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An uncivilised power asserts itself in music and resonates through our musical culture. This chaotic, abysmal will-to-power at the source of musical creativity challenges culture and civilisation. This is not to be lamented as it is in fact possibly authentic to the phenomenon of music itself.

Denials of civilisation in music emerge already in classical antiquity. According to mythology, aesthetic or ethical differences in music escalated into often violent conflicts. Among the many examples of violence and brutality, Apollo challenged the satyr Marsyas to a musical contest in which the God played the lyre and Marsyas the Aulos – a reed instrument renowned for its sensuous qualities. The muses, who judged the contest, are reputed to have declared Apollo the winner. Apollo in response flayed the luckless Marsyas- a brutal punishment for musical differences and failings.

Apollo’s punishment affirms the rule of the stringed instruments, which were understood to support clarity and reason. They are placed in direct conflict with the “polyharmonic” instruments which were understood to have had imitative and intoxicating qualities. Plato uses this difference to condemn the imitative attributes of music altogether and to famously insist on codifying civilised forms of music and musical practice. Legislating music is an attempt to secure civilisation in a promotion of rational understanding and good governance. According to Greek thinking, stringed instruments, such as lyre and khitara, supposedly support the clear elocution of speech. Their presence in music is conducive to an articulation of truth in speech. Greek mythology informs us that the goddess Athena rejected wind instruments when she discovered that their playing distorted facial features and the speech organs. This is a symbolic cue for Greek thinking: the sound of wind instruments supposedly imitates an unrestrained sensuality and expresses a reckless imagination. Civilisation, however, demands sobriety- sophrosyne– and the unrestrained sensual powers of music present a challenge to this.

The sensuous and instinctive dimension of music remains troubling for the classical consciousness. Orpheus, the son of the muse Kalliope, was renowned for music making of such beauty that his playing supposedly moved plants, animals and even stones. However, his pragmatic achievements appear less compelling. After gaining access to the underworld Orpheus fails to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the realm of the shadows for lack of agreement to conditions- he turned around to look at her against the explicit prohibition to do so. Orpheus looses his wife forever and subsequently becomes a victim of hatred and rage: The God Dionysos, the God of intoxication and rapture (musical qualities in themselves) perceived a betrayal in Orpheus’ admiration for Apollo and is reputed to have stirred the maenads against him. These raving, female followers of Dionysos, intoxicated and orgiastically transported, dismembered Orpheus’ body. According to mythology Orpheus’ head, still singing, floated to the island of Lesbos.

Punishments for transgressing aesthetic boundaries, ethical responsibilities or the mysterious boundaries of music are consistently severe: The singer Linos, a son of Apollo and Urania, and reputedly the first to have received the gift of singing, met a violent end through Heracles, his pupil whom he dared criticise during a music lesson. Thamyris, the son of the nymph Agriope, reputedly sang- and played the lyre so beautifully that he claimed to have surpassed even the muses themselves. These, however, did not appreciate the competition, but exterminated his possibility of artistic realisation: they blinded him and took from him the gift of singing and playing.

The uncivilised conflicts surrounding music are an outcome of a struggle for the truth of- and in music. Music is an art of semblance, of conviction and persuasion. It emerges from the intuition and instinct of the human psyche. It is shaped by the powers of human imagination and intelligence. Its emergence and its formation are naturally in tension. Nature aims for utterance. Civilisation makes the demand that such utterance is formed and constitutes meaning. One may take issue with this, as Nietzsche does, and point to the fact that in music formation inevitably leads towards a destruction of essence. The essence of music, the Dionysian element of intoxication, is also the instinctive elimination of individuality. Form, however, affirms an Apollonian definition of individuation. Form introduces clarity, identity, recognition, reflection, objectivity and endurance into music. The characteristics of form contradict the primordial power of music which is essentially transitory, communal and sublating of identity, intuitive and ephemeral. The attributes of form also characterise civilisation. Their denial puts civilisation on notice.

While we may affirm the Dionysian essence of music, we also know that without form, music cannot exist. To be sure, amorphous sound may be a varying stimulant. It does have an effect on our experience and it can function as a pacifier, as a tranquilizer or as an ecstatic drug, However, music ultimately challenges our listening consciousness and directs it towards a search for meaning. This search identifies it as a phenomenon of civilisation. Listening searches for structural and formal attributes in music. Accordingly, listening to music has a reflective dimension- we may not choose to engage with this dimension, but it is nevertheless present and – despite Kierkegaard- an authentic aspect of music itself. Listening is not merely what we hear in the here-and-now. It includes a horizon of what we have heard- it includes our history of attention. And it includes expectations, projections and anticipations. In fact, music – and the artistic engagement with music in particular- rely on a horizon of recollections and expectations to engage the listeners’ imagination.

Without the appeal to a reflective, conscious perception, music as we know it would not have endured. The very existence of music as music implies the possibility of reflection. Because music is formed, it can endure as a realm of conscious experiences. Form is thus an essential aspect of music. Form makes music potentially significant. Formation is an achievement of civilisation and civilisation in turn is charged with the nuture of form. While the instinctive power of music challenges civilisation at its foundations, it is clear that without form and without civilisation music cannot last. It becomes ephemeral – a babbling noise.