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To Be Embodied or Disembodied at Harvard


“Hearing Modernity” marched forward with its sixth installment devoted to exploring some of the relationships between the body and sound. The act of listening to a recording of music may or may not be disembodying. In the realm of popular culture, “all things brain” disembodies, whereas in current serious research the interfacing of neurology and biology posits a whole body concept, thus embodiment. To be embodied or to be disembodied, that was the question raised again Tuesday afternoon at Holden Chapel, Harvard University.

“Sounds and the Brain” featured Aniruddh D. Patel, Associate Professor, Psychology Department, Tufts University and Vijay Iyer, Professor of the Arts, Harvard University. Patel exposed his fascination with language and music by playing short excerpts by Elgar and Debussy then remarking on how their musical languages reflect spoken British English and French respectively. Music-making can also be “provocative” going beyond language, via effects such as thunder or the recreation of dreaming states.

These ideas come from Patel’s precirculated paper, “Two Surprising Connections between sounds and actions: A Perspective from Music Cognition.”  The listener seeks to understand the intentions of the composer by hearing the music as spoken language as well as non-verbal sounds. As an experiment would have it, two groups were asked to listen to the same piece of music, the first group being told it was composed by a computer, the second by a human.  The piece, they were later told, was by Schoenberg. Predictably, the outcome of the experiment had the two groups identifying two different sets of intentions.

For Patel, music cognition means predictability. For him, the beat, “a widespread feature of music,” is predictive not reactive. Complex neurological processing is involved. Signals move back and forth from higher to lower brain areas; this is the concept of “reentry.”

Vijay Iyer, who may be better known as a jazz pianist, set out on an exploration he entitled “Improvisation, Action Understanding, Music Cognition with and without Bodies.” Establishing somewhat more a philosophical than scientific tangent, Iyer aims to “provincialize” the word “music” and to make the claim that music being human action, empathy and cognition are therefore processes shared by improviser and listener. Where science might become involved, its purpose, for Iyer, is to scrutinize rather than prove.

Culture cannot be denied in terms of experiencing improvisation. “Neural mirroring” may be “clean.” Or it may not be, “racial empathy gaps” prevent mutual embodiment or empathy.

Richard Wolf, Professor of Music and ethnomusicologist at Harvard gave an extended response, repudiating many of the tenets presented in both papers. Understanding intentions is fraught with a range of variables. In South Indian musical tradition improvisation and composition are clearly delineated approaches. As far back as the 1928, Hornbostel observed that African rhythm derived from muscular tension, while for Waterman African rhythm meant the body in motion with the sound. Another early front running ethnomusicologist, Nettl, learned that two versions of a Blackfoot song that sounded the same to him were actually not the same song because the songs were dreamt and, in that culture, they were thought of as different, not just variants.

Two questions came from a smaller than usual audience. One pertained to improvisation in the performance of classical music, the notes being same but the timing always being flexible, a consequence of empathy, the relationship of performer and audience. Another wondered about the metaphysical and moral existing in concepts of “ghosts” and “fooling.”  Iyer again took a backdoor exit by once again returning to his bottom line—“fantasy.” Patel’s final utterance also reduced the day’s outing to, “you cannot pin music down.”

Getting a handle on their research, especially outcomes, was tough. After the seminar, I walked by an outsized poster at the Science Building announcing an upcoming lecture. At the bottom read “the talks are designed for the interested public.” Now, just who would that be?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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