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Home » Moisala et. al. – Noticing Music: Sounding Glimpses of Covent Garden as Relational Events

Moisala et. al. – Noticing Music: Sounding Glimpses of Covent Garden as Relational Events

by Pirkko Moisala, Taru Leppänen, Milla Tiainen and Hanna Väätäinen (University of Helsinki)

Among its other credentials, cultural musicology has produced crucial new insights into music as a system of meaning-making and knowing. While drawing on feminist, poststructuralist and additional theoretical currents, cultural studies of music have suggested we approach music as texts that have their own ways and powers of representing and signifying social realities: gender and sexuality; racial and ethnic identities; power relations; centres and margins. Music – especially Western classical music – has been recast as a deeply contextual construct that can provide us knowledge about our relationships to culture and the world.

In this position paper, we ask what happens if a shift is initiated from grasping music in terms of meaning and knowing towards engaging with it increasingly in terms of relational events, doing, and becoming? What if music does not only symbolically mediate worlds, but constantly comes into being and does things as part of intrinsically messy realities that consist of relations between a variety of processes and entities: vibrations, sounds, sensations, feelings and capacities, human bodies and minds, words and meanings, spaces, movements, materialities, arrangements and rearrangements of social organization and power? How might our conceptions about music on the one hand and about the methodological stances of cultural studies of music on the other hand change if this kind of relational occurring is harnessed as a starting point? Instead of seeing music as a window to culture, we connect these views of relationality with the spirit of ethnomusicology in order to reorient and elaborate methodologies of studying music as cultural and bodily entanglements.

In our paper, we will exemplify the directions that might emerge from this through discussing some relational events of sound and music that we encountered in the Covent Garden area during our recent visit to London. Ultimately, the paper is related to our respective longer-term research projects that are currently ongoing. What connects our on-going projects is their attempt to create new combinations between ethnographic study of musics (a tradition where music’s relational happening has historically been given attention) and such theorizations of relationality and becoming (e.g. Gilles Deleuze, Rebecca Coleman, Brian Massumi) that remain little used in the cultural study of music. Our proposition is that when musics are explored as relational events, the logic of fairly stable recognition behind the term “knowing music” may be complemented or replaced by “noticing music,” to use a notion coined by Kathleen Stewart (2007). This term refers here to open-ended examinations of the patterning, yet also constantly differing things that music can do in the course of its relational becomings, and that can be involved in – or excluded from – its processes of happening.

Music as text, culture, and musicking

When Lawrence Kramer (2002, 1) opens his book Musical Meaning by announcing that “meaning” is “a basic force in music history and an indispensable factor in how, where, and when music is heard,” the premises about music and its research suggested by this formulation resonate much more widely than just with this single study. Indeed, Kramer’s stress on the notion of meaning can be said to encapsulate one of the core characteristics of those reorientations of musical scholarship that have been called ‘new’, critical, and more recently cultural musicology. It is largely the returns to the idea that music carries meaning and the reconsiderations regarding the operations of this meaningfulness, through which the cultural study of music – in relation to feminist, postcolonial, and various other perspectives – has over the past decades contributed new topics of enquiry, lines of theorising, and key understandings about music’s political power to musicological scholarship.

Looking mainly at Anglo-American musicology, it was famously such scholars as Kramer (1990; 1996), Susan McClary (1991; 2000), Rose Subotnik (1996), and Richard Leppert (1995) who initiated this trend by bringing back and simultaneously reconfiguring the idea of musical meaning as music’s cultural signification. While drawing on poststructuralist, feminist, and other timely theoretical currents, these re-conceptions mainly questioned and sought to move beyond the prevailing paradigms and concepts of the study of Western classical music.

They did this in at least two ways. Both have for long been counted as chief traits and achievements of cultural musicology. Firstly, these new insights on musical meaning powerfully challenged the dominance acquired during the past two centuries by notions of music’s autonomy via demonstrating how musical textures, instead of being a self-contained form of expression, can be reviewed as a representational practice among others (verbal, visual). Music was reconsidered in terms of the contextually bound ways in which its features can signify phenomena in social reality or model “the symbolization of experience” (Kramer 2002, 7). Secondly, by claiming that music’s cultural meanings are not innate, but something it accrues in its constant encounters with listeners embedded in specific psychological and sociocultural frameworks (see McClary 1991), the approaches at stake shifted the views of (classical) music’s ontology from pregiven artworks to a dynamic signifying process.    

Susan McClary is usually credited for shaking the “certainty of knowing” within western art music culture by claiming that we (musicologists) are “no longer sure what MUSIC is” (1991, 19). However, ethnomusicologists have never been able to enjoy such a certainty of knowing about music.  When initiating a study of music in and as culture (among many others, Merriam 1964; McLeod & Herndon 1980) which, in the past, most often happened in etic cultures. It has been customary for ethnomusicologists to ask, what “music” is in this culture, for these people, and in this particular context, rather than essentializing music as something known a priori. Furthermore, it has been frequently asked what music accomplishes in the society and for people and what it is that sounds organized into “music” do in various situations.

Ethnomusicological studies and theorizations have echoed the ways, in which globalization, medialization and technologization are changing musics to be more transnational and transportable, which Steven Feld calls “sonic virtuality”.  He states that “as sonic virtuality is increasingly naturalized, everyone’s musical world will be felt and experienced as both more definite and more vague, specific yet blurred, particular but general, in place and in motion” (2000, 145). Furthermore, recent ethnomusicological studies have enlarged the scope of research into the sounds and the ways in which the world is lived, experienced, constructed, and expressed through sounds (see for instance, Feld 2003 and 2004 about “acoustemology”, and the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world). When studying music as culture the focus is also ever more often in sensibilities and experiences (Berger 2009), including the cultural embodiments of music and dance (such as Wong 2004; Hahn 2007). In fact, one could encapsulate the recent developments in ethnomusicology by stating that the study of music in and as culture has developed into the study of cultural encounters in all kinds of musical practices and sonic virtualities. Musics and sounds are, today, studied predominantly as lived and embodied experiences.

What is interesting for our experiment and presentation in recent trends of ethnomusicology is studying music as sensed encounters. Ethnomusicologists had for a long time been studying music in performance and as performance of culture, as well as cultural process. However, the concept of “musicking” put forward by Christopher Small (1998) addressed all of these dimensions in a singular formation. According to him, “the act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies (Small 1998, 13). With “relationships” Small did not only refer to social relationships between individuals or between individuals and the society, humanity and the natural – even supernatural – world, but also how these relationships established by musicking stand as models and metaphors for such relating.

In ethnomusicology and popular music studies, the idea of music/king as a relational event has been further developed by Jocelyne Guilbault (2005 and 2007). Her concept of audible entanglements examines “sites, moments, and modes of enunciation articulated through musical practices. So, far from being ‘merely’ musical, audible entanglements – – assemble social relations, cultural expressions, and political formulations” (Guilbault 2005, 20-21). She approaches Trinidad´s Carnival music as “sound work”, which as multiple meanings: what kind of work is done with sound; what are the material conditions that enable the sounds to emerge; and what it is in that sound work that music accomplishes (ibid., 276). The result is a multi-sided analysis of how Carnival musics of Trinidad incite discourses of musical authenticity, sexuality and pleasure; how the discourses reconfigure issues of race and ethnic relations, body politics and national identity, and how they help to articulate new cultural formations in addition to various senses of belonging.

Towards noticing music

By today the new accounts of meaning characteristic of cultural musicology have resulted in a range of insightful findings about how musics symbolically mediate and thus partake in constructing social realities: gender and sexual differences; racial and ethnic identities; power-imbued relations between self and other; centres and margins. It is possible, however, to perceive certain limitations in these stances or certain questions that they invite. Some of these provide a central point of departure for our present position paper.

The first question in this vein is to what extent addressing musics as signifying texts actually manages to challenge notions of music as object-like entities essential to the Western concert tradition and aesthetics of autonomy, even if this is what cultural musicology aims to do. These approaches recast musics as ontologically open-ended in terms of signifying potential and the associated effects of (written and sonic) musical patterns in the wider reality of ideas, attitudes, and social relationships. Yet the notions of text seem to carry remnants of understandings of music as distinct, thing-like wholes. Crucially, some projects in cultural and feminist musicology have sketched prominent alternatives to the conceptualisations of music – classical or other – as cultural texts. In her groundbreaking essay “Feminist Theory, Music Theory, and the Mind/Body Problem” (1994), Suzanne Cusick suggested reconsiderations of music beyond the work/object-form by stressing music’s inseparability from musical performers’ actions and mobile corporealities. Music, here, became a process of occurring as sounds and expression that relates inextricably to musicians’ coordinated, yet always newly enacted bodily techniques which are interpreted as signalling gendered traits and hierarchies, for example.

Even more centrally for our position paper, Christopher Small launched in 1998 the concept of musicking. This concept’s fundamental impetus was to replace the conventional primacy of musical works/objects (stemming from the dominant images of music in the modern Western classical tradition) with that of musical event. Musicking, then, signalled any kinds of human participation – listening, playing, humming, setting up stage props, etc. – as well as the complex relationships between these ways of participating, in the unfolding of musical events that happen in ever-particular physical-social settings. (Small 1998, 1-18.)  

In this paper, we embark on conceptually elaborating the lines by Small and Cusick, whereby musics are not regarded only in terms of interpretatively transforming textual signs and knowledge about them, but become considered increasingly in terms of relational events, doing, and becoming. Becoming “has neither beginning nor end, departure or arrival, origin or destination [–]. A line of becoming has only a middle.” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 293.) The approach we hope to start outlining is inspired by the process thinking of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and the work of latter-day theorists developing on this thinking (e.g. Rosi Braidotti, Claire Colebrook, Rebecca Coleman, Elizabeth Grosz, Brian Massumi). These theorisations remain little used in the cultural study of music. Their stress on particular issues nonetheless lends them refreshing potential as regards music research.

These issues include reality’s constant actualisation or becoming; the constitutive force of relations and affect; and the heterogeneous construction of realities, where it is not only semiotic and human, but also material, multisensory, and non-human factors that have situationally formed agency of their own kind (see e.g. Alaimo & Hekman 2008, 7) in building and transmuting life in its social, bodily, and cultural dimensions.

If juxtaposed with Small’s approach, reality’s becoming, its continuous varying from itself in how for example musical events and expressions and bodies in movement actualise on a given occasion, can add further dynamism and conceptual rigour to the notion of musicking. In this view, no two actualisations can be similar because the relations between the involved elements and the ways their identities re-emerge when affected by these relations are singular each time (this does not ignore the development of habits or relative regularities). Moreover, in his approach Small (1998, 10) talks primarily about the meaning of musical events whilst defining instances of musicking straightforwardly as “human encounters.” We want to ask what other processes and modes of agency as readily signifying and strictly human variables might be involved in occasions of musicking? How might the exploration of these variables modify the conceptions about musics and research methodology in the cultural study of music? One of our suggestions will be that the premises of singularity and always partly unpredictable becoming inspire an epistemological and ontological shift from knowing music (being able to recognise and read its ‘codes’) into noticing music. In what follows, we seek to give some examples of how noticing stands not for finding the repeatable, more or less stable in occasions of musicking, but for opening up to the singularities that might change our relations with and thoughts about what musics are and do.

In Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking the role of concepts is not to represent pre-existing reality. Concepts don’t have to represent that which already exists but their job is to bring about new connections and new possibilities for thinking and action. In music research inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s the task of concepts of music is not to represent or imitate pre-given musical realities. This is liberating from the point of view of noticing music in Covent Garden. It is also liberating from the point of view of new definitions of the concept of music. The issue at stake in these definitions and in noticing is ethics: what kinds of ways of noticing and conceptualizing music could increase the capacities of our bodies and ideas and what ways could diminish them? Whose bodies should increase their capacities? 

An experiment in Covent Garden

During our project meeting in London our research group made an experiment with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts in connection to music and musicking. We chose to go to Covent Garden, where we tried to notice music as becoming. Kathleen Stewart uses, in her book Ordinary Affects (2007), a particular method of noticing the world around us. Noticing is a methodological concept and an experiment that aims to ”shed light on other ways of knowing, relating to and creating the world, ’noticing’ [–] different kinds of things that might be happening, or things that might be happening differently” (Coleman & Ringrose 2013, 4; see also Stewart 2007; Blackman & Venn 2010). By noticing music as becoming we mean noticing music in relation to how Deleuze and Guattari understand music as a line of flight, as singularities and differentiation. In order to do this, our attention was first drawn to different kinds of refrains in those situations where we noticed music. Refrains are points and circles comprised of visual, auditory, tactile or other expressive elements that create a sense of stability for those involved in their production and experiencing, which is always situational and temporary. Deleuze and Guattari use the word music to refer to a special kind of refrain that engenders a transformation (a process of becoming). 

Instead of carrying out extensive fieldwork in Covent Garden we tried to relate to music in order to reconceptualize our understandings of what music is (and how it becomes). While reading our notes, watching the video recordings and recalling musicking in Covent Garden we realized that our understanding of music was rather conventional. We had learnt what music is and it was difficult to transform our understandings of it. For us, music was initially just sounds. The sounds we identified as music were performed by musicians. Listeners, including us, were relating to those sounds. This happened despite the fact that one of us, Taru Leppänen, is conducting research on music as vibration in relation to movement and sign language in deaf cultures.

Covent Garden is a district in London’s West End where street musicians can work with permission. In Covent Garden there is a neo-classical covered market area with shops and restaurants. This area belongs to a company called Capital & Counties Properties PLC which purchased it in 2006 and several other properties around the Market area consisting of retail, office and residential space mainly in James Street, Floral Street and Southampton Street. The Market is situated between Henrietta Street (in North) and King Street (in South) as well an East Piazza and a West Piazza. Next to the Market is situated the Royal Opera House. 

The musicians we noticed during our visit in Covent Garden were performing inside the Market building in a lower floor where there were tables and chairs for the clients of the restaurants. Outside the Market in West and East Piazza there were circus artists performing. One musician was playing in a street corner a traffic cone. On 24th of October there was a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes and on the 25th of October Carlos Acostas’ choreography of Don Quixote at the main stage of the Royal Opera House. One of us attended the performance of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes.  

In Covent Garden there was background music playing in the shops, bars and restaurants. A shop that was selling toys had small music boxes, which two of us played and listened to by placing the instrument next to the ear. In the Disney shop video clips from Disney movies were playing which one of us watched for a little while by moving her hands in the space between the screen and her eyes. In other words, there were many opportunities to engage with a lot of music. The man who was playing a traffic cone in a street corner behind the opera house, was sitting on the ground and singing through the cone which he placed in front of his mouth. The road cone functioned as a kind of microphone or megaphone which transformed his voice.  

Richard Middleton (2003, 2) writes, in the introduction of the book The Cultural Study of Music as follows: ”It is hard to delineate with precision all that these various trajectories have in common, beyond a position against pure musical autonomy.” Would it be possible that we as cultural musicologists still somehow follow the guidelines of musical autonomy? We decided that we would try, if only for a while, to let go of our assumptions about what music is and to give a chance for different kinds of conceptualizations of music, to notice music as singularities and as differentiation. In short, our aim was to notice music, to shed light on other ways of knowing and relating to music. We proposed the following questions: How far can we stretch the concept of music? What can be music as a singularity? Whose capacities are increased if we stretch the concept of music? While following this thought experimentation our attention began to focus for example on the movements enacted by the listeners around street performers as well as on the non-human forms of agency participating in these situations in Covent Garden. In relation to Small’s definition of musicking, we’d like to ask: do we always need the notion of musical performance in order to notice music and in order to move in relation to it?

As indicated above, Small also does not explicitly attribute agency to other than human factors in musicking. One of the non-human agents in street performances was money in the form of exchanged coins and notes. “Beyond the state it’s money that rules, money that communicates, and what we need these days definitely isn’t any critique of Marxism, but a modern theory of money as good as Marx’s that goes on from where he left off”. (Deleuze 1995, 152.) Money was an affecting factor in all instances of musicking in which we took part at Covent Garden. For instance, money oriented the movements of listeners: often the listener participates in the becoming of music by walking to place money in a hat or bowl in the vicinity of the performers. Inside the opera house, the money used for buying opera tickets divides people into different floors and seating areas. These differing locations affect both the social identities these people can be associated with and their capacities for sensorily engaging the operatic event.

When a street musician is making music, her or his activity can be seen as a refrain which consists of a point of stability, a circle around that point and lines of flight which break the territory. The musicking produces all these aspects of a refrain. The listeners, the passers-by, come inside this territory when they want to give money to the musician. When they move away from the musician after dropping a coin for her or him, they break the circle. As moving bodies they can be seen as lines that escape the territory created by the musician. Music is both a territory, a refrain and a line of flight, a transformation, for Deleuze and Guattari.  


A further important concept when trying to notice music in the above-explained senses is assemblage. Assemblages are provisional collectives of heterogeneous co-affective and co-productive elements. However, they cannot be created of whatever happens to be in a vicinity. This means that music as assemblages cannot consist of the non-specific and unrelated; what it consists of is still conditioned by singular contexts. When we talk about music as becoming, the issue at stake is power and politics as both limiting and empowering potentials. A Deleuzian approach is “as much a mapping of what is impossible, what becomes stuck or fixed, as it is of flux and flow” (Coleman & Ringrose 2013, 9). In that case our methodological mission of noticing musicking could be articulated as follows: noticing is to intervene in the middle of singular assemblages with their flows and fixities and thus to enter in a relation with music.


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