An exploration of subtle sensations within the experience of music
by Maxwell Steer
Every generation has to discover afresh what has always been known. This cycle of continual rediscovery is an essential part of the regenerative process of human culture; mirroring growth and decay in Nature. It reflects the way ideas interact with human (sub)consciousness to create tides of myth 1 which ebb and flow, tower and disperse, with a volition of their own. Remembering and forgetting are of equal importance in any discussion of metaphysics because at any point there are many culture-groups, all at different phases of evolution, all convinced that their Myth is of unique authenticity and significance.
Because myth is itself the lens throu which we view the wider world it is intimately entwined with our perception and proprioception (physical self-image) so that any challenge to it can provoke reactions of fear and fury. In the confusing business of finding our place in the world the forum that our musical tastes offer for peer interaction provides a further mechanism of self-orienting gyro-stabilisation, each musical genre constituting an 'audio myth' around which a differing 'style-tribe' coheres. 2 In my own case as an adolescent pianist, I can recall finding the 18thC classical repertoire repugnant, but once I encountered the music of William Byrd I realised that I had 'come home', tho at that stage I'd never even heard a harpsichord.
'Salt that has lost its savour is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trodden underfoot.' In the same way, music that has no significance for me is little better than noise. What then causes me to respond positively to some stimuli but negatively to others?
As one whose professional musical life has taken him into an exceptional range of genres I have had an unusual opportunity to sense the metaphysical vibrations of many audio-myths and to observe how these give rise to different reactions. From these I have endeavoured to abstract some conclusions about the process involved.
Since writing See Through Music in 1994 3 I have attempted to construct a general theory of musical experience based on cross-cultural observation rather than arrive at it by analysing a single genre. By degrees I came to see this as an exercise in defining Magic, and identifying the pathways by which a transcendent state of consciousness can occur within subjective musical experience.
The problem with expressing this in a linear argument is that each of us experiences the sensory 'truth(s)' of our musical emotions differently; and thus to construct sentences that are universally true demands such a degree of abstraction that I felt that few would ever appreciate the infinitely subtle living experience I was seeking to evoke! I have therefore remodeled my arguments to present them as personal and subjective, which I hope makes it possible to see the conclusion throu my eyes rather than as existing in a neutral space. Part of my reorientation involved creating the accompanying map of musical consciousness. In it I trace the primary strands of experience and certain key stages in the cognitive process. Let me guide you throu it before moving on to some wi(l)der thoughts.
Mapping Musical Experience
The bold phrases invite you to refer to this illustration as you read.
At the primal level the egg from which all experience hatches is Collective Cultural Consciousness, and the yolk within that is Personal Life Experience. Out of this emerges a duality - of Intention on the part of the Comperformer 4 and Expectation on the part of the Listener. Thus we have a conscious first stage where Music is -ideally- an experience balanced interactively between Intention and Expectation; a virtuous circle where an audience demands the music which the musicians exist to provide. Nevertheless, any performance reaching its fullest potential must dissolve the duality between listener and comperformer, reuniting both in a unitary imagination which values the hopes and aspirations of all.
One of the ways in which comperformers can stimulate this cycle is by Virtu(osity). 5 The virtu which captures the listeners' attention is a metaphysical experience they draw from, or project onto, the musical performance as 'enchantment'. The common understanding of the term virtuosity is 'instrumental or vocal wizardry', but you have only to think of certain mass-market musicians who command a following to realise that their virtu lies in their presence, a numen rather than anything they do. I would instance the staying power of such apparently ephemeral talents as Tom Jones and the soul singer Barry White as examples. They are borne aloft on a virtu which represents their fans' emotional investment in, ie identification with, their personality archetype. Perhaps for Tom Jones virtu is indeed its own reward?
I like to describe the objectified accumulation of virtu as Inherence - that quality which is generally agreed to exist in the work of art/music in question. Loosely, this might be thought of as soul. None of us can see the soul of a person or thing, yet what the principal memory we carry away from someone or something is hir/its soul, a metaphysical essence. The Japanese express this idea in the word Shibui, meaning 'of itself alone /nothing else at all'. The remarkable connoisseur Soetsu Yanagi writes of it:
Each person, according to disposition and environment, feels a special affinity to one or other aspect. But when taste grows move refined, each will necessarily arrive at the beauty that is shibui. If one seeks depth in beauty, this stage must be attained some day. Shibui is the sesame to open the doors to the infinite mysteries of beauty. [It] is a profound, unassuming, quiet feeling, peculiar to the Orient. 6
Already we are outside the territory of rational argument, in an area that forms the crucible of myth, where emotion creates its own logic. I am convinced that an essential constituent of virtu, perhaps even its main one, is the psychic energy imbued in an entity, be it article or metaphysical circumstance, by the intensity of its creators' feelings. (To call this intentionality a moral force is to describe the phenomenon, not to evaluate it.)
Somewhere -anywhere and nowhere- on an unmarked road there is an invisible boundary-marker where the comperformer's investment of energy translates into magic. A spell-binding performance requires that the musical magician empathises with the dreams of his target audience, and can articulate (spell) them correctly. For me as a listener to be enchanted, to allow myself to surrender to music's magic carpet, the illusion of a seamless transition is essential, as the comperformer must woo me away from my mundane existence and quotidian preoccupations into an altered state of mind that represents my projected alter ego, ie inner-fantasy-personality. Do not expect that this altered state to be a recipe for peace on earth and good will to all humanity: for each gathering of a 'style-tribe' acts as a psychic generator amplifying the character-projection that drew people to its musical ethos with results that are correspondingly constructive or destructive socially.
My map suggests that there is a polarity within the spectrum of experience. At one end stands the exceptional -which often defies description precisely because it is beyond words- scoring highly in a 'final analysis' of Collective Value or Significance, usually expressed in the vocabulary of stature ('greatness' &c). At the other lies the ordinary which, by failing to stimulate our nervous system, scores very low in our 'final analysis' because it's disposable - even tho, in background music, this may be the very quality we seek.
In the collusive process of enchantment a strong element is the Circumstance of Audition. Just as the ambience of a restaurant predisposes me for or against the food long before it arrives so the ambience of a venue sends its own powerful messages to me even before a note is played. One of these messages comes as a memory of other performances I have enjoyed there - itself an example of how virtu accretes. Companions also play a very important part in establishing a mood favourable to musical enchantment ... or otherwise. However I would submit that tho I am influenced on specific occasions by the circumstance of audition, over time it does not greatly affect my musical tastes: it is in fact an extension of them rather than a conditioner. Thus I have depicted it as a parallel appreciation-path.
Nor is the circumstance of audition limited only to extravert situations, it is just as important to introvert musical experience - for example, to the young person for whom the Walkman is a lifeline to a world of inner experience or those who use NewAge or ambient music to create a monochrome environment.
The cardinal factor in determining varieties of response is one I would call Personal (musical /social) Value. This is a direct expression of my Personal Life Experience within Collective Cultural Consciousness. It is hard to define in a universal way because my social experience may lead me to desire something quite different in the music from others from those of other social or ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, each genre of music represents a collective 'inner-fantasy-personality' archetype which is 'invested in' by the style-tribe in question. Hence fashion in music.
What, for instance, distinguishes The Rolling Stones from hundreds of other bands? Nothing, except that they have created and carefully fostered an archetypal illusion of feral 'lad-hood' that expresses the inner-fantasy-personality of a certain species of Western bourgeois male (... who doesn't see himself aging in the mirror either!)
To summarise an argument I present more fully in On the Psychology of Timbral Development in Western Music: 7 I suggest that timbral quality plays a significant role in the psychological process by which individuals are attracted to their own 'audio myths'. I believe each musical genre encodes within its predominant timbre a moral or intentional language whose vibrations broadcast an appeal to the relevant style-tribe by expressing the 'probabilities' of its world-view in an emotionally affective form. Consider for instance the macho proletarianism in the swagger and twang of a Country guitar, or the patrician appeal of a string quartet's silken elegance, or the exuberance of the Jazz sax to thrill-seekers, or Heavy Metal's (in)articulation of adolescent confusion, or Club's earth-vibrating at-one-ment of drug-users. All these timbral signifiers appeal at a visceral level to their target audience regardless of whatever specific 'meaning' is modulated onto the sound by the words or notes that comprise the 'content'.
The type of music I respond to is also governed by where I locate on the spectrum of introvert-extravert. Here: age, life-experience, character all play a part in the way our tastes change over time. A little-remarked but significant alteration to the balance of public consciousness has been gathering pace since WW2 where portable stereos and, now, netcasting have enabled introverts to form a market for an introvert style of music that is not designed to bring people together but to enable them to have similar experiences discretely, as book-lovers do. This is a significant mutation in the mix of attitudes which govern music-making.
While any definition of Personal (musical/social) Value must remain a relative one it is nonetheless a crucial link not just in my instinctive response to music, but is also the gateway to my higher faculties of aesthetic judgment - where I instinctively evaluate my response.
My map is intended to convey that beyond the Meaning-Resolution stage in the response process three outcomes are possible. For me to find Meaning in a piece of music three successive hurdles must be surmounted:
- I must be in sympathy with the ethos of the music, in other words it must have scored sufficiently in my Personal Value system to be within my framework of reference:
- it must be delivered coherently so that its emotional narrative transmits itself directly, engaging both emotion and intellect (in proportion to my expectations, be they high- or low- brow):
- it must have the capacity to dissolve the duality of my normal consciousness (even tho it may not always succeed) by making the distinction between me and the comperformer seem to disappear - so that s/he becomes a lens throu which I access a collective metaphysical experience at the roots of my musical archetype, uniting me and others of my 'tribe' around its totem.
The dotted line represents 1, a situation where I conclude that tho I quite like a piece of music, nothing affects me sufficiently to imprint it on my memory and thus I assign little or no value to it in overall Significance. In 2 a longer broken line describes the situation where my appreciation of the music combines with favourable Circumstances of Audition to etch into my mind a higher assignment of value.
But in 3 the whole experience comes together and here my own aesthetic engagement combines with the Circumstances of Audition to create Magic which produces a Resolution of emotion & intellect wherein I perceive clear Meaning(s) about & for myself; that is, the experience creates a 'platform' of insight secure enough to allow me to 'draw conclusions' about my feeling-world and its needs. Strictly speaking this could be said to occur without implying the most ecstatic option where I experience liberation from 'the iron bandage of the mind' by a Transcendent or Trance-like alteration of consciousness. This is the condition I value most highly, for it is the 'magic gateway' throu which personal and cultural factors come together to project me into that 'super consciousness' which represents the aspirations of my style-tribe. 8
Not only is this gateway objectively indefinable within my personal experience; even where it occurs collectively it does so as a 'floating point' - that is, its archetype occurs at whatever psychological depth matches the life-experience(s) of the listeners: shallow for the callow, progressively deeper for the more self-aware. Like a carrot suspended before a donkey it is fixed tantalisingly just beyond the reach of each person's consciousness; so that the possibility of a transcendent experience, differing according to musical ethos of each genre, beckons anyone whose inner-fantasy-personality identifies with that music/style-tribe. It would not be inappropriate to describe such altered states as the musical equivalent of orgasm, itself an experience whose 'value' is rarely hard and fast. (To coin a phrase.)
Where enough people experience a similar response to a piece of music it acquires a Collective Value. This is expressed in popular terminology as Stature: 'big', 'huge', a 'massive hit' - the noun here exemplifying the coup de foudre by which ordinary people experience that 'resolution of emotion and intellect' outlined above as they recognise in a piece the articulation of an emotional reality which has meaning for them. In art music stature is generally expressed in the objective language of formality, such as 'great' and 'masterpiece': while in popular music the emphasis is principally on a tribal wish for subjective reimmersion in the collective unconscious; the fashionable expressions of which (currently words like 'massive,' 'awesome,' 'humungous') are themselves codes for the style-tribes in question.
In both cases the reference is an inherent virtu that makes a comperformance psychologically pregnant -big, great- and thus morally speaking, magnetic. In either case the unconscious investment of Collective Value in a piece arising from its being common to the experience of a substantial group creates a 'platform of meaning' within that genre which remains a point of (emotional) reference - in an extreme case, to the extent of entwining itself into people's collective identity. A national anthem would be a clear example, as would any emotional trigger which stimulates a collective memory-response, eg Vera Lynn singing We'll Meet Again for Britons who experienced WW2 or Joni Mitchell's Woodstock for flower children.
Finally, it is the Significance that a piece of music has for people collectively that determines its place in Collective Cultural Consciousness (ie its feedback as history) and thus whether the experience which it encapsulates is sufficiently enduring to give it space as part of the 'iconic furniture' of a group or nation.
As you see, the picture I have endeavoured to present has been created by as-it-were tracing around the outlines of my own emotions and comparing them with what I observe or feel to be that of others. I hope that if a more elegant pencil comes to fill in the fuller picture these sketches will have been some use.
Thoughts on Value, Meaning and Significance
In considering value or virtu in music we are brought back to the way human consciousness construes meaning. 'Meaning' takes many forms but its underlying characteristic is a transformative one, taking raw (sensory) information and converting it into a form of (emotional) coherence whereby an individual or group perceives a pattern or archetype as meaning-full. Thus Meaning in music might be defined as 'the creation in sound of the archetype of a certain feeling-world which plugs hearers into a similar one in their own feeling-world.' In simple language music arouses feelings which create in us sensations -all the more real for being non-verbal- which themselves constitute an index of meaning (the music means more the more we are aroused by it); the emotional depth at which it arouses us is its value and the way we feel about it in relation to other life-experiences is its significance.
Significance differs from value in that it arises from our perception of the meaning+value of a particular piece of music in relation to cultural traditions within the genre or audio-myth. For instance, adolescents are often aroused by music perceived by their elders as callow precisely because it captures their transient feelings and therefore has considerable meaning for them; the evidence that this music often lacks ultimate value is that the emotional 'platform' on which it is erected -adolescent consciousness- is itself unstable - this explains the speed with which Fashion loses its significance or currency. Tho there can be archetypal depths in ephemerality as Noel Coward's line about 'the potency of cheap music' reminds us.
Thus we see that while significance - meaning - value retain coherent meanings in relation to each other, these can only accurately be translated into absolute (enduring) meanings by abstracting from the transient emotional charge that gave them meaning in the first place and viewing them from sociological perspective - somewhat akin to hunting rare butterflies and pinning them up in display cases!
In footnote 1 I spoke of myth as creating 'platforms of meaning' within the mercurial instability of Western culture. I have wondered whether the accelerated decline in organised Christianity that has taken place since WW2 may not in part be due to the industrialised dissemination of pop-chart music taking over the role of religion in creating a moral background for everyday life? It seems to me that the constant playing of chart music radio stations now acts in a way that is identical to religion in previous ages by creating a (n)ever-changing audio-opiate uniting people in a common experience of everyday life. It would be called brainwashing ... if it wasn't voluntary!
Maxwell Steer, Tisbury 2001