Saturday, November 1, 2008

Further Aspects of a Theory of Listening to Music

My brooding over my personal dissatisfaction with how little Alex Ross had to say about listening during his appearance at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Thursday has been prodding me to work out my own vision of just what a "theory of listening to music" would entail. Having set myself the premise that such a theory is addressed by neither music theory (which may best be viewed as a theory of normative practices in musical composition) nor the psychology of listening (which is concerned with what the neurological physical apparatus can and cannot do with auditory stimuli), I have put much of my time into identifying other disciplines that could play a foundational role. Thus, I came to the position that listening is, itself, a practice; and that practice originates in an individual's conscious mind, which, from the social behaviorist stance of George Herbert Mead, is a product of those social processes that have engaged that individual since birth. Furthermore, because sound can only exist by virtue of the ongoing "flow" of time (meaning that there is no such thing as a sound at an instantaneous point in time and, on the basis of the mathematics behind the physics of sound, as intervals of time get shorter, the sounds that can take place within them get more and more limited), any conscious reflection on one's own listening behavior must be what Donald Schön calls "reflection-in-action." Where Schön meets up with Mead on common ground is where the listening mind's capacity for reflection-in-action is shaped by the social processes associated with listening to music.

The next step appears to involve establishing a more systematic grasp on the nature of those social processes, and one candidate contributor to the foundations I seek may well be Randall Collins. When I last wrote about Collins, I was reviewing the framework for his monumental book, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, and suggesting that his agenda should be directed towards a Sociology of Social Theorists. Here is how I described Collins' agenda:

He basically situates the study of philosophy within a vast (and, as his title implies, global) social network of practitioners, in which the "nodes" of the practitioners themselves are connected by three primary link types:
  1. The "vertical" "master-pupil tie"
  2. The "horizontal" "acquaintance tie"
  3. The "conflictual tie," which can be either horizontal or vertical

One could clearly approach the study of music in terms of such a social network, but I suspect that the network would have to be more complex. With only a very small number of exceptions, the nodes of Collins' philosophy network were all practicing philosophers, where practice was a matter of engaging with students in a classroom and with others through "conversation" (which we can only study if it has been documented). (Thus Richard Rorty saw "keeping the conversation going" as a major obligation of the practice of philosophy.) Where the practice of music is concerned, however, we shall probably have to distinguish different types of nodes, corresponding to different types of practices. Thus, we should recognize distinctions between the practice of composition, the practice of performance, and the practice of description (through language, thus involving criticism, teaching, and that catch-all category of conversation), even if any individual engages in any non-empty subset of these practices. (Robert Schumann, for example, was intensely involved in all three practices.) We all deal with such types and type-shifting, often using the hat metaphor to call out a specific type. ("I am saying this to you with my 'newspaper critic' hat on." "Barack Obama knows when to talk to a crowd with his 'community organizer' hat on.")

Node type, in turn, is likely to impact how we view the links between those nodes. For example a particular performer P1 may have a horizontal link to a fellow performer P2; but, if P2 decides to compose a work for P1 to perform, then there would probably be a vertical link for situations in which P2 is "wearing his composer's hat." Similarly, the execution of jazz often involves "link shifting," even within the immediacy of a specific performance. This richer approach to the representation of nodes and links does not pose any significant problem as far as the mathematical foundations of abstract network theory are concerned, but interpreting those representations is likely to be far more challenging than the interpretations that Collins had to address in his philosophy network. Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss a methodological approach just because, on first blush, it appears difficult. Such methods are, themselves, practices; and we can assume that, should we decide to exercise them, we shall become more facile at using them as we become more experienced. This may take some time, but should we expect otherwise when the practice of music itself has been evolving over millennia?

No comments: