The imagination is indeed a perplexing faculty. On the one hand it suggests an intimate and silent realm of possibility; on the other it projects loudly our dreams and hopes, our needs and yearnings, our wishes and wants in public activity. One such activity is musical performance and a more specialised kind of such performance is the performance of so-called “serious-music”. The Violin Concerto by Beethoven will fall into this category for anyone who cares about such a label. However, more intriguing than applying a label of “seriousness” to music is the question what possibilities Beethoven’s work might afford the imagination today.

A recent concert experience provided striking opportunity to reflect on just this question. Here is the setting: A gala performance– garlands of purple flowers framing the stage to provide a setting of perfumed expectancy. The musicians of the orchestra already on stage seem disciplined and alert; dimming lights, concentrated tuning. Conductor and soloist enter to excited and voluptuous applause. Both are major performers of international standing but the contrast could not be more striking: Small statue, grey hair, impish walk- the conductor appears boyish, excited and eager to share the secrets of music. The violinist in yellow mermaid dress enters like a princess, gracing all with her presence. The production is perfect: dress-matching shoes, immaculately styled hair, radiating and gracious smile – a suggestion of eternal youth, of mythical beauty, of a goodness that suggests redemption.

The entrance is electrified by expectation. The performance had already begun months ago with a carefully planned campaign in glossy media where patrons and public were prepared to witness a phenomenon, to hear a superstar otherwise only encountered in film or sport. Those who are here tonight had heard the tale of legendary fame, of a life which transcended ordinary tragedy and extraordinary promise, of an eternally youthful giftedness and of a dedication to others through charity work and the promotion of young artists. Is this merely a musician or is this someone who may respond to our dreams of eternal youth, of combining beauty, truth and compassion, a creature of all-encompassing goodness?

The entrance suggests a magical aura. It hints at a fulfilment of the quest for eternal youth. It hints at relief from the eternal disappointment of transience. It hints at redemption from a daily struggle with goodness and truth in an ordinary, dreary and frustrated life. Here comes a specimen of perfection, invited by the audience’s imagination, by its desires, dreams and disappointments. With the first sounds of her violin, this artist will need to respond to a call of an imagination and of a yearning that reaches beyond Beethoven into the abyss of modern life. How this artist performs in this dimension will define her art!

The orchestra starts the extended tutti with concentrated care. There is attention and control of tempo- a reticence to become assertive and exuberant notwithstanding that the music may call for this. From her first entry with its ascending dominant seventh arpeggio the violinist commands our attention with a sound of striking modality, aided by intense vibrato, lascivious glissandi and seductive contrasts exposing breathtaking colour, beauty and tone. This is a sound-show to spectacular effect and with compelling colour. Unusual rubato, sudden effects with striking seduction in sound, some sharpness in pitch at times cuts into the listener’s attention – no device is spared to tantalise our attention. It becomes increasingly clear why the orchestra was careful: It did not recognise that it was in fact part of a different kind of performance and that this performer could harness the dreams of an audience more powerfully than any music. It is no longer a question of simply performing a work of music and revealing its existence. The yellow-golden violinist has lured all towards a different kind of realm. Here, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto becomes merely an opportunity to incite the fundamental desires and yearnings accumulated in the everyday. There is myth-making at work here.

The performance unfolds with irresistible authority and wilful imagination. It directs the attention of the listener towards the musician on stage and confronts him with a hidden, amplifying consciousness. Did he come to hear Beethoven’s Violin Concerto? This hardly seems relevant for this performance is about the listeners’ hidden dreams, their yearnings and their unfulfilled desires, their everyday frustration and their despair at the ever receding amount of life seeping away through mundane, everyday activity. The soloist brings redemption, a brief sojourn of hope and a promise that dreams can become real, that myth may be true and that youth can be ever-lasting if only we follow our imagination.

At the end of the performance the gratitude of the audience at this celebration of semblance knows no bounds. Here is an artist who knows that ordinary listeners come to concerts not merely to hear the music: they come with a need for catharsis, to gain redemption from their quiet despair. And the imagination must be complete, the needs fulfilled to temporary satisfaction. The mermaid conjured up the mythical and intoxicating forces of redemption with her violin. Where these forces of Beethoven’s imagination? It hardly matters for the forces of the listeners’ imagination and its desires were stronger. They were inflamed and fulfilled. The power of the mermaid closes our consciousness – she does not question it nor does she free us from it. She seduces and satisfies, perhaps, but she leaves behind a greater dependency. Should this be the purpose of music and music making? Should Beethoven’s Violin Concerto become the vehicle of seduction, of narcissistic wish fulfilment? These are academic questions. They are in any case entirely dependent on accepting my description in the first instance. And there is no way one can argue the point against an essentially irresistible imagination. Putting the question will inevitably ricochêt an answer. “Muss es sein?- Es muss sein!” – Beethoven knew this and so did Walt Disney. But Beethoven extracted the answer from our imagination to enhance our freedom and autonomy of consciousness while Disney buried it into our imagination and thus continued to commit us to an enhanced dominance of desire. The latter is no real catharsis - for the mermaid masquerading as a mother of redemption is little more than a beautiful reflection of dreams which ultimately entomb us in the cellars of our own consciousness.

Flesch's fudge

20 January, 2012

Harmony, tuning and more recently intonation have been traditionally of interest to philosophers and musicians. Plato, who was influenced by the Pythagoreans has much to say on this (Timaeus, Republic and elsewhere). However, it seems that the violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch was no ally for any Platonist with an interest in purity and perfection of ideas. Writing on the burdensome topic of intonation, Flesch argues that purity in this area was “an impossibility”. “We must, as much as I regret this” writes Flesch, “strip the saintly aura from the concept of ‘purity of intonation’. Purity in the physical sense is an impossibility.” There are many ways in which one can deal with Flesch’s demystifying yet regretful conclusion. His own practical advice for what appear at times worse or better concrete solutions seems staggeringly close to modern life: “The so called purity of intonation is accordingly nothing but a rather fast, skilled improvement of the originally imprecise pitch. In out of tune playing the tone remains during its entire duration as false as it was at the moment of its creation.”

Let’s translate what Flesch is saying into a simpler context where the philosophical impact will become clear. I extract three perplexing points: Firstly, fudging is everywhere and it is the order of the day. Secondly, excellence is found in a better and more sophisticated ability to fudge, not necessarily in a better capacity to hit the right mark in the first instance. Thirdly, those who are out of tune are simply too slow to fudge or perhaps too dull to get caught. Had they been better and quicker at fudging they would have entered the history books as masters of their art.

While overstating potential generalities here on the basis of minimal definitions we might see that there is nevertheless something profoundly attractive and at the same profoundly perplexing about Flesch’s advocacy of fudging. The attractive aspect seems to me a debunking of the attributes “right” and “wrong” with their intimidating moral and intellectual implications. They are replaced by the more comfortable attributes of “slow” and “quick” – relative concepts of action or reaction. This has liberating psychological consequences as it removes the burden of absolute authority and absolute failure and places our attention and responsibilities firmly within a pragmatic realm. Like flies we do our best to be quick. Unlike flies we do not always die if we don’t succeed. In the realm of the practical we can usually forgive mistakes for we know that no-one is perfect. Containing pragmatic issues removes us from harm and protects our conscience from dealing with moral and intellectual complexities which have merely universal relevance and can overwhelm our capacity to act. It enables us to remain engaged in action staying clear of dogma. Action deals with particulars and particulars are imperfect. Hence we must accept imperfection and (happily and wholeheartedly) embrace fudging. All remain friends – at least until the fudging imposes on the interests of the other (often this occurs rather sooner...) or unless we fudge with the lives of others (what applies to musicians and philosophers may not apply to surgeons or airline pilots).

This brings me to the two troubling aspects of Flesch’s identification of fudging. I am afraid that they will lead me to side with the Platonists against Flesch. Firstly, Flesch is not telling us the whole story. For, even if Flesch is right (and one might argue that he is about as right as saying “snow is never really white”- something trivially true on the grounds that universals are not particulars) not all fudging is alike. The point is this: we know that there is fudging of different quality. We know that some fudging corrupts appearances, our music making and our world and we know that some fudging can improve it. We know that there is a subtle difference between fudging and faking. So, how do we know this and how do we know which fudging to employ and in which direction to fudge? I am suggesting that we can (and must) have an idea of perfection to establish the extent, direction and amount of fudging we employ. Furthermore, we must be attentive and practically committed to this ideal before we act in order to judge and fudge-even assuming Flesch is correct, that is.

Secondly, telling only part of a story is itself a kind of fudging. Embracing fudging without further qualification or regret simply ignores that all pragmatic or practical decisions are context dependent – if we wish them to be sensible, that is. They reflect indirectly our attention to the context in which they are made and enacted. Their quality is determined by the clarity of our attention and by our grasp of a given situation. If our grasp is inadequate, our fudging won’t be any good. It is likely to cause damage. This is brought out very clearly in the phenomenon of intonation: Flesch’s fudging really only works if we know clearly what it is we are intending to hear within a given context and fudge to achieve this. In all other musical and non-musical circumstances fudging is similarly constrained. It derives its qualities and importance from conceptual frameworks, from values and from intentions. These are blended in our attention to the subject matter which – pace Flesch- can indeed remain pure, if not perfect. Even if pragmatic reality compels us to fudge (and Flesch is likely right to suggest that all concrete actions contain fudging) our attention and integrity of view transcend any such fudging and must seek to purify our intentions. (In fairness to Flesch I must point out here that he sort of says this when he suggests exercises that calibrate our attention and supposedly improve our capacity to fudge more effectively.)

However, like so many Flesch fudges the fundamental question whether an inherently imperfect reality is just merely that or whether our consciousness of it requires us to commit to ideas of perfection once we accept the excellence of an art and the authority of the ear and mind. The question is: must we assume, recognise, articulate or develop context? The answer is absolutely affirmative. Without articulating concepts, values, purposes and intentions and the role of any required or real fudging we pretend that fudging is in fact the ultimate story. But this cannot be for it would lead a fudgy world to become further fudged. The consequences are devastating to the harmony of all.

On Conductors

26 November, 2011

Recent opportunity stimulated further reflection about conductors. What do they do? What should they do? How do they do it? How can it be that there are not only vastly different ways of conducting but such perplexingly different ways of leading an ensemble and its performance? Can something be learnt from observing- and from understanding effective conductors outside their musical achievements?

Literally translated, a conductor “leads” (ducere) an ensemble “together” (con-). The more common derivation of the word would refer us to the phenomena of transmission and conductivity. In this understanding a conductor is someone who transmits- and who is transparent. A conductor facilitates. He translates the creativity of musicians or the idea of the music, perhaps. The conductor has a complex task, then. He brings musicians together to play as an ensemble rather than pursue their creative or musical agendas as disparate individuals. He does so by interpreting and translating the idea of music (or the work of music as the case may be). He variously articulates, he persuades and he balances.

If we are firstly thinking of the task of bringing a group of musicians together, it seems there are two ways of accomplishing this. In the first instance we may be tempted to hold the view that a performance poses primarily a logistic, organisational challenge which requires a complex signalling system to ensure that all play together as intended. This seems a modern and timely view. The conductor will be judged by efficiency and effectiveness to achieve clean ensemble. In this paradigm conductors tend to be directors of musical traffic. Musicians respond by waiting for signals before proceeding. Their own initiatives and actions are dependent on receiving “go-aheads” in the first instance from the person on the podium. They must check at all times that they are rightly playing on cue.

There are many (including high-profile) conductors I know who ultimately adhere to this view. They usually identify themselves by insisting that musicians “must follow the beat” or that musicians “must watch” closely and comply with instruction. They look for compliance. My experience is that they receive often little more than superficial compliance. Nevertheless, a conductor of this kind signals possibilities for clean organisation. But he also imposes explicit limitations on individual autonomy, creativity and spontaneity. He suggests that musicians must be primarily responsive as their role is to translate and interpret external signals. This imposes clear limits on individual inspiration and initiative. After all, personal initiative may get in the way of clean functioning.

Before anyone rejects this compliance view of conducting, let me insist that there is some merit in it. Poorly coordinated or random initiative can often lead to chaos and contradiction. This interferes with translation of purpose and distracts all. The chaotic outcomes can eclipse uninspired and irrelevant results disastrously. An ensemble which spends its time sorting through mess and dissonances may be creative in a way but it will be ineffective in articulating such creativity convincingly. Notwithstanding, the compliance view of performance has a clear limit: Why would anyone continue to exercise their autonomous imagination when an acceptable and successful performance is apparently achieved by translating given gestures and signals into sound? Any musician with autonomous creative imagination will simply detach himself and withdraw into his own imagination. The performance result will be less than inspiring – perhaps coherent of sorts but rarely inspiring.

There is another way, however, to look at the conductor which is derived from a different – and I suggest more genuine- interpretation of musical organisation. In the first instance, all meaningful musical performance unfolds in the moment and within an instant. Reacting to signals establishes a succession where simultaneity is required. The compliance paradigm creates lag and delay. It creates stragglers and latecomers. Genuine musical interpretation proceeds with attention to the musical work as an intentional object. The ensemble, then, has a task to achieve synchronicity and common intent. The conductor’s role is here to direct the musicians’ attention towards the intentional object. Such direction promotes attention and listening. It is directly opposed to the distraction which affirms rules of external functioning and compliance.

In this medial conception, the conductor stimulates the autonomous imagination of a group of musicians in such a way that they naturally choose congruent modes of musical initiative, activity and sound. The conductor is no longer directing traffic from outside. Instead he generates a second order awareness of the musical and immanent flow and inspires musicians to join together in listening. Any decision on go-aheads or subtleties of performance here are made primarily by every individual person him- and herself. They do not emanate from a conductor but from the mediated, natural flow of the music itself. The conductor is focussed on the musical unfolding taking place in his imagination. He projects this unfolding to the musicians with the help of his physical gestures. In other words the conductor invites musicians into a consciousness and imagination of the work in question. In this engagement, musicians will make naturally congruent decisions unless they are distracted in some way. Such distraction can take numerous forms. Lack of technical freedom, tiredness and physical discomfort, egocentricity and preoccupation with individual aspects of the music can all contribute to a lack of attention.

Musicians are responsible to see that they remain open and attentive and their distraction stays at a minimum. Their individual technical and musical preparation ultimately has this aim. Liberated from a requirement to determine right and wrong according to rules and signals of traffic, musicians must be free to determine right and wrong autonomously and in accordance with the natural unfolding of music itself. This includes increased responsibility for their own playing and conduct. It also has evident benefits for their own engagement, their autonomous imagination, their creativity and spontaneity. It provides a conducted ensemble with a consciousness of individual, yet collective freedom and one that is firmly rooted in listening. It may also unsettle musicians who are suddenly faced with responsibilities they did not realise they possessed. However, in the long term it achieves two important things: it preserves the authentic qualities of music making and it affirms the autonomous imagination of the artist.
Musicians instinctively reject an approach which seeks to control and streamline expression. This is understandable as the very activity of music making is an exercise of autonomous subjectivity. At the same time, musicians do not always extend their consciousness of responsibility to a comprehensive engagement with a performance. In large ensembles in particular the musician can be quick to defer decision, abdicate responsibility and withdraw to a position of fulfilling functionality. Such withdrawal serves to balance individual frustration with public demands to perform. However, it has potentially devastating consequences for the musician. It accepts and promotes a restricted musical context. It takes attention away from the task. It destroys the genuine and truthful intent of music making. A musician who plays with diminishing awareness and attention will not do well and must ultimately fail his spiritual task. The musical requirements of harmony and form demand a consciousness of the music which is comprehensive even if the individual musician merely performs a part.

It is clear that only conductors who are genuinely and single-mindedly attentive to music itself will understand this choice. It is their desire to imagine and intuit the music in its fullness. This creates an extended consciousness in which all – musicians and listeners- ultimately participate. Regrettably, much contemporary conducting is inattentive here. Rather than attending to the intentional object with heightened energy and single minded concentration, conductors seek to achieve results and create effects, solve problems, promote performance, satisfy audiences and evoke critical acclaim. In other words: they seek opportunity and success. This leads them to ignore music as an intentional object and seek compliance from others in turn. They tend to forget that the consciousness of the musician is to be with his musical, creative imagination at all times and to seek increasing clarity here. Indulging in musical experience and effect is the privilege of the audience – not the purpose of the conductor or the musician.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann deserves our attention for a number of reasons and not only for its comments on music. At one point in particular, when the infected inmates of the institution convene for another distraction the discussion between the intoxicated hero and his philosopher-friend Lodovico Settembrini turns to the topic of music. Settembrini is generally adamant that the inmates have lost their plot as fully functional human beings. More importantly they constitute a dangerous political potential. This is a consequence of their moral corruption and their intoxication. Their delusion is evident by their loss of clear perception, clear will and clear thinking. Tightly wrapped in their own subjectivity and dozing in thin air, the essence of humanity is seeping from them. Settembrini, the humanist, is alarmed and attempts to inspire a balanced view in anyone with a practical and pragmatic conscience. He believes, after all, that the essence of humanity does not consist in an instinctive community, in intoxicated belonging or in any acceptance of authority or vision, but in the common presence and promotion of reason. Settembrini is a rationalist because he believes that humans are human on account of a shared faculty of reason and a shared capacity for dialogue.

Music offers an opportunity for some fundamental reflections for Settembrini. His most frequently quoted comment (the conductor Daniel Barenboim refers to it in his latest book) is also his most provocative: “Art is moral in so far as it wakes us. But what if it does the opposite? If it anesthetises, sends us to sleep and opposes activity and progress? This too music can do, it understands the effects of opiates most essentially. A diabolical effect, gentlemen. The opiate is from the devil, because it creates stupor, inertia, inactivity, slavish arrest... there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I maintain it is by nature equivocal. I do not exaggerate if I declare it to be politically suspect.” (ZB, 121)

Settembrini’s comment points to the intoxicating effects of music which – on their own and unguarded – may corrupt the human spirit. “Music”, Settembrini affirms earlier in the conversation, “is invaluable as an ultimate medium of enthusiasm, as a power which takes us upwards and forward, if it finds the spirit prepared for its application. But it must have been preceded by literature. Music by itself does not advance the world. Music by itself is dangerous.” (ZB, 120)

Settembrini’s point that music implies a risk and can contribute to moral and political corruption is worth considering carefully. Certainly, there is no shortage of examples where music and musicians have played a dangerous role in corrupting communities and civilisations. But, on the whole, music appears on its own; it remains uncontaminated by moral or political concern and value. Kierkegaard most famously identifies this in the contrast between the ethical and aesthetic attitude where music features as a thoroughly transient art which allows no reference to any enduring context of responsibility. The aesthetic attitude simply lacks a cognitive framework in which it could comprehend any objective dimension of reality adequately. Any ethical attitude (and this includes any political concern as this is based on ethical value) requires a temporal framework of endurance and a complex interplay between reflective and active attitudes.

Notwithstanding these ontological subtleties, Settembrini makes a fundamental point and it seems to be the following: Music on its own is dangerous because it lacks an autonomous interpretative grounding. It is an art of pure, suspended and self-absorbed subjectivity – an art that primarily intoxicates and removes us from reality and coherent conduct. Music on its own is a mere force without any content – a life force in fact and accordingly a force driving principally towards death as the Magic Mountain eloquently illustrates. Accordingly, Settembrini pleads that music “must be preceded by literature”.

The reference to literature seems to be generic here. This is potentially an important point. Literature represents the human activity of creating, interpreting and affirming discursive meaning – critical, conscious and conceptual meaning, perhaps, to be more precise. In the context of the Magic Mountain and under Settembrini’s terms meaning is always critical, conscious and conceptual - the word is seen as the vehicle for critical dialogue. Music, however, is primarily seen to erode such dialogue on account of its intoxicating capacity. At its morally best music is able to enforce and amplify a pre-existing vision of truth. However (this seems to be Settembrini’s point) such a vision of truth must be essentially conceptual. It must underpin any derivative “truth” of music. In fact (and by inference) a perverse vision of reality can be amplified equally powerfully by music and musicians. This is the delusion - and the shame of musicians. Thus, music without a context of conceptual meaning, music without logos remains dangerous because it does not per se further human endeavours of truth seeking.

It is important to acknowledge what this means. In the first instance, it implies that the word, the logos, occupies a privileged position in relation to truth for us and that the abandonment of this privilege may imply an abandonment of civilised conduct. In the second instance it implies that there is no truth seeking limited to music itself. Music is not a realm where truth is disclosed on its own and as such – contrary to the views and wishes of enthusiasts. Music is able to further disclose truth through its dynamism, through its power of taking us “upwards and forwards”, however, such truth must in principle be available to our interpretative horizon in a conceptual grasp. Music (this is the sobering realisation of Settembrini’s conversation) must be dependent. Unless it is dependent it risks becoming morally “suspicious”. The conscious contextualisation of music determines its moral ambiguity.

ZB: Thomas Mann, Der Zauberberg, Frankfurt: Fischer, 1982

Kant's answer

6 June, 2011

Cynics may argue that the relevance of Immanuel Kant, the enlightenment philosopher, has exhausted itself in obsessively regular and domestic habits. Accounts of Kant’s life often emphasize the anecdotal report that the citizens of Koenigsberg in East Prussia used the philosopher’s predictable afternoon walks as an opportunity to confirm the accuracy of their clocks. Thus Kant is perhaps responsible for more than one Copernican revolution- the habits of the philosopher as a verification of time itself.

However, does attention as a result of order and regularity already constitute relevance? The philosopher is in a difficult position here. Attention and relevance are of vastly differing import to him for his contribution is relevant to the presence of contaminating substances in our spiritual drinking water. Invisible or otherwise indiscernible to most they may only come to attention when the many are already infected by disease. We know that when it comes to water quality, absence seems more relevant than presence. Again, why do we need the philosopher? The philosopher insists notoriously on purification –this makes him relevant and required. It also makes his contribution obscure and at times annoying. Frequently, he remains (and Kant is no exception) unnoticeable to the everyday drinker.

What I have particularly in mind here concerns Kant’s famous conception of “disinterestedness”. This is relevant to our understanding of our attitude to art and our appreciation of its beauty. Particularly in music, where imagination can reign unfettered and passions can be whipped into a frenzy, the idea that our attitude needs to be “disinterested” to appreciate its beauty strikes many as peculiar. One reason for this can be a common misunderstanding which should be eliminated from the start: the disinterested listener is not an uninterested or unengaged listener. To be sure, this is a difficult point to appreciate by many but one upon which we must nevertheless insist.

According to Kant we can distinguish three forms of appreciation and judgment: the appreciation of the good (or bad for that matter) articulates a practical interest or at least an interest in a thing or activity as it exists. If we judge something to be good, we relate its purpose to interests – either real or potential. Judgements about goodness are related to a will to see the object of the judgment realised. A similar relationship is established with the agreeable. If we deem something agreeable we take an interest in its reality and we deem such reality pleasurable. Finding something to be agreeable is thus equivalent to expressing a desire for it- notwithstanding the fact that such a desire may in a concrete sense be tempered or even suppressed.

An appreciation of beauty seems entirely different to Kant. Such appreciation is essentially a contemplative affair. It does not express a desire for real existence or indeed for possession nor does it articulate a conceptual understanding of a practical or pragmatic purpose. Appreciation of beauty – which, we assume for the sake of this context underpins much if not most musical listening- is “solely and alone a dis-interested and free appreciation” as “no interest, neither of the senses nor of reason forces us towards approval” (Kant, Critique of Judgement, § 5).

Such an abstract statement conceals a fair amount of relevance. In the first instance, it alerts us to a distinction of forms of appreciation that in many cases become confused and conflated. It is simply difficult to separate what is good from what is agreeable or beautiful. So musicians frequently find judgments about beauty that are actually judgments about pleasure or interest. There are two immediate explanations for such confusion: either the complexity of the phenomenon does not allow a separation of the appreciation or the person attending to the phenomenon is unable to make such a separation. Schopenhauer identified the latter with lofty arrogance: According to him, “the ordinary person, this factory product of nature which the latter produces daily by the thousands is, as I said, unable to engage in an entirely disinterested perception, which is the genuine contemplation, at least not in any sustained form: He can only direct his attention towards the things in so far as they have some – even very indirect – relevance to his desire” (Schopenhauer, WWV, § 36).

Schopenhauer’s haughty view suggests that a pure appreciation of beauty may be rare and unlikely. Needless to say that in circumstances of increasing focus on individual interest and agenda any capacity for the appreciation of beauty is reduced or eliminated. This is not good news for musicians or listeners who find themselves in contexts where interests are polarised. Polarisation tends to produce determination to cling to – and reinforce interests. In such cases, aesthetic judgements are likely to be increasingly mixed, merging judgments of beauty and the agreeable especially. Pure appreciation of beauty will be rare as it would presuppose a sustained capacity for contemplation.

Should this imply that the notion of “disinterest” must be discarded? A follower of Kant must argue against this. Abandoning a commitment to disinterestedness will leave us with an inability to appreciate the difference between technology, entertainment and art. When it comes to music and musicians such confusion will become very messy and in fact debilitating. Music has an emotional impact on us and it does appeal to be agreeable. It stimulates our desire and interest (with Kant) which means that it does not merely delight us (gefällt) but that it in fact even entertains us (vergnügt). In addition its complexities of conception and creation rely on technical abilities which we will admire and wish to promote. However, neither the appreciation of its quality nor its appreciation as agreeable completes an aesthetic and fully artistic appreciation. In order to take music seriously we will need to attend to its beauty. This requires us to suspend interests and any judgments related to it as agreeable. If we manage to elevate ourselves towards such contemplation, exercise our capacity to suspend desire and interests and attend to the phenomenon in question with the clarity of a disinterested attitude we may in fact step closer to an authentic conservation and advancement of music. Suffice to say that such disinterestedness may become passionate in a peculiar way.

A slippery discussion with an aspiring conductor and candidate of postgraduate studies caused dizziness above a hollow abyss of ignorance. Our conversation on conductors and conducting had to cut laboriously through pompous defences of narcissism. When we finally arrived at the subject matter of relevant literature the candidate drew blanks. There was much head-nodding (the hands were engaged in writing fervently) and finally the telling question: “How do you spell Leinsdorf?”

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf (author of The Composer’s Advocate- A radical orthodoxy for musicians, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1981) would have appreciated the stunning nature of our conversation. Imagine a doctoral student in physics inquiring about the spelling of “Heisenberg”. The student aside, we would be justified to conclude that the end of the discipline itself was upon us. Leinsdorf, an eloquent advocate for the comprehensive education of musicians and one of the 20th century’s most notable conductors, would agree that any similarly serious conductor must know the subject matter. And knowing the subject matter of conducting would seem to suggest (among other things) knowing more than the names (or the spelling) of those who have significantly formed it. The reality is escaping from such expectations in the case of my conducting candidate whose inability to spell clearly disguised a much more fundamental ignorance and lack of attention.

Conductors and musicians, it seems, are increasingly focussed on impression management and on the imitation of artistic intention. This might be a function of times when a spectacular rise to fame and a capacity to enchant enthusiastic but ignorant patrons is a priority. A pursuit of success at all costs and a reliance on charisma comes at a decreasing ability to face the music and search for an authentic meaning of the score. Authentic forms of musical interpretation and the personal commitment to the truth of music would require involved study of music and its performance history. Busy musicians simply do not have that time. Public expectations do not allow that time. Fudging becomes a way of life. The business of music making increasingly favours individuals with a strong sense for power, a weak sense of the limitations of their knowledge and no sense for the appropriateness of their ambitions. A combination of ambition, ignorance and audacity, however, has rarely produced sustained benefit for all. Accordingly, it can only be helpful to remind all of some important foundations which need to inform the education of musicians with the help of Erich Leinsdorf.

Leinsdorf’s book outlines some pretty clear demands. It argues that musical interpretation is a search for meaning. As such, it requires interpretative skills and a will to truth. It presupposes a capacity to read and understand complex scores in considerable detail. It demands a comprehensive knowledge of performance traditions and contexts. Conductors in particular require a clear understanding of orchestras, their instruments and their modes of preparation. Leinsdorf demands from them the ability to speak at least four languages as conductors must be able to relate directly to operas and their respective Italian, German and French original texts.

Leinsdorf’s conception of the education of an interpreter is grounded in a unified view of human consciousness and creativity. While it is fashionable to emphasise the near-exclusive importance of inspiration to music, Leinsdorf argues for a fusion of grace and intellect: “It is unfortunate”, he writes, “that intellect has been made into an antipode of emotion and inspiration necessary to create great works. Inspiration and intellect are not incompatible; they must complement each other if a composition is to be a masterpiece. We can feel awe at the unfathomable and at the same time recognise the importance of conscious thought and effort.” (CA, 23)

The interpretation of music requires a critical capacity and the search for its meaning demand a critical effort. This focuses on questioning the ideas and clichés which are inherited or accepted and which can determine a prevalent perspective of a musical work. In the context of a performance tradition and readily available interpretations of musical works, critical reflection enables the interpreter to qualify or suspend accepted beliefs thus clearing the path for a new and illuminating conception of a particular work. Critical reflection and creativity are mutually informative. The former suspends habitual modes of thinking through questioning of ordinary responses and interpretations. It leads to an uncovering of new potential and thus a stimulation of creativity and creative initiative. The latter makes proposals and projections which must be questioned and tested. In the interpretative context, some but not all creative ideas are worthy of survival. Some but not all charismatic visions deserve an audience. In addition to aesthetic and spiritual enchantment critical reflection and artistic conscience determine what has a right to survive here.

Musical performance as interpretation thus benefits from reflection. It is fundamentally dependent on the will to engage with letter and spirit of a score – a will to truth. This includes a need to suspend an often predominant concern with the ego of the performer. “Vanity”, Leinsdorf writes, “is indeed the archenemy of the interpreter, because it interferes with his ability to receive messages from other minds. Freischwebende Aufmerksamkeit (“free-floating attention”), a technique that is the sine qua non of dream analysis, is in my view the essential quality for a great interpreter. Unfortunately, the consensus has been that those performers who exhibit the oddest, most flamboyant or most eccentric personalities have the greatest talent. This may seem true, as long as we do not know the composers they perform too intimately. If we do, the performer’s idiosyncrasies and vanities rise to the surface like oil in water.” (CA, 49)

Musicians seem to play multiple roles. Some of these require a presence of a strong and unyielding ego. Others require – what we may call with Leinsdorf – freely suspended attention, ie. an attention that is disinterested to the concerns of its ego but merely present in the pursuit of meaning. We call the latter ordinarily listening. In the case of my faint conductor the roles may become increasingly determined and narrow: an extreme sense of entitlement and importance and a weak sense of responsibility and conscience lead to spiritual deafness. This freezes authentic interpretative engagement – not a good prospect for the musician. While he remains suspended above an abyss of groundless satisfaction those condemned to make music with him experience the absurdity and despair of nonsense.

A fair go for Hanslick

15 September, 2010

Eduard Hanslick, the notorious Viennese music critic and writer on musical aesthetics, has had a rough time. After a start that was notably spoilt by Wagner’s mocking portrayal of him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger he has been disqualified more recently as the “chief polemicists for the absolutists” (Susan McClary). To be sure, contemporary philosophers of the analytical tradition have shown sympathetic interest in- and appreciation for Hanslick, who was incidentally an accomplished pianist with skills in composition. But the reasons for this may ultimately be self-interested: Hanslick’s arguments prove useful to professional philosophers of music. They can be neatly dissected. In addition Hanslick is interested in the nature of emotion and in the role cognition and judgement play in their constitution. This attracts those yearning for an escape from the dissonant curses of consciousness and passion to a life of academic equilibrium.

I am arguing here that Hanslick still deserves a fair go. This may require us to turn down the noise of operatic or academic opinions (two phenomena which in combination wreak havoc on the life of the spirit) and turn directly to a reflection on his essay On the beautiful in Music. Here we find two well-known arguments: a negative thesis that music does not represent emotion and feeling and a positive thesis that music is essentially self-referential - not a language of feeling but simply “sounding, moving form.” It is one characteristic of the Hanslick reception to focus on the distinctness of the arguments all but ignoring that both theses are in fact expressions of a more fundamental and unifying view.

In fact, the crucial point is Hanslick’s contextual understanding that music addresses itself properly to pure intuition. He insists that music is neither an intellectual nor an emotional, but a spiritual art. The human faculty most relevant to music in this context is neither reason (Verstand) nor feeling (Gefuehl) but imagination (Phantasie). “It is peculiar”, Hanslick writes at the outset of his treatise, “how the older Aestheticians merely moved within a contrast between “feeling” (Gefuehl) and “reason” (Verstand) as if the main issue would not have to be settled in between this alleged dilemma” (VMS, 41). The identification of this “in-between” (inmitten) is the important point. It warrants a closer look.

For Hanslick a mediation of emotion and reason is firstly achieved by limiting exclusive claims such as the suggestion that the spiritual essence of music amounts to a representation of emotion (his negative thesis). He is clearly insistent on this as he separates the spiritual from the emotional emphasising the peculiar characteristics of the latter in instances of purely emotional responses to music: “We oppose this pathological seizure (Ergriffenwerden) to the conscious, pure contemplation of the sounding work. This contemplation is the only artistic, truthful form of listening; it qualifies the raw passion of the savage and the gushing reaction of the musical enthusiast as belonging to one class” (VMS, 119).

While we are not mistaken to talk about emotion in relation to music, the exclusive account of music in emotional terms is always incomplete and ultimately inauthentic. Music is a spiritual art. This suggests some affinity with the emotional life, but it also suggests a realm of conception and experience that is autonomous - and ultimately independent from mere feeling. Feelings and emotions are totalitarian and tend to claim exclusiveness. They can in fact establish a tyranny over consciousness overwhelming our spiritual consciousness on its way. In this process they reveal their pathological roots.

Such a decisive demarcation of the spiritual essence of music from emotional representation has often generated a view that Hanslick might instead be advocating some kind of intellectual formalism in his positive thesis of music as “sounding moving form”. This seems equally mistaken. An exclusive approach to beauty through understanding or reason would transform – for Hanslick- our relationship with music from an aesthetic one into a logical one. It would amount to an entirely dispassionate relationship with music. However, “without inner warmth, nothing great or beautiful has been achieved in life” (VMS, 97) Hanslick tells us. Neither logical nor pathological approaches to music have a privileged - or even an authentic place in our relationship with music. Hanslick is clear why this is the case: feeling and reason are merely “boundary regions” of the beautiful. Our perception of sounding beauty occurs through intuition (Anschauung) and takes place in our imagination (Phantasie), its natural homeland–neither in our abstract understanding nor in our feeling alone.

Pure contemplation or intuition (Anschauung) transcend feeling and understanding. The “reflection of the imagination” (Nachdenken der Phantasie, VMS 120) reveals the essentially spiritual characteristic of music. A musical work is “spiritual” (geistvoll)- not merely emotional (gefuehlvoll) or merely logical. Feeling is an appearance of spirit but should by no means be confused with its essence. It is a partial and in extreme dominance an inauthentic appropriation of music. In the case of musical performance feeling assists in the communication of the spiritual dimension of music enlivening the moment of recreation. The performer unleashes the emotional dimension of music through the sensuous attributes of music – music “ravishes” the listener in the “amorphous, demonic power” of the tone itself (VMS, 102). However, this emotional – or ultimately physical- impact of music in performance (pathological in a higher sense) will transform our aesthetic relationship to music into a pathological one if it is afforded exclusive influence.

This instrumental importance of emotion in music should not be confused with the pure contemplation which reveals the work of art as a “pure metal”. Once we contextualise the elementary powers of music, the artistic dimension of music is revealed in spiritual perception. This requires an entirely different attitude towards music in which the reflection of the imagination can perform its unique function. The careful distinction between passion and spirit alone suggests that Hanslick deserves a fair go if only for the reason that our contemporary culture constantly confuses the two.

VMS: E. Hanslick, "Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen", in: E. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen, Aufsaetze, Musikkritiken, Leipzig: Reclam, 1982, 33-145.