Thursday, 28 November 2013

Expectations in the Experience of Music

Katherine Hayles has a wonderful definition of reflexivity:
"Reflexivity is that moment by which that has been made to generate a system is made, by a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates." (in "How we became Posthuman", p8)
I found myself having to re-read this a couple of times intuiting the truth in it without being entirely clear on its implications. After reflection (so my 'system' has incorporated into itself the system that generated it!), I would say "spot on!" (I think...)

As with any powerful idea I encounter, I immediately take it to my laboratory where I can subject it to the most rigorous testing I know. In my case, this is musical experience.

The 'system' she is talking about is a system of 'anticipations' or 'expectations'. Anticipation is the lifeblood of music (as it is all the arts). It may be the lifeblood of everything - but I don't want to go there right now. Just concentrate on music - it's difficult enough!

The system which generates anticipations of sound must work with established norms at some level or other: no piece of music is experienced in isolation from the experience of any other. Western tonal harmony, plainchant, chromaticism, atonality, bebop and hip-hop all have established norms. Our 'virgin ears' are in the far distance behind us.

The normative horizon may provide the resources for the construction of one kind of reflexive system: anticipations may be generated against known patterns. Redundancies across swathes of repertoire help to carve out the broad expectations of a genre. The system which gives rise to that anticipatory system may also be generated. But what of individual experience here? How is it constituted?

What needs to be understood is what is 'understood' as we listen. If we feel moved to tap our feet, to sing along, or to get up and dance... what is going on there? What if we merely think of singing along - where we perhaps have found a moment to pitch a note, or we feel the phrasing and gently tense our muscles in a caressing gesture through the air? I think all of these are moments of what Boris Asavief calls 'intonation': they are moments of acknowledgment of some universal expectation. It is a moment of acknowledgement of shared biology.

When we watch classical musicians play we see this kind of 'intonation' written all over their faces. In ensemble, they act as one, breathing with the music, communicating with each what the other feels, knowing that what they feel the other feels. It is the mother knowing the baby knowing the mother.

There is my experience of the music and your experience of the music, and there is my idea of your experience of the music. (There are my anticipations and your anticipations and there is my idea of your anticipations.) We breath together when out expectations overlap: where there is mutual redundancy in our expectations. As my wonderful music professor told me once, "basically, it's all about sex!"

So, you might say, "I'm listening on my own but I still react in the same way...". But there is always more than one. The norms which shape my expectations are collective, supra-individual. I still maintain the idea of the other as I listen on my own. Music really is the food of love - particularly when we are alone!

A norm represents a multiplicity of expectations and a multiplicity of systems that generate those expectations. We may glimpse the multiplicity through the various analytical lenses through which we view music. Schenker's levels are a good example. There are moments where we know what to expect. That is when the multiplicities overlap. It is when rhythm and harmony and tonality and melody all converge in one moment - a climax or a cadence. These moments may be analytically tractable to us: particularly as we have the computing tools to analyse corpuses of music from many perspectives.

What we experience on hearing music or playing it is a regulatory process of coordinating multiplicities of expectation.

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