Agency (in/and) Artistic Performance

I have ignored this blog for a few months now due to several reasons including semester getting in the way, etc. However, this particular blog post has been sitting in my draft since February as I have been hesitant to broach this subject because a) I was not ready; and b) it is about a process that is very personal. Ironically, I started this blog to do precisely that: to record the process through which I am attempting to re-engage with music, in particular and arts, in general. I must confess that this exercise is a partially arrogant one: because I learned music for more than two decades, I am almost certain that there is some creativity in me that I can tap into whilst going through this process (I say ‘almost’ because sometimes I question my assumption). If I may add a line here in defense of such arrogance, I also believe that every person possesses creativity- rather naive one might say, but it keeps my world going! My other reason is that I strongly believe that arts is necessary for us to make sense of the crazy world that we construct and live in.

In the previous blog posts and my PhD thesis, I have explored my relationship to music, specifically the tradition I was trained in, i.e., Karnatic Music. As discussed in those blog posts, I have had a complex relationship with Karnatic Music. I learned and performed it reluctantly and yet, music came to my aid at different points in my life. And in this blog post, I explored the subjectivity in experiencing any art form. There have been times when I wanted to reject music completely but was unable to do so because: one of the epiphanic moments was when I realised that, to me music is a language; and I learned it simultaneously whilst learning Tamil (my first language) and English (the medium of instruction). Therefore, to shut music out was to stop using a language that I am familiar with. Moreover, as an embodied being (as we all are), language is our primary tool in understanding the world around us. Music was an evocative (and to a certain extent, non-verbal) way of understanding my context, embodiment and identity.

I am currently following several wonderful artists on Twitter, most of whom are photographers. I know nothing about photography (except to say ‘oh, that’s a nice image’). But what interests me most about the works of these photographers is the process through which they arrive at making a particular image. The process involves not only what that particular image means to them but also how they articulate what they want to, through the image. The articulation is not always successful, of course. But, it shows both the photographer’s relationship to the image and more importantly (to me at least), the limitations of language, specifically verbal communication, that can be overcome through the image. It made me realise that all along I have been asking the wrong question pertaining to music. Instead of asking ‘what does music do to me?’ I should be asking, ‘what is music to me?’ There is subjectivity of experience involved in both. There are differences though. Whilst the former assumes that music as an ontological entity, the latter approaches music as a construction. Following that argument, the primary distinction between the two questions, is the question of agency. The latter allows for music to be constructed the way one wants and therefore, experience it the way one wants. There is room for agency here. And thus comes my ephiphanic moment described above. It is the realisation that music acts as a language to me. I relate to people through music; they do not need to be musicians or any kind of artists. It also gives me the agency to construct and re-construct music the way it suits me best. It is also one of the many reasons why I could not engage with Karnatic Music within the framework of the tradition- i.e., kutcheri format, etc. If the following up question then is, whether all sounds are music, I don’t know the answer to that nor will I attempt to answer that. My aim here is not to make any universalising statements about experience that I see as fundamentally subjective. Rather, I am pointing to my personal journey or process in understanding this subjectivity and finding the agency within it. This is a work in progress for me. I am only beginning to understand these issues. And having been raised within the strict Karnatic Music tradition, I know that these questions do not come up on a daily basis within the tradition, except to approach them as metaphysics.

I am still not entirely on a comfortable ground. But I see this as a process and for the process to keep going, to enable self-discovery, to be on an uncomfortable ground is to some extent necessary. My mentor once gave the analogy of being in a row boat on a river- we move with the water. This process is a perfect representation of that analogy.


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