Chloë Mullett: Life through a lens: a case study evaluating an application of the concepts of affordance, effectivities and the hallmarks of human behavior to an experiment in ‘intuitive’ composition for voice and accordion. 28:55
- Saison 2015-2016 - None - None > TCPM 2015 : Analyser les processus de création musicale / Tracking the Creative Process in Music
- Oct. 9, 2015
- Program note: TCPM 2015
- Chloë Mullett (conférencier)
The goal of this practice-led research is to apply concepts drawn from ecological psychology, namely affordance and effectivity (J. Gibson, 1979), and also the hallmarks of human behaviour (E. Gibson and Pick, 2003), to the author’s composition to derive new insights into the creative process undertaken. The discussion will include processes of musical valorisation and decision-making. For those unfamiliar with the concepts, hereafter is a brief introduction to them, followed by an outline of the methodology and key findings.
James Gibson defines an affordance as a property of an event or an object, which represents its potential for action. A whistle might afford blowing, a stone, throwing. Affordances are perceived through the apprehension of structured information, which may be available through any of our senses, singly or in combination.
The concept of affordance has also been influential within the field of design (Norman, 1988), which is pertinent in terms of the ‘tools’ employed in this composition. Man-made objects such as a whistle invite recognition of particular affordances: a whistle blown demonstrates the ‘fit for purpose’ design of the whistle for human mouths and breath, and what is played demonstrates the breath capabilities of the blower, the pitch possibilities afforded by the whistle, as well as more socio-culturally informed choices such as the choice of rhythm and the volume at which it is played- all of which exist in a specific set of relations in a particular environment.
The musical associations of the composer in this case study are also conceived as affordances, after Windsor: ‘affordances are relational, and depend both on the structure of the environment and of the perceiving and acting organism. Hence, interpreting a sign becomes not a matter of decoding, but a matter of perceiving an affordance.’ (Windsor, 2004: 183). In this way affordances can embrace the associations music affords the composer; the feelings aroused by the music composed is also included in this definition in this case study.
An effectivity is an actioned affordance; an effectivity set is a means by which behaviour produced by an individual constitutes and even constructs affordance networks. Consequently, if a composer has a particular effectivity set, that would be evident in the skills and means by which s/he composed. This research identifies existing effectivity sets in play, and also emergent effectivities of decision making in relation to musical valorisation on the part of the composer.
Eleanor Gibson and Anne Pick’s work (2003) identifies characteristics of human behaviour, in their research into learning from an ecological psychology perspective. The characteristics are given as agency, prospectivity, (the hunger for) order, and flexibility. These characteristics provide a complimentary means by which to probe and to categorise the effectivities identified. The hunger for order has been found to be particularly relevant to musical valorisation in this case study.
The creative process for this case study, resulting in the piece Accord/Doloroso, was documented with video recording, Logic Pro 9 files, and versions of the score produced in Sibelius 5. The video recording shows the two initial improvisations (accordion and an overdubbed vocal improvisation). The analysis of these audio-visual resources is structured around evidence of the concepts outlined above, addressing the music created in terms of ‘person’ (the composer-author), the project’s goals, socio-cultural aspects, place and tools. The ‘environment’ provided by the composer’s autobiography and skill base (effectivity sets) is represented in autoethnographic writing that also historicises aspects of the practice. The effectivities (and limitations) of this composer-performer reflect the environment she has created for her compositional practice over an extended period of time, this project was deliberately designed to afford her a blend of familiar, unfamiliar and novel experiences.
The findings of the case study include that affordances in the relationship between the performer-composer and the instrument resulted in a distinctly different compositional outcome for the composer, compared to her previous works. The qualities of the accordion are apparent in the final composition, arranged for the ensemble Scottish Voices, and include e.g. phrases limited by the air-capacity and strength of the performer-composer with a full-size accordion.
The experience of the composer-performer as a jazz musician were central to the process, not least through the authenticating affordance of improvisation, with a high value placed upon particular forms of emotional engagement. Improvisation afforded an affective dimension which was felt to inculcate the music made with a sense of ‘present’ listening. The improvisation techniques learned on other instruments were transferrable, demonstrating a pragmatic effectivity set for which the affordances include phrase structures (e.g. ‘call and response’) and motivic development.
The accordion itself, as played by the composer, had a significant impact upon creative affordances, including i. associations of the accordion as a folk instrument and also 20th century classical organ music, due to the cluster chords that are produced when more than one chord button was pressed; ii. higher facility with the keyboard afforded relatively controlled improvisation with the right hand, making use of its full range performing chordal as well as melodic parts. This last afforded varied textures to respond to in the vocal improvisation.
Editing the improvisation demonstrated how fine-grained affordances can be, as editing a melodic phrase to have e.g. one note changed had the effect of significantly altering the affordance of that melody in the mind of the composer. This demonstrates learning i.e. the search for and achievement of compositional ‘order’, for specific affordances. Further, prospectivity and flexibility are an innate part of the editing process, as trying out ideas afforded by the music outside of the initial improvisation (in which an idea has to be selected to keep the music flowing) could be asynchronously explored, enabling valorised ideas (affective affordances) to be more clearly defined.
The prior musical experience of the composer resulted in perceptual affordances that have shaped her practical engagement with and valorisation of musical ideas, which are also shaped by her ability to adapt the creative environment to her musical needs. Therefore James Gibson’s assertion (Gibson, 1979: 130) that humans can change their environment to be richer in desired affordances, making ‘more available what benefits ... and less pressing what injures’ has been found to be applicable in a compositional context.
Ultimately, it is the goal of the PhD research from which this paper is drawn, to develop a research-informed methodology for analysing and developing compositional practice.