Blog Post Nupáw

Joint attention is a concept that has seemed to continuously arise throughout my career; though I did not necessarily recognize or understand it by that name at the time. Andre’s talk was both informative and reassuring in assessing my own comprehension of joint attention and how it has exhibited itself during both current and past experiences. While listening to the presentation, my mind kept wandering to previous texts I had read regarding simulation theories of musical expressivity, music as a universal ‘language’ and theories of deceptive mimicry. I desperately hoped that Andre would touch upon these concepts as I felt it was an important and relatable conversation that wasn’t being had. However, unable to pluck up the courage necessary to prompt a conversation from the group, I resorted to patiently waiting behind for a chance to converse with Andre in private. After an engaging and constructive discussion, I emerged with a number of new questions and concerns; though I was also left feeling as though my original queries had been left unresolved.         

An interesting interaction that I have always found truly fascinating is that which exists exclusively between members of a musical ensemble and collectively between such an ensemble and a live audience. Relating to the triangular model as detailed by theories of joint attention, there seems to be a dualistic, seemingly meta dynamic occurring within a live musical performance setting involving an audience. The first dynamic consists of the interactions taking place between members of an ensemble and excludes, for the most part, the audience. This is where the musicians are engaged in musical ‘conversation’ with one another and are inexplicably bound together through their joint attentiveness towards an object (In this case the musical composition). Though this object is sonic in nature, the musicians are able to identify it and, further, traverse the object using musical methods of communication through a physical instrument. This interaction is most discernible during the process of improvisation that occurs within a Jazz ensemble setting. As the composition is created in real time, communication between ensemble members becomes paramount in forming a cohesive and intelligible piece of music. This ‘language’ presents itself as being both musical (note choice, rhythm, dynamics etc) and extramusical (facial expressions, hand gestures, spoken word etc). These signs and signals can then be read by an audience within the closed symbolic system of music (by those with a musical literacy) or within the context and understanding of universally recognized sociocultural behaviours and attitudes (by those with no musical literacy). Either way, this gives way to a second joint attention model that incorporates a previously excluded audience with music and ensemble.   

In other words, the musicians within an ensemble must engage in joint attention in order to create the sonic object (music) which can then be read by an audience, allowing them to participate in the act of joint attention alongside the musicians. This could be seen as two separate and distinct models of joint attention working in harmony with one another or, alternatively, one intertwined and overlapping model encompassing both dynamics of interaction. Another way of looking at it would be to imagine a malleable model that is perpetually transforming, shaped in turn by each dynamic in a reciprocal nature; an ebb and flow of joint attention experience. This train of thought gives me cause to question what it is that we are actually focusing upon while engaged in the joint attentiveness of a live musical performance. There is a strange dichotomy between the emotional and rational content of music, a relationship that exists in reality as equilibrium. One who has little to no musical knowledge or experience may still appreciate the same musical moment that a ‘certified’ musician may witness, albeit in different ways. This difference, in most cases, is the ability of the musically literate person to understand why a certain musical moment made them feel a certain way. They are conscious of how the system of music operates and how a particular musical device may function in order to elicit a desired emotional response. If an ensemble is improvising and collectively hit beat 4 of the bar (seemingly spontaneously amongst the chaos) this may give reason for the bass player to smirk, causing the drummer to burst out in laughter. Both form of audience (musically literate and musically illiterate) will undoubtedly perceive and understand that something has happened. While some may simply read then mimic the emotions displayed upon the musician’s faces and respond accordingly, others may have been actively listening and acknowledge that an involuntary synchronised hit occurred, causing the musicians to laugh. Further still, those with a musical understanding may recognize that the musicians hit beat 4 of the, utilizing the musical technique of syncopation resulting in a feeling of forward momentum. Either way, both parties were able to understand the musical moment in regards to their emotional and rational capacity.   

Unlike our eyes which have the ability to blink, thus providing rest from visual stimulus, our ears cannot naturally take a reprieve from auditory phenomena. It exists around and within us, eternally present, whether we recognize it consciously or not.  We can, however, change our auditory modes of listening. These can be described as hearing (passive, non-critically engaged) and listening (active, critically engaged). Hearing takes place when we recognize an auditory signal while listening takes place when we analyse this signal in relation to others. Because sound, by nature, is constantly moving, the act of joint attention can prove difficult when coupled with distractions from the surrounding environment. I have yet to meet anyone alive that can simultaneously order food at a bar, hold a conversation with a table full of people and check Instagram whilst still actively listening to the live music that is providing the backdrop for their night. Even when actively listening, it can be difficult to remain attentive to sonic objects in the same manner one would when engaged with a sculpture, painting or photograph. Without rewinding the music or disturbing the liveness of an ensemble, all that remain are sonic traces; silhouettes within our auditory memory of the occurrence. And memory can be untrustworthy at the best of times. How does this affect our capacity to engage in joint attention towards music? Does the object involved in joint attention shift from existing as the music itself to the music as embodied by the performing ensemble? Does this visual representation, an interpretation of the persona responsible for the music, help us to have a greater understanding of it? Are we in fact reading the extramusical in order to interpret the musical?

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