Thursday, August 11, 2016


This past Monday I tried to cast the problem of “understanding processes while they are processing” in the framework of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s approach to the discipline of hermeneutics. I appealed to Gadamer’s evocation of the concept of communion to describe the relationship between an individual sitting in the audience and the performance being played before him/her. Gadamer had developed this “secular” approach to communion with respect to a dramatic performance; but there is no reason to avoid translating it to a musical setting.

From that point of view, I would like to consider a particular sentence I encountered in Truth and Method:
Our line of thought prevents us from dividing the hermeneutic problem in terms of the subjectivity of the interpreter and the objectivity of the meaning to be understood.
In other words the act of listening is one of interpretation; but we should not fall into the trap of assuming that listening to the performance of music is a matter of “deriving” some objective “meaning” out of our perceptual processes. After all, as was previously suggested, those doing the performing are most likely engaged simultaneously with the objective world of the symbol systems on the score pages, the subjectivity of bringing expressiveness to the “decoding” of those symbols, and the social world of “real-time engagement” with the other performing musicians. Listening is never a matter of just recognizing and sharing that process of decoding. Rather, it is one of assimilating the expressiveness being conveyed and “inhabiting” (to use the word from Monday’s article) the social world of the performers as something more than a detached observer. It is through the attempt to enter that social world, complete with its connections to the objective and subjective worlds, that communion is established. One might say that, through that communion, the listener escalates from being a mere observer to becoming an “involved” participant, even if that involvement takes place at a distance from the performers themselves. (There may be some connection between this approach to “involvement” and the concept of “care” that we find in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time; but that will require further exploration.)

Most of us are probably more familiar with this sense of physical involvement in settings of rock concerts and, for more limited audiences, the more spontaneous jazz improvisations. However, we can be just as involved when listening to music of any genre from any period of history. Indeed, that is one reason why I fall back so many times on the use of the concept of jamming when writing about performances of pre-Classical music. Sitting in the audience is not just a matter of listening to how musicians are interpreting a score. Rather, it is a matter of “bearing witness” to acts of making music; and communion arises which the scope of such witnessing takes in the objective, subjective, and social dimensions of those acts.

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