18 July 2005

McLuhan Lectures 2005 - June 29 – Deanne Bogdan – Music

Last evening we were treated to a wonderful lecture and multiple performances, comprising live and recorded piano, operatic, technological and satirical performances. Deanne Bogdan conducted a keenly receptive audience on an exploration that originated in her personal conflict with regard to the literate, as compared with the experiential, nature of music. The resolution of this tension arises from the use of modality as the conceptual link connecting music with the perceptual frame of Marshall McLuhan.

Bogdan begins with Leonard Meyer’s query from his essay, “On rehearing music” – do repeated hearings of music contribute to an increase or decrease in musical enjoyment? Music, according to Meyer, is a meaningful communication; he draws on information theory to demonstrate how the communicative experience of music becomes transformed to information in the mind of the listener. Thus, the information gleaned from repeated listenings reaches a limit. But this dry analysis negates the “music” of music. By reframing music as information to be communicated according to the ground of, say, the (increasingly useless) Shannon-Weaver model, one is evaluating not the enjoyment of music, but rather the “enjoyment” of an information communication technology. There is an inherent profundity of music that goes beyond linear analysis: Northrop Frye maintained that anticipation of the climax of the piece and a deeper understanding of the structure never fails to heighten the appreciation of the piece.

This consideration set the tone and theme for the rest of the evening that engaged the audience in a participatory experiment consisting of multi-modal experience of (nominally) the same, or similar, music. It also became a tacit demonstration of the comparative effects of McLuhan’s most difficult concepts of hot and cool media.
A digression: “The medium is the message” suggests that we know the nature and characteristics of any medium by virtue of its effects. This applies equally when considering the relative media temperature of any medium, that is, anything we conceive or create. To say that a given medium, say television or a pizza, are hot or cool in absolute terms is neither useful nor likely correct. (Most people get it backward, anyway.) First, media temperature is always relative to the ground, or the cultural and societal context within which the medium acquires meaning. Second, the media temperature can only be judged according to the effects, or messages, that our interaction with the medium induces in us. Here are some characteristic effects of hot and cool media:

Hot Medium:
  • Extends a single sense in High Definition with lots of information. This is not to say that other senses have no information, but rather that one sense’s stimulation is overpowering compared to the rest.

  • Little completion or active participation to be done; less “filling in” to be done by the audience. Everything is explicit.

  • Tends to exclude by virtue of its isolating properties. In the case of senses, for instance, one sense is isolated and separated from the rest; there is no balance.

  • Therefore, it engenders specialisation and fragmentation. For example, with highly specialized departments and very specific job descriptions, a bureaucracy tends to be a Hot Medium.

  • Normal reaction is to numb overall awareness to mitigate the Hot effects, even as one sense is heightened. An intense reaction to a very Hot Medium is a state of hypnosis or trance. We are not asleep, but we are not aware. We are also highly suggestible.

  • Often characterised by short, intense experiences. Motivational speakers rely on Hot Media effects.

  • Tends to capture or hijack attention.

Cool Medium — the complementary opposite effects.
  • Engages multiple senses with Low Definition; less information for each.

  • High in participation and active completion; audience must “fill in the blanks” — originally meant as sensory involvement only, but the description becomes very useful when it is applied to intellectual participation and engagement as well.

  • Tends to include.

  • Engenders generalization and consolidation.

  • Natural reaction is to engage awareness and heighten perception.

  • Often associated with longer term, sustained experiences.

  • Tends to attract “actively aware” attention, freely given.

Cultural critic Edward Said distinguishes musical performance as an “extreme occasion,” which, according to Said reviewer, Dan Miller, is “an irreproducible event, divorced from normal life, highly ritualized and specialized, devoted to almost superhuman virtuosity. It is at once social and solitary: both performer and listeners are, when the performance succeeds, alone with the music, yet all are alone together, by virtue of the social institutions that make performance possible.” contrasting with the worldly – that integrates societies, cultures, and most importantly, embodied experience.

When considered as extreme occasion, each listener brings her or his unique ground to the performance, creating a unique (and isolating, fragmentary) experience that exists as the constructed connection directly between the listener and the performer. Factors that comprise the ground, and hence the context within which meaning is individual made include: the listener’s individual background and musical experience; their awareness of the genre, the ability to understand the nature and complexity of performance itself; their understanding of the historical/biographical context of the work, and other musicological information that provides the musical context, both of the composer and his/her times, as well as the setting of the form of the piece in the context of the times in which it was composed; the technical tonal/syntactic information, comprising musical structure, progressions, harmony, counterpoint, essentially the technical construction of the piece; and the interpretive information added by the performer at the moment of performance, interpretations being syntactic in nature, relating to the skill of the performer, perhaps relative to the performer’s history and prior performances.

Of course, one must ask (at least while participating in the McLuhan realm) what is the message, or the effect, of considering music as extreme occasion in this context? Relative to media temperature, it can be demonstrated (he says, satirizing professorial pomp,) that such analysis serves to heat up the musical medium, creating separation and distance among the listener, the performer, the composer and the piece. This is not surprising: consider the hot environment of the formal concert hall with its ceremony, ritual and protocol, and compare it, for example, with (hot) Renaissance perspective art that separates the viewer from the viewed. In “hotting up” a medium, it is often the case that technical appreciation replaces aesthetic experience.

Deanne Bogdan related this concept to Aristotle’s four causes: formal (the “essence” or nature of the thing), material (its substance), efficient (relating to what brings it into being, closest to the conventional, if misguided, notion of cause-and-effect) and final (its ultimate reason for being). The musical performance itself is the material cause; the information content describe above would comprise aspects of its efficient cause. However, the musical experience in totality, embodied in the listener, is its formal cause, which, according to McLuhan, is the message of the musical medium. To lessen the “extreme occasion” nature of a performance, according to Bogdan, the listener must become immersed, or totally involved in depth, with the performance, experiencing its message, actively participating in the creation of the musical experience, and essentially effecting a cool medium.

The effects of a listener’s knowledge on her/his musical enjoyment changes to a question of the effects of involvement with the experience on the engagement of the audience; how enabled is the audience to engage with the “experience of the music, not the conscious integration of the cognitive with the affective , but as an embodied sensory realm.” This notion is reciprocal: How involved the audience is with the performer intimately relates to how involved the performer is with the audience.

Thus, watching a video of a piano virtuoso, the camera attuned to every keystroke, produces a hot effect in the audience, creating the fragmentary extreme performance. On the other hand, a video of musical genius Glenn Gould shows his facial expression, his body moving with the music, his free hand conducting the playing hand – everything, in fact, except the actual pressing of the keys. That, in a very cool fashion, is for the audience to fill in.

Gould, reciprocally influenced by, and influencing, Marshall McLuhan, understood the difference between hot extreme occasion and cool intimacy and involvement in depth, and retreated from the concert stage in the mid-1960s. He created the paradoxical “double depth engagement” – an inner attunement towards the ecstasy of perfected performance combined with an outward engagement and connection with the social context of audience experience.

While Gould “put the concert audience into the junkyard,” it was not a rejection of the audience, but the rejection of the cliché of audience. The junkyard becomes the “rag and bone shop of the heart” of W.B. Yates to which McLuhan frequently refers, from which the audience will be retrieved [as archetype; see From Cliché to Archetype by McLuhan and Watson] in a new form, achieving an advancement of culture itself. The issue becomes one of creating not only sound, but sonic environments in which both the external sound and the internal process of awareness of the nature of sound can be simultaneously experienced.

Gould is thus a media environmentalist, simultaneously engaging in hot and cool experiences. Through his use of technology in the final chapter of his life, Gould makes the (re)creation of cultural ground visible. Technology reintegrates performer, composer and listener in a new way. He says, “I think our whole notion of what music is has forever merged with all the sounds that around us, everything that the environment makes available.” Listener thus becomes artist, completing the piece that exists not as extreme occasion, but as intimately embodied experience.

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