Sound, Media, Performance

Phil Ford

I’ve been gone. Sorry about that.

About a year ago I was planning my first doctoral seminar at Indiana and ended up assigning these books:

Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. 
Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock.
Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey.
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire.
Elisabeth Le Guin, Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology.
Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 
Joseph Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop.
Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.

I also assigned a number of articles, among them Carolyn Abbate’s “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” along with responses by Karol Berger and Lawrence Kramer, essays on performativity by J.L. Austin and Richard Schechner, pieces on sound and technology by Glenn Gould, R. Murray Schafer, and Brian Eno, some pieces of art-music performance analysis by Janet Schmalfeldt and John Rink, a couple of philosophical pieces by George Steiner (from Real Presences) and Jerrold Levinson, etc. And there were a number of readings from books it killed me to leave out: Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act,  Simon Frith’s Performing Rites, Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound, Albun Zak’s The Poetics of Rock, etc. (These I have used many times for other classes, though.)

I had a very good idea of what I wanted to teach and had fun putting together the reading list, but then I was seized by a doubt: is there a coherent single topic that all these readings represent? In my mind there was, but it was not a topic for which there was a ready name. What was I going to call this seminar? I went through a number of options: “Orality/Aurality” (too Barthian), “ərality” (too clever by half, and annoying and unwieldy besides), “The Phenomenal Experience of Music” (wordy, and anyway I wanted to talk about sound as well as music, plus this was not a class in phenomenology as such, and besides it looks dumb: my experience of music is totally phenomenal!). Dammit. So I decided to just straightforwardly list the three main areas that my seminar comprised: Sound, Media, and Performance. But this begs the question of what those disciplines have in common, so I wrote a little explanation in my syllabus:

This seminar deals with the study of performance, recording, and sound, with approaches sampled from musicology, ethnomusicology, theater, cultural studies, and philosophy. However, within this variety of disciplines we will follow a common thread, something we might call either presence or performativity. These terms are not interchangeable, but both can be used to frame the auditory experiences of real bodies in real spaces and real time—although recordings introduce complications by mediating those bodies, spaces, and temporalities. Studies of sound, performance, and recording must all come to terms with an experience of sound that cannot be abstracted from its playing or sounding context. Unlike the aspects of music accessible in formal analysis of the score, presence/performativity is tied to the phenomenal experience of sound; it exists in oral and aural space and is the special domain of Western art music performance, hiphop, rock, and the postwar avant-garde—all areas of music that we’ll be thinking about this semester. 

Not perfect, but it’ll do. Those of our readers who do not come from an academic background (and even a lot of you who do) will probably think that this is over-the-moon abstraction, but it’s actually a pretty simple idea. It’s what Abbate calls (a bit polemically, throwing an elbow) “real music” — “music that exists in time, the material acoustic phenomena.” If this still sounds abstract (doesn’t all music take place in time? why make a big deal out of it?) it’s because musical notation — another abstraction — has taught us to think of music as something else: The Work.

If you can write music down in a score notation that defines pitch and rhythm to a fair degree of accuracy (and performance style a little more approximately), then you might be tempted to identify a piece of music with the score, not with the performance in which you hear those dots on the page transformed into vibrating air molecules. If I go to hear a pianist playing a Beethoven program, I might say, “I just heard the ‘Moonlight’ sonata,” but more properly I would say that I heard a performance of the “Moonlight” sonata. The piano sonata in C sharp minor op. 27 no. 2  (which is the more formal name for it) carries on existing regardless of whether no-one plays it, one person plays it, or a million people play it. So a performance is not the same as “the work.”*

The point is, when we put music into notation — when our music-making becomes literate** — our thinking changes. Music is no longer necessarily something we hear: it’s something we can potentially hear. When a piece of music becomes a work of music it becomes an abstract entity, something we can “read,” something we can make versions of when we play it, something we can hear when other performers recreate it, but something that is not exhausted by any of these actions. So where is the “the work”? Its manifestations are everywhere — on the radio, on the bookshelf, under the couch (so that’s where my CD got to!), at the concert hall — but the work itself is nowhere. It is not identical with any of those contingent manifestations; rather, it seems to inhabit some airless, timeless realm of Platonic Idea.

Now, imagine how deeply strange this idea would be to anyone who had no way of writing down music. I will continue these thoughts in the second part of this post . . .

*And a performance of it is not a copy, exactly — it’s not like buying a Harry Potter book or something, where there are millions of identical copies in circulation, because each performance is unique and different. (Even bad performances are unique; great ones are unique in a good way.) Indeed, performance is an art in itself: the difference between Rudoph Serkin playing op. 27 no. 2 and some lame-o on Youtube doing it is the difference that art makes.

**”Literate” in the same sense that a culture that discovers a way to write its language is called literate, not literate in the sense of wearing an ascot.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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9 Responses to Sound, Media, Performance

  1. eliot says:

    what a class…so jealous right now

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hey! Phil…Ford, right?
    Where is the image of the actor in all this? The play exists on paper, as a “work” even, but is naught but a dessicated palimpsest of what the performed play is, when brought to its rightful life as a work-in-performance. Isn’t that pretty close to the western concert tradition?

  3. Thanks the syllabus. It is exactly what I need right now for my own researches! Another great study of performativity is Richard Poirier’s brilliant Performing Self (OUP 1971; reissued with an intro by Edward Said Rutgers 1992), which is great on Mailer, and on the need for studying reception and popular culture. On the subject of your blog musings, Poirier reflects at length on how the concept of work-as-coherent-and-stable-structure gets in the way of the experiences of writing and reading. For instance he notes on pp. 77-78 that “the conception of literature is itself tied to an idea of ‘works,’ which can be coherent, rather than a feeling of ‘writing,’ an act in which there are various and mysterious exertions of vitality. The search for coherence in reading seems to me at odds with our sense of the potentially pleasurable incoherence of our responses. Why not cultivate the protean reader to match that emerging type of ourselves which Robert Lipton calls ‘the protean man’?” He speaks eloquently about “the energy generated in a reader by some corresponding energy in the writer” (p.79), “the passionate struggle into conscious being” (p. 83, quoting Lawrence) and “writing as an act of keeping alive” (p. 111). On writers who foreground their own turnings or tropings, cf. more Poirier (on Emerson &c), and Alexander Nehamas’ Nietzsche: Life as Literature (Harvard UP, 1985).

  4. Avior Byron says:

    You wrote “When a piece of music becomes a work of music it becomes an abstract entity, something we can “read,” something we can make versions of when we play it, something we can hear when other performers recreate it”
    How about looking at it the other way around. When a performer performs different scores, he or she create different versions of their music, of their work. My point is that it is misguided to try to reduce all performances to the score. There is something very unique and creative in performances. People can hear Gould in many pieces that he plays. The relation between performances and scores is more complex, I think, than you describe.
    P.S. You probably meant John Rink and not Jonathan Rink

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Byron —
    I agree with you entirely. Where I’m going with this — in an as-yet unwritten sequel to this post — is to say that when we no longer maintain the priority of the work we can then spend more time thinking about performance. This is hardly a new observation, though. The larger question I want to get at is, where do we go from there? I’d argue that once we start focusing on the phenomenal experience of music our attention opens up a larger sphere of auditory culture, of which music is a by-no-means-exclusive part.
    Graham — thanks for the biblio tip. I’ll have to read that.
    Jonathan — yes.

  6. John says:

    I like your blog very much, and I’m curious to see where you’re going with all of this, but I have one complaint to make (or misunderstanding on my part to correct). You wrote in your syllabus: “Unlike the aspects of music accessible in formal analysis of the score, presence/performativity is tied to the phenomenal experience of sound; it exists in oral and aural space and is the special domain of Western art music performance, hiphop, rock, and the postwar avant-garde—all areas of music that we’ll be thinking about this semester.”
    My problem is with the phrase “special domain.” I don’t get it. Are you arguing that other types of music (let’s say gagaku and salsa, for the sake of argument) are not concerned with presence/performativity? Surely not, right? I’ve read this blog for a while, and I can’t imagine that would be your argument; I must be missing something here.
    I’m certainly willing to grant that “Western art music performance, hiphop, rock, and the postwar avant-garde” all bring up interesting issues of presence/performativity. But as an ethnomusicologist, I would be hard-pressed to name a type of music that didn’t. So why “special domain,” then?
    Looking forward to Part 3 of this post,

  7. Phil Ford says:

    “Special domain” is a clumsy way of saying “things I want to talk about in this class.” Gagaku is a great example of something else that might profit from such an approach; so, in fact, is *every* kind of music one might care to name. (This is your point, and it’s exactly right.) This, in fact, is where I’m going with this series of posts: once you break yourself of the habit of thinking in score-based terms, everything looks a little different, including sounds we don’t normally think of as “musical.” Which leads me back to the problem with which I started: what do we call this domain (which doesn’t end up being so special after all)? This is definitely a thing (as Roast Beef Kazenzakis would say), but what is it, and what do we call it?

  8. Dan says:

    Ooh! Where can I find these responses by Berger and Kramer to the Abbate article?

  9. Phil Ford says:

    Karol Berger, “Musicology According to Don Giovanni, or: Should we Get Drastic?,” Journal of Musicology 22, no. 3 (2005): 490-501.
    Lawrence Kramer, “Music, Metaphor and Metaphysics,” Musical Times 145, no. 1888 (Autumn 2004), 5-18.
    The Kramer article respond to Abbate’s, but it ranges further afield. Michael Puri also discusses Abbate’s article at length in a JAMS book review, but I’d have to look it up to tell you more. And I’m lagged from the AMS meeting I just got back from, so that’s not gonna happen this morning . . .

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