Theo Hicks on Practical Aesthetics

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The final plenary session at January’s LABBS/BABS Directors Weekend was led by Theo Hicks on the topic, ‘Philosophies of Musical Enjoyment: Listening for the Singers’ Joy’. It produced lots of things I wanted to reflect on, and because I kept getting them tangled up I have been procrastinating trying to organise my notes. But a recent conversation with another director who wasn’t there had me wanting to refer to it and so it’s time to try and untangle the thoughts to render them shareable.

The first thing to note the effect that having that title on the schedule had on the weekend’s overall agenda. It put the word ‘joy’ into our common lexicon in all kinds of contexts before any of us know exactly what Theo was going to talk about.

I found the session itself fascinating as it brought different parts of my life together in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It started by outlining four schools of thought about musical value that Theo had learned about during his graduate studies – Absolutism, Formalism, Referentialism, and Expressionism – and then explored ways to use an awareness of these different frameworks to help singers have a more satisfying musical experience.

There are two dimensions to this session I’d like to reflect on: how Theo presented the aesthetic theories, and then how he applied them. He summarised each of the four positions as follows:

  1. Absolutism: finding intrinsic value in the musical sounds
  2. Formalism: finding value in understanding the musical structures
  3. Referentialism: finding value in how music refers outside itself
  4. Expressionism: finding value in how music creates human connection

In a scholarly context I think one might cavil a bit with this characterisation of absolute music, which is usually regarded in more metaphysical terms, but for the practical purposes he developed through the session, this defines a useful category.

The first thing that struck me was how Theo framed these discourses as theories of enjoyment. I spent a good deal of time reading musical aesthetics (albeit mostly in extracts and in translation), both for my PhD and in teaching the subject at both undergraduate and masters level, and Theo’s title made me realise in retrospect how much of this writing is relatively joyless. It is written by people who clearly care deeply about music and the arts, but often takes them (and themselves) so seriously there isn’t a lot of room for pleasure. Indeed, often the goal seems to be elevate music above the level of mere pleasure, to establish it as something altogether more worthy and significant.

The second striking thing, in the context of the aesthetic literature, is how Theo presented these ideas as simultaneously in operation, and as such, with equal claims to validity. Of course, they are all culturally available to us, otherwise he wouldn’t have met them in a course on Musical Philosophies, but in the literature, they rarely sit comfortably side by side. Rather, each typically makes its claims to validity by critiquing the others. In the 19th century, the debate centred more on which kinds of music were of higher value, in the 20th, the debate developed more into which theory better explained what music does and/or should do.

But it was by presenting the ideas as co-existent rather than competing that Theo could turn them to practical use in a rehearsal context. He did this by positing that everyone tends to have their preferred mode(s) of musical engagement, rather like learning styles, only in terms of aesthetics. (And, yes, I know the concept of learning styles has been critiqued, but as I argue here there are still ways in which it can prove useful.)

Theo posited that the dominant mode of aesthetic engagement in barbershop is referential, placing story-telling at the heart of the performance. But for someone, such as one of his quartet-mates, for whom sonic beauty provides the most direct and meaningful musical experience, a focus on story-telling is really hard work. They end up singing with their thinky face on all the time as they try and concentrate on the story. Let them connect with the music in their preferred way, however, and you suddenly see all their intuitive expressiveness come to life.

Theo worked through this idea by having the demo chorus for this session, The Belles of Three Spires, sing through a passage, each time focusing on a different mode of musical value: sound quality, musical construction, story-telling, and human connection, respectively. Then he asked them to sing it with each individual choosing to focus on the one that they connected with most readily. And you know what? The whole was significantly more expressive than it was in any of the previous iterations.

One might worry of course that having everybody choose their preferred mode of aesthetic engagement might produce a miscellaneous expressive effect. But everyone was still singing the same piece of music, with a shared understanding. In the rehearsal process we touch on all these elements, after all: we refine the tone, we explore the musical structure, we develop an understanding of the narrative, and we think about how to connect with listeners. And we expect all these elements to cohere into a unified whole, in which the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, and sonic features combine in ways that tell the same story. So long as we are singing within this shared understanding, it doesn’t really matter which route we are taking into it, and having everyone choose the one that makes most sense to them makes it not only easier but also more pleasurable.

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