Seeing Music For What It Really Isn't

Seeing Music For What It Really Isn’t

This is cross-posted from cyborgology.
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I get really nervous when people start making claims about what is and isn’t “real” music. Like Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back, “I have a bad feeling about this” because these arguments, like the “cave” the Leia was exploring, are not what they seem. Usually they use “music” as a proxy to talk about something else–gender, race, (sub)culture, class, etc. They don’t have a lot to tell us about music, even though they may reveal other things, like the social values and biases implicit in the argument. I’m so certain of this that I wrote a whole book on it.
As you can imagine, I was predisposed to be skeptical of fellow philosopher Alva Noe’s claim that “real” music is embodied performance, not recorded music, not electronic music, and most of all not sound art. Titled “Seeing Music For What It Really Is,” Noe’s article argues that music “really” is is what we can see–visible bodies doing things–not what we hear. Recorded and electronic music, he argues, “obscure” music’s true nature–its connection to embodied performance. Given his tech-skepticism and his implicit opposition between sounds and bodies, does Noe’s argument lean on a digitally dualist ontology? And what would a digital dualism do for him that another sort of dualism wouldn’t?
Also, Noe’s appeal to “science” is troublesome. He uses scientific evidence–here, a psychological study–to argue that music is really a sociocultural practice. “Physics,” he argues in the opening paragraph, “is only part of the story.” Indeed. (To this extent, I actually agree with Noe. But philosophers of music have known this at least since Rousseau wrote his “Essay on the Origin of Languages.)  If science is only part of the story, why does it have the final word on sociocultural practices as such? If you’re arguing that music is a cultural practice, it seems like ethnographic and cultural studies methodologies would be essential to determining what music “really is.” Instead, as music scholar avanturb notes, Noe, like the study he references, treats music performance “as an isolated thing,” something observable without reference to broader cultural contexts and practices. As I’ll argue below, these methodologies can help us see exactly where Noe’s argument goes astray. That psychological study he cites is telling us something–not, however, about music, but about us.
Dualist Ontology
Noe argues that:
When we listen to music we listen to a performance, in the literal sense. We pay attention to what someone, or a group of people, is doing before us. Music is action. This has has been obscured somewhat by recording, whose advent has influenced how we think about music. The idea that music is about sound, peeled off from its inherence in the tapping, plucking, smacking, stroking, blowing, fingering and vocal actions of real people, or, divorced from the thoughts, feelings and ideas of performers, seems somehow plausible in an era where you buy pieces of plastic, or download digital files, to get at music. In addition, electronic music has seemed, to some, to be the final blow to what may now come to seem a quaint idea: that music is an art of the body, an art of the analog transduction of physical energies. And so we easily lose sight of the fact that what we care about, when we care about music, is not sound, but musicians and their use of movement, the body, and material instruments, to articulate significance. [emphasis mine]
“Peeled off from…real people” who are “analog,” “physical,” and “material”—hmmmm…this sounds like a dualist argument to me. Noe’s argument opposes “sound” to embodied, analog materiality. Recording technologies alienate us from music’s “real” existence as a bodily action and “real” human interaction.
Noe calls on these “quaint idea[s]” in a way that leads us to think he’s offering them as straw men…but he’s actually using a scientific study to back up these seemingly oversimplified ideas with hard evidence. The rest of the article discusses a psychological study (which avanturb problematizes in hir above-cited post) that finds that both laypeople and professional musicians base their judgments of musical quality not on what they hear, but what they see performers do. We’re not listening to music, we’re watching people. Or, as Noe puts it, “We are interested in ourselves…Not noise.” This distinction between (real) people and (fake) sounds isn’t a misguided prejudice Noe dismisses–it’s the crux of his argument. Music is not sound, but human beings doing things. Sound is somehow the disembodied opposite of bodily performance and relationships.
Do views like Noe’s, which claim that “real” music is performance, implicitly treat the sonic itself as some sort of “virtual” world? In other words, is this a digital dualist argument?
Given the role of electronic/digital music in his musical ontology, Noe’s argument overlaps with what cyborgologists would call digital dualism. His material/immaterial dualism often intersects with analog/digital or bodies/electronics dualisms. And it’s these dualisms that significantly weaken his argument. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but this is what Noe’s dualisms lead him to overlook: digital electronics also exist materially, and they exist materially as distinctively digital phenomena. We have bodily relations with digital technology, just as there are bodily, performative, or what musicologists would call “drastic” dimensions to the making of electronic music.* For example, when I DJ, I play digital files on my laptop (using Traktor); I have to practice my sets because I need to physically rehearse what I need to do with my body and when. There’s also muscle memory involved in working audio controllers: you have to get the hang of trackpads, knobs, sliders, sample pads, and keyboards. We also have bodily relations with sound art. Materiality and bodily performance are central features, for example, of Christian Marclay’s scratched and mutilated CDs. This may be digital/electronic sound art, but the materiality of the sound medium and Marclay’s physical technique (both in preparing the CDs and in playing them) are definitive features of the work.
Sound is material and embodied–sound is the product of vibrating things, so it can’t exist without materiality. In fact, listening to musical performances is one very informative way of paying attention to what musicians are doing with their bodies. By listening to an oboe player, I can tell things about hir embouchure (how ze’s holding hir mouth), how open or closed hir sinuses and throat are, how relaxed hir shoulders are, what ze’s doing with hir diaphraghm, hir tongue, and, of course, hir fingers. And even though electronic music is generated by speakers and amps, not by human bodies and legacy instruments, it’s also material, and often exploits this materiality for performative effect. Anyone who’s heard bass rattle a car or felt club speakers vibrate their bodies has experienced some of the ways in which electronic music is materially performative.
If we can only “really” access music when we see it, this sets up a false dualism between sound, which we hear, and bodies, which we see. By treating the oppsoition between sound and performance as a digital dualism, Noe can implicitly posit sound as virtuality–i.e., as having no presence in meatspace. The absent middle is sonic materiality, and the fact that we can and do listen to bodies. Now, it may be correct to say that when judging people’s bodies, we rely more on visual than on auditory perception. However, that’s a very different claim that Noe’s, which is that when judging music we rely more on vision than on audition. Perhaps what the psychological study Noe cites shows us is that when faced with difficult aesthetic judgments of artistic performances, we fall back on our visual appraisals of performer’s bodies? So, instead of judging the performance, we’re judging, well, them?
Noe is sort of right, but for the wrong reasons:
The study Noe cites only confirms what feminist scholars have known for a long time: we generally filter our judgements of the actual works through judgements of the person performing or creating the artwork. As art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock put it, “the sex of the artist matters: it conditions the way art is seen and discussed.” For example, creative work by women is often seen as less aesthetically and culturally valuable than creative work by men. We’re more inclined to focus on the art itself when the artist’s body is “normal”–that is, when it’s a straight white able-bodied cis-male. We’re less inclined to see women and people of color as artists, so we don’t consider their work as “art.” Or, if we do see them as artists, we tend to reduce our interpretations of their work to their biographies, as though they were not capable of imagining or thinking beyond their experiences. Artist and philosopher Adrian Piper talks about this latter point here.
The study was correct in noting the tendency to judge people not works, or to judge works through people. But this habit does not tell us anything about the ontology of music–what it is and isn’t. It just tells us that often people say they’re doing one thing–evaluating an artwork–when in fact they’re doing something else–evaluating the person making the artwork.
We filter our aesthetic judgments of works through our implicit biases about people. This fact suggests an alternate interpretation of the study results. As Noe explains, the study found that
A group of experts are unable to agree on which snippet of recording is a winning performance. But unanimity is swift and secure when they ignore the music and solely pay attention to the soundless video track.
If all the entrants gave more or less technically perfect performances, judges have to determine the winner based on the musician’s interpretation of the work. Is The Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law” better than the Dead Kennedy’s? Is Maria Callas’s Carmen better than Jesse Norman’s? Those questions come down to taste. And it’s really hard to get a group of people to unanimously agree on matters of taste. Chacun a son gout (to each his own taste) is a cliche for a reason. It’s waaaay easier to get people to come to unanimous agreement in their evaluations of people. As implicit bias research (in psychology, no less) has shown, even women are implicitly misogynist, and even people of color are implicitly racist. That’s because these biases are hegemonic–they’re the “ruling ideas,” the epistemic norms that all “right-thinking” people in a society share. Unanimity is swift and secure when judges focus on who the musician is and what ze’s doing because, well, patriarchy and white supremacy are more consistent and powerful than musical taste. Judges could quibble for hours about the interpretive details of a performance, but implicit biases put everyone (or, most everyone) on the same page.
Noe’s claim is not just philosophically and ethnomusicologically problematic,** it’s also politically troublesome. He defines music in a way that naturalizes implicit biases about people within that definition. If music is what people do, then “music” is contingent on who counts as a “person,” and which kinds of people are taken more seriously than other kinds of people. Just because we do judge people instead of works doesn’t mean we should do that. As a female musician and sound artist, I would really rather people focus mainly on my work and not first on my gender or my body…because generally my gender and my body are factors that don’t work in my favor.
In the end, I wonder what they payoff to Noe’s argument is. Why is it appealing to reduce music to sight or the visual? Why say visible performance is what music, at bottom, “really” is? Why not treat the relationship between the visual and aural components of music appreciation with more nuance and complexity? Maybe I’m a bit cynical, a bit too inclined to have a bad feeling about this, but it seems like this oversimplification must do some ideological work–that is to say, it must help its proponents ignore inconvenient information that would complicate assumptions they don’t want complicated. That’s usually the case when really smart people make precisely the sort of overly reductive moves that they otherwise can’t be duped into making.
* Since the publication of Abbate’s article (linked above), musicologists have been paying more attention to music as performance. However, in musicology the relevant opposition isn’t performance:sound, but performance:text. Abbate’s advocacy of the performative dimensions of music is mainly a corrective for decades (well, centuries) of text-centrism, of treating music as a “work” and not also as a practice. These musical texts were generally treated as visual representations of sounds–much in the same way that writing can be thought of as the visual (or graphological, if you want to go Derridian here) representation of speech. So “drastic” musicology, musicology that focuses on performance, is a different way of paying attention to sounds, not the privileging of the visual over the sonic dimension of performance.
** In studying the performative aspects of music, ethno/musicologists have plenty of evidence that, as avanturb put it, “there are countless of artists and fans who listen to music for the way artists use sound to articulate significance mutually exclusive from the physical means used to produce such sounds.  This reality is just completely inescapable in 2013 not just from a nerdy niche perspective but even as a reflection of popular music.” People care about sound. Trent Reznor is releasing two different versions of his new album that differ only in the quality of mastering. Back in the 1980s, Andrew Goodwin argued that the distinguishing feature of musical performance was timbre–that is, the quality of a song’s or artist’s “sound.” And there’s lots of scholarly literature in black studies that examines the role of sound as such in black cultural production and politics (I’m thinking of Alex Weheliye’s Phonographies, Julian Henriques’s Sonic Bodies, and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on race and radio.) I also wonder if Noe has heard of ear training–which are sometimes called “musicianship”–classes. They’re fundamental components of college music curricula, along with performance studio, theory, and history. Performers don’t just practice “doing”–they also need to learn how to hear sounds.