Music Education through the lens of Levinas (iii)

In last week’s blog Kathryn gave two examples of pupils’ ‘practices of facing’ drawn from many which were observed as pupils encountered the Other through class music-making, and of how they might be understood as agential in response to the layers of social and educational reality which shape their experience of music-making in school.

Kathryn continues:

From pupils’ perspectives upon encountering the Other though music-making were drawn themes which were then developed using the lens of Levinas’ thinking, from which four strands emerged:

Music-making as a language

Music-making as complex and rich in context

The infinity of musical knowing

Music as an end in itself

The first of these took my study down an unexpected alley, and I present it briefly as an example of the to- and froing of the analytical process.

Two of the smaller group of pupil participants, Amy and Kirsty, had repeatedly alluded to music-making in terms of language – Amy talked of musical expressions around the world being ‘in a different language’, yet open to everyone to enjoy, if not to understand. Kirsty commented,

‘Everybody has music. Like languages. You have languages to speak to other people. But not everybody speaks a certain language but everybody kind of speaks the language of music because everybody has music’

Notions of music as a language have been fraught with difficulty over generations, and I was cautious of this particular path of enquiry. But the emerging theme from the two girls’ interview material couldn’t be ignored.

I placed their perspectives alongside Levinas’ writing on language, where the act of looking into the face of the Other is born of the same ethical impetus to reach out to the Other that motivates the act of speaking in every language. Levinas sees the use of language as an offering of the world to the Other, and writes of ‘speaking the world to the Other’ (1969:173-4). Before any meaning is communicated, language reaches out and puts the world in common. Using language is an ethical act which opens up a world between myself and the Other.

Dare we see music-making in these terms, I wondered? Levinas’ reorientations of notions of language powerfully expresses the vulnerability which music-making entails as we are ‘inserted into the world’ as we make music, with, he says, ‘all the hazards and risks of all action’, in a generous offering of the world, putting a world hitherto mine in common (1969:174).

This reorientation would have profound ramifications for an understanding of the ‘aesthetic’ which would regain its ethical moorings lost in post-Kantian thinking, as making music (and creating art) would be primarily a response to seeing the face of the Other, and would seek to put a world in common.

What, I began to wonder, would the music classroom be like if we regarded music-making in this way?

What might my own corner of the music profession look like if we embraced this ethical understanding of what we were doing as we made music?

So a series of ‘What if?’ questions led into my final research question and a presentation of the study’s conclusions

  • What would the consequences be of a conception of music-making as ‘speaking the world to the Other’, as first of all an ‘ethical gesture’ (Levinas, 1969: 173-174)?
  • What would it mean if in the music classroom we understood music-making as first of all an act of reaching out to ‘look into the face of the Other’, countenancing difference without totalising practices?
  • What would it mean for music to be embraced as complex and rich in context within the music classroom?
  • What would it mean for knowing in the music classroom to be open to the ‘infinity’ of the subject?
  • What if aesthetic encounter were understood as ethical endeavour?
  • What if the striving for technical perfection were seen as ethical endeavour?
  • What happens if we understand musical performance as drawing others into a face-to-face encounter with the Other?
  • What happens if we conceive of musical performance as akin to ‘teaching’ in its presenting of the Other?
  • What if we allow the music profession to be transformed by this reorientation?


Note: References will be provided at the conclusion of the Levinas blog sequence.

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