SMALL MUSIC (?)

Right now I’m thinking a lot about music that doesn’t reach many people.

For many music scholars, one of the key reasons that music is important to study is in how it contributes to the battle over hegemony or the contestation over meaning. Music articulates what we might call its “meanings” (but which are complex combinations of vibrational/culturally coded affects) in many ways simultaneously: historically, musically, formally, semiotically, stylistically, and so on. In the weird bundle of forces that constitutes a piece of music, a cultural articulation is sounded into a discourse, a field, or a space where others can be affected by it. In reaching people, in forming intimate publics 1 music creates a shared sense of the world among certain groups of listeners. That shared sense can become the precondition that leads to action (political, say) or not; it can create or disallow possibility, or neither.

But what happens when the music that we are talking about doesn’t reach a lot of people? It’s obvious, for example, that Beyoncé’s music is having an impact on society, an impact that we can analyze through various lenses (critical race, feminist, and so on) even as we track its political economy. But what about music that we might similarly read as feminist, but which not many people know about or hear? If it doesn’t contribute to the broader cultural landscape, what is the significance of this small music?

Ethnographers will document the impacts that music has on people’s everyday lives and the contributions it makes to people’s sense of their own subjectivity. But as a methodological question, does a music’s limited or non-existent impact (culturally, broadly) mean that we can’t read it in the affective/semiological way that we can read truly popular music? What if a group’s reach is too small to actually create an intimate public? Beyond individuals who may nevertheless listen to this small music and may indeed be affected by it, what can we say is significant about it on a cultural scale? Is there a certain threshold of popularity required for a cultural phenomenon to form an intimate public? Put another way: of course we can still read small music for its meanings and affects. But the question is, do these meanings and affects matter or function in the same way as music that can be considered widely popular? Is there value in popular music scholars studying music that isn’t all that popular? Or is music’s very popularity its main indication that it has something significant to say about how our culture(s) construct and reflect meaning, to others and to ourselves?

One reason that I’m thinking about this is because there seems to be a ton of excellent indie-rock happening right now, specifically indie rock with women at the center. I’m wondering if one of the very reasons that this music seems to be flourishing right now is because “rock” as a genre (the white male rock of rockism) is no longer the world’s dominant popular music. Is there something about the diffuse and localized scene that indie-rock has become that is allowing certain kinds of musical and social possibilities to emerge?


1. I am referencing here Lauren Berlant’s well-known elaboration of “intimate publics” as “affect worlds” in which “one senses that matters of survival are at stake and that collective mediation through narration and audition might provide some routes out of the impasse and the struggle of the present, or at least some sense that there would be recognition were the participants in the room together.” Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 226. What interests me here in particular is the way in which the notion of an intimate public is caught up in a certain level of visibility. Berlant writes, “You do not need to audition for membership in it. Minimally, you need just to perform audition, to listen and to be interested in the scene’s visceral impact.” [Ibid.] And again just later, “But [participants] do not have to do anything to belong. They can be passive and lurk, deciding when to appear and disappear, and consider the freedom to come and go the exercise of sovereign freedom.” [Berlant, 227.] My question about small music is this, fundamentally: because it is not broadly popular, does it require a different level of participation in order to create a shared sense of public-ness, however small? Can participants afford to be passive if their passivity results in the dissolution of the sphere itself? Or, on the other hand, if a given band/song/scene corresponds with a much broader genre space that exists independently of that given band/song/scene (e.g. “girl bands” or “feminist rock”), is the intimate public maintained in any case, so long as the genre exists? Can a participant still afford to be passive if the genre will maintain itself irrespective of any particularly performed acts of fandom and belonging? Can you access an intimate public through any number of entry points?

IMPROVISATION AND EVERYDAY PERFORMANCE

Yesterday I presented “Improvisation and Everyday Performance” at the Cultural Studies Association conference in New Orleans. Our panel was a part of the performance studies working group, so my main point was to try to understand how improvisation relates to questions of performance and performativity.

Briefly put, my argument is that improvisation studies is overdetermined by a view of improvisation as a “special” kind of activity, and that we need to pay more attention to the ways in which improvisation can be banal, repetitive, destructive, and ordinary. To that end, I discussed Michel de Certeau’s notion of an everyday practice and Sara Ahmed’s idea of an orientation to identify the contingencies involved in everyday activities. Following from my idea that improvisation is strictly co-extensive with contingency, I argued that–if perception itself is a practice that is improvised–then improvisation should be considered not only as profoundly ordinary, but also as foundational to our experience of the world.

What happens when improvisation moves away from a creative capacity proper to the acting subject and toward an constitutive feature of being in the world? What do we gain or lose by bringing improvisation into conversation with habitus, performance, practice, and other terms that try to think human agency in relation to memory, history, contingency, and power?

THE MAJOR SEVENTH

No other interval carries an equivalent ambivalence or affect. The major seventh simultaneously belongs to its tonic and nevertheless sounds a world apart. By comparison, the tritone belongs to the major scale only as a matter of technicality; its dissonance is total, so much so that it is caricatured. Far from this crass and cartoonish dissonance, the major seventh uses dissonance to achieve transcendence. Or: the major seventh is beautiful by and through its very dissonance, through its long distance from tonic that is also the shortest distance possible.

(Chapter Four, Footnote 6)

Capacious(ness)

This past weekend I was lucky to present at the Capacious conference in Lancaster, PA. Subtitled “Affect Inquiry/Making Space”, the title alludes to affect’s transdisciplinary spread as well as the omnivorous attitude that such a spreading-capacity engenders, at least in my experience, in those who think with it. I found the conference to be incredibly expansive both in breadth and depth, indeed a space-making for all kinds of approaches, topics, experiences, and ideas. I come away lit up with new energy.

As I continue writing my dissertation, affect is becoming an increasingly important aspect of how I think about improvisation. Maybe I will talk about that here soon. In the meantime, if you want more affect, you can start here.

Podcast Interview

Last year I was interviewed for a podcast about improvisation and sound called Sound it Out. We talked about my research in general, and the idea that there is a connection between musical improvisation and everyday life. For me, this connection has always centered around “contingency”—the idea that at the heart of the matter, what it means to improvise is to engage with the contingency of a moment.

It was still early days in my dissertation work, so there are some rough spots in terms of what I’m saying and thinking. But I think there are some good parts too, especially the music and the conversation that we have at the end.

You can listen to it here.