Sunday, January 20, 2013

What is a Musical Performance?


So, I’ve just begun to read Joe MorrisPerpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music, a summary of which can be found here. While I’m still in the early stages, it’s got me thinking about how to organize a group of musicians to play free music, and I’m also seeing how there’s an underlying philosophy that can be useful in communicating some of Morris’ ideas. If I’m feeling up to it, I’ll provide commentary on Morris, perhaps on a per chapter basis. However, mostly I want to hash out my own ideas.
            Suppose we begin with a group of musicians, and our objective is to get them to play “free music.” To make this as concrete as possible, let us suppose that in a month’s time, they will have to play a concert of “free music.” Moreover, suppose that all of the musicians in question are well versed in at least one genre of non-free music, but are relative neophytes in all forms of free music. How would we get these musicians to succeed in their concert?
            It’s tempting to start devising lots of exercises, a la Tom Hall. I can’t stress how important those exercises are, and how much I’ve loved going through them. However, how would we know that these exercises have been effective in producing a successful concert? What we need is a better grasp of the concept of a successful free music performance. An exercise would be effective just in case it promoted that.
I think that philosophy can help on this front. In what I hope will be a series of posts, I’ll show how we can get a clearer concept of a successful free music performance. Today, I’ll focus just on musical performances, temporarily bracketing the success or freedom of such performances.
I suggest that we think of musical performances as systems constituted by mechanisms. Let’s first understand systems and mechanisms more generally (§1), and then discuss how a musical performance is a special case of systems and mechanisms (§2). Third, I’ll consider objections to this view, and offer my replies to them (§3). Finally, I’ll briefly summarize and highlight the practical payoff of this view (§4).

1.   Systems and mechanisms

My goal for today is to show that musical performances can be regarded as mechanistic systems. Before talking about musical performances, let me describe some general features of mechanistic systems. Philosophers and scientists in the relevant disciplines have described many biological, psychological, technological, social, and cultural phenomena as mechanistic systems. While they have different views about what constitutes a mechanism, the general idea about mechanistic systems is this:
(General Idea) Many systems exhibit certain properties because of the properties, activities, and organization of the systems’ parts.

            For now, I’ll rely on your native intuitions as to what constitutes a part-whole relationship, property, activity, and organization. However, I do want to spend a bit more time on a seemingly banal word: the use of “because” in the General Idea, as mechanistic systems have a special “because”-structure.  In his book, Explaining the Brain, (which looks at mechanisms in neuroscience), Carl Craver discusses this “because”-structure, and dubs it the Mutual Manipulability Condition (MMC).
            That may sound scary, but the idea is pretty straightforward: in mechanistic systems, two kinds of changes must be possible:
(1)  Changes to the properties, actions, or organization of the parts must be capable of changing the properties of the system, and
(2)  Changes to the properties of the system (or whole) must be capable of changing the properties, actions, or organization of its parts.
For instance, think about the neuroscience of reading. Here the system is a person reading and the parts are the relevant parts of the brain. The MMC states that:
(1)  Had the relevant brain regions been different, then a person’s way of reading would have been different, and
(2)   Had a person’s way of reading been different, then the relevant brain regions would have been different.
An example of the first manipulation or intervention is brain surgery or the use of certain mind-altering drugs that affect reading. An example of the second would be altering the speed at which words come across a screen in order to change how neurons fire.

2.   Musical performance as a mechanistic system

Now, all of this seems pretty far removed from music, right? Wrong! I'd like to suggest that musical performances are usefully thought of as mechanistic systems. Recall that the ultimate goal is to specify what is constitutive of a successful free music performance. However, for today, I want to make the argument that all musical performances (successful or otherwise, free or otherwise) are mechanistic systems.
            If I’m going to establish that claim, I need to show that: (§2.1) a musical performance is a system composed of parts and (§2.2) the system and parts satisfy the Mutual Manipulability Condition.

2.1.        Musical performances are systems composed of parts

I first want to show that musical performances is an application of the General Idea. I propose that we simply think of a musical performance as a system.
Now clearly, such a performance has many potential properties it can assume. Call these performance properties. Some performance properties are emotive, e.g. performances can be uplifting, dreadful, banal, intense, soothing, etc. Performances properties can also be of a more formal variety, e.g. performances can be in a particular time signature, key, exhibit particular chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, dynamics, etc. (More on performance properties at a later date.)
Moreover, performances are composed of parts. I suggest that we take performers as our primary parts. So a musical performance is a mechanistic system just in case the following is true:
A musical performance exhibits certain properties (e.g. being uplifting, banal intense, etc.) because of the properties, activities, and organization of the performers.
This seems eminently plausible. Moreover, it’s a good thing to impress upon our hypothetical musicians with their hypothetical deadline, for it stresses the responsibility that they have for the musical performance.

2.2.        Musical performances and performers are mutually manipulable

However, if I really want to make my case for musical performances as mechanistic systems, I need to show that musical performances satisfy the MMC. Now, one requirement of the mutual manipulability condition seems relatively uncontroversial, namely this:
(1)  Had the performers’ properties, actions, and organization been different, then the musical performance would have exhibited different properties.
The most obvious evidence for this is that performers play differently to create different musical pieces. However, the other requirement of the mutual manipulability condition is trickier:
(2)  Had the musical performance exhibited different properties, then the performers’ properties, actions, and organization would have been different.
For those who are interested in the puzzle that arises with (2), go to the Appendix. For the rest of you, let me skip straight to its solution: sometimes, one subset of actions, properties, and/or organization of some performers can change another subset of such actions, properties, and/or organization only via the performance properties.
For instance, imagine that all of the members of a group are playing the same rhythmical motif, until the drummer suddenly changes her rhythm. The drummer’s rhythmical change is not self-contained; it also changes the performance’s overall rhythmical properties. In particular, there will be greater rhythmical complexity than if all of the performers had continued to play the same motif. This complexity can then elicit a change in other players: do they maintain the complexity, or do they alter their rhythm to either enhance or diminish that complexity? In this way, one set of actions, properties, and organization belonging to the performers can change another subset of actions, properties, etc. only via the performance properties.
            It will be useful to economize our language at this point. We have three crucial elements in this structure:
(A)  Interventions: the actions, properties, and/or organization that change the performance properties;
(B)  Responses: The actions, properties, and/or organization that are changed via the performance properties; and
(C)  The performance properties.
Using these labels we can summarize our view. An event is a musical performance if and only if it possesses performance properties such that:
  1.  Interventions are possible. 
  2.  It is possible for interventions to affect responses only via performance properties.

    3.    Objections, with replies

Now, you may not be convinced. In particular, I will address two potential objections. First, doesn’t this way of thinking of musical performance rob it of its emotive and non-analytical qualities (§3.1)? Second, what happens with solo performances (§3.2)?

3.1.        Isn’t this soulless?

Even seeing the sentence “Musical performances are mechanistic systems” may offend the sensibilities of those who think of music in more emotive, non-analytical terms. I offer four replies. First, the terminology of systems and mechanisms is something that I inherit from philosophers of science, e.g. Carl Craver and Peter Machamer, but very little hangs on this choice of words. I welcome alternative terminology that is less offensive to the touchy-feelies of the world J.  For instance, since biologists frequently regard organisms as mechanistic systems composed of parts (organs, cells, and molecules), I could just as easily describe my view as thinking of music as an “organic whole,” which perhaps sounds less incongruous to those who dislike talk of mechanistic systems. Second, recall that the ultimate goal is to clarify the concept of a successful free music performance. Whatever the value of thinking emotively and non-analytically, it is frequently an ineffective tool when clarity is our aim. Third, it should be recognized that the fact that a system can be explained mechanistically is entirely compatible with taking emotions and non-discursive modes of thought as real phenomena. Indeed, the psychology of emotion rests on exactly this assumption. Finally, let’s first see how the whole approach works, and then decide if it’s inadequate to the task of clarifying a successful free music performance.

3.2.        Solo performances

I have argued that performances are mechanistic systems only if it’s possible for one subset of performers’ actions, properties, and organization (interventions) to affect another subset of performers’ actions, properties, and organization (responses) only via performance-level properties. At first blush, this would appear to require every performance to involve at least two performers. “However,” my critic continues, “that is surely incorrect, as there are solo performances.” Hence, a critic has a seemingly plausible argument that solo performances are not mechanistic systems.
            However, this rests on a confusion of what interventions and responses are. They are, first and foremost, sets of actions, properties, and (modes of) organization. They are not sets of performers. So multiple actions, properties, or modes of organization are needed for a musical performance; multiple performers are not needed.
Once this is appreciated, it is clear that solo performances satisfy our two conditions for a musical performance. Specifically, an event is a solo musical performance if and only if the event involves only a single performer and a set of performance properties such that:
(1)   Interventions are possible.
(2)   Interventions that affect responses only via performance properties are possible.
As before, condition (1) remains uncontroversial, as a soloist who played very different things would create very different performance properties. Given what we’ve said, (2) should seem unremarkable to anyone who has performed solo. For instance, suppose that our drummer from before is now a soloist who changes his rhythm mid-performance. Then clearly he has intervened on the musical properties. There is clearly a change in the performance’s properties, for its form now includes a rhythm change. However, the drummer can now respond: after the rhythm change, the drummer can decide to continue with the new rhythm, return to the previous rhythm, etc. and presumably this can be in response to the performance’s formal structure. Hence nothing about solo performances undermines my account of musical performances.

4.    The payoff thus far

So, why go through all of this? Recall the larger objective. We begin with a bunch of non-free musicians and are trying to get them produce a successful free music performance. Thus far, we’ve bracketed success and freedom, and simply tried to articulate what a musical performance is. Our musicians have thus come to see that a musical performance is a system with a particular set of properties, namely performance properties that can the musicians can intervene upon and to which they can respond.
            Now, let me suggest where I want to go next: different genres or kinds of music can be individuated by the norms that govern their interventions, responses, and performance properties. Hence, we can start to get a sense of free music in virtue of its distinctive configuration of these three elements.

Appendix: Some puzzles about responses

Above, I noted that the following is a tricky claim to establish, but didn’t want to belabor people with the details:
Had the musical performance exhibited different properties, then the performers’ properties, actions, and organization would have been different.
To see the difficulty with this case, we’ll need to say more about what we mean by manipulability in MMC. Here is the way that Jim Woodward (roughly) characterizes the idea:
An ideal intervention I on X with respect to Y is a change in the value of X that changes Y, if at all, only via the change in X.
In our particular case, X is the performance properties, Y is the performers’ properties, actions, and organization. So we’re looking for some ideal intervention I such that:
I is a change in the performance’s properties that changes the performers’ properties, actions, and organization, if at all, only via the change in the performance’s properties.
Now, the tricky bit is this. If this is going to be practical advice for performers, then the ideal intervention, I, should be something that they can do. However, that would mean that I is a performer’s action. But that would mean that performances change performers’ actions only via changing performers’ actions, which makes the performance’s properties totally irrelevant.
            The solution to this puzzle emerges from the fact that performances are composed of more than one action, property, and/or mode of organization. Consequently, one action, property, or mode of organization can serve as an ideal intervention (I) on a performance property (X), while another such action, property, or mode of organization (Y) can be a response to that performance property. That is the view I presented above.