Monday, 30 October 2006

3: Road Rage and Musical Community

3: Road Rage and Musical Community

Nicholas Cook, FBA

Research Professor of Music, University of Southampton, UK

Hands up anybody who has never felt a touch of road rage, doesn't even know what it's about! Without hopefully being worse-tempered than the next person I think I'm at least qualified to say where it comes from. On the one hand you're taking part in a social interaction: someone sits on your tail, infringing your personal space, pushing you to go faster even though you're already exceeding the speed limit, and you read the way they position their car in relation to yours with all the finesse which which you read a minute gesture or a cocked eyebrow in conversation. But of course it isn't conversation, and both you and the other driver are enclosed in a metal box, cut off from anyone outside it, isolated from one another. The result is the elimination of the constant stream of communication that takes place alongside, or behind, the overt content of a face-to-face interaction—the gestures, scratching, shifting of body weight, modifications of vocal tone, and other almost imperceptible means through which people nuance what they are saying, inform one another of their feelings, and respond to one another in such a way as to make conversation the shared experience that it is. This is the reciprocal relationship that the sociologist Alfred Schutz called 'mutual tuning-in', and which he saw as the 'indispensable condition of all possible communication'. Road rage shows what happens when the mutual tuning-in relationship is disrupted. And because it represents the way in which people are cut off from one another even when there are people all around, isolated in the midst of congestion, it's a potent symbol of the alienation that is all too characteristic of today's rationalized, post-industrial society.

Schutz coined the term 'mutual tuning-in' in the course of an essay published in 1951 and called 'Making music together'. For him, making music together involves the sharing of 'inner time', that is to say time as experienced rather than time as measured by the movement of the clock—the kind of time that ticks so slowly when you're waiting anxiously for news from the hospital, and all too fast when you're enjoying yourself. We might normally refer to it as 'subjective' time. But Schutz's point is that when people make music together they are all inhabiting the same time, and so he defines the mutual tuning-in relationship as a 'sharing of the other's flux of experiences in innner time': this is not subjectivity but intersubjectivity, and indeed it was Schutz who popularized this concept as a middle way between objectivity and subjectivity. And he saw musical listeners as equal participants in this intersubjective experience, sharing the same experience of time as the performers: whether in intimate surroundings or in a large concert hall, he said, 'performer and listener are "tuned-in" to one another, are living together through the same flux, are growing older together while the musical process lasts'.

Schutz didn't mean to say that it is only in music that you find this kind of shared subjectivity; on the contrary, he said, 'we find the same features in marching together, dancing together, making love together'. But he had good reason to choose music as his examplar for such communal activity, because of the way in which it renders the processes of face-to-face interaction directly perceptible. I can explain what I mean by asking how the members of a string quartet play together. One way it might work is if everybody played to the same standardized values. What I mean by this is that everybody would play in the same tempo, make their crotchets twice as long as their quavers, and so forth. This would be rather like a car assembly line, where workers screw together components which fit because they have been manufactured to standard dimensions. But of course, no string quartet plays together like that. No string quartet adheres to exactly the same tempo throughout and makes all its crotchets twice as long as its quavers; as Schutz would put it, they make music together in inner, subjective time, not in the external, clock time where one thing can be exactly twice as long as another. Saying what string quartets do do is harder, however, and the reason is that exact values of timing, intonation, and so forth are negotiated between the performers in real time. There are no standard values, just these notes played just so in this context. String quartets rehearse, of course, which means that they agree on the general way in which they will shape their interpretation—the climaxes and the way they will be built, the balancing of contrapuntal passages, and so forth. But it's not as if each player's performance becomes so fixed, so overlearnt, that they could just as well perform wearing headphones and hearing only a click track. That would be very like the situation of the drivers enclosed in their metal boxes with the rage building up inside them because they cannot communicate properly. Instead, making music together means constantly listening to everyone else, constantly accommodating your performance to theirs, being sensitive to other people's states of mind, knowing when to follow and when to lead.

In short, making music together is an enaction of human community, and the sound of music is the sound of community in action. Put this way, music becomes a kind of escape route from the real world of traffic congestion and road rage, a kind of workout for the soul, a utopia where for once we can interact fully and satisfyingly with others in the way that is so often denied to us in everyday life—and as I said, you don't need to be actually playing in order to participate in the intersubjectivity of music, you become a member of the musical community just by listening. That would surely be sufficient justification for music. Yet it is not all that music has to offer. I want to claim that music is not just an escape from the world but a way of learning how to be in the world. Participation in music is like a flight simulator for social life: listening to others, developing your sensitivity to them, experiencing different relationships with them as the musical lines interact with one another—all these constitute a kind of crash course in interpersonal relationships. Melody, accompaniment, homophony, counterpoint, heterophony and fugue all embody different ways of relating to other people, but it is those values of timing and intonation and balance that can only be negotiated in the real time of performance which lie at the heart of music's socializing function. Music presents interpersonal relationships in their most abstract, stripped-down form, and to learn the ways of music is therefore to learn the repertory of social relationships and the knowledge of how to apply them if we are to function as successful social beings. That is why a musical education is not just an education for music but an education for life.

So should the mandatory penalty for road rage be twelve months in a string quartet? Well, maybe not, though it would be hard to think of a more intensive kind of community service. I don't want to over-egg my case by casting music as a panacea for all social evils. Music, after all, is only music. But, as music, it holds out perhaps the clearest, the most intelligible promise we have of a better world—and maybe, just maybe, it is the shortest route to one.

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