Phenomenological Experience in Music: Between a Referential and Absolute Approach

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Last weekend, experts across the board in the field of music and science convened to present Convergence: A Multidisciplinary Dialogue on Music. Presented by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center and the Department of Music at University of California San Diego, the symposium brought together the fields of music, psychology, computational and affective neuroscience, ethnomusicology, composition and education.

Organized by a series of four talks entitled Systems, Communication, Transmission and Translation, and Convergence, the symposium played host to a multitude of research and education in a musically unifying setting. The panels of the day covered topics including the temporal dynamics of neural processing (Mark Tramo, UCLA), phenomenological experience in music (David Borgo, UCSD), music and language in early development (Gwendolyn McGraw, artist/educator), and the speech-to-song illusion (Diana Deutsch, UCSD).

One dialogue I found to be of particular interest was the closing discourse of the first panel. Originating in conversation with the differing approaches to creating music, the dialogue surrounded American musicologist Leonard B. Meyer’s two theories of music and emotion. Referential composition tends to use association and experience as main creative tools, whereas absolute composition relies on solely intramusical structures and relationships. As these two theories (which might also be translated into nature vs. nurture) are not mutually exclusive, they were broadly debated. While songwriter Mark Tramo provided a case for the referential composition process, expressing an opinion that popular music is mainly associative/emotion-driven and serious music absolute, composer Lei Liang offered a more integrative, alternative estimation.

In describing his experience upon coming to UCSD, Liang spoke in regard to a newer, particular generation of composers:

“It’s a very interesting tension. The music can make you not only have fun, but also… you can cry with it, because you can tell that they’re not just creating an absolute piece that engages their brain, but in fact I was amazed by how much trauma, how much pain and joy they’re open to bringing into the public arena. As a way of responding, I feel like the composers and what they are willing to engage with in their material has been changing a great deal, and there is this kind of merge from the performer’s point of view as well. There is a lot of interaction taking place.”

While the referential style relies more heavily on calling upon experience from the past (frequently resulting in the release of oxytocin or dopamine in the composer’s brain), the absolutist method has strictly to do with music and expectancies generated by tonal relationships, and thus focuses more prominently on theory, structure and analysis.

Building on his prior explanation of the role music plays in phenomenological experience, Professor David Borgo offered concise thoughts in regard to the referential/absolute dichotomy:

“For me, it does often come back to the relationship between what I do as a performer, creator, and improviser, and the kinds of questions I’m interested in. When one is thrust into that moment of musicking, in some ways, there is no dividing line between the things that you bring to bear on the moment, be it a lifetime of experience, or dealing with/expecting certain things. Ultimately to open oneself to the moment means to be aware of all of the referents, all of the context that’s happening at that moment, the rich complexity of the room, and the people you’re playing with and for. For me, it can all come down to the fact that these sets of resources that might seem distinct are also thrust together in the musicking moment.”

The symposium also included noteworthy talks by ethnomusicologist Alex Khalil on The Gamelan Project, Dane Harwood on music as a communication system, Gwendolyn McGraw on music and language in early development, composer Katarina Rosenberger on the complex relationship we have with our voice, and principle of the Museum School Carl Hermanns on the importance of music in education. Building on this year’s momentum, the conference is set to reoccur next year to again provide a platform to confront and address divergent attitudes and philosophies in the understanding of music and science.

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