Wednesday, 13 May 2009

CFP: Taking Pleasure Seriously: Theorising Pleasure and Music -British Forum for Ethnomusicology (King's College, London)


Taking pleasure in music is a cross-cultural phenomenon; indeed, it has a proven neurological basis. But these pleasures have also, in many cultures, long been subject to aesthetic discourses about the nature of music and its peculiar powers for good and for ill. They are often multiple: in the sociability of dance; in the seduction of love song; in ecstatic union with the Divine beloved. Pleasures are there too in analysing what makes music meaningful to people; in burying oneself in the notes; in finding an uncut diamond in the dust of the archive. Even the most extreme grindcore or the most taxing avant-garde composition affords its aficionados highly cultivated aesthetic, intellectual and social pleasures. Beneath and beyond music’s ritual functions, its significations, and its connections with wider society, the most fundamental reason we listen to and think about music is because it gives us pleasure..

And yet, many music scholars still seem uncomfortable about taking music’s pleasures seriously – about examining this most important of music’s affordances in its own right. There are, of course, illuminating exceptions. But music’s pleasures seem too often to be reduced to the erotic, or invoked as an ethnographic deity, or hedged around, or altogether absent. We seem to be hamstrung by two problems with the word pleasure itself: its post-Enlightenment associations with the trivial and optional, with “non-essential” leisure as opposed to “essential” work; and on the other hand, its recently intensified erotic connotations – after Sontag, Barthes, Lacan and Foucault, pleasure in the arts has ever more insistently been folded into the erotic, to the exclusion of other kinds of pleasures, and the continued severance of the realm of pleasure from the realm of so-called “serious” concerns.

Yet other cultures, at other times, have treated the domain of pleasure not as a pendant to the domain of work, but as its indispensable antithesis, essential to the functioning of good government: of the self, of social relations and of the state. A starting position for this conference might be the proposition that our understanding of any of the world’s musics, past or present, is weakened if we do not take all of music’s pleasures seriously, and consider their capacity to undertake serious work in human affairs. To do so, however, means thinking our way beyond the current dualism of work vs. leisure, transcendence vs. triviality; and beyond the honey-trap of music’s erotic pleasures, however important. Ideas for papers might include:

Examining current problems in theorising pleasure and music, e.g.:

• Have ethnomusicologists, faced with the West’s association of the “exotic” with sexuality, had to occlude music’s pleasures in favour of social function in order for non-Western musics to be taken seriously?
• Has musicology had to insist on the “seriousness” of art music to earn respect as a scholarly discipline?
• Do recent examinations of pleasure in popular music offer new paradigms for studying other kinds of music? Or are they still dependent upon a dualism that insists on the inconsequentiality of pleasure?
• Do studies in the area of music cognition offer ways forward?
• What might be the implications for music studies of foregrounding the pleasures of music?

Conceptualising alternative theoretical approaches to pleasure and music, e.g.:

• How do we begin to dismantle the trivial–transcendent dualism in music?
• What alternative frames do other cultures employ in thinking about and practicing pleasure in music?
• How do we move beyond the erotic without diminishing its importance in music? How do we conceptualise other pleasures in music, and the significant role they may have to play in human affairs?
• How can we begin to think and write about music’s pleasures in and of themselves? Or is it still necessary to read them as fundamentally connected to other human domains, e.g. politics, economics, society?
• What other discourses can we draw on to illuminate the relationships between music and its pleasures?
• What vital work do music’s pleasures perform in human societies?

If you have been thinking seriously about the relationship between pleasure and any of the world’s musics, we would welcome a proposal for a 20-minute paper from you.

Please send abstracts of 300 words, including AV requirements, by Monday 31 August to Dr Katherine Butler Brown, Department of Music, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS; email

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