Friday, March 11, 2011
The Lute and the Incongruent Bicycle Bell
Reading Errol Morris's new blog series has reminded me of my own introduction to Thomas Kuhn, in an seminar on the Sociology of Knowledge in Santa Cruz taught by Harry Eastmond, an extraordinary figure, a lecturer both more sharper and more animated and deeply funny than nearly anyone I've ever encountered, Barbados-born, seldom without sunglasses, driver of very fast cars, who took his office hours at the Space Invaders game in a downtown disco, and who was not to last very long in academia, even at the supposedly progressive Santa Cruz. I was a freshman and clearly over my head with the material, but I can still vividly recall how, eventually, the course turned on questions of objective and subjective constructions of knowledge (the ever-controversial Berger/Luckman classic, The Social Construction of Reality, came into play as well), when I had the minor revelation that musicians negotiate this territory all the time. Take loudness. We can haul out a decibel meter and measure absolute loudness, from a particular source, within a particular space, etc., and this kind of information is useful. It's useful to know that a trombone can output so many decibels. It's useful to know how a room responds to such inputs. But subjective differences in loudness can be even more musically relevant: if I have a very quiet stream of music — say, a series of chords played, pianissimo, by a lute —, interrupting this stream with, say, a single stroke on a bicycle bell will be heard as startling, perhaps devastatingly, loud, although the absolute loudness of that bell is not great. There are so many elements that go into the perception of such a musical event, including the very incongruity of the interrupting bell, that even if we were to come up with some formula for adding in objective measures of all these elements, the efficiency of the subjective perception in both approximating the objective and adding in the strictly intuitive seems to me to trump the objective measurement in both acuity and utility. But the main point is that, as musicians, we have it both ways, objectively and subjectively, all the time, and the musical experience is none the worse for it.