Powering music and emotion research

From 30 November to 2 December 2011 I had the pleasure of attending the 34th National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia that was held conjointly with the 2nd International Conference on Music and Emotions in Perth, Australia. (Unfortunately I was unable to stay for the last day of the conference due to some problems with rebooking my flight.) The following remarks are not intended to be representative of the conference. Nor are they comprehensive. Instead they represent a selection of my own responses to and recollections of various papers and discussions that I witnessed or was a part of during the conference.

A collaboratory session on the afternoon of the first full day of the conference considered the topic of “Music and mourning”. This session interested me since earlier in the day I had presented a paper on the same topic with a focus on Johannes Ciconia’s Con lagreme bagnandome el viso. The session began with panelists framing their individual research interests in relation to the topic. Fundamental disagreement between some panelists (and audience members) as to what constituted a musical response to mourning soon emerged.

It seemed that part of this situation stemmed from the lack of agreement on what mourning was. Mourning is often defined as a collective experience in response to the death of a member of a particular community. Grief on the other hand is defined as a sense of personal loss brought on by the death of someone (or even something) associated with that individual. If we accept these definitions, grief is distinct from mourning although both rely on social and cultural contingencies.  Several panelists were concerned with individual responses to loss. Other panelists were concerned with music’s role in rituals and social practices. This begged the question: was the panel concerned with mourning and grief? Was it at all concerned with memorials, rituals for remembering the dead? Unfortunately none of the panelists seemed willing or able to acknowledge the elephant in the room. There was no attempt to frame a definition of the topic. The result was an unacknowledged obstacle lurking at the heart of what might have been a more focused and fruitful discussion of the use of music in mourning.

Another difficulty in fostering consensus on fundamental terms and issues at this conference was lack of synergies between disciplines. Music historians, ethnomusicologists, music therapists, music philosophers, music psychologists and music cognitivists can rarely agree on the nature of music, let alone how it relates, for instance, to mourning.  The empirical music cognitivist requires a functional definition that might lead to quantifiable results, while the ethnomusicologist/music anthropologist will consider a possible range of contingencies based upon what their informants consider mourning (if such a concept exists in their culture). Music historians might adopt a similar approach to the latter, but one that is based upon documentation as well as considerations of liturgy, ritual, and literature. So it was not surprising that this issue emerged so soon in the proceedings. It served nonetheless to highlight one of the perils of bringing so many diverse disciplines (and scholars who after many years of research have their set agenda) under the purvey of such a complex topic.

This led me to consider whether this conference on music and emotions was unified in any way. There was little attempt to frame a taxonomy of emotions that might serve as a focus for further discussion. Such an exercise could have revealed a great number of shared positions among the various disciplines.  I can also see how it might have instead caused rancorous divisions along disciplinary lines, fracturing delegates into competing camps even further. On the other hand, it would have been useful in establishing a wider understanding of each discipline’s concerns among delegates. This may have in turn fostered greater engagement across disciplines. Yet my overriding impression was that many delegates attended papers only within their discipline. When I did have the courage to attend a session outside my discipline, my questions or remarks made from the perspective of my own discipline were sometimes either ignored or at worst dismissed as irrelevant. Consequently, I have decided to confine my remarks to the part of the conference concerning historical musicology in the humanist (i.e. non-scientific) guise.

On the first morning of the conference Andrew Lawrence-King gave a memorable keynote on gesture as a rhetorical and performative device in premodern music. He did this with reference to the so-called first operas c.1600, Peri’s Eurydice and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Although Lawrence-King didn’t put his argument precisely in the following way, he proposed that a collection of formal gestures served in performance to complement emotional expressions in the text. I found this interesting from the perspective of recent approaches to the history of emotions. William M. Reddy, for example, includes non-verbal utterances in his list of emotives. Reddy defines emotives as emotional expressions that can produce an emotional response in listeners (and also in speakers). While these gestures are not specified in the musical score, it seems reasonable to conclude that they can be made to coincide with emotive words in the sung text. This led me to ask myself whether it might be possible to extend the dramatic use of gestures further back in history.

Manuals of rhetoric (or oratory) from antiquity and the premodern era are unambiguous in stating that the effective delivery of an oration rested in part on the speakers’s appropriate use of gesture. It is apparent that gesture, or at least the painted gestures of figures, played a role in medieval artistic expression, especially in Trecento art. Could these gestures have also been part of medieval musical performance?

Although iconography is often fraught with difficulties and has been much maligned in early music studies in recent decades, I would argue that musicologists have learnt their lessons. It is high time that some new research was conducted in this area. Indeed, considering the new directions and vigor of performance practice studies and the ongoing interest in symbolic iconography in medieval art history, it seems incomprehensible that more cross-disciplinary research isn’t being done in relation to the use of gesture in the performance of medieval music.

If I was asked what one thing emerged for me from this conference that provided a clear indication of an urgent need for new scholarship in the history of medieval music, it would be the role of gesture and rhetoric in the emotional space of medieval music, including its performance. For the fact that I recognised this as a result of attending and undoubtedly for many more fruitful outcomes, the conference organisers are congratulated for organising and presenting a conference on such a fascinating theme.

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