(Previous post is here.)
The vast majority of departments in the US operate under the idea that a kind of technical facility (especially the basic reading of musical notation) is necessary for more 'advanced' courses. In the right context, this technicality can be of great help in focusing the attention and action of students to the specific, detailed qualia of performance. The technical can be a girder on the bridge from mythic imaginaries to a richly detailed experiencing of performance; conversely it can occlude the richness of some experiences and marginalize others. But our students arrive with varied levels of fluency, and so this notational and technical hurdle impacts enrollment patterns, and self-selection by students in very subtle ways.
There are analogous situations in the university. Language courses have a similar 'feel’ - there is a goal of fluency or facility that is the grounded in a more testable aspect of a process of acculturation. There is a great deal of drill work, and there is a great challenge of class size; many skills in both areas are (with current technology) very difficult to teach in large classes.
If this analogy were strongly one to one, then might we be able to state that literature in translation courses are 'equivalent' to appreciation? Perhaps, but it doesn't seem to me that such a metaphor works so well. First, the translational character is hard to efface, even for relatively naive readers - there is an otherness to the expression's topics and contexts that puts such texts in perpetual parentheses. Music appreciation models seem more like a literature course taught entirely through film adaptions of works; that might well be an interesting course, but it is not a course with literature as its topic.
It seems to me the stronger analogy would be in STEM courses– one simply can't take quantum mechanics without a strong foundation in mathematics, and the Newtonian model that proceeded it. Indeed, it can be difficult to describe to someone without some technical background what quantum mechanics _is_, not unlike many music courses in which the subject of inquiry simply has no place in more general public discourses. Skills and understanding from STEM courses give students access to a kind of experience that is not accessible to students without them, and similarly in our field, lack of a technical vocabulary makes it difficult to share experiences with those operating in a different imaginary.
Yet, even as it presents challenges, this divide of 'technics' can be a useful tool for engaging students in critiques of self and practice. Both 'technics' and 'technology' derive quite directly from the Greek term 'techne.' In philosophy since Heidegger, 'technics' is used to capture systemic practices exteriorized from the human mind. This conceptualization of technics encompasses, but is not limited to, technology. It can be understood as a kind of tool-being, but with the notion of tools beyond physical devices and items to include conceptual frameworks and cultural practices.
Stiegler, in 'Technics and Time I: The Fault of Epimetheus,' emphasizes the relationship of technics to the situation of its creation, its milieu. Aspects of that milieu travel with that technics, even as its use, function and valuation change. I spoke earlier of the interesting opportunity that a discussion of ornamentation affords for students performing a work from a period with documented ornamental devices. A rich ‘technical’ discussion with the student (one relying on technical vocabulary and devices) also is an opportunity for a discussion of the context of that ornamentation’s creation or emergence, and the milieu of its performance, in the now.
Simondon connects this technical domain with aesthetics:
The body of the operator gives and receives. Even a machine like the lathe or the milling machine produces this particular sensation. There exists an entire sensorial array of tools of all kinds. Even the rarest carpenter’s tool like the “tarabiscot” has its very own array of sensations. One could continue like this almost indefinitely, moving more or less continuously to the sensation that artistic instruments give to those who play them: the touch of a piano, feeling the vibration and tension of the strings of a harp, the snapping of the strings of the hurdy-gurdy on the cylinder covered with rosin-- it’s a register that’s almost inexhaustible…
[O]ne can think, for example, of the weight of a piano dampener and the kinetic energy of the playing that orders a horizontal displacement of the dampener by using the “piano” pedal; when the felt silencers are removed, they set the strings free and enable them to mix sounds through a vibration that slowly grows smaller, and that is produced by hammers. Aesthetics is not only, nor first and foremost, the sensation of the “consumer” of the work of art. It is also, and more originally so, the set of sensations, more or less rich, of the artists themselves: it’s about a certain contact with matter that is being transformed through work. (from ON TECHNO-AESTHETICS Gilbert Simondon, translated by Arne De Boever1 PARRHESIA NUMBER 14 • 2012 • 1-8 p. 3)
I mentioned earlier that the consumption, experiencing, and the performance of music is different, without specifying how to bring students into engagement with that tension. Simondon's point is illuminating not only in the way that it connects aesthetics to the physical, embodied actions of the artists, but also in that it highlights that technical actions differentiate performance from consumption.
In addressing a technical question (say the particulars of ornamenting a passage), the student and the instructor will involve other technics— notation, textbooks, recordings, youtube, etc. In dealing with the historicity of any one of those technics, the 'technicality' of all can be brought into the light. This is particularly important in relationship to recordings (bought, pirated, downloaded, streamed, professional, or amateur). Recording technology has become pervasive, powerful, and increasingly deceptive. Probably the most important and challenging skill that GWU performance instructors work on with their students is the ability to hold audio and video recordings at sufficient critical distance that they have a use-value beyond mimicry.
The technicity of music is one of the powerful aspects of it that differentiates the activity of musicking from the passivity of consumption. When we as educators succeed at engaging students in this distinction, we have opened the possibility that those students will be able to understand the extent to which the dominant paradigm of experiencing music is consumptive, and to imagine alternative imaginaries in which to operate, imaginaries that have a more robust a commitment to embodiment, agency and historicity.
A rule of thumb that I use in the classroom and for curricular design is that the discussions engendered by a course or an activity must be engaged, pluralistic, and fallibilistic.
It must be pluralist in that students and faculty must acknowledge the diversity of experience and artistic and cultural practice both historically and in the now. It must be engaged in that students and faculty must work to engage with a work or topic in its own terms and the terms of its situation as much as possible. And it must be fallibilistic in that all must enter into the discourse with the understanding that our ideas might change as a result of that engagement.
As I hope the above discussions demonstrate, music in the academy, even in its seemingly most conservative form, the individual lesson focused on classical musical practices, provides powerful opportunities for exactly the kind of engaged, pluralistic and fallibilistic work that is the hallmark of critical thinking. It should also be clear that the naive aesthetic idealisms of music appreciation do not help us in this work; even though such a model is in decline, that ideology remains a powerful shaper of music at the academy, in the classroom and studio, and, significantly in parts of other university’s administrative mindset as well.
I have specifically focused on students and programs not involved in pre-professional training, thus inoculating the conversation from the traps of credentialism and short-term utilitarianism. The educational project that I am describing touches on ideas from many different discourses; paedeia, bildung, dasein. It is the ability to understand when certain mythologies lose or minimize use-value, when they might be set aside, or transformed into something richer and more nuanced, that I am suggesting as a goal for music instruction at the university level, and as a pretty rare opportunity in modern, post-industrial higher education.
It is perhaps best thought of as citizenship. Our situation requires a robust musical citizenship, which accommodates the full range of context and sources of experience of other musicians. Such citizenship demands a consciousness of the technical nature of music practice (and by implication all cultural practices), and the historicity of these practices. Most importantly, musical citizenship today is predicated first and foremost on the individual's ability to understand and identify their own embeddedness in a context, and the dynamic relationship between the self and milieu.
Rather than an irrelevance or a supplement to a university student's education, this seems to me to be at the very heart of the project of the modern university, with its commitment to critical self-reflection, diversity of practices, and situating practices in contemporary and historical context.
-=-=-=-=- Bibliography -=-=-=-=-=-Gadamer, H.G. Truth and Method. New York, N.Y.: Continuum, 2004.
Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1994
Lessig, Lawrence, Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. London, U.K.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008. (http://archive.org/details/LawrenceLessigRemix)
Simondon, Gilbert (trans. Arne De Boever). "ON TECHNO-AESTHETICS" Parrhesia 14. (2012) • 1-8. Online.
Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford, CA. Meridian, 198.