Between Affect, Attitudes, and Affordances

What follows is a proposal for a conference panel on music and materialism, accepted for the RMA’s 2018 annual conference.


RMA conference session: ‘Music and Materialisms: Between Affect, Attitudes, and Affordances’

Prof Isabella van Elferen, Kingston University, London

Dr Matthew Sergeant, Bath Spa University

Dr Samuel Wilson, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London


Much attention is being paid to the role that objects, matter, and materiality have in music-making, history, and aesthetics. One might, for instance, undertake a “carnal musicology”, take account of music’s “drastic” aspects, consider musical instruments’ “social lives”, engage material practices of musical production and consumption, or draw focus to embodied aspects of music through one’s practice-research. One might also reflect on the potential limits of a musical materialism – on questions concerning experience, abstraction, and excess.

These trends are themselves unfolding among interdisciplinary developments in materialist thinking: be this in disciplines such as anthropology, art theory, or philosophy, or under diverse theoretical perspectives variously labelled feminist, Marxian, Adornian, post-anthropocentric, Deleuzian, vital materialist, as well as those explicitly self-identified as “new materialist” – to name but a few.

Three papers and a following discussion will explore two crucial problematics within this field. The first concerns human-nonhuman entanglements: in contemporary compositional strategies that foreground nonhuman affordances (Sergeant); when mastering the musical object or relinquishing control (Wilson); and in the affective dimension that has been argued to be crucial to this relation (van Elferen). Second, the session highlights (historical) possibilities for and limitations of musical materialisms: where these might not only speak to contemporary practices and genealogies of twentieth-century precursors, but might also take account of ways in which musical “vibrant matter” affects eighteenth- as well as twenty-first century listeners, and musicians as well as instruments.

Composing Nonhuman Affordances: Gifting to a nonhuman domain

Dr Matthew Sergeant

Applying Jane Bennett’s (2010) notion of a vital materialism as a lens, this paper offers an understanding of the recent (re-)emergence of non-standard instruments, objects and so-called ‘lo-fi’ technology within contemporary concert music. Drawing from the practices of contemporary composers (including Hanna Hartman, Michelle Lou, Mauricio Pauly, and Simon Steen-Andersen), the paper theorises this (re)-emergence demonstrates a reversal of the standard praxis of affordance, now from the human to the nonhuman. Within such a context the compositional act is re-considered as a gifting (Maus 2016) of a stage to agential matter, where it might somehow be allowed to dance.


Musical Encounters with the Object in Twentieth-Century Compositional Thought

Dr Samuel Wilson

In this paper I explore the implications of some twentieth-century compositional attitudes towards material objects (including sound-as-object), with reference to the thought and practice of Busoni, Russolo, Varèse, Cage, and Tudor. Calling on Freudo-Marxist materialism and recent feminist theory, I note two widely manifested tendencies: the first constitutes a presumed mastery over the object in question; the second suggests an exploration of the object “on its own terms”. I theorise dialectical paradoxes implicit in these possibilities, for instance where the freedom afforded by post-Cagean aesthetics expresses latent forms of disciplinary logic and control over one’s materials.


Rethinking Affect: The Vibrant Matter of Baroque Rhetoric

Prof Isabella van Elferen

This paper rethinks baroque Affektenlehre through current philosophies of affect. From Brian Massumi’s affect theory to Jane Bennett’s vital materialism, philosophy has considered affect a crucial aspect of human and nonhuman interaction. Such contemporary studies of affect, of which music is a key component, are based on the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Johann Gottsched, whose theologies and ethics informed J.S. Bach’s worldview. The paper will discuss music’s capacity to affect and be affected as a new perspective on what musicology tends to isolate historically under the umbrella of Baroque rhetoric. This reconsideration of affect in Baroque music can be understood meta-historically in terms of a musical philosophy of vital materialism.


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