Experimental Music and Communicative Action
Stephen T. Miles

The alienation of lay audiences from experimental music is broadly assumed today in the academe: composers of such music, it is alleged, address primarily their peers. This problem is symptomatic of the conditions of radical modernity, as analyzed by Jürgen Habermas, who distinguishes between the autonomous productions of expert culture (system) and the everyday experience of lay people (lifeworld). Under such conditions, Habermas advocates communicative action—verbal and nonverbal exchange, oriented toward understanding—as a form of mediation between these two cultural spheres (Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vols. 1 and 2, 1984 and 1987). Recent experimental projects of New Music New College may be understood as musical forms of communicative action. One such project, Hocket Science, was created collaboratively by seven composers, who developed this piece from a basic concept (“mediation”) to a finished work for sixteen vocalists. The compositional structure of Hocket Science requires that performers engage in symbolic dialogue, an exchange of musical material that is transformational on the individual and collective level. Audience members participate vicariously in the transformation, and become mobile at key moments in the performance. The work thus addresses the boundaries of autonomous art—the boundary between performer and audience, and between individual and the collective in the compositional process. Hocket Science attempts to open the lifeworld of participants to the insights of “expert culture” by focusing on questions of agency: Who creates? Who participates? Who listens? Who controls the outcome? This article argues for the relevance of Habermas’s social theory to contemporary compositional practice.

Full Text: PDF     DOI: 10.15640/ijmpa.v2n2a2