Music and the Manipulation of Space

Music and the Manipulation of Space

It strikes me as somewhat chilling when I become aware the effect music has on both myself and groups on people. In particular, its effect on space – namely, the idea that music can change your mood and in so doing affect how you perceive your surroundings. Space, when you hear music in it, appears to have a different purpose – depending on the kind of music that is heard – and there’s a sense that what it expects of you, and what you expect from it, changes. It changes from what it would’ve been if what you heard were only ambient noise, the noises of everyday life. In addition to influencing your interaction with the space, it also has the ability to change the mood within a room full of people: a song at a party can bring people together but can also alienate people from each other, for instance.

Space and manipulation

I recall a few weeks ago I was walking to meet some friends late at night through Victoria Square - a delightful space full of nature, manicured lawns, and equally agreeable architecture. The air was still, the atmosphere calm. Given that I walk though the square everyday, what I’ve come to expect from it is: the odd person weaving around me while I stroll casually, dogs rustling in the bushes, trees idly towering over the pavement with singing birds perched on their branches. While walking through the square I was listening to the third movement of ‘Sinfonia’ by 20th Century Italian composer, Luciano Berio. The movement is a dream-like sequence in which in which Berio weaves the music of other composers together, distorts it and overlays atop of it poetry and prose spoken by 4 vocalists. The work, particularly that movement, is an astonishing compositional achievement but what struck me was what began to happen around me. It was as if the space – the square – became amorphous, I glanced at the trees expecting there to be much activity within them – there wasn’t. Time also appeared to dilate: things appeared to slow down, I felt as if I had more time to take in what was around me in spite of the fact that it was no different from what I had seen tens, if not hundreds, of times before. What was interesting was not how the music affected me in this instance but the fact that it did affect me. It changed what expected from the space and how I interacted with it.

About a year ago I was at a ‘Jazz Funk Soul’ evening in which there was a local band playing: their music was a mixture of soul and gospel. I recall distinctly the moment they started playing a new song but in a rhythm ‘n’ blues (r’n’b) style. Like a sudden scene change in a film, the character of the room appeared to change: the gospel was laden with suffering, the sense of overcoming struggle, redemption, whereas the r’n’b was laid back, seductive, and lubricious. Theodor Adorno wrote of elements in music having a ‘historical expression,’ namely that within the musical elements characteristic of a genre, there is embedded in it its history and a set of ideals that it evinces. It is no surprise that gospel music, born from plantations in the south of North America and developed in the churches of black American communities has the effect that it does. This is to say nothing of the effect that r’n’b has…

Mimēsis and values

Music, it appears, has the quality capturing human characteristics and thus the ability to influence the behaviour of the person listening to it. Whether in the more abstract cases like my experience of listening to Berio or where the effect is more, as it were, tangible in a club or a bar, for instance. According to Plato, music is mimetic of human character: he believed the presentation of character in music leads to another act of mimēsis in those who sing and dance to it. It – mimesis – is the process by which habits are acquired (good and bad) and as a result people, I contest, value music that evinces the characteristics they see as important. Conversely, they dislike music whose characteristics they do not approve, are repellent to, or see as being dégoûtant. When a person delights in another person having the same tastes in music, they are delighting in the other person having similar values as this is what their taste suggests.

I recall being at a pre-drinks in which a participant of said drinks put on some trap music: one of our party objected to music being played on the grounds that it was ‘too black.’ Not to get tangled into discussions about race and stereotypes, the point is that the music evinced characteristics that he was repellent to – to some degree.

Roger Scruton argues that music is reflective of social character insofar as ‘our interest in music involves the kind of engagement that is characteristic of dancing, singing along, or joining in.’ In arguing this, he criticises club culture – and particularly the music of Nirvana – because it propagates the idea of dancing as a form of ‘sexual release’ as opposed to ordered dancing, which he privileges, in the mode of courtly individuals that danced to gavottes in the late 17th century. Scruton’s criticisms aside, he is correct: music in evincing values invites people to interact with it in a certain way. Imagine for instance how people dance to r’n’b in mbargo, or to cheese in the lizard lounge, or to drum and bass in Lakota: it is the music that influences people to dance to it in that way. With r’n’b, interactions with others and the style of dancing become sultry and seductive. Cheesy pop creates a space in which people delight in the frivolities and the innocence of childhood. Drum and bass, on the other hand, causes a kind of introspectiveness: people tend to dance more with themselves.

Consequently, how you perceive space when others are present, becomes more complex. Namely, not only does you relationship with the environment change – what you feel it expects of you and what you expect from it – with respect to music played but it also influences your interactions with others. What you expect from others in that space changes insofar as the music playing influences their behaviour and character. What happens, therefore, when music is played to a group is a sharing of sorts: in listening to, enjoying, dancing to, the same music you, for the brief moments that the music is playing, show yourself to be acquiescing to a set of collective values. Values evinced by the music, shared by those interacting with it and with others.