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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Social Sound - Art About Music

I am invited to be the guest on a radio programme (Friday, February 1, 2013, 20.00 hrs; www.zeilsteenradio.nl) which is linked to the art exposition Social Sound in Leeuwarden. Artists expose "art about music and what life sounds like" in De Blokhuispoort, the former Leeuwarden jail and now one of those places where cities, after having read Richard Florida, congregate their 'creative class': visual artists, designers, multimediapeople and the like.

I know the Blokhuispoort from when I was a teenager. I was in Leeuwarden at least once a week back then and the bus I took always passed the building, at that moment still a jail. So last Saturday I took my son (8) to take a look at the exposition. I quite liked it, but that is not what I am going to write about. My son  did not like it, but I am not going to wrote about that either. Luckily at least we both liked the idea of being inside a jail, still including the cell blocks, barred windows and huge walls.

With the exposition comes a special exposition journal, a one-issue journal with the programme and some articles on the theme of 'social sound'. It's a nice read, the journal. Not only do visual artists write about what they do with music as well as a philosopher. The editors also invited some people from the music world to write about music. Two major articles look into questions of evolutionary theory and music psychology, respectively.

It is probably no coincidence that precisely those two domains figure in the journal. Both are, in a way, 'sexy' domains for a general audience. Why does music exist, and why do humans have it, and not animals? To answer that question it is common to think that having music must be of some kind of evolutionary advantage. Ellen Dissanayake, the author of the highly speculative but very readable article about the evolutionary use of music, does her best to counter Steven  Pinker's well-known opinion that music is 'evolutionary cheesecake' - whereas I think that Pinker's idea nicely links with what I think is a useful way of looking at music's evolution. But I wrote earlier on that, so I rather stop here than explaining again why the evolutionary debate seems not so useful to me.

And how exactly does music work? To answer that question it is common these days to turn to psychology -  preferably to something to do with the brain, neurology and FMRI-scans, but any other 'hard' facts from psychology do the trick as well, as long as experiments are involved with huge amounts of people.

That is precisely why, although I am interested and often fascinated by the results of research in music psychology, I always tend to feel not very sympathetic  towards the answers furnished there either. Ad Vingerhoets and Waldie Hanser wrote an - again - very readable article about music and emotions, but I always wonder where the attraction lies of the description of human musical life in what basically are stimulus-response-terms. Music psychology has turned into a domain where mostly researchers seem to be looking for the determination of cause-and-effect-relations. By letting loose advanced statistics on a huge amount of test persons, they distill an 'average human being', or several types of them, who react in standard ways to music. Correlations between musical preferences and Big Five character traits (the linkage of 'neuroticism' with certain genres of music is one of my favourites here) - that stuff. Not for nothing do the authors refer several times to music as used in films, because it is there that music is composed precisely to evoke such standard reactions.

Now I am not denying that those standard reactions take place. The thing is, I don't find them very interesting. They are to me too far removed from what individuals 'in the wild', in their constant use of music in daily life, experience with music. The standard reactions so carefully researched by many music psychologists only are part of the package of the individual; but they are often completely overgrown by the particularities and idiosyncrasies of individual musical life in this bewildering world.

The exposition 'Social Sound' is about "what life sounds like". Maybe it indeed requires artists, rather than music psychologists, to sketch the picture? Read the journal, visit the exposition (it is there until 16 Feb), and judge by yourself.

Vaut le voyage.

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