22 Making music work

22.3 Expression is dangerous


If how music feels matters more to our biology and psychology than how obedient it is—to traditions, rules and norms—then this only adds to its danger for those who feel entitled to rule on how it should sound. But this clash illustrates something essential about music in the way, and the intensity with which, it engages our culture as well as our biology. As Tim Hodgkinson has noted (2015, 8), when we think about this,

a new way of describing our human identity is called for. We are no longer where biology and culture converge, but where biology and culture collide.[1]

It seems fairly evident from all we’ve seen in previous chapters, and especially in Part 2 on policing, that musical culture, like culture tout court, is a way of constraining biologically-driven tendencies to shape music in ways that most powerfully reflect processes of feeling and acting that we recognise from life. This filtering and censoring function of culture does present special problems when faced with music, for music is rather good at bypassing cultural constraints because of the way it engages feelings without going via language, bypassing concepts. That in turn explains partly why musical gatekeepers are so keen to constrain it: it’s in constant danger of avoiding them.[2]

A more specific danger, from the musical State’s point of view, is closely related. It is perhaps the fatal flaw that we can use to bring the whole system of policing to its senses. It’s simply this, that expressive performance necessarily requires momentarily confounding expectations. Leonard B. Meyer famously noticed how composers use this device;[3] but performers do it too, as I think is now increasingly well understood. You delay or hurry through or louden or soften or vibrate or scoop or colour or make plainer a note or a musical gesture in order draw attention to it and thereby to make it more expressively powerful. And each of those possible moves is pushing towards the boundaries of the norm. That’s the whole point. No one expects the non norm; and the nearer you get to it, the more expressive the result. But where is the boundary, that’s the question? One is always in danger of crossing it. Hence, the very mechanism by which performers make music seem meaningful is the very process that puts them in most danger of censure. The system needs an army of gatekeepers to control that, to keep performance expressivity within the tightest constraints possible without losing it altogether.

What I’m proposing, and illustrating in this Part 3 of Challenging Performance, is precisely a means of crossing over that boundary and exploring what lies beyond, perhaps (I hope) far beyond. Music out there, in the unknown, can work just as brilliantly as it works in here, the tiny space within which all respectable WCM performance is confined.


Continue to Chapter 22.4 ‘Music as social action

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[1] Hodgkinson, Tim. 2015. Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Toward a new Aesthetic Paradigm (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

[2] ‘When we listen to music, the normal model of agency (who is speaking to whom) is suspended, and this allows the subjectivity inscribed in music to come toward us as a formative “other” to be engaged with. But this is not for us to read the composer’s own subjectivation from the music or to reproduce it in some way. Rather, when we perform our listening of the music, we are sharing in the formative risks taken by its maker(s). more than musical structure per se, what most deeply shapes the listening experience is the spread or accumulation of this aesthetic risk in the work… Aesthetic risk is explicitly present in improvisation, but implicitly present in all kinds of music…’ Hodgkinson 2015, 13.

[3] Meyer, Leonard B. 1956. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. See also Huron, David. 2006. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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