After having spent five challenging and productive years in the ethnomusicology department at the University of California, Los Angeles, I’m pleased to have successfully defended my doctoral dissertation this last month. My project, “A Study of the Los Angeles DIY Experimental Music Scene: Reflections on the Promise of the Possible,” offers an ethnography and mixed-methodological analysis of Los Angeles’ contemporary DIY experimental music scene. Inquiry into the scene in question proved to be an apt platform from which to rigorously ask big questions such as: Why and how does music actually affect listeners? How is aesthetic experience related to understanding, our navigation of the practical field of experience, and ethics? I certainly have not "answered" these questions. Nonetheless, I am happy to contribute to the discussion and hope this work might give me entry into the greater professional discourse. While at UCLA I worked extensively with Roger Savage, whose own work is invested in precisely these big questions, addressing them from a methodological framing he derives from philosophical hermeneutics. I don’t believe this is the only way to approach these issues, but having deployed philosophical hermeneutics at length throughout my own dissertation project, I feel it has much to offer toward a better understanding of the complex relationship of aesthetic experience to how we "be" in the world.
I am grateful to all of the musicians and listeners that comprise the scene and supported me one way to another. My take-away from the whole project demonstrates that, through its persistence in the city’s economic and culture “underground,” the kinds of aesthetic experiences offered by the DIY experimental music scene work to engage participants productively. Whereas the dominant cultural production in LA is doing its best to manufacture consent in an ever-more docile populace, musical experimentalism stands as a means of challenge, resistance, and change. The final paragraph of the dissertation puts it this way:“The promise of the possible held out by art is, then, that capacity to look past the exigencies of the present and the fetters of historical failings, engaging the imagination to conceive of that which is not-yet, and to model potential paths by which to reach it. In an environment such as Los Angeles, making aesthetically-challenging and economically dominated music that asks so much of the listener, and for such open-endedly-articulated goals, may seem an activity for a community of holy fools. Conversely, I understand the scene’s chosen musical expressions as a challenge that respects the capacity of each individual to engage intentionally and thoughtfully with the world every day. At its best, the music of the Los Angeles DIY experimental music scene functions as a kind of dare, inviting listeners to engage with the other, risk their present understanding of the world, wagering it for a glimpse at not-yet-known possible worlds lying just beyond their present horizons.”
Feel free to read and download the dissertation HERE.
Abstract of the project: This dissertation comprises an ethnography and mixed methodological analysis of Los Angeles’ contemporary DIY experimental music scene. By means of information gathered through participant observation and interviews, I describe the scene in the context of its historical precedents and its present state. From these observations I discern a sensibility of alterity and openness as a primary characteristic of the scene. This manifests as an investment in musical experimentalism as a mode of research into the unknown, anticipating as-yet unrealized possibilities of the as if. This leads to further reflections regarding how the aesthetics and practices of musical experimentalism that eschew conventionally-musical sound terms are nonetheless capable of affecting their auditors. I note that the common lack of typical analytical handles (melody, harmony, etc.) can confound some of contemporary musicology’s methodological frameworks. Following clues about ontological openness and musical meaning suggested by the act of listening, I deploy an explanatory methodological intervention offered by philosophical hermeneutics to negotiate this problem. This theoretical scaffolding helps to make sense of connections between the silences, non-musical, and un-structured sounds deployed in Los Angeles’ DIY experimental music scene and connected testimonies of aesthetic experiences occasioned thereby to refigure listeners’ horizons of understanding. The dissertation culminates in chapters that consider implications of philosophical hermeneutics in terms of musical experimentalism as related to sociological theories of the judgment of taste, and a metamodern characterization of the Los Angeles DIY experimental music scene’s post-postmodern structure of feeling.