On the Ensemble: Dissonance and Collaboration

We at Amherst speak of organizing social life on the model of the team. We have athletic, Title IX and case management teams. Deans throw around the phrase “teams of students.” The 2015 strategic plan recommends “creating teams of first-year students and staff” to cure cultures of busyness and loneliness, cultures which preclude “social interaction and community.” Of course, never are we asked exactly how teams will resolve the lack of “social interaction and community.”

That we privilege a form of social life enacted through teams is tightly linked to the power and prestige (varsity) athletics holds on Amherst’s campus, and more generally in higher education. This leads me to an obvious point: The institution of athletics is constituted by competition, formed via a double unification. First, internal to the team, the minds and bodies of the players unify their actions for a common goal: victory. Second, in displaying the name “Amherst,” the team uniform aspires to unify the entire campus community under that goal of victory, or at least under the logic of competition.

Each of these unifications, of the team and the college, presuppose divisions. On one level, particular sports teams are divided from opponents: we play against Williams; we succeed, they lose. On a second level, each athletic team unites with other Amherst teams as an athletic community, perhaps at the exclusion of non-athletes. But that exclusion also is a doomed attempt at including everyone under the “Amherst” of the sports team, necessarily failing because there are students who do not want to or cannot compete on “Amherst’s” terms. (Or, written another way, how can we bring Native American students here while rallying around an advocate of their genocide?)

Furthermore, competition, when linked with the team, already names a kind of success: the condition that one be able — that is, competitive enough — to compete in the first place. For those who can compete, competition poses problems as well. Ryan Arnold ’15 notes in the Amherst Disorientation Guide that scholastic competition fosters the “mechanical pursuit of academic recognition, one that disincentivizes creativity and critical self-reflection.” A tradition of victory, one which requires homogenization for success and devalues experimentation and vulnerability, perpetuates a join-us-or-fail model and quashes narratives of insecurity and loneliness.

But let us consider the ensemble as a form of social life. What if we were to look to the experiences of rehearsing and performing in the string quartet, symphony orchestra, jazz combo or choral society as a way to (re)orient social life at the college? As a trumpeter in the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and formerly in Jazz@Amherst, I believe that performance ensembles, particularly musical ensembles, can provide us with a way of organizing social life not based on competition or homogenizing unification, but on collaboration, focusing in on the labor and challenges of working through and coming together around dissonances, tensions and contrasts.

The word “ensemble” comes from French, literally meaning “in [and] at the same time.” From the “Musical Examiner” of 1844, we see written, “It was really possible for five principal vocalists to achieve a perfect ensemble.” A (dis)united set of performers, the ensemble constantly mediates and negotiates the different timbres, expressions and tones of the voices — instrumental or human — which create it. Ensemble comes about between and above individual voices, by the play of dissonances and contrasts between them, and in doing so orients itself to interpretive work. There are three points which will help illustrate this.

1. Competition is not in the repertoire of the ensemble. Unlike teams, ensembles don’t play against each other. They do not dominate, win, triumph or prevail over or against each other. What they labor over is the production of their own singular and unrepeatable organization of noise that constitutes their performance. Their performance strictly works in the moment, less concerned about the success or victory afterwards than the actual music-making. That the ensemble cannot practice to win, but only rehearses to improve, opens it to members of variegated and contrasting talents as well as musical ideas which stretch and warp the very standards of its performance.

2. The ensemble has no totalized, singular unity, but rather is a disjoined conjunction of tensions and resolutions. In the orchestra, timbral contrasts, harmonic dissonances, contrapuntal melodies and cadential deceptions organize the sounds, rhythms and colors with which it produces music. In the jazz combo, perhaps the par excellence of the ensemble, each musician riffs on and reiterates phrases and melodies improvised by other members, mimicking and altering what she’s hearing. Improvisation is a form of competition — not one which can generate success, but one which generates more playfulness. Perhaps it is in this sense that the ensemble makes each member triangulate how she plays, literally playing around with her own performance and the relations between her, her section’s and the ensemble’s performances.

3. Ensembles function as complements to seminar rooms and books, providing us with an alternate interpretive space and form to make sense of our world. Jacques Attali writes in “Noise: The Political Economy of Music” that “Mozart and Bach reflect the bourgeoisie’s dream of harmony better than and prior to the whole of 19th-century political theory … Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix say more about the liberatory dream of the 1960s than any theory of crisis.” Through performance, the ensemble draws a canvas onto which audience members sketch their own meaning. But interpretation is not merely individual, but collective as well: Spectators become active interpreters. After performances, they comment and review in dialogue, and occasionally protest or riot.

I am not denying that elements of ensembles appear in teams and teams in ensembles. What I am arguing is that the institution of athletics as expressed through the logic of teams worrisomely divides campus on a model of competition, not cooperation; unification, not collective contrast; spectatorship, not experiential interpretation. In contrast, the ensemble celebrates and authorizes a disunity, requiring harmony and dissonance between performers and between audience members. In that sense, ensemble creates an unanswered question between meaning and experience for each performer and each audience member. Two audience members will likely not hold the same opinion of a performance; neither will two members of a single ensemble.

What makes the ensemble so worthy of our attention is that inside its reverence and formality for itself is its own irreverence and informality. Before singing the college songs at the conclusion of the homecoming concert, Choral Society director Mallorie Chernin invited, as usual, alumni and friends to join the singing of college songs. A display of impressive visual contrast and magnified musical power, we in the audience witnessed a sea of current Choral Society members wearing tuxedos and gowns populated by alumni dressed in street attire. Upon singing “Hand Me Down My Bonnet,” a carnivalesque tradition ensued: Choral Society members threw candy in the air at their conductor. Joy for the ensemble and the audience at the precise moment when the ensemble morphed beyond its own solemn formality. As a coda without a cadence, the Choral Society did not sing “Lord Jeffery Amherst” during the concert. Relegated to an unofficial performance afterwards, the Choral Society decided that, although the song is satirical, it was not appropriate to valorize Lord Jeff in Buckley. By playing around with, undermining and reconstituting their form — changing instrumentation, tempi, attire, size, arrangements, melodies — ensembles re-form creatively (throwing candy) and politically (removing Lord Jeff).

An alternative to the team, the social club and the neighborhood is badly needed. So, consider the ensemble. Although I leave open if and how we (or I) might be able to prescribe or encourage the ensemble as a form of social life, I do hope we think about it: the singer and the chorus; the actor in the company; the dancer as the troupe; the musician of the orchestra; the member in the ensemble. I am not arguing that we should all learn musical instruments or become artsy, but rather that we should imagine how our social experience can be thought about, recreated or revolutionized on the terms of ensembles. I also invite you to hear the Amherst Symphony Orchestra, along with members of the Choral Society and guest soloists, perform “Les Misèrables” on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 8 p.m. Although this concluding gesture of invitation in part welcomes you to witness and listen to the musical arts at Amherst, at best it might serve as a way to begin enacting what the ensemble might or could be.