Monday, February 18, 2008

Sharing a Metaphor with John Dewey

Yesterday, I confessed to invoking the noun "experience" by virtue of being "under the influence" of John Dewey. Actually, it has probably been about 30 years since I last read Art as Experience. Back then I had all the bad habits of an impatient reader, always on the lookout for specific passages that had specific answers to specific questions. As a result, if the tree I needed was not there, I would often retain very little (if any) knowledge of the forest; and, in the case of this particular book, it would be fair to say that the title was about the only thing I took with me after that first excuse for reading. I had made a mental promise to myself to return to the book and read it in a way that would do it better justice, but it took me 30 years to deliver on that promise.

While reading the third chapter of this book ("Having an Experience," which introduces the concept of experience), I came across a passage that I realized bore a strong family resemblance to some of my own recent writing:

In a work of art, different acts, episodes, occurrences melt and fuse into unity, and yet do not disappear and lose their own character as they do so—just as in a genial conversation there is a continuous interchange and blending, and yet each speaker not only retains his own character but manifests it more clearly than is his wont.

I am referring, of course, to that metaphor of the "genial conversation," which I had called "social conversation." In my case I was particularly interested in a dramatic perspective on the conversation: Within the "text" of the music itself, the interaction of the voices in counterpoint could be viewed very much in Dewey's light, "melting" and "fusing" into a unity without any single voice every losing its "own character;" but to focus on the text is to ignore (at least) half the story, because the instrumental performance of those voices is also a matter of rendering a unified experience within which each component voice maintains its "own character." Thus, the metaphor of actors portraying their respective characters in conversation may be applied to how performing musicians "play their parts" in an ensemble performance, whether the scale is that of chamber music or of an orchestra.

Regular readers know that I have been developing this metaphor over several months, totally oblivious to Dewey's work and originally in the context of free jazz (to which Dewey would have been totally oblivious, although he appears to have been at least aware of what was happening in jazz in 1931 when Art as Experience first emerged as a series of William James lectures at Harvard). Free jazz, however, is a rather distinct phenomenon, particularly since the musical "text" is likely to be minimal, if not absent; so the instrumental performance is less the dramatization of a text than a drama unto itself. On the other hand that focus of the "performance conversation," regardless of the text being performed, also influenced my reflection on the farewell season of the Beaux Arts Trio. The synthesis of conversation-in-text and conversation-in-performance, on the other hand, only began to emerge with my approach to the recent San Francisco Symphony performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's second orchestral suite (BWV 1067); and it has been growing in my consciousness since then.

Meanwhile, I am plugging on through Dewey's book, this time giving it a greater measure of attention and patience, in keeping with what this particular text deserves. Having dealt with the fundamental concept of experience, I shall now follow Dewey into his two-chapter exploration of expression, considered first as an act and then in terms of the concept of an "expressive object." To some extent this reflects his distinction between the general nature of experience and what it means to have an experience, which reminds me of my past efforts to distinguish between verb-based and noun-based semantics. In the past I have tended to dwell on this distinction in the context of information management systems and the relationship between computer software and the world of work in business settings, so I am rather enjoying the extent to which the distinction is equally relevant where art is concerned. Perhaps this will turn out to be a case where the harsh realities of the world of work can be seen with greater clarity through the lens of what Giambattista Vico called "poetic wisdom!"

No comments: