Crisis, which crisis? What music tells us, and how music can help
In the age of Covid-19 music, like almost everything else, is in crisis: singers are super-spreaders, live performance has collapsed, and many musicians’ livelihoods have disappeared into thin air. It is not just that the pandemic has just created new crises: it has exacerbated existing problems to the point that they too have become crises. And the crises are interconnected, ranging across different spheres of society, politics, and the environment. In this talk, then, I do not limit myself to the specific crises of music. Rather I ask two questions concerning the relationship between music and the multiple crises currently afflicting the world. The first is what music can tell us about the often pernicious ideologies that lie at the heart of ongoing social, political, and environmental crises. Music can serve the ends of ideology by naturalising it, making it appear as if specific, socially conditioned ways of framing the world simply represent the way the world is. But music is equally capable of revealing ideology and mobilising tools for resisting it, and I illustrate this in relation to race, history, and the administered society.
The second question is how music can help in the resolution of social and political crises. Music is often credited with the promotion of social harmony through the bonding that creates and maintains social groups. Examples are familiar, yet any construction of ‘us’ necessarily entails the equal and opposite construction of ‘them’: identity is constructed in relation to an often vilified other (and there you have a basic principle of populism). But there is a better way to think about social harmony, and music is closely linked to this too. Real-time ensemble performance, whether improvised or composition-based, is built on intricate webs of mutual listening, what might be called sonic interdependence; in the same way, social harmony (or maybe it would be better to say counterpoint) is not imposed from the top down but rather negotiated from the bottom up, through countless intersecting acts of mutual recognition. Moreover music is an inherently public medium, in the sense that I have no privileged access to what I play: you can hear me as well as I can hear myself. There is no privacy in music, and so the barriers of what Kenneth Gergen calls ‘bounded being’—which roughly corresponds to C. B Macpherson’s ‘possessive individualism’—are lowered, giving rise to what Gergen calls ‘relational being’.
If possessive individualism, according to which the individual is ‘the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them’, lies at the core of many of today’s social dysfunctionalities, then music provides both a blueprint for more adequate thinking about social relationships and tools for its realisation. Yet, described like this, the idea of music engendering relational being may sound utopian, and utopias are of little value in the resolution of crises unless there are ways of translating them into action. That, I claim, is exactly what the performance of music does, and not just in the kind of participatory contexts familiar from the writings of Christopher Small and Thomas Turino. I make the point by outlining a concluding example of how music can contribute to the amelioration of what for many people has been one of the most difficult aspects of life during the pandemic: the proscription of physical contact. As I argue, music is a means by which the intimacy of touch can be reconciled with social distancing, and this lies behind some of the new social practices of music that have evolved in the course of 2020. Music can help us get through the pandemic, and equally the new ways that people are using it to do this carry the promise of new approaches to, and new thinking about, music.