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Practical Aesthetics: Questions to emerge

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I’m coming back to the ideas Theo Hicks shared in his final plenary at the BABS/LABBS Directors Weekend back in January, as my first post on the subject produced some great discussion, but in a variety of different places. So I thought it worth bringing some of the points together, as people may not have seen all of each other’s interesting responses.

Michael Callahan said:

I’d be interested on an audience’s reception that is ignorant of musical aesthetics (which most audiences are).

If I understood Theo’s ideas correctly, the audience doesn’t need to be aware of any of the process behind the performance preparation, they just need to bring along their usual desire to listen to music. In much the way that listeners don’t need to know what the names of different chords are in order to feel their expressive flavour.

Indeed, the singers themselves don’t need an in-depth knowledge either, as Theo demonstrated live how the outline descriptions of the different orientations to music could be effective with a chorus encountering the ideas for the first time. You could no doubt rename the categories to remove the obstacle of the abstract words (Sound, Geekfest, Story, and Connection are the informal labels that sprang immediately to mind), but for the purposes of the presentation I enjoyed seeing the origin of the ideas in wider aesthetic discourse.

But the conversation also opened up some interesting questions about the relationship between audience knowledge and audience enjoyment that would turn into too lengthy a digression if we delved into them now, so I’m just noting that as unfinished business for another day.

Michael also shared some thoughts about overtones and emotional connection that resonated with two other responses to the post.

Alexander Koller questioned whether story-telling really barbershop’s dominant mode, or whether it’s something we’re told we’re supposed to care about when what drew us in originally was revelling in chord-worship.

This is a usefully nuanced distinction to make, between ‘dominant’ as ‘mandated by a culture’s authority structures’ and ‘numerically popular’. When I wrote about story-telling as the dominant aesthetic mode, I was thinking of the former: it is baked into the coaching and rehearsal discourses as an imperative in a way that, say formalism isn’t. Indeed, Theo’s story of his quartet-mate brought out the tension between what we are told to care about and what we actually do care about. It seems entirely characteristic of his ethos to propose a solution that basically says, ‘Go ahead, love music your way; it’s good to love music.’

Elizabeth Davies questioned whether expressionism is really about conveying emotions to a listener, or is the human connection involved more about a merging of selves?

I found this a really interesting question because I had already thought that Theo’s characterisation of Expressionism as human connection was tending towards that, whereas the concept in musical aesthetics is typically couched much more in terms of the ego that is doing the expressing. This highlights the way that so much discourse around classical music is so unrelentingly composer-focused, and hierarchically so: the composer’s vision is what matters, the performer is there to serve it, and the listener to receive it. One could critique Theo for misrepresenting Expressionism as an aesthetic theory by reframing it as a more egalitarian connection, but I think it’s probably healthier to critique a theory that posits connection as an essentially one-way process.

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