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Session 4-3
The Sense of Sound: Imagining Music and Sensuality

Tomie Hahn (Tufts University)
Bonnie Gordon (SUNY at Stony Brook)
Co-Organizers

 

The senses serve as the body's interface to the world and the arts a reflection, or a way of "making sense" of life. Despite the overwhelming amount of research on the body and the inextricable intertwining of sense and song, scholars of music tend to avoid specific discussions of the senses. This interdisciplinary panel fills that void, focusing on the relationship of the sensorium to the expressive arts at diverse cultural and historical moments. Placed side-by-side, madrigal song, virtual reality, the pageantry of the Torah service, Monster Truck rallies, operatic singing, and the emergence of the radio reveal the constructedness of the liminal extremes of the senses as defined by the worlds they emerge from.
The senses are situated in a unique position as the link between body (including self and individual) and the world. Further, they act as mediator of the social and of existence, simultaneously constructing these parameters­­what defines the body, self, social group, time period, or world. Here, notions of "construct" are reflexive, because, as the body comprehends its existence through the filter of cultural definitions, culture is also constructed via the senses and the constraints of the physical.
The presentations in this session question how and why our perceptions of the world differ so greatly. How do different cultures imagine the senses and perception? How might we historicize the sensual? Given that song and instrumental expression often moves body and soul to heightened realms, it would be easy to posit music and the senses as universals. However, this panel will argue precisely the opposite point, that the varieties of experience marked by music and sensualities remain radically constructed and stand outside of biological reality. Our papers will collapse dualisms of mind/body, science/humanity, human/machine, culture/nature, man/woman, self/other, in order to understand culturally created cosmologies. Our investigations all touch upon three recurring themes: the interplay between the senses, text, performance, and ritual; the relationship between the voice, body, and spirit; and the expansion of the senses via technology.
On the eve of the millennium, with the emergence of new technological worlds, Western culture seems particularly concerned with expanding the limits of human sentience-witness the internet explosion, virtual reality, the computerization of early modern scores, and digital sound. This moment of technological advance, similar to the invention of the printing press, sound recording, and the computer, will undoubtedly alter our concepts of the senses and by extension our understanding of the body, emotion, and self. At the same time the mistrust of the senses has a long tradition in Western thought and is bundled with imaginings about the "nature" of music as a sensual form of expression. The contemporary body that depends on virtual senses threatens our trust of the senses. This session will use this distrust to bridge gaps between disciplines, making the sensorium a vehicle for interrogating our experiences of the expressive arts in culture.

 

Sensual Orientations: Considering the Sensibilities of Fieldwork

Tomie Hahn (Tufts University)

Through fieldwork, we are plunged into another culture's sensory framework, or world. Fieldwork experiences provide researchers with an opportunity to make sense of the world from a variety of cultural perspectives, a variety of sensual orientations. Interviews can reveal artists' thoughts on cultural values, aesthetics, meaning and symbol, creative process, performance identity, and concepts of performance. In this presentation I will draw from my fieldwork experiences in Japanese and Japanese-American dance, Monster Truck rallies, and interactive performance pieces utilizing physical data sensors to reveal a variety of performance sensibilities.

 

Kisses and Control

Bonnie Gordon (SUNY at Stony Brook)

In Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals, lovers only touch each other once. The seventh book overflows with baci and the one dramatized in "Eccomi pronta ai baci" goes awry. Ergasto bites his lady leaving teeth marks on her face. Unlike the Petrarchan lovers of Monteverdi's early madrigals who suffer inside, this pain marks external surfaces. The shift from a poetry of inwardness and innuendo--one that outwardly eschews the body--toward tactile and playful erotics in which lovers kiss and taste each other might seem to indicate a more embodied sensibility. But I will argue that, the attention to tactile detail bespeaks an emptying out of song's alterity and a distancing from the body, marked by musical gestures whose virtuosity, consistency, brevity, and circular motion frame the voice within an independent musical logic that operates apart from the body.

 

Song, Sense, and the Emergence of Music

Gary Tomlinson (University of Pennsylvania)

Before the full coalescing in Europe around 1800 of a modern ideology of music, song could lodge itself in the European imagination as a rich amalgam of primal utterance, tropological elegancy, affirmation of shared humanity, and confirmation of drastic human difference. All these ingredients originated in early modern conceptions of the passionate powers of voice and lived on in Enlightenment rethinking of these powers. I will outline this cultural formation and trace some of the changes wrought in it around 1800, linking the decline of the earlier ideology to the emergence of modern music and a modern anthropology as well.

 

The Torah Service and the Re-Enactment of Revelation

Jeffrey Summit (Tufts University)

Jewish prayer is centered on the performance of liturgical and sacred text. In certain services, the public reading of the Torah amplifies this performance by the use of pageantry, procession, sexual imagery, music and choreography. I examine how this ritual re-enacts the historical experience of revelation and why many contemporary worshipers understand this multi-sensory ritual to be the core of authentic religious expression in Jewish prayer.

 

Body Waves: Transmission, Audition, and Attention in the Emergence of Radio

Nathan MacBrien (Stanford University Press)

Focusing on the historical emergence of radio music in the 1920s and 1930s, MacBrien will discuss the media-technological formation of the listening subject. Contemporaneous musicological writings, media criticism, fiction, poetry, and journalism suggest that radio, in its infancy, could produce subtle shocks of embodied awareness in the listener that depended precisely on disembodying the performer. By removing the listener physically from the "point of audition" (Chion), radio forced an unaccustomed separation of ear from eye, with occasionally vertiginous results. Vertigo--an irreducibly historical phenomenon tied to modern technology--could be mastered through the practice of attention through active listening. The moment of vertiginous shock, however, could also register a physical awareness of other modes of experience that writers seem to have found very difficult to describe. The paper argues for a rehabilitation of Walter Benjamin's notions of experience for understanding this experience and its relevance for contemporary aesthetics.

 

Music@TheEdgeOfTheWorld'sKnowledge: A Techno-Feminist Perspective

Elizabeth Tolbert (Peabody Conservatory)

From a techno/feminist perspective, Elizabeth Tolbert will examine writings on music put forth by evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker and Miller to show how the dialectic between concepts of science and imaginings of what is mind and what is body are contributing to ongoing myths about music in Western academic culture. Drawing on material from the electronic journal Edge, an intellectual forum that conceives of itself as a "third" culture bridging the arts and the sciences, Tolbert proposes that "music" as a feminized entity is deeply implicated in evolutionary accounts of the development of language and human cognition. If music is among our few species-specific traits, then the lines imagined between human and non-human are especially relevant for an understanding of music within Western academic discourses.

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