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Awareness of Aesthetic Distance: A Means to Diversify Musical Perspectives

byTimothy Oliver Editor’s Note: This article appears as one of a series written especially for Ala Breve by experts in the field of music education.

On a warm, but pleasant summer day in July 2010, one of my colleagues from the theater department and I were enjoying conversation over coffee about one of our upcoming collaborations. During our visit, I mentioned my experiences at a concert that I attended while at a professional conference earlier that spring. It was a collegiate wind ensemble concert, but during the presentation theatrical elements such as lighting and staging of musicians were utilized to create a memorable and satisfying performance.

Without the slightest

hesitation my colleague stated that it was obvious those musicians knew how to manipulate aesthetic distance. I sat there stunned and agog in a mixture of confusion and awe. I knew what the words aesthetic and distance meant, but putting the two together was a new experience for me. Moreover, the fact my colleague spoke this compound term so casually but with utter conviction, demanded that I begin an investigation that has since altered my views as a music educator and conductor.

The next day I initiated my research on aesthetic distance and quickly learned there are several different interpretations and applications of this concept. Numerous artistic genres - music, theater, visual art, dance, literature, film, and electronic media – utilize the concept of aesthetic distance. There are also three prerequisite distances, or some might call them conditions, all of which are intuitive, in order for aesthetic distance to be realized. The first is spatial distance, or the physical distance between the art object and the person interacting with the art. The physical environment in which we attempt to engage with music is most often associated with this type of distance. Secondly, temporal distance, the distance involving time and our experience with music. This type of distance is applicable to a single or often multiple musical experiences over time. Temporal distances tend to affect our musical views more than spatial distances. The third and final


prerequisite is psychical distance; a concept pioneered by Edward Bullough in 1912. Psychical distance is a psychological blending of our ability and willingness to be both personally and intellectually involved with music. Sometimes we make a conscious effort to be available to the music, while other times the music “chooses” us and demands our attention. In an effort to synthesize and extrapolate into a musical context various definitions and applications of aesthetic distance, I offer the following interpretation. Aesthetic distance is finding equilibrium among the ways we feel and think about music assuming that we are spatially, temporally and psychically available to be engaged with music.

We have all heard the adage, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” The implication of this notion, and its opposite, is perspective. Consider that following. Think back to a particularly satisfying performance you experienced as a conductor, performer, or audience member. What are your first memories of that performance? Did the performance move you emotionally? Were you in awe of the technical ability displayed? Perhaps it was a mixture of both? Whatever your answers, these questions can begin to raise your awareness of aesthetic distance.

Perhaps one of the most interesting sources on this topic is the 1961 article “Distancing” as an Aesthetic Principle by Sheila Dawson.

perfectly appropriate that each student will have varying degrees of aesthetic distance, provided they are willing and able to engage with the music. Each one of them brings their own biases and personal history to any potential aesthetic opportunity. Additional, the art object in question also has a significant influence. All students will not like, or experience to the same degree, every piece of music we as music educators offer to them. Furthermore, it is conceivable and perhaps even expected, that aesthetic distance changes over time regarding a particular piece of music. How many times have we or our students grown tired of a musical selection because it is played too often? In contrast, how often have we had the experience where our appreciation of a piece of music deepens with the passing of time? Again, the concept of temporal distance affects our musical views.

In searching for equilibrium of distance, a useful construct might be to think of a continuum which terminates on each end with either emotional or objective reality. Toward the left side of the continuum resides a more subjective perspective, personal attachments, or emotional content. While on the right side you find a more objective attitude, impersonal connections, and a logical, analytical mindset. Somewhere in between, but without a specific location or proportion, is the equilibrium, the aesthetic distance.

Among Dawson’s many assertions is that there is no optimum or correct aesthetic distance for each person, each artistic object or each occasion. When considering the students in our ensembles and classes, it is

It is important to note that when reality intrudes it violates aesthetic distance and compromises the experience. Reality and the prerequisite psychical distance are incompatible. Reality may take an emotional

February/March 2015

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