10.02.2012

the ends of lessons IV :: techne & citizenship

(This discussion starts here.)
(Previous post is here.)

Techne

Music at the university (especially in the US) has a particular challenge or issue, one that, like the points above, has great potential as a educative tool, and also the potential to render the project of post-secondary music education irrelevant except in its 'appreciation' mode.  Musical notation has created an advanced and deeply embedded technical language that has made it objectively harder to enter into certain imaginaries, and at the same time, such technicality is fundamental to the structures and languages of many forms of musicking.

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.

citizenship/bildung/paedeia

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; paedeiabildungdasein.  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.

10.01.2012

the ends of lessons III :: imaginaries & intersections

(This discussion starts here.)
(The prior post is here.)

Imaginaries and Intersections
The discussion above is both a critique and validation of the peculiarly unique teacher/student relationship that private musical instruction can produce.  This relationship enjoys a privileged role in musical culture, and is part of an elaborate web of mythologization - mythologies around a particular teacher, The Repertoire, G/genius, tradition, and virtuosity, which themselves can serve as a mixture of empowerment and hinderance in the instructional context.  The love of a teacher or a piece or a particular performer, for example, is often what first gets students to engage in a project of musical production (as opposed to consumption); as such, it has a clear and strong use-value, as long as it is placed in a critical context.

But the presence and persistence of these myths demonstrate the extent to which the structures of music making and music instruction operate within a symbolic network.  Charles Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries is one of the best known and readable formulations of this idea; drawing from Taylor, we can see these networks as the 'imaginaries' in which musical practices operate. In GWU’s curriculum, we encourage students to interrogate the boundaries of their received imaginary and those of their colleagues and teachers; ideally,  the university experience is one of the few places in the culture when all of these diverse practices and imaginaries operating under the term 'musicking interact with one another, and the one where (potentially) students have the greatest freedom to consider other imaginaries, both as potential emigrants, and as potential agents of transformation of the imaginary in which they have been operating.

Two examples come to mind, each with different challenges for the university project; young singers and young technologists.

Singers often arrive with less technical (reading/theoretical) background than instrumental students, and also often with a deep attachment to themselves as performers - their mindset is less instrumental (in the positivist sense) and more embodied; there self and body are in the performance.  A particular program or department, then must make decisions about how this vocality relates to the imaginaries of its own operation.  Does this vocality live in a 'music theater' domain, with different goals and expectations than the 'classical program' (with its strong commitment to notation as the primary mediator)?  Is this vocality a bad habit that must be broken, or should the students who fail or fail to be willing to divest themselves of this weltanschauung simply be weeded from the program?  Difficult questions, and critical instructional intersections.

Similarly, the wave of self identified 'composers of electronic music' arriving at universities presents an even starker contrast between operative musical imaginaries.  In my experience these students often have vanishingly small experience in and very limited skills at what we call 'music fundamentals.'  At the same time, these students often have a great deal of experience with the technologies that mediate our culture’s experience of music.  I once had a lengthy tutoring session with a student having trouble on excerpt ID quizzes in a history class, and what became clear to me was that for him, sonic characteristics of the recordings were a primary locus of his attention, such that similarities and difference of decay rates or degrees of reflectivity would make him misidentify examples (especially 'mystery' examples) because what 'trained' ears heard as trivial he heard as primary.  He had come to hear these features as actorializing, and so to deactorialize them is to ask him, in a very real way, to change what listening is, and so what music is.  This was not a deficiency, but an alterity.

In both of these examples, we see a basic, metonymic problem of music - 'Music' as an experience is a field of action larger than any one individual's experience, and the term music is used to hide the gap between the abundance of musicking writ large and the limits of our ability to experience that abundance. Students rely on established language-of-experience to understand and catalog their own experience; these narratives are 'inherited' as, indeed, all such narratives are.  The project of education risks replacing one imaginary with another, but also has a tremendous opportunity to serve as a catalyst for an internal consideration of lived-experience in relation to the numerous models and imaginaries across the culture.  

This is especially important in introductory classes, where students are being introduced not only to music but to a discourse around music; to weed out or minimize students' lived experience of music denies them the tools needed to engage in the valuable, paedeic project of contextualization of inherited and adopted imaginaries.  It also runs the risk of keeping departments and disciplines isolated in the fragile autonomy of the aesthetic that we saw earlier; students' detachment from the traditions and imaginaries in which we operate can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy on the irrelevance of that music, and of the structure of music in higher education as perceived by the student.

This intersection of imaginaries is a powerful opportunity for the university to think about and to work on its relationship to contemporary culture (popular and otherwise).  It is also a point at which students might (might) have an excellent vantage from which to consider the relationship between their individual experience, the experience of other individuals, and to the larger social constructions in which they operate.

It is that critical consideration of the relationship of self to other and self to context which is the foundation of a liberal arts education.  Certainly, this does not happen all the time; mythologies can simply rewrite or reinforce previous mythologies, but there is an opportunity here for a highly nuanced and individual interrogation OF the student BY the student.

9.28.2012

the ends of lessons II :: the ideal and the praxial

(This discussion starts here.)

the ideal and the praxial

A robust liberal arts pedagogy must ground the ideal and elevate the praxial.  While the private lesson in the university educational situation is often understood as the least utilitarian and/or the least intellectual, it is also the most common starting point for students' experience in academic musical instruction.  So, I'd like to consider for a moment at the private lesson in depth, not as a simple transference of tradition from generation to generation, but as a locus of contextual self-examination and ideological critique.

We'll look at lessons in the classical tradition as our primary point of study, for several reasons.  The historical precedence of 'classical' study means that the structures of most or all lesson-based courses derive from those pedagogical traditions.  In many schools (as in mine) the simple number of 'classical' lessons surpasses the number of lessons labeled as jazz or otherwise.  Lastly, in my experience, when administrators and colleagues think of lessons this is the model that enters into their mind.  Jazz and other improvisatory traditions engage with these questions, but in different forms; a more thorough consideration would require an examination of those situations, as well as their compositional, theoretical, and musicological environments.

In its most compact form, the private lesson appears to have two participants, the teacher (instructor) and the student.  In 'composed' music (like what we find in the classical lessons that we are considering here) there is a third figure present— the composer, or perhaps the ghost of the composer and his unreachable intent, framing much of the lesson through the trace of past action we call a score.  It is the baseline for assessment of a student's performance, providing generally a collection of notes and durations whose accurate performance is part of (though not coextensive) with the work.  The score is the ground upon which the figure of performance is drawn.

The instructor serves as a proxy for the composer, since a work is always by necessity under-determined by the score itself, which leaves holes in intent that must be filled for a performance to come to pass.  If there is any notion of 'fidelity' operative within the lesson, the instructor must model, enable, and assess that fidelity – if a student can't perform a passage, the instructor must teach them how to do it, and in doing so model a particular ideological stance about the relationship of performance to that work.  Ideology here is not limiting, it is simply the articulation of an interpretive tradition; the constraint of tradition is actually the foundation of individual expression.  (This component of classical musical culture is excellently described and dissected by Lydia Goehr in The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works.)  As a proxy for the composer that instructor is actually also a proxy for a hermeneutic tradition around a work, a composer, a style, and a genre.

So, the past aesthetic, cultural, and praxial approach is manifest in the lesson not only in the score or work, but in the approach to the score.  There are two common points at which this historicity of practice surfaces.  The choice of editions and ornamentation are often the first loci for discussions of the insufficiency of a score and the inescapability of interpretation.  The selection process of different editions introduce to students the notion of the mediation of a composerly voice by an editorial voice, but can (hopefully) bring a deeper understanding of the distance between the composer and performer that the score mediates.  Ornamentation is similarly a persistent reminder of the fact that the score is inadequate; in a literal sense, the notes one must play to play 'correctly' are not on the page; the instrumental and mediating character of the score is brought back into the light, even for those students who can already read music.

So the interpretation of the score is possible only with the careful study of historical aesthetic and practice, and as this historicity and the hermeneutic aspect of performance is engaged with, both students and faculty work actively with the more intricate network of roles and proxies operative in a lesson.  The instructor is also a proxy for the audience, a safety buffer before music becomes public – 'prep' for recitals (or any public performance). In the practice room, the student must themselves be a proxy for that audience, and for the instructor, since self-monitoring is required for change to happen from week to week.  Writ large, the instructor is a proxy for an understanding of the performing self; an understanding of musicking requires the awareness of the plurality of these performing selves– the technical self; the hearing, interpreting self; the public self; and the awareness of the historical subjectivity of the self in action.

This is then is the goal of lesson in the university context,. Beyond this, the lesson is also a process wherein the instructor acknowledges their own finitude, preparing the student (and themselves) for the time when the student moves on to the next instructor or the next setting, to a point at which the self is sufficiently critical to function either as a practicing musician, a concert attender, or even to manifest on his or her own a desire and plan to return to lesson.  It is a process wherein the student acquires agency by increasing not only their technical capacity, but their understanding.

In the liberal arts context, the nature of this ‘understanding’ needs to be broader than the musical or performing self.  Ideally, it is an understanding of the self, and of the nature of expressive potential, and an understanding of the conditionality of an expressive potential.  This sounds a great deal like Gadamer's 'wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein' or historically informed consciousness, upon which his 'bildung,' discussed earlier, is contingent.  He argues that all understanding is historically informed, that every individual and every understanding of every individual is shaped by their conscious embeddedness in culture, by the historicity of their position.

At the root of Gadamer's elaborate arguments (and the arguments of all modern hermeneutics) is that agency is contingent on the self’s ability to understand its own finitude – all knowledge happens in context – and that richness comes from a conscious play between the self and the culture.  Individual expression is contingent on the collective aspect of that expression.  Finitude is not an aspect of human experience limited to music making.  The lesson is not about simply becoming an individual, but about having the critical capacity to understand one's own subjectivity.  Such inquiry is not supplementary to critical education, but strikes near the core of it.

(This discussion continues in part iii.)

9.27.2012

the ends of lessons I :: listening, attending

For Diana Lipscomb, who asked me about this once:


So, I teach music at a university.  In some circles, this is a bit of a guilty admission; a detachment from praxis, a surfeit of health insurance, and an over-reliance on obscure vocabulary are among the greatest sins of such apostasy against music as an art form separate from the university system.  For me, teaching at the university is a tremendous opportunity to work with fascinating colleagues from across many disciplines, and equally it is a substantial responsibility: for majority of my students, their time at university is the closing theme of their formal education in music.  If the study of music can contribute to the project of a critical education, this is its last chance to do so.  I believe that music can and does contribute, and that this educational point, the university experience, is the moment at which that contribution can be the most systematic, far-reaching, and transformative.

Music in the university suffers from a discourse deficit.  Perhaps from its late entry into the academy in the last quarter of the 19th century, perhaps due to the lingering idea of music as a special “universal language,” or perhaps from the massive shift in the mechanics of musical production (and consumption) in the 20th century, musicians at universities face a challenge of communicating with colleagues and administrators, talking with them about what we do and most importantly, how what we do is different from what they think we do.   Shifts in the scholarly enterprise in the last decades have helped tremendously, but we continue to play catch-up ball.

This situation is of particular significance when we interact with administrations, and when we hope to contribute to the long-term, large-scale plans of the institutions in which we work.  Often, we don't know how to articulate the value that we offer in a manner that makes sense to the economic and ideological infrastructure of higher education.  This infrastructure exerts significant pressures on the administration of universities as well as the students: both are pushed to view education in transactional and (sometimes) naively utilitarian terms.

Music fails most of the basic utilitarian tests of education, especially when considering the archetypical 1-on-1 private performance lesson.  Even if a student were to find employment in the field, life-time earnings pale in comparison to other choices they might make.  These programs are by their nature expensive and space hungry.  Liberal arts schools are perhaps a kinder environment for a non-vocational approach to music and the other arts, but they are no safe haven; and there such critiques leveled on the liberal arts institution as a whole.

The substantial changes in the musicological and theoretical scholarly discourse of the last two decades has help translate our project for administrators and colleagues as connections to and parallels with other fields continue to develop.  This little essay draws pretty heavily on thinkers in other fields, especially philosophy and hermeneutics, which is both a personal proclivity and a byproduct of such changes.  I hope here to connect the pedagogical and paideic concerns and challenges of a musical education to the project of a liberal, “classical” education, and so reveal that the supposed supplementarity of individual instruction is in fact the core of the project of a humanist education.

Performance study, specifically individual and non-preprofessional study, will be the starting point and focus of my conversation as insurance of the centrality of musical praxis to the conversation.  I will focus on performance lessons not only because of the frequency of my conversations about them with my administrators (good people that they are), but also because of the fact that the questions that surface map onto many aspects of music in the university.

In the following discussion, we'll look at aesthetic autonomy and related ideology, the interplay of incommensurate imaginaries at the university, the hermeneutic and transubjective character of musical instruction, and the role of technics in the cultivation of the self.  My hope is that music here can be the terrain on which we interrogate questions that are truly general, if not universal to education.

Part I

listening, appreciating, performing, attending


Universities have a great deal of systemry, (committees, HR processes, committees, course numbers, committees, assessment protocols, committees, etc);  it's a reasonable assertion that universities are actually great big piles of systemry.  These structures inherit ways of being and modes of thought that over time drift towards uninterrogated assumptions; the contexts of our practices have shifted from cultural truisms to topics of tremendous flux.  Any bureaucratic network resists change, and the forces with which they push back can reveal much about the shape and texture of their underlying ideology.  In a mirror shape, the interplay of critique and defense can tells us about what we do and how we do it; that tension fills in our discourse with the actual rather than the self-mythologized.

The criticisms, in my experience, are quite clear cut even when couched in more delicate terms.  Individual music lessons are at worst an indulgence, likely irrelevant, and at best in the minds of many, a supplement to university education.  They are more an 'activity' than a course, and lack rigor in grading, assessment, and critical thinking.  In short, they represent a poor return on investment for the students and the university.

Here at GWU, we are extremely fortunate that colleagues in other departments and upper level administrators have been quite supportive of the arts, and in doing so they often provide their own experience in music as an undergraduate as their bona fides.  What they are supporting, however, might not quite be what we are doing now; the field has gone through some drastic changes in the last two and a half decades, to the extent that the views of those supporters might (surprisingly) actually be received as somewhat conservative. 

Support around performance study often runs something like this: 'we feel that students should be able to take clarinet lessons, because it makes them better people, because it is 'cultivating' (code, I think, that the student will, when they grow up, support the arts as donors and audience members), and/or because music will bring them joy (a respite from the dreariness of the modern life of work).  In short, that an 'appreciation' of music will make them 'better' in some general way.

This ethos echoes a long tradition of cultivation and of the building of the self through cultural practice.  Gadamer's monumental Truth and Method is perhaps the pithiest and best consideration of the implications of this approach that I've read.  The term Bildung refers to the German tradition of self-cultivation, a linking of personal and cultural growth.  Calling 'bildung' one of the guiding concepts of humanism, Gadamer places it at the very center of culture and of the educational project:
[A] previous investigation gives us a fine overview of the history of the word: its origin in medieval mysticism, its continuance in the mysticism of the baroque, its religious spiritualization in Klopstock's Messiah...and finally the basic definition of Herder gives it: "rising up to humanity through culture."  The cult of Bildung in the nineteenth century preserved the profounder dimension of the word, and our notion of Bildung is determined by it. (Gadamer, 9)

Gadamer sees and works over the main difficulty of linking humanity to culture through education, which is its lack of a theoretical frame.  How will this improvement manifest? How would the quality or character of life be improved by this cultivation?  How can such a "rising up" be achieved?  Is intuitive exposure sufficient?  There is a risk in all this generalized support in music, for example, that the experience of the art might become an impenetrable 'black box,' a special realm in which students (vocational or non-vocational) interact, and are bettered through some mysterious epiphanous process.  This question of the relationship between the self in the context of cultural cultivation and experience, and the self in the context of the every day remains operative.

The development of music appreciation curricula at the secondary and tertiary levels is an example of this question.  The music appreciation project rose hand in glove with the rise of recorded music and a general, seemingly apodeictic decline in the live performance of music by amateurs.  The idea that 'appreciation' can be achieved for the average citizen while detached from the acts of making music was something that was only made practical in a wide spread way by Edison's invention, and immediately was subject to ferocious critique.  In a congressional hearing in 1906, CP Sousa lamented the situation and its inevitable (for him) outcome:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy...in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
This quote has been popularized by L. Lessig as an argument against the copyright system (Lawrence Lessig, 2008, Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Chapter 1).  Such a critique, I think, misses the deeper implications. A pedagogical approach focused on a reception of music completely detached from the production of music has roots in ideas much older than Edison's device. Going back to the 18th century, we see deeper foundations of thinking about music and aesthetics which still cloud thinking about music education today, and which are ill equipped to address the pluralism and globalization of the 21st century,  occluding both the decline of institutions of art and the rise of modern structures of entertainment.

The gap between an aesthetic realm and the everyday practice of musicking can be seen in the basic ideas of the Enlightenment and Kantian aesthetic theory.  Habermas's Adorno Prize Lecture explores the relationship of Enlightenment aesthetic autonomy to what has come to be referred to as the post-aesthetic situation:
"…the idea of the modern world project in the 18th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consist of their efforts to develop objective science, universal morality and law, and autonomous art, each according to its own inner logic.  At the same time, this project intends to release the cognitive potentials of each of these domains to set them free from their esoteric forms." 
Peter Bürger, in The Decline of Modernism, highlights two features of this lecture: according to Habermas, for Enlightenment scholars the aesthetic realm is Ideal, an autonomous domain which runs on its own and creates and changes according to its own internal logic and force. For 18th century thinkers, an “enlightened” experience of art is one where the aesthetic judgment is based on “disinterest,” when the individual can put aside human concerns and cares, and enter into a transcendent or elevated state of perception.  Once the individual self has entered this transcendent realm, he or she naturally and purely comes back into the world “risen up,” a more cultivated person. (Bürger, 4)  How this transformation from the aesthetic universal to particular happens is somewhat vague, perhaps due to the lack of a discussion of individual music making and its contribution to cultural domain.

Since Habermas, this question of accessing the autonomous aesthetic realm and its impact on artistic experience and production in daily life has been raised by a number of thinkers, most notably in the work of Lyotard, Dante, and Ranciere.  In music, the rise of an aesthetic Modernism with its fragmentation of inherited styles and idioms, and the reception of those changes, has problematized the ‘inner logic’ of the aesthetic Habermas points out.  Also significant are the post-modern disruption of modes of production engendered by the growing primacy of recordings as the primary medium of art, the new instrumentality of electronic and computer music, and other experimental practices that blur the line between music and other artistic practices and production.

As the experience of music shifted from the 18th and 19th century concert hall models, this ideal of a transcendent aesthetic autonomy (and the associated belief that such autonomy naturally sublimates into and informs the everyday) falls apart. Sousa's lamentation that “these talking machines” are undermining performance unserscores this shift.  Both Sousa and Habermas dance around the core issue - the loss of a sensus communis, a “common sense” of aesthetic experience and judgment (even an illusory one) and the new and growing undeniability of pluralism.  

As an example:  I am a composer, and so do often advocate for support of my particular musical aesthetics and practice.  I know, however, that an effort to turn all listeners in the culture on to my particular expression will fail, likely spectacularly; there is no longer a single, general aesthetic sense.  My music was not built to be heard like other musics proliferating in the culture, and the same could be said of any current pluralistic music expression.  A singer in a club during the Jazz Age, a singer-songwriter at a coffee-shop or U2 playing at an arena, or a work of mine in a recital hall have very different contexts;  the technical characteristics of sound are different, and the semiotic network of reception is different. Modern aesthetic responses are similarly conditional; for the 21st century student on our campus, who arrives with a diversity of musical experiences, their aesthetic judgments cannot be easily generalized.  Often with there are few or no experiences overlapping with the student to their left or right.  

For this reason, plugging music into a generalized model of appreciation doesn't really work, philosophically, pedagogically, and practically.  We have moved from an Ideal abstract universal aesthetic regime to a positional aesthetics, an aesthetics concerned with the location of the self within historical and cultural matrices.  

So, if not 'appreciation'  of a universal aesthetic ideal and not pre-professionalism, then what do music departments DO at a university?  If we aspire to a model of the 'cultivation of the self' (an idea built into a non-utilitarian, liberal arts and broadly humanistic idea of education) then we need a working theory of the arts, or at least a model by which we can understand that process of 'rising.'

This line of questions establishes a few essential characteristics of musical education at a modern university.  A critical model of musical paideia would engage with the aesthetic conditions of modernity, and would require the student and the teacher to wrestle with the heritage of aesthetic autonomy; the curriculum would require stances relating to music as cultural practice and as lived experience.  As we will see, the performative and creative aspect of musical instruction has this capacity built into their structures, the very structures that render them administratively vulnerable.

Of primary importance for a modern classical structure of musical education is a critical understanding of the historicity of contemporary life, of ideology's role in shaping experience and society, and most significantly, of the transductive construction of the self through this interplay of individual, ideology, subjectivity, and agency.  This 'bildung' can not come from an individual students' sensuous experience of music, or the immediate qualia of listening, or the simple fact of performance - if it were, then the 'appreciation' model would work just great, and we could all retire happily and in the near future.  What is needed is attending - careful critique and assessment of those experiences.  A commitment to attending does not devalue an aesthetic 'anspruch' and its transportation of the self outside the everyday.  Attending is the basis not of 'listening' but of 'musicking.'

(The discussion continues here.)

6.07.2012

Benjamin's Monastic Impulse

A friend recently recommended that I read Michael Löwy's 'Fire Alarm;' he was surprised that I had never read it, given its intersections with many of my intellectual and artistic interests.  By a few pages in, I was similarly surprised that I hadn't come across this little book.  It is like a gem with hundreds of faces and with the density of a neutron star.  'Fire Alarm' contextualizes Benjamin's  Über den Begriff der Geschichte and its description of the tension between destruction and progress, a tension at the center of so much artistic and political in the newly historical 20th century, and the perennially novel 21st century.

Benjamin's redemptive catastrophism connects to many aspects of aesthetic production, and seems of particular relevavance to composition, but I will leave a full interrogation of those connections to future posting, perhaps a running catalog of sightings in concert life and the blogosphere.  Here I'll look at something rather smaller;– Benjamin's Xth thesis and its warnings against false consciousness and its evocations of monastic 'retreat.'  This is a theme of the text that might seem to have few implications for the New Music, but seeming is often revealed as different than being.