Affect in Music

Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects

by Roger Mathew Grant

The essay begins:

Picture it: East Prussia, autumn, 1814.

I had been spending some time in the country there, and on quiet nights with moderate winds I used distinctly to hear long, held tones, which would begin to resemble a deep, subdued organ pipe, then also the vibrations from the ringing of a muffled bell. I often could discern precisely the deep F and the striking C a fifth above it, and often even the E-flat a minor third above that also sounded, so that this piercing seventh chord, in the tones of the deepest lamentations, filled my chest with an innermost penetrating melancholy, and even horror.

These words belong to Lewis, a central character in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “Automata.” In this tale, Lewis describes a fantastical encounter with the overtone series, or the “chord of nature,” as it was then called. The sounds of this natural phenomenon overtake him, producing in his body a sympathetic resonance—a sudden, gripping, visceral reaction that he cannot explain.

The critical term for the type of experience Lewis relates is affect. Twenty-first-century theorists describe affect as corporeal, immediate, and nondiscursive. Affect is said to relate conditions of feeling that cannot be adequately captured with the tools of language. Affect theory has recently benefited from a huge resurgence in interest among humanists and social scientists, and whether the apex of this new popularity has already passed or is yet to come, it’s safe to say that affect has not always attracted the attention it does today. As the story typically goes, critics have recently favored affect theory in their search for alternatives to the focus on discourse that characterized the linguistic turn. But this narrative is not exclusive to the twenty-first century; it is also the story of a less well-known movement in intellectual history that occurred in the middle decades of the eighteenth, when debates on music created a fundamental transformation within aesthetic theory.

Affect has a long and rich intellectual heritage, and its relationships to the objects that are said to generate it have been anything but uniform. In early modernity, the affects—or the passions, as they were also called—were important components of an elaborate semiotic system that explained the impact of aesthetic objects. Today, by stark contrast, affect is often explicitly opposed to theories of the sign and of representation; theorists construe affect as a matter of subjective reception that is fundamentally objectless or nonintentional, occasionally even contrasting affect with ideology. The narrative traced in this article draws attention to an earlier moment during which affect was slowly separated from representations of aesthetic objects, and it illustrates the central and surprising role that music played in this separation.

Unfolding two parallel transformations within affect theory’s history, I endeavor to highlight formal features of affect theory that we have been given to repeating. I also aim to draw the history of affect theory into conversation with another, equally vexed archive: the history of music theory. Affective experience and musical sound have created similar problems for theorists. Both are said to act on the body in a material fashion that can be explained with a certain degree of specificity, and yet both are also said to produce transformations within us that exceed and overspill linguistic or rational containment. Music theory and affect theory, I will suggest, have much to teach each other.

Music scholars have not completely neglected the early modern turn to affect within music theory; it used to be called the Affektenlehre, or the “doctrine of affections.” But work on this phenomenon came to a halt in the 1980s, when George Buelow and others decided that its documents contain too many internal contradictions to be considered a cohesive doctrine. Buelow was correct about this, but he underestimated both the importance of those thorny, contradictory treatises and the scope of the intellectual movement they represent. The Affektenlehre was bigger and messier than we had previously thought, and it is now more pertinent to our contemporary discourse than we could ever have imagined. The time has come for a careful reconsideration of this vital and challenging intellectual moment.

In what follows I first elaborate the relationship between affect and the objects that induce it within the classic formulations of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. Tracing the lineage of this thought through eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, I demonstrate the crisis that musical tones created in failing to conform to the period’s prevailing aesthetic doctrine of imitation—the perceived failure, that is, of music to imitate any objects or create representations with any regularity. Within the critical quarrels that occurred during this tumultuous period of music theory’s history there emerged a new and much overlooked stage in the Affektenlehre. Certain eighteenth-century music theorists began to posit a mode whereby music aroused affect in listeners through sympathetic resonance. This theory of affective attunement, which reached its fullest elaborations in the writings of German Romantics such as Hoffmann, is closest to our contemporary, corporeal, nondiscursive understanding of affect. Drawing these two moments into conversation, I argue for a refraction of our current thought through earlier models of affect and a renewal of attention to the objects that generate affect in subjects. Continue reading …

This article places the recent turn to affect into conversation with a parallel movement that took place in eighteenth-century music theory. Because theorists in that period struggled to explain how music functioned as a sign, they began to propose an alternative, materialist theory of vibrational attunement in order to account for music’s affective power. By refracting contemporary affect theory through this historical antecedent, the essay argues for renewed attention to the objects in the world that generate affects in subjects.

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the turn to affect within eighteenth-century music theory.

Radical Staging

Representations‘ editor Mary Ann Smart and authors Laura Tunbridge and Lydia Goehr on opera in Stockholm this weekend:

30 June 2017, 9.30 AM – 01 July 2017, 4.00 PM 
Department of Culture and Aesthetics, Frescativägen 22B-26, Stockholm University
After the much-noted “performative turn” in the humanities, the diverse field of opera studies seemed destined to move into a new paradigm. Widely read studies like Tom Sutcliffe’s Believing in Opera (1997) and David Levin’s Unsettling Opera (2007) promised a more refined approach to operatic production, dramaturgy and mise-en-scène, while Carolyn Abbate, Elisabeth LeGuin and others argued for the necessity of making bodily presence and liveness the key concern of opera scholarship. Against this background, the conference “Opera and Performance” aims to map a wide array of current positions in opera studies: To what extent have the concerns and methodologies of performance studies impacted current research on opera? Have notions of performance and event replaced the traditional focus on the operatic work, or have these perspectives merged into new syntheses? What is the current state of the debate pitting liveness and presence against meaning and interpretation? What is the role of the body and its movements in scholarship that emphasizes dance, gesture and choreography as vital components of operatic performance? What status do concepts of media and mediation have in opera studies today? Furthermore, how do these methodological issues relate to recent developments in the art of opera, such as stagings that operate beyond the dichotomous clichés of Werktreue and Regietheater; experimental forms of music theatre that take place outside the grand institutions of mainstream opera; and operas intended to be experienced through digital media?

Quirk Historicism: A Special Forum, Representations 132

In the wake of New Historicism, eight music scholars reflect on the recent tendency to use objets trouvés and historical micronarratives for interpretation. The editors of the forum, Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart, introduce the thread of the quirk historicist phenomenon and contemplate its implications.

ELEPHANTS IN THE MUSIC ROOM: THE FUTURE OF QUIRK HISTORICISM

This introduction begins (free download):

hans-and-maguerite

Jean Pierre Louis Laurent Houël: ‘‘Les eléphants représentes dans l’instant de premières caresses qu’ils se sont faites après qu’on leur a fait entendre de la musique,” in Histoire Naturelle des deux Elephants, male et femelle, du Muséum de Paris (Paris, 1803).

Despite a suffix that suggests kinship with taxonomic enterprises such as zoology or the earliest phases of anthropology, musicology may rank as one of the most permissive of humanistic fields. In journals and at conferences, philological research and source studies rub shoulders with work on the philosophy of music, close readings, reception history, and microhistory. Yet, as in literary studies, one central question has troubled the field for at least a quarter-century: that of the status of the “texts” (musical works, as notated or performed) whose interpretation and explanation traditionally anchored much musicological writing. As both the canon of works that merited this type of attention and the analytical tools used to explicate them were destabilized, scholarly energies turned toward narrating historical accounts of musical environments. In the wake of this suspicion of close reading, many musicologists became collectors of curiosities, assembling and scrutinizing disparate objects, events, and documents in order to understand how past communities of listeners and practitioners used music, why they created and cared about the kinds of music they did.

Before this collecting impulse took hold, history often meant “context.” Musical works could be enriched, but at the same time shown to be functional and contingent, by accounts that placed them in ready-made historical frames supplied by the locations in which art was produced or by big-picture histories—the French Revolution, the Third Reich, the Napoleonic Wars. And like most such cross-disciplinary borrowings, the imported concepts were sometimes flattened out, as if they had passed through the brain’s “abstract thought” region, as imagined in the Pixar movie Inside Out. As the kinds of history practiced by music historians have become more fine-grained and more material, there is a temptation to look down on earlier approaches as schematic or simplistic; but it is worth remembering that those contextual dyads (“music and . . . ”) were welcome and necessary excuses to talk about music—even instrumental music, symphonies and the like—in relation to categories such as gender, race, and nation, whose admission into musicological thought was long overdue.

Once musicologists began to take notice of New Historicism, any such tidy or schematic versions of history quickly fell by the wayside. New Historicism’s trademark deployment of the anecdote upended the apparent clarity and coherence of context and blurred the distinction between texts and contexts, dispersing both into more complex discursive constellations. The kinds of historical material potentially available to the music scholar thus became nearly endless, the relevance of any particular detail depending mainly on the ingenuity and persuasive gifts of the writer. Such a précis could, with a few adjustments, apply to almost any humanistic discipline in the 1990s and 2000s. But in musicology, the objets trouvés and historical micronarratives that once obediently fell into contextual patterns or acted as isolated anecdotes have staged a kind of mutiny, multiplying in the service of a narrative logic that overwhelms and even supplants any larger critical goals. It is this tendency that we are calling quirk historicism. Continue reading … (free download)

FORUM CONTENTS

JAMES Q. DAVIES
On Being Moved/Against Objectivity

EMILY I. DOLAN
Musicology in the Garden

ELLEN LOCKHART
Pygmalion and the Music of Mere Interest

AOIFE MONKS
Bad Art, Quirky Modernism

BENJAMIN PIEKUT
Pigeons

BENJAMIN WALTON
Quirk Shame

NICHOLAS MATHEW is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California,  Berkeley. He is the author of Political Beethoven (Cambridge, 2013) and co-editor, with Benjamin Walton, of the collection The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini.

MARY ANN SMART also teaches in the Music Department of UC Berkeley. She is the author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and editor of Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. Her new book, Waiting for Verdi, will be published by the University of California Press in 2016.