In this post, I’ll be doing some public-facing note-taking on Music As Social Life: The Politics Of Participation by Thomas Turino. I’m especially interested in chapter two: Participatory and Presentational Performance. We in America tend to place a high value on presentational music created by professionals, and a low value on participatory music made by amateurs. It’s useful to know that there are people in the world who take the opposite view.
Turino divides music into four big categories:
- Participatory music. Everyone present is actively doing something: playing an instrument, singing or chanting, and/or dancing. For example: a bluegrass jam, campfire singing, a hip-hop cypher.
- Presentational music. There’s a clear divide between the performers and the audience. Audience members might dance or sing along, but they are not the focus. For example: a classical, rock or jazz concert.
- High-fidelity recording. A document of a live performance (or a convincing illusion of such.) For example: a classical or jazz album.
- Studio sound art. A recording that was constructed in the studio using techniques other than (or in addition to) people performing in real time. For example: a late Beatles album, or any pop song currently on the radio.
Turino devotes a lot of his attention to three examples of participatory music cultures:
This last group might strike you as the odd one out, but Turino sees more commonalities between the musical experience of American contra dancers and participants in Shona rituals than he does between the contra dancers and audiences at, say, a bluegrass concert.
Update: there’s a lively discussion of this post happening on Synthtopia’s Facebook page.
Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful article by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, investigating the reasons why we love repetition in music in Aeon Magazine.
The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’
I have a strongly held belief about musical talent: there is no such thing. Every neurotypical human is born with the ability to learn music, the same way the vast majority of us are born with the ability to learn to walk and talk. We still have to do the learning, though; otherwise the capacity doesn’t develop itself. When we talk about “musical talent,” we’re really talking about the means, motive and opportunity to activate innate musicality. When we talk about “non-musicians,” we’re rarely talking about the Oliver Sacks cases with congenital amusia; usually we mean people who for whatever reason never had the chance to develop musically.
So what if almost everyone is a potential musician? Why should you care? Because participation in music, particularly in groups, is an essential emotional vitamin. We here in America are sorely deficient in this vitamin, and it shows in our stunted emotional growth. Steve Dillon calls music a “powerful weapon against depression.” We need to be nurturing musicality wherever it occurs as a matter of public health.
Brennan, K. (2013). Best of Both Worlds: Issues of Structure and Agency in Computational Creation, In and Out of School. Doctoral Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I had the very good fortune to attend a fancy elementary school run on solid constructivist principles. In sixth grade I got to experience the “hard fun” of Sprite Logo. Similarly fortunate kids today are learning Logo’s great-grandchild, Scratch.
Karen Brennan’s doctoral dissertation looks at the ways people teach and learn Scratch, and asks how the study of programming can help or hinder kids’ agency in their own learning. Agency, in this sense, refers to your ability to define and pursue learning goals, so you can play a part in your self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. This is interesting to me, because every single argument Brennan makes about the teaching of programming applies equally well to the teaching of music.
Hassenzahl, M. (2010). Experience Design: Technology for All the Right Reasons. Morgan & Claypool.
For this week’s reading on experience design for music education, we moved up a level to think about experience design generally. A lot of design theory tends to boil down to “Design things better!” Marc Hassenzahl’s book falls into that trap a little, but he does have some useful specific ideas. His main thesis is that designers of technology aren’t just designing the technology itself. They’re designing the felt experience of using the technology (intentionally or not.) People care less about the technology itself and more about how they feel while using it.
For Alex Ruthmann’s class, we’re reading Music, Meaning and Transformation: Meaningful Music Making for Life by the late Steve Dillon. If you can get past the academic verbiage, there’s some valuable technomusicology here, and some tremendous advocacy resources too.
Music, Mind and Meaning by Marvin Minsky is a gold mine of inspired speculation about the origins and functions of music. I’ve assembled some choice quotes below.
If visual art is our way of playing with and studying space, then music is our way of playing with and studying time.
Can one time fit inside another? Can two of them go side by side? In music, we find out!
Minsky is talking mostly about western classical music here, but his insight is equally pertinent to listening to and playing repetitive music from any tradition: hip-hop, dance, what have you.
Continuing my research into the use of games in music education, I found this:
Custodero, L. (2002). Seeking challenge, finding skill: Flow experience in music education. Arts Education and Policy Review, 103(3), 3–9.
The best music education happens in states of flow, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: the feeling of energized focus brought on by total absorption in an activity. Flow is more or less synonymous with happiness. So how do you bring about a state of flow? The key is to balance challenge and ability. Too much challenge for your abilities, and you’re anxious. Too little challenge and you’re bored. In between lies the delightful state of flow.
I’ve talked a lot of smack about high modernist music on this blog recently. Yesterday I got an email from a composer named Evan Kearney with some thoughtful reactions. Here’s what he had to say:
[Y]ou wrote that you didn’t ‘get’ High Modernism (serialism, Webern, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter, etc.) and what it offered for the average listener. I can tell you that their music had an immediate impact on me. It is unlike any tonal or post tonal music though. It hits me hard in a very startling way.
It is as if your soul is being bared to the harshness of reality and you can gain some sort of epiphany through the almost psychedelic nature of the atonal soundscape. Granted, I prefer pre-atonal composers like Bartok more than true serialists, but nonetheless, that is my way of appreciating it.
One more thing — interestingly, I have converted two of my friends, who, like myself (before I started getting in to jazz and classical about six years ago) were big “prog” rock, electronic music, and “progressive” hip-hop fans.
They still are, of course, and with the current influx of amazing music via the internet that will probably just increase. My point however, is that after a few reviews of modern classical, I have gotten them to genuinely enjoy it. And they both cite the same reasons for liking it as me — the pseudo-altered-state of mind, high-alert, thrill-ride-esque journey that goes with it.
So there you have it, folks, as articulate an explanation of this music and its attractions as you’re likely to find. You may also want to check out Evan’s own works on his SoundCloud page.
I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music, except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront it, listen to it, write about it and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind.
The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.
I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.
I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.
The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer's] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.
My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?