentality that some of academia’s “old guard” instill in their students hasn’t yet tainted their experience. Perhaps it was the relative youth of ludomusicology as a sub-discipline  that gave a sense of banding together for protection against the derision of that same “old guard” who deride it as an illegitimate area of study. (Of course, a quick history lesson in our own discipline would reveal that jazz, film music, and popular music on the whole have all come—or are coming—to be acceptable focus areas of musical study.)

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 11.20.26 AM3) at the staggering amount of press coverage. This never, never happens when academic conferences take place. A list of the media outlets can be found here, including a disappointingly lackluster article in Wired, complete with errata that could have easily been fixed with a Google search (Read: diegesis). This article was, I thought, more well written—perhaps it helps that the author was actually present at the conference.

It is exciting to be present at the beginning of something that promises to yield great intellectual dividends as time goes on. Well, near the beginning anyway; I’m not as experienced at writing about these topics as some who were present, but I hope to learn from their example as this burgeoning interest develops.

So, as soon as I can, I will be recording my presentation and posting it to my website (and, perhaps, here) in the interest of open scholarship. Stay tuned.

Grammatica, Dialectica, Rhetorica: in which the three roads meet in music theory pedagogy

[The following are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over ever since my earlier post on the liberal arts.

UPDATE: The revised version of this essay has now been published in Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy. You can read it here.]

A great deal of the national conversation on education has centered on the avant-garde and the use of technology in the classroom. While many of these ideas have merit, I find myself increasingly intrigued by the notion of combining new ideas with old ones—very old ones. I am referring to the trivium, that relic of medieval university curriculum to which we don’t give much traction any more, even in liberal arts institutions. And on the face of it, why would we? Grammar, logic, rhetoric: these are great for giving a speech, but most of us don’t do that. Music belongs to the quadrivium, after all. But every field of study has its grammar, logic, and rhetoric, if we think of these words in more general terms.

Grammatica

  • grammar |ˈgramər| noun
  • the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology
  • ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French gramaire, via Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters,’ from gramma, grammat- ‘letter of the alphabet, thing written.’ *

What do students normally think of as music theory? Probably what we in the discipline would only consider the “nuts and bolts.” Constructs like scales, intervals, and time signatures are these nuts and bolts, a kind of musical grammar. But so often my students have thought music theory is the identification of such things, that in labeling the Roman numerals or identifying the tone row they are “doing theory.” For a long time as an undergraduate, I thought that analysis was being able to account for every note in the score and classify it. I fear most students make that mistake, believing that information alone will get them through the gauntlet of the undergraduate music theory curriculum. And perhaps I am to blame for failing to dissuade them of that delusion. If the assignments I hand out and the exams I proctor are entirely focused on getting students to identify, define, and label musical data, then I can hardly blame them for thinking that’s all there is. Medieval scholars knew, as do we, that one may understand what a nail and hammer are, but knowing neither builds the house, nor makes it a particularly solid house. This brings us to dialectic.

 

Dialectica

  • dialectic |ˌdīəˈlektik| noun
  • the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions.
  • ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French dialectique or Latin dialectica, from Greek dialektikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of debate,’ from dialegesthai ‘converse with.’ *

Once we know what the materials are and what they do, how are they put together to form something we recognize as a house? What underlying logic makes sense of an assemblage of wood and nails? The second member of the trivium, dialectic (logic), helps us arrange information (the nuts and bolts) into meaningful patterns, so dialectic here does not mean merely syllogizing to win an argument. It is particularly relevant to music theory, which as a study is predicated on the belief that there is an internal logic to the way music unfolds. When a new way of unfolding (in the colloquial sense, not the Schenkerian) is invented, music theorists work to unlock that logic. The cadential second inversion triad is so called because it logically flows to the dominant just before a cadence. Some students get this; they are the ones who can transfer a concept learned in one example and apply it to a new one.

It is music’s logic that underlies all of Peter Schickele’s musical humor. Imagine listening to P.D.Q. Bach’s Short-Tempered Clavier as a student versed only in the music’s grammar. Although we could identify the blues scale used in the D major prelude, we would miss the joke of such a phenomenon occurring in a piece supposedly written in the early eighteenth century. A student might pick up on the fact that something sounded amiss, but may not know why.

I, as a teacher, have a responsibility to draw students’ attention to the underlying dialectic. For this reason, I frequently differentiate between the way a particular musical phenomenon might appear “in the wild” as opposed to “in the zoo.” I want my students to understand that under the controlled laboratory conditions of the classroom, we tend to see clear, obvious examples. I want to balance that out by giving them “field experience,” where they may have to sort out a number of factors that muddy the waters. At this stage, they should know how to wield a hammer and how to put a house together (i.e., put up the walls before the roof).

 

Rhetorica

  • rhetoric |ˈretərik| noun
  • the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, esp. the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.
  • ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French rethorique, via Latin from Greek rhētorikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of rhetoric,’ from rhētōr ‘rhetor.’ *

Is the house well designed? Can we look at its structure and appreciate the architect’s gift for form and function, light and darkness, line and space? Can we design and build our own house? Rhetoric is the skillful employment of grammar and dialectic. In music theory it equips students to evaluate and draw out some significance to their analysis. Ultimately, it isn’t the labels that make me a musician; nor is it understanding the logic of musical mechanics. The rhetoric of music involves not only its technical correctness but also its artfulness.

Compare a student’s attempt at writing a fugue to one of Bach’s, and one can immediately see that even if the technical specifications are correct, the student’s composition will lack the rhetorical elegance of Bach’s. This is why composition projects can fill such a vital role in a student’s music theory education. Such projects push students beyond simply identifying musical events and toward creating technically, musically satisfying solutions. We start with part-writing exercises, which tend to lean more toward dialectic than rhetoric. But then students can try harmonizing a preexisting melody, then writing their own melodies and harmonizing them. Over the span of multiple classes, students are led into rhetorical thinking.

Writing analytical prose can accomplish similar rhetorical goals, provided we encourage students to avoid the onerous “play-by-play.” We do students a disservice if we wait until their final year or two before asking them to write analytical prose of any substantial length. Early attempts need not be long; even in the first year of study, a paragraph or two may be a good place to start.

The Place Where Three Roads Meet

  • trivium |ˈtrivēəm| noun
  • an introductory curriculum at a medieval university involving the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
  • ORIGIN early 19th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘place where three roads meet,’ from tri- ‘three’ + via ‘road.’ *

I have already implied that these three echelons of pedagogy are somewhat artificial because they can exist simultaneously. Indeed, I think the ideal curriculum would entail each class progressing from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric. On a larger scale the school term would begin with heavy emphasis on grammar, gradually lean more on dialectic as the term continued, and finally end with greater practice in rhetoric—rather like a compound form. The music major curriculum should be an overall progression from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric. I think this is the assumed direction of many music departments, but I am unaware of many that intentionally communicate this to students.

One may note the rough similarity between this schema and that of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom essentially subdivides each part of the trivium into two subcategories (grammar = knowledge and comprehension; dialectic = application and analysis; rhetoric = synthesis and creation). But the goal is the same—progression from fundamental knowledge to understanding how it is assembled and eventually to value judgements and creation of new ideas—from engagement with music that is shallow to deep. I don’t want my students to splash in the kiddie pool and think it’s the ocean.

The philosophy of the trivium blends well with that of the inverted classroom. The lecture, often freighted with music’s grammar, leaves little time for in-depth analysis or evaluation. The traditional lecture, like textbook reading, is essentially an info dump that, when moved outside of class, frees the class period for higher levels of cognition and musicality. For my part, I want students to graduate beyond the sterility of pedagogical examples to the organic, sometimes gritty, mysteries of real music as soon and as much as possible. What better way than to disseminate the basic information in pre-recorded lectures and model for them how music theory can enhance their listening experiences, performance decisions, compositions, and appreciation for those of others.

*New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

This work is copyright 2013 Enoch Jacobus and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Musings on Musica Universalis: in which we consider the quadrivium

The Seven Liberal Arts

Music is a science of melos [complete musical complex of melody, rhythm, and text] . . . But we define it more fully in accordance with our thesis: ‘knowledge of the seemly in bodies and motions.’

—Aristides Quintilianus, On Music (1.4), trans. Thomas J. Mathiesen

The quadrivium has been on my mind the last few months, although I didn’t know it. “What’s that?” you say. “What sweet wine are you squeezing from your mind grapes now—this quadrilater-wha?”

Quadrivium is Latin for “the four ways” [from quad(r): “four” and via:”way/road/path”], and it consisted of arithmetica, geometriamusica, and astronomia. Coupled with the trivium [grammatica, dialectica (logic), and rethorica (rhetoric)], it formed the seven liberal arts, which were preparatory for the serious study of philosophy and theology.

In our modern understanding of these subject, music might seem to be the odd one out (à la Sesame Street’s “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others“). After all, it’s an art, right? It’s all emotional and subjective and open to debate. Not like science, the immutable pillar of our society, based on facts and empirical evidence. The term music here is problematic, which comes from the same root that gave us the word muse, a word we associate with creative process in general. Indeed this word was often associated with the Greek word for art: tekhnikos, a word the modern reader would be more likely to align with “technical” fields like the sciences and mathematics. But back in the day, they weren’t so concerned with studying the practice of music (what we would consider musical study) as how musical relationships, like mathematical, geometric, and celestial relationships divulged the universe’s underlying order. This is where that whole “harmony of the spheres” idea came from.

There has been no shortage of recent scholarship connecting music with mathematics (the Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music even publishes the Journal of Mathematics and Music and hosts a biennial conference). Transformational theory borrows heavily from algebra; musical set theory borrows from mathematical set theory. Furthermore, there have been neato connections made that directly link geometry to pitch, like Chladni figures and cymatics (a nice introduction to both can be seen here).

What’s remarkable is how . . . remarkable . . . we find these connections to be. It’s not unusual for modern man to dismiss the cultural, social, educational, religious, or philosophical bent of an earlier age. But Boethius was seeing these connections in the 6th century, and he was just realizing the ideas Plato had in The Republic! Before Plato, the Pythagoreans certainly toyed with the idea, although more in the creepy-secretive way than in the public-education way. But the underlying principle, in whatever form it took, seems to be that “everything is connected.”

We live in an age that likes to divide things up. Some call it pigeonholing, others putting people in a box. We don’t just have “science” any more; we have geology, astronomy, physics, biology, etc. Do we even have categories as broad as “biology” any more; we have neurobiology, botany, zoology, microbiology, and on an on. I’m not just a professional in the fine arts; I’m a musician . . . a music theorist . . . specializing in transformational theory . . . specifically geometric conceptions of harmonic space. Also, I like bacon, but enough about me.

I get it—division into categories helps us process information. How Aristotelian of us! But what happens when an idea straddles the line between, say, sculpture and dance, or between technology and biology. Well, then you need to know something about both. Truth be told, theoretical physicists have been trying to come up with a “theory of everything” for a while now (albeit in a very different sense).

So, to the five of you who will read this (or perhaps I’ve given myself too much credit), expect a few more posts on this topic as I roll ideas around for what I hope will be a fruitful research project. And what better place than in service to this blog’s “mission,” or, at the very least, excuse for existence—the intersection of seemingly disparate ideas, somewhere between theology and physics, music and metaphysics, geometry and philosophy.

When Music Becomes MUSIC: in which we watch a clip of Benjamin Zander

I love Ted Talks. I mean I love them. Even if I don’t agree with the opinions expressed in a Ted Talk, I’ll probably watch it anyway, just to squeeze the thought-juice from my mind-grapes. (That’s a 30 Rock reference, in case you’re wondering.)

The first Ted Talk I ever watched was probably the best I’ve seen—a moving discussion about music and its power to move the human spirit by Benjamin Zander. There are so many things in this talk that I want to memorize and dispense to my own students; it gets beyond the nuts and bolts of music to the reason anyone cares or pursues music in the first place—because at some point they had an experience that moved them and they want to know how to come to that place again.

[I was inspired to revisit this talk because of a post by John Gardner on Theology Through the Arts at his blog Honey and Locusts. There he posted a video of Jeremy Begbie, professor of systematic theology at the Duke Divinity School, who’s also a trained musician. I really enjoyed the video, which touched on some interesting music theory/theology analogies (although I thought Begbie was a little fuzzy on some of the theory).]

So here’s the vid:

It is unfortunate that Zander has recently been entangled in an imbroglio at New England Conservatory, where he taught for forty-five years. He hired a videographer who had a history of sex offense. There are many details to the issues which you can read here, but despite a lapse in judgement, it is a shame that students at NEC will be without such a fine teacher. I think Zander is in many ways this generation’s Leonard Bernstein, for his interest in and ability to talk to the layperson about music.