Challenging Performance: The Book. 12.2 Utopia

12 Policing and self-policing

12.2 Seeking Utopia

With few exceptions (we’ve all have met some, but they’re a small minority) everyone policing WCM has good intentions, musically and personally. While there is a huge amount of expertise here that could be put to far better use than choosing people according to how convincingly they behave as normal, belief in current standards and practices is sincere, and (as I’ve emphasised in Chapter 2) can readily be justified by the excellence of the music-making that emerges. Ideology plays a controlling part in how we think about all this and act within it, but it’s not (unlike that of most police states) supporting a system that is producing rotten results. Performances are often wonderful. And so it’s easy to feel that, for all its unkindnesses (cruelties, indeed), it ultimately produces something that’s very good.

Intimately bound up with this feeling are some quite fundamental psychological processes. As I’ll explain in more depth in Part 4, persuasively performed music can seem to be showing us something about ourselves in a particularly direct and intense way.

At its most basic level music consists of constantly changing frequencies, loudnesses, their relative start-times and their durations. These basic materials, in turn, are perceived by the brain (via grouping into auditory streams) as harmonies, melodies, textures, timbres and densities of sound, the totality of which we experience as music. Through this process, in which all aspects of sound are constantly changing relative to one another, music in performance seems to have constantly varying character and intensity. We can think of this as the changing dynamics of music (dynamics in the fluid dynamics sense of the word), or, if we want to speak more metaphorically, the shape of music.[1] (The idea was introduced in Chapter 6.12 and we’ll look at it in relation to what makes a good performance in Chapter 22.)

Feeling states also have shape or dynamics, in the sense that they too are constantly varying in intensity and character. And so the dynamics of music—its constantly changing quantities and intensities, its shape—easily, perhaps more easily than anywhere else, map onto the dynamics (or shape) of feelings. Thus music is easily—I think one could safely say naturally—experienced as sounding a sequence of feeling states, indeed of being like a person whose feeling states, as with any person, are constantly changing: one experiences that person’s feelings while experiencing the music.[2] This is why and how music engages listeners in empathy as listeners themselves embody the particular sequences of feeling states that their minds generate through finding those particular sequences most closely analogous to the musical sounds they hear. And so we have a sequence of associations that are partly shared and partly individual.

There’s surprisingly little research on the shape of feelings. Perhaps the most useful for us is by Daniel Stern, who started out thinking about the experiences of babies communicating with carers through sound, among other things, which led him later to write a wonderful book on the phenomenology of the present moment in individual lived experience, and finally to theorise all this in terms of ‘vitality affects’.[3] What he meant by vitality affect was the dynamic content of a sequence of feeling states in the present moment, independent of the events that caused them. So for Stern a feeling state has a cause (a trigger), a content (the quality of the feeling), and a dynamic shape. And by theorising that the brain processes the content and the shape separately—which makes sense in terms of neural networks—he was able to explain how the dynamics of feeling can map easily between different modalities, for example between sound and sight. So a sound can be sharp or dull because its dynamics are like those for a sharp or dull sensation of touch. This is immensely helpful for understanding our responses to music, and the way in which it can seem to be like other things, other sensations, feelings, moods, styles of motion, and so on.

Another important point Stern made is that throughout our waking lives we experience constantly changing feeling shapes, but they’re generally in the background behind what’s happening, behind what we’re talking or thinking about or doing or seeing in the world. In other words the content of a feeling is evident to us, as a response to its apparent cause, but the dynamics are usually not what we’re focusing on. The content overwhelms the shape in our conscious perception. And this is precisely where music is so flexible and so powerful in the associations it can make for us. Because music, by providing a template for a sequence of changing feeling states, turning their dynamics into sound, brings the dynamics of these feeling states to the fore: we focus on them and experience them much more intensely than in everyday life, and we focus on the content and causes much less. We’re clear about the shape of feeling in music, and hazy about its meaning. Its meaning can be all sorts of things, whatever each of us wants, its shape can’t. We all hear its shape clearly.

In a powerful performance these feeling-shapes occupy us, and so we are able to experience, fully and without distraction, the deep subjectivity of this other person whom the music models, subjectivity below the level of a cause or specific meaning. At the same time, this Other is actually provided by ourselves, we construct them through our response to the music we hear; and so the Other may also be understood as ourself. This is empathy about as fully as empathy could ever be. It’s another and yet it’s us.

Moreover (and it is this that makes the template so valuable, powerful and full of potential for us), music that is well-composed and well-performed always seems, unlike the sequences of feelings we experience in everyday life, to be ideally shaped:  it models a better self than ourselves, its feelings are more perfectly begun, developed, brought to a close, and followed; and so we learn from it how to feel well (in both senses, how to shape feeling well and how to feel good). Music can therefore help us to handle feelings better, to relate better with others, to understand how they feel, to share their feelings. Music organises feeling states for us, shows them to us and enables us to experience them in an ideal form, and thereby to learn how to accept and experience them well in life. Through music one can practice in a safe space (perfectly formed within oneself) how to have a good relationship with one’s feelings and with others’. And through the same means, responding to music in performance, one can experience, in an ideal form, other ways of being.

In this sense, then, music is a Utopia.[4] Just as composers arrange musical materials in what they imagine will sound as perfectly formed gestures, lines, harmonic progressions, phrases; so also performers seek to make these sound ideally shaped. Both are aiming for a musical experience in which feelings are perfectly formed and felt. This is how music seems to offer us a better way of being—of feeling, responding and behaving—than we ever quite manage in the world outside.

But here’s the catch. How and how well this works depends on how scores are performed. As musicians we are brought up to believe that it only works when pieces are performed in the right way. And so this (fully-justified) sense that music can offer Utopian experiences is co-opted by the ideology to support itself. The policing is there to ensure that we never discover that there are innumerable other ways in which the same scores can construct Utopias. In other words, that there are innumerable Others which these scores can model and enable us to understand – to be, in fact, for as long as the performance lasts. And so music’s most powerful ability is hobbled by WCM belief, making us all much the poorer while leaving the State comfortably in charge. Yes, we feel that wonderful things can happen through performances within the norms. But how many others could happen also if only we were free to discover them?

Continue to 12.3 ‘Self-policing’

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[1] Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2018. Musical Shape and Feeling. In Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and Helen M. Prior (eds), Music and Shape (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 358–82.

[2] On this see, among many other studies, Cox, Arnie. 2016. Music and Embodied Cognition: Listening, Moving, Feeling, and Thinking (Bloomington: Indiana University Press); Krueger, Joel. 2019. Music as Affective Scaffolding. In Ruth Herbert, David Clarke and Eric Clark (eds), Music and Consciousness 2: Worlds, Practices, Modalities (New York: Oxford University Press).

[3] Stern, Daniel. 2004. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life (New York: Norton); Stern, Daniel. 2010. Forms of Vitality: exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[4] An earlier version of this case was made in Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. 2016. Classical Music as Enforced Utopia. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 15 (3-4): 325–36.

1 Comment

  1. A very interesting chapter. On the shape of feelings, are you aware of the work of Manfred Clynes? His basic work, Sentics, is exactly about this. He was a musician and has interesting things to say about music as well, some of them well in accord with what you’re saying here.
    Another interesting thinker, some of whose ideas are echoed in your 8th paragraph above, is Morse Peckham, whose main book, Man’s Rage for Chaos, still contains some of the most interesting thinking about aesthetics of which I’m aware. (Others disagree. He’s certainly contentious and polemical, and a dense writer….)

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