On the Heightening of Experience in Music:
Sensuality, Structure, and the Phenomenology of Performance
Harris M. Berger
This paper has several objectives. First and foremost, it seeks to identify a structure of lived experience that is exploited for aesthetic effect in many forms of American popular music. My argument, in brief, is that in some music cultures that understand performance as the presentation of a pre-existing musical work, the musician may heighten her audience’s experience and amplify her affective impact by employing a device that, in a single stroke, evokes the composition as phenomenon co-present for all of the participants in the event, and, at the same time, distances the concretely performed sound from that composition. The multi-layered experiences that emerges in such situations, I would argue, have the capacity to make performance involving for musician and listener alike.1
From the very outset, I want to be clear about the scope of my claim: I make no pretention that this aesthetic is a universal feature of performance. I can imagine many cultures of music making that understand performance as the enactment of a pre-existing composition but do not engage in this technique. Further, many music cultures are not premised on the idea of playing music as the performance of a pre-existing composition. Conversely, I don’t claim that the effect that I discuss today is unique to American popular music, itself a very broad category. In this work, I am less interested in identifying the cultures that might use this technique as I am in making clear the underlying structures of experience upon which it relies. The example I will use are multiple performances of a piece called “The Way I Am” by the contemporary American singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson. A reading of Michaelson’s performances speak to a problem raised by one of ethnomusicology’s most sophisticated ethnographers of jazz, Ingrid Monson. While my paper has been influenced philosopher Roman Ingarden and linguist Roman Jakobson, I like to think of this talk as a meditation between two Ingrids.2
To understand this structure of lived experience and the aesthetic that exploits it, we must start by exploring the way musical works emerge in lived experience and some fundamental ideas from phenomenology and the branch of performance studies rooted in folklore and linguistic anthropology. The hallmark of performance folkloristics is an emphasis on situated conduct, and since at least the time of Richard Bauman’s early writings ( 1984), scholars here have stressed the emergent nature of performative interaction. Arguing against the folkloristic rearguard of the 1970s, who famously argued that “the text’s the thing” (Wilgus 1973), Bauman saw the text as a dynamic expressive resource that enables interaction. A parallel history has gone in ethnomusicology, where forward thinking scholars of improvisation have sought a fundamentally new approach to performance, one in which playing a pre-composed work is no longer seen as the unmarked form of musical activity and improvisation is not viewed as a marginal or specialized phenomenon. More than just highlighting process and emergence, these contemporary perspectives highlight the embodied and situated nature of artistic behavior, the agency of the participants, and through all of this, the politics of performance.
In this context, it might seem that an emphasis on pre-existing compositions is a reactionary move that leads us away from embodied interaction, to text versus performance, to mind/body dualisms, and all that goes with them. I want to suggest that this view is wrong, as it reinforces rather than undermines what we might call the text/performance binary. I want to draw our attention back to the place of pre-existing musical texts in performance, not as a retreat from embodiment, situatedness, and agency but a deeper return to them. That abstract form—of texts, of sound, or even logic itself—is fundamentally social, public, and embodied is an insight that can be found equally in the metaphor theory of analytic philosophers like Mark Johnson (Lakoff and Johnson 1999) and the phenomenology of embodiment developed thinkers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty ( 1962) and Samuel Todes ( 2001). In my book Stance (2010), I illustrated this idea with the hypothetical example of a student working on an slightly odd assignment for a music theory class. The assignment is to compose a piece of music that fits within a certain set of musical and compositional rules—four voices, no parallel perfect motion, and, most importantly, the student must compose the piece strictly in imagination, only writing the piece down when it is complete. In Stance, I used this example to make a wide range of points, but here I want to show only one: that the world of “imagination is shot through with the social and the bodily, even in its seeming disembodiment.” Far from a decontextualized, Platonic realm, imagination is fundamentally embodied and fundamentally situated in social context; furthermore, entities in imagination have the potential to be fully public phenomena. This is apparent from a careful reading of the hypothetical example. As a wrote a in Stance, “the musical rules and rhetorical tropes that the student [composer doing this assignment] uses are historical artifacts, the references and allusions that she employed come from a culturally specific repertoire, and her orientation toward a future audience and their perceptual practices illustrates the embedding of this process in a specific social world. Likewise, the time-scale of the tempo, the very notion of harmonic and melodic interval, and the strictures of overtone, timbre, and blend all emerge, not from an autonomous realm of imagination, but from an imagination rooted in a body that interacts with a sonic world.”
It’s a small step from this phenomenology of imagination to my first main topic, a phenomenology of the lived experience of compositions in performance. In musical situations premised on the notion of pre-existing musical works, particularly in situations in which the audience knows the composition in advance, the composition is present in the participant’s lived experience, a phenomenon of virtual sound that co-exists for the participants along with the actual sound. In this kind of situation, participants have a multilayered experience that involves both the sounded sensuality of the performance and the unsounded sensuality of the musical work. I continually marvel at how strange such situations are! I attend a concert of a performer whose work I know well. Before me is the rich sensuality of music sound in the lived space of the performance event and, at the same time, the equally public and equally embodied phenomenon of unsounded musical structure that the performer evokes for her listeners. What kinds of relationships might exist between these kinds of lived experience? How might these relationships play out for the musicians and listeners? What are the roles of culture and agency here? And what expressive possibilities might exist in these complex, lived relationships?
This is clearly a vast topic, and today I only want to focus on a single facet of it. We can begin by observing that there are a wide range of ways in the performer may evoke the composition for her audience. At first blush, it would seem that the performer’s precise fidelity to the pre-composed work would be the easiest way to evoke the composition for the audience. This view isn’t fully wrong. Consider the situation of a singer singing a song that she doesn’t not know well. Here, she glides vaguely between C and D, trying and failing to find the right note; there, she isn’t sure how long some of the notes last, and the downbeat and pulse become unclear. If the listener didn’t know the piece, the performance would not evoke the composition in her experience at all. Conversely, we can easily see how precise performance might evoke the composition for its listener, and here I am imagining a bare bones, traditional, Western conservatory understanding of the musical composition—that is, a series of pitches and their durations. Think of a harpsichord instructor who recognizes that her student doesn’t know the notes in a particular passage of a piece and plays the part as straightforwardly as possible—no ornaments, no rubato, of course no changes in dynamic or timbre, just the pitches and rhythms specified by the score. The limit case of this is a computer playing a simple MIDI file or one of those greeting cards in the 1990s that played the melody to “Happy Birthday” when you opened the envelope. In these situations, the performance clearly evokes the composition for the properly acculturated audience. Here, however, the virtual sensuality of the composition and the actual sensuality of the performance collapse into one another in lived experience; the resulting, single layered phenomenon doesn’t produce a heightened awareness. The first part of my main thesis today is that, in certain social worlds of American popular music making, this kind of relationship between silent and sounded sensualities is to be avoided, and a particular technique of performance is used to facilitate a much different structure of lived experience for the participants.
And this brings us to the Michaelson example. Someday soon, listen to the original studio recording of “The Way I Am” and a few of the many live performances of the track on YouTube. You will hear that Ingrid Michaelson is a skilled singer with very precise intonation and phrasing. If she so desired, she could, I imagine, transcribe the song in standard Western notation and sing the transcription precisely. But that is not what she does in performance. Rather, every one of her performances on YouTube is different. Michaelson plays a bit with dynamics and timbre, but I would suggest that her most important variations are very precise games with rhythm, back phrasing (where she introduces longer rests between notes or passages, later making the time up later with notes of shorter duration) or forward phrasing (starting a phrase early and later increasing the duration of notes or adding rests to fill in the extra time).
What is going on here? In some musical situations, fine features of vocal performance can have iconic meanings. In a previous work (2004), for example, I explored how the heavy metal singer Timmy Owens used fine-grained musical features to drive home the songtexts he sings, like intoning the word “death” with a raspy timbre. Vocal nuance can work in this way, but listening to Michaelson’s phrasing games, it would be hard, I think, to find much iconic meanings in them. An alternative explanation might be that the phrasing is generating little tensions of expectation or little melodic surprises. These qualities might play some role here, but listening to the piece, expectation and surprise are not high on the list of adjectives that I would use to describe these recordings. And even if they were, such an account does not go far enough. Think this through carefully. The lived experiences of expectation or surprise requires the play of two phenomena—the composition in its virtuality and the actual performance that denies it. Without both, there can be no expectation or surprise. This gets us a step closer to what is going on, but we need to go further, and this brings us to the heart of the matter.
As we’ve seen, highly imprecise performances of a work do not fully evoke the composition at all; overly precise performances of the work evoke the composition but collapses the distinction between the two in consciousness and produce one-dimensional experiences. Michaelson’s approach creates something very different. Here, the precise articulation of the composition at pivotal landmarks evokes the composition for listeners, while the phrasing games work to pull the lived experience of the composition apart from the lived experience of the performance. The result is a doubling of phenomenal density and a heightening and intensification of experience. The composition becomes both public and palpably present, vividly alive for musician and listener. So powerful is this effect that one might be tempted to characterize it as magical, but this is precisely the wrong metaphor; unlike legerdemain, nothing here is hidden from the participant’s experience, there are no illusions, and the composition is really there for the participants in the event. Through the techniques of precision and difference, the singer conjures and evokes the composition, making it a lived reality for the participants. Of course, the sounded sensuality of the performance is there as well, and this is of critical importance. What emerges for the participants is a dense, multi-layered experience, one that is populated by both sounded and unsounded sensualities, as well as their many complex relationships. This phenomenal density deepens, heightens, and intensifies the participants’ awareness of the music.
With the central argument of this paper publicly before us, we can start to put this structure of lived experience and its attendant aesthetic into cultural perspective. Let me emphasize again that I do not claim to have not been describing a universal structure of experience or a universal aesthetic.3 1990s musical greeting cards may be compelling for some, and there are vast online cultures of midi music that don’t rely on this device. Merely mentioning the Indian notion of raga, composition in Javanese gamelan, and the diverse forms of free improvisation should make clear that many worlds of music making are not premised on these notion of composition and performance, that compositions may be defined in a wide range of ways, and that ideas about precision and acceptable variation differ widely in differing contexts. And even within the broad collection of music cultures that define composition and performance in the manner that I have suggested here, one need only think of traditional British Isles ballads, romantic-era piano music, or commercial hard rock tribute bands to see that ideas about the relationship between composition and performance vary widely. I have talked about compositions becoming palpably present for the listeners and the heightening of their experience, but all of that assumes that the participants have a shared interpretive framework and shared practices of constituting experience.
While these caveats trim the range of my claims, we can also push in the opposite direction, first by emphasizing that Ingrid Michaelson didn’t invent this technique. The argument I made today could be applied to Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, or a variety of other performers, and I strongly suspect that this structure of experience and the aesthetic that relies on it are used in many cultures and contexts. Further, because American popular song is frequently strophic, this kind of device can be effective even on a first listening. Here, the performance of the first verse makes the composition apparent, while the phrasing games in the second and later verses sets up the layering effect. Such forms of parallelism are everywhere in music, and one goal of this project, which don’t have time to elaborate today, is to ground Jakobson’s poetics of parallelism (1960) in phenomenological insights.
Further, I would suggest that the phenomena I have identified today have powerful resonances, not just with a wide range social worlds but with an array of key issues in the study of expressive culture. The performance theory that emerged within folklore and linguistic anthropology during the 1960s and 1970s frequently talked about performance as a “heightened” form of communication or conduct (Bauman  1984; Abrahams 1977). This scholarship identified semiotic or poetic devices that lead to this heightening, but structures of experience received relatively little attention here. We contemporary scholars like to emphasize the interpretive flexibility that allows the same performance to enflame the passions of those within a certain group and leave others flat, but we also want to capture the sense in which expressive culture seems to compel us to heightened attention. I would suggest that experiential dynamics such as the one I have outlined here allow us to account for both of these contrasting phenomena. For someone who has no concept of composition versus performance or has other interpretive practices, Ingrid Michaelson or Billie Holiday can be as bland as a greeting card. But for the person who approaches these musics with these practices of perception, this structure of experience is inherently heightening. Scholars in our field avoid the word “inherent,” but I use it intentionally here: we rightly resist as essentialist the notion that things in the world like music sound have inherent qualities. But structures of experience are neither things in the world nor things in the head; they are a product of the person’s engagement with the world—constitutive practices that are always both cultural and agentive. While such practices can be under our active, self-reflexive control, our initial constitution of experience is often pre-reflexive. In such situations, or when we actively give ourselves over to these processes, the structure of experience carries with it valences that we may rightly describe as inherent—not inherent in the sound itself, but in the experience constituted through the participant’s social practices.
A rich illustration of this idea comes in the work of Matthew Rahaim (2012). His extraordinary book Musicking Bodies shows how musical motion effortlessly transcends the sonic/kinesic divide and how the seemingly subjective and interior phenomena of musical sense are fundamentally corporeal and public. In a parallel manner, I argue that performance isn’t just making a material version of an ideal entity or a form of activity that is to be opposed to dry, decontextualized texts. Sound or unsounded, musical texts are through and through embodied and through and through social. Performance merely makes their sociality public and their embodiment actual.
Turning to other dynamics, I would emphasize that performance doesn’t only evoke the composition. We could draw on Michael Silverstein’s developments of Peirce’s notion of indexicality (2003), Paul Ricoeur’s Interpretation Theory (1976), or Alan Moore’s application of Ricoeur to popular music (2010) to emphasize that performance is a kind of world making. Allusion may be a specific, sometimes precious device of making fully explicit references to specific artists or works, but performance is fundamentally inter-textual. Subtle indexicalities evoke genres, identities, places, and discourses, projecting around them a world, or to paraphrase slightly Moore’s favorite quote from Ricoeur, “disclosing a world” and a “way of looking” at it (Ricoeur 1976, 92 quoted in Moore 2010, 145).
Conference papers do this as well, of course. I have only mentioned the two Romans, who lurk behind every corner of this paper, and haven’t uttered the names Husserl, Stone, Titon, Rice, Friedson, Savage or a host of other that have informed my thinking and populate the world that this text makes. I will conclude with the other Ingrid (1996), who so many years ago argued that, for her jazz musicians in 1990s New York, music was about “saying something”—not the bland articulation of the harmonic rhythm of a well-known standard or even the effective presentation of the genre’s eponymous rhythmic feel, but some kind of distinctive statement. That kind of saying something, I would suggest, relies on this kind of evocation, this world making, this structure of experience that it evokes a composition and a world and is compelling because it creates a richly layered texture of sensualities and embodiments around them. Thank you.
1 This is a sample endnote. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
2 This is another sample endnote. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
3 This is the last sample endnote. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
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———. 2010. Stance: Ideas about Emotion, Style, and Meaning for the Study of Expressive Culture. Music/Culture Book Series. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
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