Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Amateur Professional

My wife wanted to get away from San Francisco for the long weekend, so we are currently at a nice little hideaway that we discovered in Tomales. This is giving me extra time for reading, and I decided to apply it to satisfying my curiosity about the book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, by Daniel Levitin. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University; but his background seems to be more in popular music production than in research. Unfortunately, I am probably far too serious a reader for a book like this. Levitin is not so much interested in penetrating the depths of complex questions like brain function or human nature. Rather, he seems to have decided to use self-indulgent autobiography for a lightweight tour of these complexities. His commercial success means that he can do a fair amount of name-dropping; but the conversations associated with those names sound more like dormitory bull sessions than sources of insight.

The book is not actually about six explicit songs, like "Happy Birthday" or "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." Rather, the thesis is that human nature is a product of our capacity for making songs; and Levitin categorizes those songs according to six topics. Those topics are:

  1. Friendship
  2. Joy
  3. Comfort
  4. Knowledge
  5. Religion
  6. Love

I have now completed the introductory chapter and the "Friendship" chapter; and I find the text so sloppy and so ill-conceived that I wonder if I shall be able to make it through to the end. Much of my irritation is probably a product of my recent efforts to penetrate the anthropological thinking of Pierre Bourdieu. Reading Bourdieu has had a major impact on my own efforts to understand the nature of listening to music. Indirectly, it was through Bourdieu that I ended up putting so much time into the work of George Herbert Mead; but, more directly, it was through Bourdieu that I confronted the intellectual fallacy of focusing on the opus operatum to the exclusion of examining the modus operandi. From my point of view, Levitin is too hung up on his songs and song-types as artifacts and too disinclined to pursue how those artifacts emerge from "musical practices." This is particularly frustrating when one considers that his pre-research professional background should have provided him with a wealth of data involving not only his own practices but those of all those names he keeps dropping on us readers. I have to believe that, within Levitin's life story, there is a wealth of data points that could contribute to a better understanding of how we listen to and make music; and those data points could form the basis for a story that is struggling to get out from under the text he actually wrote. I just wish that someone in his Laboratory (if not Levitin himself) would get around to teasing out that story!

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