Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Alfred Schutz on Making Music Together

I'm grateful to Loet Leydesdorff for drawing my attention to a paper by Alfred Schutz on music (see Schutz, A. (1976) ‘Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship’, in A. Schutz , Collected Papers, Vol. II, pp. 159178. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff). It's fascinating not just because this is a phenomenologist taking musical experience seriously, but because it provides a deep insight into Schutz's later thinking on communication in general.

Schutz had a deep engagement with Husserl (they met frequently for discussions) but his thought occupies a critical space between phenomenology and sociology. Whilst indebted to Husserl's phenomenological insights, he argued that they could lead to an overlooking of the sociological context of experience. So he sits at a pivot point between Husserl and Max Weber. Of particular interest to Schutz is 'meaning' and the way that meanings are socially constructed. It's always interesting to understand the connections of students with their teachers and friends (something which is being eroded in our current marketization), and Schutz taught Luckmann and Berger, whose "The Social Construction of Reality" (see has had a huge impact in the social sciences and social constructivism in the articulation of a sociology of knowledge. With present preoccupations with 'knowledge economy' and the role of education in processes in those dynamics, there is much to be engaged with both in Luckmann and Berger, and in Schutz himself. Loet's work on the Triple Helix has been an important intervention in making an analytical connection between the sociology of knowledge and the calculus now made possible through internet communications.

But what about music? Schutz's opening paragraph tells us that
Music is a meaningful context which is not bound to a conceptual scheme. Yet this meaningful context can be communicated. The process of communication between composer and listener normally requires an intermediary: an individual performer or a group of coperformers. Among all these participants there prevail social relations of a highly complicated structure.
This presents a bit of a puzzle. As Schutz says, with "meaning", "there is a strong tendency in contemporary thought to identify meaning with its semantic expression and to consider language, speech, symbols, significant gestures, as the fundamental condition of social intercourse." Music blatently challenges any such view of meaning. Schutz focuses his attention on the process of meaning-making as being one of a mutual 'tuning-in' relationship: he calls it "the reciprocal sharing of the other's flux of experiences in inner time, by living through a vivid present together, by experiencing this togetherness as a 'we' Only within this experience does the other's conduct become meaningful to the partner tined in on him - that is, the other's body and its movements can be and are interpreted as a field of expression of events within his inner life."

Spot on.

Schutz spends a bit of time in the paper discussing the theory of Maurice Halbwachs on music. Halbwachs sees two domains of music: one for professional musicians comprising the notated corpus of music works known by professionals; the other domain being the musical world of the lay-person. Schutz rejects Halbwach's separation, but at the same time, his own view cannot account for the 'we' that is established between the long-dead composer and the performer.

It is interesting to examine these arguments in the light of my last post - which was my contribution to the open course for pre-phd students on "reading". There I argued that reading was a process of identifying constraints in the author. It is the overlapping of constraints with other authors that we seek when identifying if we agree with them or not: communication happens in the negative space which is uniquely about the 'we'.

Composers may not have constraints in the same way as authors of academic books. Our identification with a composer's music (although not their biography) is usually through some deep recognition of something universal. Unlike the author of an academic text, the activity of an artist is a process of generating complexity and then finding a form in it. In music, a form is found and expressed over time (indeed, Halbwach's theory was developed as part of a theory of time). The generating of complexity is fundamentally an act of 'we-identification': it is through this playfulness that the composer opens herself up to the totality of the world. The world's totality must necessarily include everybody else's totality. Performers must reawaken this process of totality generation in the process of recreating the sound. Meaning, as Loet rightly argues, lies in the structuring of expectations. I would say now that it is in the mutual redundancies of expectations that the connection between performer and composer arises: the we-ness. There is a question as to what the 'form' represents: perhaps formal resolution in music is the identification of the 'generating system'; However, I think is more likely to be a kind of invitation for us to generate our own complexities and to 'play' in the composer's territory.

I think Schutz's instincts to really think about music were right. The question now is how much more flesh can we put on the bones of this powerful theory? There is little doubt in my mind that within it there are important findings that relate not only to communication but to teaching and learning. Schutz never talks about 'events' - but clearly music comprises events. His question concerns the way that embodied subjectivity (and the meaning that is entwined with it) is shaped by the events that occur between people both through history and through the time of a performance.

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