Melanie L. Marshall, in asking questions about musicality, takes a Foucauldian track and asks about musicality’s opposite, and in doing so, discusses and critiques some modern attempts at drawing a boundary between the musical and the unmusical. Melanie pulls up research by Henkjan Honing as an interesting, if problematic, example of such an attempt at drawing the boundary. Honing sketches out some provocative research as part of his TEDxAmsterdam talk. Honing suggests that we have inbuilt, hard-wired musical abilities.
Leaving aside, for the moment, the issues of whether we (scientists, researchers) have access to these pre-cultural, intrinsic abilities (as Bruno Latour might point out, we, at best, have access only to mediation—graphs, charts, sensor data, etc.), and whether our cultural tools, technology and language might make us observe phenomena in specifically cultural ways (can Honing’s ‘beat’ be defined para-culturally?), I think there’s a secondary problem: is ‘beat detection,’ however defined, an intrinsically musical ability? or, put it another way, what kind of ‘beat detection’ might be musical, and does it resemble, or require, the infant ‘beat detection’ as studied by Honing?
A couple of (personal) experiences lead me to be skeptical of the proposition that such simple ‘beat detection’ might be foundational to practical musicality in general, and to latter-day improvised musics in particular.
- A big part of teaching real-time interactive performance or group improvisation, I found, was getting students not to lockstep; for them to ‘hold their ground,’ to ‘find their own rhythm,’ to express, embody and perform autonomy. (Once we can do that, lock-stepping becomes a choice, but that’s a story for another time…)
- In group improvisation, input parsing is not an unambiguous matter. There isn’t one correct answer to, say, where the beat is. Furthermore, creative (mis)understandings may be a significant component of the generative engine in improvisation. (I’ll return to the subject of ambiguity in stimulus-response in the context of machine improvisation in a future post.)
- I’ve been fascinated by creative improvising drummers’ ability to simultaneously generate multiple senses of time (e.g. Oxley, Sanders), to switch and morph between multiple pulses (e.g. Cyrille, Hayward), or blur the boundary between in and out of time (e.g. Black). Inspired, I found a way to do this on guitar by delegating timekeeping to my limbs, joints, digits—to my body and its interaction with the instrument. Charles Hayward talked about drumming as an interaction between physiology and physics. Might the cognitive dimension of Honing’s ‘beat’ be peripheral, perhaps irrelevant, to this cyborgian practice of musicking?
It seems to me that the assumed importance of beat detection as a marker of musicality is itself a form of, in the Foucauldian sense, regulation. Perhaps the assumption of a foundational importance to musicality of a simple ‘beat detection’ stems from subscribing to a command-control model of musicality. In this model the mind is the central hub of the musical. In this model, rhythm is constant, inherited, external and which must be followed. This model, in turn, arises from certain, widely held to be sure, cultural assumptions about desirable and ‘natural’ social and political interactions. What do these assumptions blind us from?