Practising Every Day: Musical Acts in Our Daily Lives

The following is an edited transcript of a lunchtime talk that Nicholas G. Brown gave at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich on 20 May, 2010. The event formed part of an exhibition titled, The Artist’s Studio, which ran from 9 Feb – 23 Mar, 2010.

As a young pianist, I was encouraged to practise the piano every day. Playing the instrument was unlike riding a bicycle: there was always the risk I would lose my skill. Continuous effort was required in order to train my brain and keep control of my fingers. That effort meant withdrawing from daily life – retiring to the practice room to nurture and maintain my ability. The motivation for doing this, of course, was a vast heritage of music written down in that special code we call ‘staff notation’. It led me to be engaged in what we call a ‘classical’ training in music – a process that has to do with performing items from a vast history of musical works fixed in notated form.

We tend to be very inquisitive about our forebears – what they did and what they made – so it’s not surprising some of us devote so much time to re-creating music that is not only from the past, but is the product of other people’s thinking. I shall make an analogy. Here in this art gallery there are many frames around sheets of glass hanging on walls. The role of these picture frames and the gallery in which they hang is similar to that of the well-practised pianist. Both are mechanisms for presenting things or experiences conceived by people in past times and in different circumstances from our own. Music is of course distinct from painting insofar as it deals in experiences that unfold over a period of time. It is also curious insofar as it uses an esoteric notation to represent those experiences, a form of writing that cannot be understood intuitively, but requires many years of study. What I’d like to do in the course of talking to you this afternoon is set this typical model of making ‘classical’ music against a wider conception of musical experience that finds continuity with the experiences of daily life. I want to ask whether, in our efforts to re-present the imagination of musicians other than ourselves (that is, composers), which has been passed ‘down’ to us through written notation, we might be restricting the power of music-making for enhancing our daily lives.

The standard model of European music-making since the late-eighteenth century has given primary authority to the composer. Consider the following scheme: some composer imagines a musical experience and represents it using a special form of notation. Second in the chain, a messenger of the composer applies their knowledge of that musical notation and transforms the composer’s imagination from its paper-based representation as dots and lines into waves of sound. Third, a listener receives the composer’s imagination as it has been delivered by the messenger through sound. The listener engages a special kind of thinking and gives consideration to the music’s design.

At the root of this model is a composer whose imagination is in some way represented through written notation. That composer typically works in some kind of studio, which – like other artists’ studios – is defined by its being detached from the flow of daily life. Indeed, we often think of artists as people who seek time and space for withdrawing from the world in order to say things about the world through the product of that process of withdrawal (their ‘works’). A studio is a place under the artist’s control. The focus of activity is typically a product of labour, rather than a process of labouring. The nature of any art-product that results from such studio activity must be informed in some way by the fact that it was fabricated in conditions outside common social activity. We tend to accept that when artists make work in studios they do so because it is only in that state of withdrawal that they are able to engage in a process of critical reflection on aspects of the world and our experience of all that it comprises. Studios are thought of as positive places for dedicated application of skill. This process of reflecting critically on the world, undertaken in some state of physical withdrawal, and the reification of that reflection through skilled practice is what we commonly understand to be the work of an artist.

Composers often write scores to be performed by musicians other than themselves in the context of a social situation in which people sit still and face a single direction for a prolonged period of time. I have asserted that this is what we refer to when we speak of ‘classical music’. What we have tended to label ‘popular’ music has a distinctly different heritage. It does not rely on notated scores as fundamental ways of communicating musical experiences. And neither has it separated the composer from the performer. If popular music has mass appeal, it is partly because it is based on an oral tradition. The degree to which any notational scheme is deployed tends to be less of an impediment to musical action. Popular music is easily passed from one person on to another, typically by listening and copying. And yet, in the last two hundred years, composers of classical music have tended to present themselves as if they were the proponents of a literary tradition, intent on furthering a tradition of written texts.

Today, we live with electronic devices and modes of networking that make it very easy to pass things on to each other very quickly indeed, with minimal effort. iTunes, Last.fm, MySpace are a real gift for musicians whose work comes from an oral tradition. To be clear, I am talking about musicians who think of themselves as much ‘composer’ as ‘performer’ and very often don’t think about any distinction in the first place. It is as if internet distribution were making us ask ourselves, ‘why the intermediary?’, questioning the division of musical labour of music-making into two personas. That question can be unnerving. The split between composer and performer seems outdated against the facilities that available technologies allow. But that same dichotomy continues to underwrite the way in which music is typically understood when it is studied in institutions of higher learning, such as music conservatories. Some students belong to performance faculties, others to composition, with members of the latter asking members of the former to give performances of their newly penned works.

Our technologically mediated lives offer new ways of doing music. Internet-based technologies, particularly inasmuch as they remain unregulated, work against the tenets of modernist art, such as critical reflection on common life that I mentioned earlier. They offer opportunities to work with the flow of daily life to a degree that suggests a shift in the value of art from its design as a product or art-object to the activity or process of its making. I’d like to underline two points. First, the issue of an artist being (or not being) removed from the flow of everyday life. This I have characterized as working alone, within an studio context rather than within the context of wider society. Second, the issue of focussing on the process of making work, rather than the product itself. There were many examples of both conditions having been met in the twentieth-century: Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein; Steve Reich and Terry Reilly; Nam June Paik and La Monte Young; Joseph Beuys and John Cage. All these artists have been concerned with art as process and in some cases, with ‘art for all’ and art in the context of daily life (Beuys in particular). But what is becoming increasingly necessary, given the conditions of life today, is a process of making that engages with the activity of our technologically mediated tasks in combination with a conception of any art-product as simply the consequences of that process, not as a product for admiration in a sequestered zones like museums or concert halls.

John Dewey, an American philosopher, wrote a kind of philosophy commonly known as pragmatism, its basic idea being that most philosophers tend to create problems for themselves because they don’t think about things the way we really think about things in our real lives. Dewey had an idea that is very useful for thinking about the conditions for art today. That idea says that we tend to create a false dichotomy between doing things and knowing things. For Dewey, doing is knowing. Knowledge that comes any abstract representation – like knowledge of a new language from reading a textbook – is not sufficient for a full understanding of something. In Art as Experience, Dewey stated that art should ‘restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience’. He wrote about art as something that has a facility for enriching our experiences and communications with each other. Dewey’s philosophy is very useful for an understanding of the value of music as something that we do, not as something that we receive or that is revealed to us. In other words, music is truly an experience of making, using the mobility of our bodies in action. Dewey wrote about an organism’s life consisting of ‘phases in which [it] falls out of step with the march of surrounding things and then recovers unison with it’. It is this progression that gives meaning to an organism’s life, for ‘the recovery is never mere return to a prior state, for it is enriched by the state of disparity and resistance through which it has successfully passed’. For Dewey, ‘experience is the fulfilment of an organism in its struggles and achievements in a world of things’ and so he sees experience itself as the beginning and rudiment of art. If we are beset by sadness and we cry, we must inevitably seek return to a state of emotional equilibrium. We might say that art is what we are engaged in when we go through that transition.

Dewey tells us that the value of art is in the experience of making it, not in the product of that process. Accordingly, we might re-conceptualize the sounds of music as the relics of actions, actions that include the operation of musical instruments, the use of prosthetic extensions to the body using new technologies as well as the manipulation of the body’s own, unassisted potential for sound-making. In retracing the progress of a sound – such as we make when we clap our hands together – ‘back’ to the body by which it was made, we get an alternative sense of the meaning of music-making. This meaning comes from paying attention to the significance of our human experience as embodied subjects in the physical world. The challenge is to turn our attention to what Dewey calls ‘the pleasurable activity of the journey itself’, in this case, the actions that make sound.

Dewey’s thoughts on the role and process of making art to some extent at odds with a score-based understanding of music. If the purpose of a score is to represent the imagination of a composer, then the active capabilities of the person who realizes that imagination are pre-defined in a sense that includes some restriction upon those capabilities. The difference between making music and making pre-designed music is significant. Anything that has been pre-designed, from flat-pack kitchen units to a Mozart sonata, is necessarily restrictive. I cannot suddenly decide to add an extra side door to my kitchen cabinets. Neither can I decide that the middle movement of the sonata actually ought to be in a different key. The beauty of my performance is in the way in which I make a representation of a written mandate that is itself a representation of somebody else’s imagination. Scores are, necessarily, vehicles of restraint. They also require special knowledge of their encoding.

Listening to music for the beauty of its ‘design’ finds support in the thought of eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who argued for a kind of refined value in the way we perceive things that have no real, practical value for us other than to give some kind of pleasure. We seek art, we find useless pleasure in it, we return to our lives. We seek it out again. And again. We listen to the radio, we find it pleasing, we switch off the radio. This may fulfil the conditions of a valuable aesthetic experience for Kant, but for Dewey, it does not allow an genuine experience of beauty because there is no possibility of beholding beautiful design without action. Furthermore, the artwork is not engaged with the subject’s environment. What underwrites Dewey’s thesis is a rejection of the distinction between mind and body that has until fairly recently been commonplace in European thought. Art, he wrote, is designed ‘to serve the whole creature in his unified vitality’. Scores, then, are abstractions of mental thought that do not represent the body. They rationalize the experience of music and make a kind of blueprint that we can understand if we are familiar with their notation.

I would like to conclude with a quotation from the writing of the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who died in 1961. Merleau-Ponty wrote about science, saying that ‘[it] makes models of things; it gives up living in them’ [Eye and Mind]. So, too, does the musical score and so too, I think we must admit, the act of painting the world outside an artist’s studio. Today, we may seek to practise in a way that is more connected with everyday life. By harnessing the technological mediation of our everyday lives, we may formulate ways of doing music that find continuity with our common, often unremarkable experiences in our daily lives. We may understand sound as the result of paths traced in moving from one state of being in which we find ourselves over which we have only limited control to another. And we may think about writing music as if it were a kind of choreography: a way of landscaping our passage through the environments in which we happen to find ourselves, of structuring our physical experiences of sound-making and of furnishing our life-affirming desire with moments of excess, tempered by a return to our common, social condition.

copyright N.G. Brown 2010
Not to be reproduced without permission