If Music Be…

Immix Quartet woodwinds performing
Part of the Immix Quartet playing my composition Forse un Mattino. (Photo: Author supplied)

My absence from these pages has been a produce of many forces. Paradoxically, pandemic-related lockdown has made access through the internet to colleagues around the world much easier. That has enabled me to get on with the revision of my 1977 Psychology of Place book, but focus on my PhD in composition has also become borderline obsessional.

As a retired professor of psychology who has supervised well over 100 PhD’s the experience of ‘studying’ for a PhD in a totally different domain has been salutary. This is not least because I now understand my students’ perspective so much more fully. I find myself gearing up for supervision meetings, having underestimated how significant that event was for even my most capable and self-driving PhD students. I appreciate the power of self-doubt and the importance of a supervisor’s encouragement. All this with a level of empathic understanding that I suspect I did not have as often as I should.

I’ve put ‘studying’ in commas because the experience of developing skills as a composer is so completely different from being a scientific, research psychologist. It is of course a wonderful break from the rape, murder and imprisonment that has been my focus for over a quarter of a century. Although the challenge of making sense of what musical composition is all about has parallels to disentangling criminals’ personal narratives.

Like offence behaviour, music is fundamentally enigmatic. It defies simple interpretation even though there is often a readiness to describe music, for example, as joyous or sad. It was Richard Wagner who decried music that had no lyrics as merely ‘absolute’. Claiming it could have no meaning unless it was linked to verbally expressed ideas and emotions. This of course ignored a library full of attempts to make sense of, and explain, purely instrumental compositions.

These explanations are rooted in social science assumptions, usually implicitly, often unaware that they are drawing on ideas of narrative and metaphor, analogy and association that have a long history of study across disciplines as varied as psychology and anthropology. This connection to concepts and methods with which I am familiar has allowed me to develop an approach to my compositions that explicitly sets out to draw on psychological notions. In particular I’ve been considering how ideas of character – with its implications of plot and storyline, can be harnessed to create a satisfying musical outcome.

My latest composition, brilliantly performed by the Immix Quartet, now available on YouTube, emerged from a consideration of the character of being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call that raised concerns about one of my children. This is part of a planned musical autobiography The Seven Ages of Fatherhood.

Each age reflects on the character of a different, significant experience. It is a way of embracing my approach to psychology whilst operating in the rarefied world of music composition.

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