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6.6: The Embodied Nature of Modern Music

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  • European classical music is innovation constrained by tradition (Copland, 1952). By the end of the nineteenth century, composers had invented a market for instrumental music by refining established musical conventions (Rosen, 1988). “The European musician is forced into the position of acting as caretaker and preserver of other men’s music, whether he likes it or no” (Copland, 1952, p. 69).

    What are the general characteristics of European classical music? Consider the sonata-allegro form, which is based upon particular musical themes or melodies that are associated with a specific tonality. That is, they are written in a particular musical key. This tonality dictates harmonic structure; within a musical key, certain notes or chords will be consonant, while others will not be played because of their dissonance. The sonata-allegro form also dictates an expected order in which themes and musical keys are explored and a definite time signature to be used throughout.

    The key feature from above is tonality, the use of particular musical keys to establish an expected harmonic structure. “Harmony is Western music’s uniquely distinguishing element” (Pleasants, 1955, p. 97). It was a reaction against this distinguishing characteristic that led to what is known as modern music (Griffiths, 1994, 1995; Ross, 2007). This section further explores the analogy between classical music and cognitive science via parallels between modern music and embodied cognitive science.

    In the early twentieth century, classical music found itself in a crisis of harmony (Pleasants, 1955). Composers began to abandon most of the characteristics of traditional European classical music in an attempt to create a new music that better reflected modern times. “‘Is it not our duty,’ [Debussy] asked, ‘to find a symphonic means to express our time, one that evokes the progress, the daring and the victories of modern days? The century of the aeroplane deserves its music’” (Griffiths, 1994, p. 98).

    Modern music is said to have begun with the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune composed by Claude Debussy between 1892 and 1894 (Griffiths, 1994). The Prélude breaks away from the harmonic relationships defined by strict tonality. It fails to logically develop themes. It employs fluctuating tempos and irregular rhythms. It depends critically on instrumentation for expression. Debussy “had little time for the thorough, continuous, symphonic manner of the Austro-German tradition, the ‘logical’ development of ideas which gives music the effect of a narrative” (p. 9).

    Debussy had opened the paths of modern music—the abandonment of traditional tonality, the development of new rhythmic complexity, the recognition of color as an essential, the creation of a quite new form for each work, the exploration of deeper mental processes. (Griffiths, 1994, p. 12)

    In the twentieth century, composers experimented with new methods that further pursued these paths and exploited notions related to emergence, embodiment, and stigmergy.

    To begin, let us consider how modern music addressed the crisis of harmony by composing deliberately atonal music. The possibility of atonality in music emerges from the definition of musical tonality. In Western music there are 12 possible notes available. If all of these notes are played in order from lowest to highest, with each successive note a semitone higher than the last, the result is a chromatic scale.

    Different kinds of scales are created by invoking constraints that prevent some notes from being played, as addressed in the Chapter 4 discussion of jazz progressions. A major scale is produced when a particular set of 7 notes is played, and the remaining 5 notes are not played. Because a major scale does not include all of the notes in a chromatic scale, it has a distinctive sound—its tonality. A composition that had the tonal center of A major only includes those notes that belong to the A-major scale.

    This implies that what is required to produce music that is atonal is to include all of the notes from the chromatic scale. If all notes were included, then it would be impossible to associate this set of notes with a tonal center. One method of ensuring atonality is the “twelve-tone technique,” or dodecaphony, invented by Arnold Schoenberg.

    When a dodecaphony is employed, a composer starts by listing all twelve possible notes in some desired order, called the tone row. The tone row is the basis for a melody: the composer begins to write the melody by using the first note in the tone row, for a desired duration, possibly with repetition. However, this note cannot be reused in the melody until the remaining notes have also been used in the order specified by the tone row. This ensures that the melody is atonal, because all of the notes that make up a chromatic scale have been included. Once all twelve notes have been used, the tone row is used to create the next section of the melody. At this time, it can be systematically manipulated to produce musical variation.

    The first dodecaphonic composition was Schoenberg’s 1923 Suite for Piano, Op. 25. Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern composed extensively using the twelve-note technique. A later musical movement called serialism used similar systems to determine other parameters of a score, such as note durations and dynamics. It was explored by Olivier Messiaen and his followers, notably Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Griffiths, 1995).

    Dodecaphony provided an alternative to the traditional forms of classical music. However, it still adhered to the Austro-German tradition’s need for structure. Schoenberg invented dodecaphony because he needed a system to compose larger-scale atonal works; prior to its invention he was “troubled by the lack of system, the absence of harmonic bearings on which large forms might be directed. Serialism at last offered a new means of achieving order” (Griffiths, 1994, p. 81).

    A new generation of American composers recognized that dodecaphony and serialism were still strongly tied to musical tradition: “To me, it was music of the past, passing itself off as music of the present” (Glass, 1987, p. 13). Critics accused serialist compositions of being mathematical or mechanical (Griffiths, 1994), and serialism did in fact make computer composition possible: in 1964 Gottfried Koenig created Project 1, which was a computer program that composed serial music (Koenig, 1999).

    Serialism also shared the traditional approach’s disdain for the audience. American composer Steve Reich (1974, p. 10) noted that “in serial music, the series itself is seldom audible,” which appears to be a serial composer’s intent (Griffiths, 1994). Bernstein (1976, p. 273) wrote that Schoenberg “produced a music that was extremely difficult for the listener to follow, in either form or content.” This music’s opacity, and its decidedly different or modern sound, frequently led to hostile receptions. One notable example is The Agony of Modern Music:

    The vein for which three hundred years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music has run out. What we know as modern music is the noise made by deluded speculators picking through the slag pile.(Pleasants,1955, p. 3)

    That serial music was derived from a new kind of formalism also fuelled its critics.

    Faced with complex and lengthy analyses, baffling terminology and a total rejection of common paradigms of musical expression, many critics—not all conservative—found ample ammunition to back up their claims that serial music was a mere intellectual exercise which could not seriously be regarded as music at all. (Grant, 2001, p. 3)

    Serialism revealed that European composers had difficulty breaking free of the old forms even when they recognized a need for new music (Griffiths, 1994). Schoenberg wrote, “I am at least as conservative as Edison and Ford have been. But I am, unfortunately, not quite as progressive as they were in their own fields” (Griffiths, 1995, p. 50).

    American composers rejected the new atonal structures (Bernstein, 1976). Phillip Glass described his feelings about serialism so: “A wasteland, dominated by these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this crazy creepy music” (Schwarz, 1996). When Glass attended concerts, the only “breaths of fresh air” that he experienced were when works from modern American composers such as John Cage were on the program (Glass, 1987). Leonard Bernstein (1976, p. 273) wrote that “free atonality was in itself a point of no return. It seemed to fulfill the conditions for musical progress. . . . But then: a dead end. Where did one go from here?” The new American music was more progressive than its European counterpart because its composers were far less shackled by musical traditions.

    For instance, American composers were willing to relinquish the central control of the musical score, recognizing the improvisational elements of classical composition (Benson, 2003). Some were even willing to surrender the composer’s control over the piece (Cage, 1961), recognizing that many musical effects depended upon the audience’s perceptual processes (Potter, 2000; Schwarz, 1996). It was therefore not atonality itself but instead the American reaction to it that led to a classical music with clear links to embodied cognitive science.

    Consider, for instance, the implications of relinquishing centralized control in modern music. John Cage was largely motivated by his desire to free musical compositions from the composer’s will. He wrote that “when silence, generally speaking, is not in evidence, the will of the composer is. Inherent silence is equivalent to denial of the will” (Cage, 1961, p. 53). Cage’s most famous example of relinquishing control is in his “silent piece,” 4’33”, first performed by pianist David Tudor in 1952 (Nyman, 1999). It consists of three parts; the entire score for each part reads “TACET,” which instructs the performer to remain silent. Tudor signaled the start of each part by closing the keyboard lid, and opened the lid when the part was over.

    4’33” places tremendous compositional responsibility upon its audience. Cage is quoted on this subject as saying:

    Most people think that when they hear a piece of music, they’re not doing anything but something is being done to them. Now this is not true, and we must arrange our music, we must arrange our art, we must arrange everything, I believe, so that people realize that they themselves are doing it. (Nyman, 1999, p. 24)

    This is contrary to the traditional disembodiment of classical music that treats audiences as being passive and unimportant.

    Cage pioneered other innovations as he decentralized control in his compositions. From the early 1950s onwards, he made extended use of chance operations when he composed. Cage used dice rolls to determine the order of sounds in his 1951 piano piece Music of Changes (Ross, 2007). The stochastic nature of Cage’s compositional practices did not produce music that sounded random. This is because Cage put tremendous effort into choosing interesting sound elements. “In the Music of Changes the effect of the chance operations on the structure (making very apparent its anachronistic character) was balanced by a control of the materials” (Cage, 1961, p. 26). Cage relaxed his influence on control—that is, upon which element to perform next—with the expectation that this, coupled with his careful choice of elements that could be chosen, would produce surprising and interesting musical results. Cage intended novel results to emerge from his compositions.

    The combination of well-considered building blocks to produce emergent behaviours that surprise and inform is characteristic of embodied cognitive science (Braitenberg, 1984; Brooks, 1999; Dawson, 2004; Dawson, Dupuis, & Wilson, 2010; Pfeifer & Scheier, 1999; Webb & Consi, 2001).

    Advances in synthetic psychology come about by taking a set of components, by letting them interact, and by observing surprising emergent phenomena. However, the role of theory and prior knowledge in this endeavor is still fundamentally important, because it guides decisions about what components to select, and about the possible dynamics of their interaction. In the words of Cervantes, diligence is the mother of good luck. (Dawson, 2004, p. 22)

    An emphasis on active audiences and emergent effects is also found in the works of other composers inspired by Cage (Schwarz, 1996). For instance, compositions that incorporated sounds recorded on magnetic tape were prominent in early minimalist music. Minimalist pioneer Terry Riley began working with tape technology in 1960 (Potter, 2000). He recorded a variety of sounds and made tape loops from them. A tape loop permitted a sound segment to be repeated over and over. He then mixed these tapes using a device called an echoplex that permitted the sounds “to be repeated in an ever-accumulating counterpoint against itself” (p. 98). Further complexities of sound were produced by either gradually or suddenly changing the speed of the tape to distort the tape loop’s frequency. Riley’s tape loop experiments led him to explore the effects of repetition, which was to become a centrally important feature of minimalist music.

    Riley’s work strongly influenced other minimalist composers. One of the most famous minimalist tape compositions is Steve Reich’s 1965 It’s Gonna Rain. Reich recorded a sermon of a famous street preacher, Brother Walter, who made frequent Sunday appearances in San Francisco’s Union Square. From this recording, Reich made a tape loop of a segment of the sermon that contained the title phrase. Reich (2002) played two copies of this tape loop simultaneously on different tape machines, and made a profound discovery:

    In the process of trying to line up two identical tape loops in some particular relationship, I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops up in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with each other. (Reich, 2002, p. 20)

    He recorded the result of phase-shifting the loops, and composed his piece by phase-shifting a loop of this recording. Composer Brian Eno describes Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain thus:

    The piece is very, very interesting because it’s tremendously simple. It’s a piece of music that anybody could have made. But the results, sonically, are very complex. . . . What you become aware of is that you are getting a huge amount of material and experience from a very, very simple starting point. (Eno, 1996)

    The complexities of It’s Gonna Rain emerge from the dynamic combination of simple components, and thus are easily linked to the surrender of control that was begun by John Cage. However, they also depend to a large extent upon the perceptual processes of a listener when confronted with the continuous repetition of sound fragments. “The mind is mesmerized by repetition, put into such a state that small motifs can leap out of the music with a distinctness quite unrelated to their acoustic dominance” (Griffiths, 1994, p. 167). From a perceptual point of view, it is impossible to maintain a constant perception of a repeated sound segment. During the course of listening, the perceptual system will habituate to some aspects of it, and as a result—as if by chance—new regularities will emerge. “The listening experience itself can become aleatory in music[,] subject to ‘aural illusions’” (p. 166).

    Minimalism took advantage of the active role of the listener and exploited repetition to deliberately produce aural illusions. The ultimate effect of a minimalist composition is not a message created by the composer and delivered to a (passive) audience, but is instead a collaborative effort between musician and listener. Again, this mirrors the interactive view of world and agent that characterizes embodied cognitive science and stands opposed to the disembodied stance taken by both Austro-German music and classical cognitive science.

    Minimalism became lastingly important when its composers discovered how their techniques, such as decentralized control, repetition, and phase shifting, could be communicated using a medium that was more traditional than tape loops. This was accomplished when Terry Riley realized that the traditional musical score could be reinvented to create minimalist music. Riley’s 1964 composition In C is 53 bars of music written in the key of C major, indicating a return to tonal music. Each bar is extremely simple; the entire score fits onto a single page. Performers play each bar in sequence. However, they repeat a bar as many times as they like before moving on to the next. When they reach the final bar, they repeat it until all of the other performers have reached it. At that time, the performance is concluded.

    Riley’s In C can be thought of as a tape loop experiment realized as a musical score. Each performer is analogous to one of the tape loops, and the effect of the music arises from their interactions with one another. The difference, of course, is that each “tape loop” is not identical to the others, because each performer controls the number of times that they repeat each bar. Performers listen and react to In C as they perform it.

    There are two compelling properties that underlie a performance of In C. First, each musician is an independent agent who is carrying out a simple act. At any given moment each musician is performing one of the bars of music. Second, what each musician does at the next moment is affected by the musical environment that the ensemble of musicians is creating. A musician’s decision to move from one bar to the next depends upon what they are hearing. In other words, the musical environment being created is literally responsible for controlling the activities of the agents who are performing In C. This is a musical example of a concept that we discussed earlier as central to embodied cognitive science: stigmergy.

    In stigmergy, the behaviours of agents are controlled by an environment in which they are situated, and which they also can affect. The performance of a piece like In C illustrates stigmergy in the sense that musicians decide what to play next on the basis of what they are hearing right now. Of course, what they decide to play will form part of the environment, and will help guide the playing decisions of other performers.

    The stigmergic nature of minimalism contrasts with the classical ideal of a composer transcribing mental contents. One cannot predict what In C will sound like by examining its score. Only an actual performance will reveal what In C’s score represents. Reich (1974, p. 9) wrote: “Though I may have the pleasure of discovering musical processes and composing the musical material to run through them, once the process is set up and loaded it runs by itself.”

    Reich’s idea of a musical process running by itself is reminiscent of synthetic psychology, which begins by defining a set of primitive abilities for an agent. Typically there are nonlinear interactions between these building blocks, and between the building blocks and the environment. As a result, complex and interesting behaviors emerge—results that far exceed behavioral predictions based on knowing the agent’s makeup (Braitenberg, 1984). Human intelligence is arguably the emergent product of simple, interacting mental agents (Minsky, 1985). The minimalists have tacitly adopted this view and created a mode of composition that reflects it.

    The continual evolution of modern technology has had a tremendous impact on music. Some of this technology has created situations in which musical stigmergy is front and centre. For example, consider a computer program called Swarm Music (Blackwell, 2003). In Swarm Music, there are one or more swarms of “particles.” Each particle is a musical event: it exists in a musical space where the coordinates of the space define musical parameters such as pitch, duration, and loudness, and the particle’s position defines a particular combination of these parameters. A swarm of particles is dynamic, and it is drawn to attractors that are placed in the space. The swarm can thus be converted into music. “The swarming behavior of these particles leads to melodies that are not structured according to familiar musical rules, but are nevertheless neither random nor unpleasant” (Blackwell & Young, 2004).

    Swarm Music is made dynamic by coupling it with human performers in an improvised and stigmergic performance. The sounds created by the human performers are used to revise the positions of the attractors for the swarms, causing the music generated by the computer system to change in response to the other performers. The human musicians then change their performance in response to the computer.

    Performers who have improvised with Swarm Music are affected by its stigmergic nature. Jazz singer Kathleen Willison,

    was surprised to find in the first improvisation that Swarm Music seemed to be imitating her: ‘(the swarm) hit the same note at the same time—the harmonies worked.’ However, there was some tension; ‘at times I would have liked it to slow down . . . it has a mind of its own . . . give it some space.’ Her solution to the ‘forward motion’ of the swarms was to ‘wait and allow the music to catch up’. (Blackwell, 2003, p. 47)

    Another new technology in which musical stigmergy is evident is the reacTable (Jordà et al., 2007; Kaltenbrunner et al., 2007). The reacTable is an electronic synthesizer that permits several different performers to play it at the same time. The reacTable is a circular, translucent table upon which objects can be placed. Some objects generate waveforms, some perform algorithmic transformations of their inputs, and some control others that are nearby. Rotating an object, and using a fingertip to manipulate a visual interface that surrounds it, modulates a musical process (i.e., changes the frequency and amplitude of a sine wave). Visual signals displayed on the reacTable—and visible to all performers—indicate the properties of the musical event produced by each object as well as the flow of signals from one object to another.

    The reacTable is an example of musical stigmergy because when multiple performers use it simultaneously, they are reacting to the existing musical events. These events are represented as physical locations of objects on the reacTable itself, the visual signals emanating from these objects, and the aural events that the reacTable is producing. By co-operatively moving, adding, or removing objects, the musicians collectively improvise a musical performance. The reacTable is an interface intended to provide a “combination of intimate and sensitive control, with a more macro-structural and higher level control which is intermittently shared, transferred and recovered between the performer(s) and the machine” (Jordà et al., 2007, p. 145). That is, the reacTable—along with the music it produces—provides control analogous to that provided by the nest-in-progress of an insect colony.

    From the preceding discussion, we see that modern music shares many characteristics with the embodied reaction to classical cognitive science. With its decentralization of control, responsibility for the composition has “leaked” from the composer's mind. Its definition also requires contributions from both the performers and the audience, and not merely a score. This has implications for providing accounts of musical meaning, or of the goals of musical compositions. The classical notion of music communicating intended meanings to audiences is not easily applied to modern music.

    Classical cognitive science’s view of communication is rooted in cybernetics (Shannon, 1948; Wiener, 1948), because classical cognitive science arose from exploring key cybernetic ideas in a cognitivist context (Conrad, 1964b; Leibovic, 1969; Lindsay & Norman, 1972; MacKay, 1969; Selfridge, 1956; Singh, 1966). As a result, the cybernetic notion of communication—transfer of information from one location to another—is easily found in the classical approach.

    The classical notion of communication is dominated by the conduit metaphor (Reddy, 1979). According to the conduit metaphor, language provides containers (e.g., sentences, words) that are packed with meanings and delivered to receivers, who unpack them to receive the intended message. Reddy provides a large number of examples of the conduit metaphor, including: “You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean”; “You have to put each concept into words very carefully”; and “The sentence was filled with emotion.”

    The conduit metaphor also applies to the traditional view of classical music, which construes this music as a “hot medium” to which the listener contributes little (McLuhan, 1994): the composer places some intended meaning into a score, the orchestra brings the score to life exactly as instructed by the score, and the (passive) audience unpacks the delivered music to get the composer’s message.

    We thus hear people say that music can only have meaning if it is seen to be a type of language, with elements akin to words, phrases and sentences, and with elements that refer beyond themselves to extramusical things, events, or ideas. (Johnson, 2007, p. 207)

    In other words, the classical view of musical meaning is very similar to the view of meaning espoused by classical cognitive science: music is a symbolic, intentional medium.

    The view of music as a symbolic medium that conveys intended meaning has generated a long history of resistance. The autonomist school of aesthetics (see Hanslick, 1957) argued against the symbolic theories of musical meaning, as well as against theories that music communicated emotion. Hanslick’s (1957) position was that music was a medium whose elements were pure and nonrepresentational. Hanslick famously argued that “the essence of music is sound and motion” (p. 48). Modern positions that treat musical meaning in an embodied fashion are related to Hanslick’s (Johnson, 2007; Leman, 2008).

    Embodied alternatives to musical meaning become attractive because the conduit metaphor breaks down in modern music. If control is taken away from the score and the conductor, if the musicians become active contributors to the composition (Benson, 2003), if the audience is actively involved in completing the composition as well, and if music is actually a “cool medium,” then what is the intended message of the piece?

    Modern embodied theories of music answer this question by taking a position that follows naturally from Hanslick’s (1957) musical aesthetics. They propose that the sound and motion of music literally have bodily effects that are meaningful. For instance, Johnson (2007) noted that,

    to hear music is just to be moved and to feel in the precise way that is defined by the patterns of musical motion. Those feelings are meaningful in the same way that any pattern of emotional flow is meaningful to us at a pre-reflective level of awareness. (Johnson, 2007, p. 239)

    Similarly, Leman (2008, p. 17) suggested that “moving sonic forms do something with our bodies, and therefore have a signification through body action rather than through thinking.” Some implications of this position are considered in the next section.

    Minimalist composers themselves adopt a McLuhanesque view of the meaning of their compositions: the music doesn’t deliver a message, but is itself the message. After being schooled in the techniques of serialism, which deliberately hid the underlying musical structures from the audience’s perception, the minimalists desired to create a different kind of composition. When presented minimalist compositions, the audience would hear the musical processes upon which the pieces were built. Reich (2002, p. 34) said he was “interested in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music.”

    Reich made processes perceptible by making them gradual. But this didn’t make his compositions less musical.

    Even when all the cards are on the table and everyone hears what is gradually happening in a musical process, there are still enough mysteries to satisfy all. These mysteries are the impersonal, unintended, psychoacoustic by-products of the intended process. (Reich, 2002, p. 35)

    Reich’s recognition that the listener contributes to the composition—that classical music is a cool medium, not a hot one—is fundamental to minimalist music. Philip Glass (1987) was surprised to find that he had different experiences of different performances of Samuel Beckett’s Play, for which Glass composed music. He realized that “Beckett’s Play doesn’t exist separately from its relationship to the viewer, who is included as part of the play’s content” (p. 36). Audiences of Glass’ Einstein on the Beach had similar experiences. “The point about Einstein was clearly not what it ‘meant’ but that it was meaningful as generally experienced by the people who saw it” (p. 33).

    Modern music has many parallels to embodied cognitive science, and has many characteristics that distinguish it from other traditions of classical music. Alternative views of composition, the role of the audience, and the control of a performance are clearly analogous to embodied concepts such as emergence, embodiment, and stigmergy. They also lead to a very different notion of the purpose of music, in its transition from “hot” to “cool.” Not surprisingly, the radical differences between classical and modern music are reflected in differences between classical and embodied cognitive science’s study of musical cognition, as is discussed in the next section.

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