Contextualising music, generalising music and a music philosophy conference

Going to a conference outside one’s own discipline is always a strange experience. Interdisciplinary conferences, then, would seem necessarily to be quite unsettling for all concerned. The different sets of delegates bring contrasting disciplinary baggage and have different but deeply held opinions about what makes a valid research question and the proper ways of addressing such a question. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone in experiencing a sense of discomfort during much of the recent interdisciplinary Music and Philosophy conference, organised by the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the Royal Musical Association at King’s College London from 19th to 20th July 2013 (details here:

The conference brought together musicologists and philosophers for two stimulating days of discussion organised around the theme “Embodiment and the Physical”. Ethnomusicologists were in short supply. Most of the papers I heard addressed either Western classical music or music in the abstract (which, as we know, usually turns out only to mean Western classical music, anyway). I saw only one paper specifically on music from outside the Western classical canon, a very interesting paper by Rachel Beckles Willson dealing with some of the affective complexities of listening to oud performances. (Unfortunately this was scheduled at the same time as what promised to be a fascinating paper on Beyonce and Lacan by Alexi Vellianitis.) What follows is not a conference report, but rather a very limited attempt to capture in words one of the reasons for the discomfort I felt while I was there, involving a set of questions which came up repeatedly and which are related to some of the issues we have recently been discussing at EDG meetings. (Usual disclaimer: I didn’t go to the whole conference. Even if I had done, I would have missed half the papers because there were parallel sessions throughout. On top of that, I’m not even going to discuss here all of the papers I did go to. So there!)

Over and over again, as I listened to papers at the conference, I found myself mentally performing what I’ll call contextualising moves: these took the form of attempts to situate some of the grand universals with which the speakers discussed music within particular discursive or social contexts. Such moves have the effect of neutralising any claims to have uncovered some universal aesthetic principle, or claims that music is quasi-magical or transcendent in nature. Simon Høffding, for example, presented some delightful ethnographic data, in which string quartet players reported experiencing ecstatic and trance-like states during performance. He used this in order to theorise the phenomenology of consciousness and of musical performance, universalising the specific details of his research. I, on the other hand, was tempted to interpret the musicians’ statements not as evidence of some universal quality of musical performance, but rather merely as part of the (socially and culturally specific) discourse of musical transcendence that has long surrounded Western classical music. (Embedded in the context of a discourse of musical otherworldliness, it is not surprising that musicians report heightened, otherworldy experiences when they describe their performances.) Likewise when Matthew Kieran used philosophical methods to theorise a link between musical creativity and depression, my instinct was simply to situate his statements within the discursive romanticisation of depressive, tragic geniuses.

These days, contextualising moves are not difficult to perform: they come very easily, once you get the hang of it. So-called “New” or “critical” musicologists have been doing this for years. And I wasn’t the only person performing such moves at the conference, whether mentally or out loud. In general it tended to be musicologists who called philosophers out on the lack of context in their theories. The wonderful Lydia Goehr (author of The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992), a critique of the Western classical canon and a contextualising move par excellence) was herself at the conference; she was not shy of critiquing the arguments she heard. Georgina Born’s keynote was, amongst other things, a call for renewed attention to the social in the wake of the rise of affect theory, actor network theory and the rest. (This deserves a discussion of its own, but not here.)

Fun though it is to situate ideas about music within their social and discursive contexts (and I could play this game until the cows come home), there’s something that troubles me about this analytical move: James R Currie encapsulated the problem to me over coffee when he suggested that something always gets lost if contextualising is one’s sole scholarly goal. Peter Dews, the official respondent to Georgina Born’s keynote, said something similar. Recognising the danger (flagged up by Born) of sacralising music, he nevertheless asked, “Don’t we need a bit of sacramentality in our lives?” He suggested that music, although initiated by human actors, might somehow escape or go beyond the conditions of its production.

I’m very sympathetic to this position. My own (totally biased) experience of music is that it does indeed feel magical, beautiful and a possible place of communion or intersubjectivity or something. I recognise that these experiences are probably manufactured (or at least mediated) by the discourse of transcendence through which I came to know music. However, I do wonder whether (and, I’ll admit, hope that) the magic of music is not entirely reducible to the discourse which surrounds it.

All of this would seem to be related to some of our recent discussions at EDG meetings, when we have grappled with questions of what Ruard has helpfully glossed as musical (or sonic) exceptionalism. We have wondered: Is music a special case? Is there something distinctive about music or the sonic that requires its own, particular modes of theorisation? Is there some radical power in musical performance, allowing it to be a place of escape, transcendence or resistance? (As scholars of music and most probably also music-lovers, it is not surprising that we should be predisposed to want to answer these questions in the affirmative.)

So, what do you think? Does being a contextualist mean that it’s necessary to abandon faith in the unique power of musical experience? And is there a place for cross-cultural theorisations of music in ethnomusicology today?



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2 responses to “Contextualising music, generalising music and a music philosophy conference

  1. Thanks for this discussion Chloe – it’s really helpful and interesting to get a glimpse of what went on at this conference – particularly your observation that ‘music in the abstract’ usually turns out ‘only to mean Western classical music’. I was arguing with a sociologist about this recently who didn’t really believe me that this is a fairly common assumption, so it’s interesting to see that you noticed this too. As for the transcendent, I think we can explore the different cultures of transcendence that music enables – I don’t see why we need to make transcendence a special case that is treated differently from other themes in our research.

  2. Listen

    what is contextualisation in music

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