Wednesday 21 November 2012

Nice noises

Amongst my fondest memories of my music professor Ian Kemp was his disarming way of poking fun at musicological seriousness. On receiving well-intentioned but jargon-filled explanations for musical moments, he would sometimes say, "yes, that's interesting.. but maybe it's just a nice noise". It stopped people in their tracks because the niceness of the noise was somehow absent in its technical descriptions. He could, of course, be deeply serious and technical too, but he knew the importance of popping his own bubble.

Music is good at bubble-popping. I've found it invaluable in my current work simply because however carried-away I get with hubristic and idealistic explanations for learning, technology or society, they rarely go anywhere in explaining the extraordinary experience of music. Music will always ask questions which show up the holes in any explanation. That keeps me moving on, never settling on any uber-formula for education. But in moving me on, I am driven to search for some new formula.

That's where I am at the moment. I am thinking about  'nice noises'. I wonder if a nice noise is like being poked in the stomach. What do I feel? Wow! I'm arrested (as I was listening to Beethoven in the car this morning). My whole body feels a sensation quite unlike any other kind of sensation. It's most like sex or eroticism (another of Kemp's interjections was "music's all about sex, you know"), but it is more cerebral than that, more controlled. But the most remarkable thing about it is that in experiencing it, I know something of the experience of others hearing it too. I think now (after musing about parody and the body, this is the most important thing: the social awareness that arises from visceral experience.

It is shared absence. Academic explanation is a way of trying to determine the absence. But equally (and perhaps more authentically) so is just to say "wow!" or to smile, or to inhale. And indeed, all those bodily responses themselves carry their own 'social awareness' (we know what it feels like for others to inhale; when others smile, we know what it means, etc). Something deeply recursive goes on here. It's interesting me to think that much of the power of orgasm can be thought of in the same way - but that's another post!

But the moments of 'nice noise' do not come out of nothing. There is structure, melody, rhythm, harmony all of which contrive to create extraordinary moments. There is a definite ebb-and-flow of physical sensation, a development of anticipation. Again, in analytical discourse about music, this ebb-and-flow is poorly accounted for (often meaning that music which doesn't fit analytical models is disparaged).

I will explore this in a later post, but at this stage, it is interesting to think that moments of motivic repetition can become dull if over-mechanical. Dull-ness too is a physical sensation. But what causes it? If there is a game that is played between listeners and the music, then that game probably involves a continual coordination of  anticipations with what is heard. An expectation is a choice out of possibilities. In game-theoretical terms, the choice would arise from identifying an equilibrium point.

I'm going to speculate that when we are engaged in music, we can identify our anticipations because we can identify our equilibrium points. The mechanism whereby this happens has something to do with what's not there rather than what is (see Ambiguity and suggestion is the food of engagement.

But if patterns are asserted over and over again, the positive choices (the things that are there) can be felt over the things that are not. That means that it becomes harder to identify equilibrium points; it becomes harder to choose an anticipation (this sounds awkward and probably needs unpacking, but bear with me!). This produces what I'm thinking of as an 'equilibrium crisis' where distinctions between anticipations break down. That too has a physical component. From the absence of the crisis comes something new: a new idea, a new motif. This is the moment of disruption, either through rhythm, harmony, melody, etc.

There's more to say here regarding music. But at the same time there's something to say about the experience of learning, which (along with sex!) has remarkable similarities to the experience of music.

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