Challenging Musical Ontologies: An RMA Study Day

University of Nottingham, Department of Music

23 November 2012

In February 2010, the Royal Musical Association and the British Society for Aesthetics collaborated to present an RMA study day on Music and Philosophy. The event brought together a hundred delegates from across the two disciplines and featured papers on a wide range of themes in music and aesthetics, with approaches drawn from both analytic and continental philosophy. Out of that initial event grew the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group, which has since helped foster dialogue between the two disciplines through a combination of an annual conference at King’s College London and smaller, more focused events such as a symposium on science and musical meaning (jointly with the BSA in November 2010), a round table on temporality in contemporary music (at the joint SMA/Music Since 1900 Conference in July 2011), and a special session on the ethics of musical labour at the 2011 meeting of the American Musicological Society (jointly with the AMS Music and Philosophy Study Group).

Most recently, the group sponsored an RMA study day entitled ‘Challenging Musical Ontologies’ at the University of Nottingham’s Department of Music on 23 November 2012. Seeking to ‘engage with the conflicting yet complementary dialogues regarding the possibility (or even non-possibility) of an ontology of music’, the day featured eighteen papers by young researchers from ten different universities around the country, as well as from parts of Europe, including Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland. Anchoring the event were keynote presentations by SMA President Michael Spitzer (University of Liverpool) and Stefano Predelli (University of Nottingham), stepping in at the last minute for Aaron Ridley (University of Southampton), who was unable to attend because of the flu. The day capped off with a round table of the session chairs to trace common threads from throughout the day. The event also provided opportunities for informal discussion over a delicious catered lunch and a group dinner on campus, as well as live musical entertainment through a lunchtime concert of new works performed by SCAW duo, Sarah Watts (bass clarinet) and Antony Clare (piano).

The papers were distributed across six sessions organised around a variety of topics, with three parallel sessions running in the morning (‘Music in/and Practice’, ‘Phenomenology’, and ‘Popular Music and Improvisation’) and the afternoon (‘Perspectives from Analytic Philosophy’, ‘Early Music and the Musical Work’, and ‘Contemporary Music’). With sessions structured according to both music-historical periods and philosophical approaches or themes, attendees had plenty of options from which to choose. Indeed, perhaps the main drawback to using the parallel session format in such a focused event was that attendees were forced to choose between papers or sessions that were often not too far afield from one another. Nonetheless, the study day committee capably organised the sessions so that the papers complemented each other and presented an interdisciplinary array of viewpoints on similar questions.

The morning session that I attended (and in which I presented), ‘Popular Music and Improvisation’, inspired discussion on the relationships between performance and recording, between the LP and the EP, and between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ versions of musical works. Though these particular issues are specific to popular music and improvisation, they also raise broader questions about authorial intention, musical fidelity, and the relationship between form and content. In the afternoon, I attended ‘Early Music and the Musical Work’, whose papers collectively gave the session a wide chronological breadth, with topics ranging from thirteenth-century Dominican liturgy through the theoretical treatises of Renaissance scholar Johannes Tinctoris to visual representations of the musical work in the early sixteenth century. Despite not being an early music scholar, I found the papers clearly presented and highly accessible, exploring many of the same ontological problems as in the popular music session, but through a different repertoire and using different methodologies particular to the problems of early music research.

Spitzer’s morning keynote, entitled ‘Analysing Ontologies of Emotional Types’, drew on a case study of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, BWV 1001, analysing the four movements to show how emotional expression in music is articulated through interactive clusters that function relationally within the work, within the composer’s style, and within the music-historical style as a whole. Spitzer argued that, though emotions are relatively stable, the ‘display rules’ of emotion within a particular style are highly contingent; however, as it unfolds, the work entrains the listener to its display rules of emotion. Being part of a larger project on applications of emotion theory to music analysis, the paper also explored current research on the influence of emotion on perception and cognition by cognitive musicologists such as David Huron and Elizabeth Margulis, and cognitive psychologists such as Galen Bodenhausen. Though Spitzer’s keynote had a decidedly more empirical bent than the other papers at the study day, his problematisation of familiar stylistic conventions raised interesting questions about the cultural contingency of ontological categories for emotions in music.

Predelli’s afternoon keynote, entitled ‘The Sound of Music’, worked within an analytical framework to offer a defence of ‘performance relativism’, which he presented as a version of structuralism that is more closely aligned with intuitions about musical interpretation. Performance relativism takes the view that a musical work may have a plurality of performances, regulated by the relationship between these sound structures and the work’s compositional structure. Arguing that the relationship between performance and composition is contingent, Predelli concluded that musical works therefore do not intrinsically bear properties of sound. While coming to a familiar conclusion, Predelli’s keynote highlighted the coherence of an analytical approach with this widespread musical belief.

Although the study day was attended mostly by musicologists, many of whom claimed to be inexpert in philosophy, there was no shortage of critical inquiry into philosophical issues. On the contrary, philosophy stood at the centre of a lively discussion that was firmly grounded in musical and musicological understanding. ‘Challenging Musical Ontologies’ therefore represents another successful event by the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group, an active forum for promoting research in this area. The group actively solicits ideas for future themed events and maintains an active online presence, with lists of calls for papers and events of interest; links to music and philosophy organisations, journals, and electronic resources; and a monthly e-newsletter. As the group continues to grow, it promises to provide further opportunities for interactions between music and philosophy and to allow the discussion to flourish.

Melissa Hok Cee Wong