Mittwoch, 21. Januar 2015

enactment of music - a praxeological approach

This article is divided into two interwoven parts. They are differentiated by two different fonts. The first one is part of a participant observation (a key empirical method in anthropology) and the second one is more a reflexive and theoretical thinking about the phenomenon experienced. Have a try.


So here I was: mid July, a hot warm summer day on the Piazetta of the Kulturforum, Berlin. The surroundings are overloaded with institutional materiality: philharmony, state library, museums, etc. I was invited by a friend who took part at the crowd out-project. She told me before, that it is a weird piece of music, where 1000 people have to shout and scream and whisper, and doing all those things an usual choir would not really do (at least not for an one hour concert). I got a free ticket, and enjoyed Cameron Carpenter in the afternoon (which has to follow another article) and then got to the concert of crowd out. The concert was framed and pushed by several supporters as a festival - that is probably one reason, why this piece by David Lang should be done like that (I don't think that "done" is the appropriate term used). Because this kind of stage has a bigger public influence, then a normal stage and event.

So, a few weeks later I was thinking about how to express my thoughts about this kind of music. Finally, I found myself doing it at my best: ethnographically/praxeographically. For this, I have the possibility to give a detail insight of what happened, and can give some theoretical aspects, which are important to think about in my opinion. And the most important point is: how to adress this kind of music even in a critical way. 
For that the task is here to downscale music from its - lets call it - representational dimension to its ontological enactment: for how music is made real.

Back to David Lang. And back to the Piazetta. Which was at first kind of empty. The security service made a huge effort to keep the people out, who wore the obviously wrong wallet. The colour of the walltes categorized the people to stay behind a metal fence - what seems to be ridiculous, because the fences were only knee-high, and were not able to keep the sound somehow outside, or inside (what belongs to the point of hearing). I was told to go to the middle of the Piazetta, near to the stand of Simon Halsey, who conducted the choir, also the event would unfold between and in interaction with the people, so it would be a unusual perfomance compared to the front stage situation of classical music perfomances. Gladly to this information I had an advantage, because most of the people stayed at the border of the Piazetta. After some time a girl walked by and distributed some paper with a program or explanation. In the paper there were all 1000 names written of the people who took part, and an introductory text to the piece. But not a functional explanation (like: stay in the middle of the Piazetta), rather background informations of the piece. I took a copy out of the website here:

The final key sentence of the piece is: I am alone. It shall be a symbol for the thrilling tension between society and the individual. Because the western society seems to be focused on the "I", and not on the "we". Lang took the phrases that the choir performs out of the internet. Nowhere is said where concretely, but that seems also to be a symbol for "the fuzzy society, which leads and conducts us as individuals" (to exaggerate this kind of interpretation).

Some time later the choir started to take its place on the Piazetta. The singers were grouped by the colour of their shirts (and again colour is used as a tool for categorization). The different groups placed themselves behind the audience (what seems again to be a term what should not be used here, by the intention of the composer), to form a frame and started to shout: "I am alone". This was conducted, and so no one started shouting by himself .

The whole piece was divided into different parts, which all were choreographed and performed differently. The phrases, the territorial arrangement of the singers and the mode of - lets say - performing the words changed.

To give an example:
The different groups seperated themselves and kneeled on the ground. One person out of each group stood in the front of their group with a megaphone and shouted some phrases through it like: "I want to be recognized", "I want to be in the focus for once, too", etc. The kneeling group always applaused, and raised.

Another one:
Suddenly the choir started to spread all over the Piazetta, one by one. They walked over the place and stopped in front of - lets call them - the listening people and said similiar phrases directly in their faces. Without waiting, they turned around again and walked to the next one. After getting approached by totally unknown people, they formed unnoticed a line. At first it seems that it is only that: a line. But standing in front of them I recognized their steps: the line started to walk. I tried to walk away from them (or the phrases like probably intentioned), but had to remark that the line was not a line, but a spiral. The choir made the people move.

There was and is a huge epistemic problem in anthropology and other Geisteswissenschaften like philosophy, how to get some phenomena under theoretical control. At least, after the whole debate of post-modernism and social constructivism (to make it short) anthropology reached a point, where we as anthropologist are able to have a formal view on the practices of people. For instance it is possible to do a research on human practices as a manner of enacting realities by using materiality. That way of doing anthropology was for example created by Annemarie Mol: The enactment of things means, that their ontology is brought into reality through and by practices (Mol, 2002). That is why it is interesting to have a look on musical practices: They could tell us how music is enacted, how it is brought and made into reality. Human practices have always a material aspect and cannot be done/brought into reality without any kind of material entities (considering that there is at the moment also a huge debate on how to concretely define the material).

In fact, there are material aspects, which music and this music piece is not able to leave: colour of shirts of the singers, paper with explanation of the piece, a conductor's stand, the Piazetta as place of performance, the fences for separating audience and non-audience, wristbands to categorize people into the status of legitimated audience, the megaphones for performing, the sheet music on the conductor's stand. So music can't be practiced without materiality. All these things keep the music - understood here as a reality one can experience - ongoing. 

Karin Knorr Cetina did in her book epistemic cultures (2002) a research on how knowledge is produced in a physical and in a molecularbiological laboratory. She framed the things/objects, practices and discourses in these labs with the concept of knowledge-machineries. Analogical to that, one could describe here a music-machinerie. That is a machinery, composed by people, things, institutions, discourses and practices which lead to a certain kind of music, which is in that sense made to work, brought to be real, or to be enacted.

When the piece ended, all the singers were holding a huge blanket with all the names of all the singers, categorized again by colour. Yet the listening people are not quiete sure, if the performance is over, so the choir starts to applause. It takes a minute that the listening people recognize that this kind of applause is not part of the performance and join them. The Piazetta is going to get almost empty again, and the people are going to the next musical event.

In the aftermath I am thinking about the effect and the intentionality of the music piece. I am more impressed by the performance then by its content. Is that because the performance was so overwhelming? To be honest that was not the case. The point in my opinion was, that the content of that music piece was quiete poor and weak. The phrase "I am alone" echoes in my ear and leaves me with an unsatisfying feeling, that those cropped phrases are not the full story to be told about the topic "society, the individual and being online" - especially that "being online" and the topic "internet" was not mentioned in that piece literally. But am I allowed to criticize it?

Well: Yes, for different reasons in an everyday life-understanding, like "it is not my taste"! But am I also allowed to criticize it for its composition and intentionality?

If we accept for instance the idea of how music is made real, with its constituting machinery (which is just one way to frame that), then an intention-apparatus (Rabinow, 2003) also emerges. The bad thing here is, that I had no opportunity to talk with the composer, and to have a look, of how he is doing music [1]. And again in this case there would enfold an huge apparatus of things (probably his computer), dispositifs (the ideas of how music should be done), practices and so on. 

This approach would reveal musical practices in their whole way of making musik to work. And in this approach one is of course allowed to criticize some parts of this machinery: For example only the performing practices, the intentionality or only the materiality like the categorizing practices. And musicians and composers have to cope with this ontological claim:

i) If music has an ontological status (Latour, 2008), in that sense, that it is made real, and has real consequences to other people, then this realness can also kick back to the composer/musician (Barad, 2007), e.g. by the listening people practices. 
- For instance, that people do not recognize where the piece is locally going to happen and stand on the border of the Piazetta, but do not move in the middle. Or: That people leave the Piazetta and argue about the piece.

ii) That means also, that I am allowed to criticize the music and its intentionality: It is one part of making sth. real, and it is one part, I think of it is political and theoretical thin and only one aspect of the whole topic (and even not a good one). I can say, that the intention of the composition is probably lead by obsolete social-theoretical perspectives (what I would call in a research dispositifs, or the style of thinking referring to Ian Hacking or Paul Rabinow), which still deals with the assumption that there are tensions between "the society" and "the individuals", and also that there is without any constraints something what we just have to call "society" or "individual", which can be shown in a musical piece. And I would say, that this assumption is totally misleading [2].

iii) What happens to a real-made music, if one part of it gets unstable? There are different possibilities, which are here more speculative: 
1) The composer could start to defend his work, to make the music still running, and try to hold the network of making things real stable.
2) The composer could react constructive to it, and start to re-establish his work, by forming new parts (referring to the above mentioned idea of an apparatus) and new relations between them.
3) Nothing happens, e.g. because the music piece does not reach to some important discourses in some music scene.  

iv) The final statement of this essay would be, that musicians would have to cope with the enacted realness of their work, with its consequences, and with their reactions. That approach could be an important way to downscale musical discussions, and to avoid establishing differences, like "the composer" and "the laymen" (which are probably "not able to understand the music"). 

But this is also only an idea. Write comments! Start the discussion!

Barad K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, London: Duke University Press

Knorr Cetina K. 2002. Wissenskulturen. Ein Vergleich Naturwissenschaftlicher Wissensformen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Latour B. 2008. Wir Sind Nie Modern Gewesen. Versuch Einer Symmetrischen Anthropologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Mol A. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, London: Duke University Press

Rabinow P. 2003. Anthropos Today. Reflections on Modern Equipment. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press

[1] Despite that there is an amount of research of how musicians are doing music, assembled under the topic studio studies.
[2] That would be too much to explain here in fully detail. Leave it short, and connecting to the above mentioned authors, "the individual" and "the society" are not ontological "there", so that they can constitute a tension between themselves, like tensions between being entities. They also have to be made real, and also the mentioned tension has to be made real. That means pointedly, that as a result, the music piece Crowd Out does more for the construction of the tension, than for its artistic representation (which seems to be in this argumentation a general problem). In that sense, Crowd Out does not focus a problem in an artistic manner, but construct it, and deliver the listening people with social-theoretical more or less obsolete ideas (dispositifs, collective style of thinking) which they can distribute again. In order to taper that, Crowd Out does distribute the idea of a "tension between the society and the individual" at all, instead of criticizing it.