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March 2010

It seems timely to remind all about the relationship between music and leisure. Aristotle does so famously in his Politics which discusses the public and the practical life. The characteristics of this life are its business and urgency. It is a life in which deadlines demand decisive actions and emergencies call for urgent attention. The life of business and politics is driven by the unrelenting pressures of competition, survival and achievement. This life knows no leisure.

The politician busily endeavours to organise the affairs of the polis. Urgent demands for response and action make it unlikely that real reflection enters into any of her decisions. Her mandate requires constant attention to her stakeholders whose interests are pushing her into closure and decision making. Her fate depends on her public standing and on overcoming her detractors. This requires constant attention, at times desperate vigilance. Responding to the pressures of the moment her decisions are likely to be flawed, her thoughts are likely to be confused and her actions are likely to be incoherent.

The trader in the marketplace hurries from opportunity to opportunity. She must incessantly praise her wares, entice her customers or flog her products. Faced with a choice between truth and market- share, she will choose the latter and neglect the former. Any decline of activity and business, of achievement or attention implies in fact a decay of her mode of being. A trader cannot afford to slow her advance. A loss of urgency and business brings a loss of the invented self. The consequences are potentially catastrophic as the groundlessness of this fictional activity is exposed. The trader or politician who defines herself through her active and public life thus lives in constant demand to prove herself and in constant fear to lose herself. She is fundamentally unfree. She is addicted to publicity and gossip. She experiences neither happiness nor “felicity of life”. These – as Aristotle tells us- “are not possessed by the busy but by the leisured: for the busy man busies himself for the sake of some end as not being in his possession, but happiness is an end achieved, which all men think is accompanied by pleasure and not by pain.” (Politics 1338a)

What about music and the musician though? What are the potential characteristics of his activity and art? Aristotle offers one general answer and three detailed possibilities which we must carefully consider: Music is in the first instance a self-sufficient activity and hence a reflection of human freedom and autonomy. It is an activity of leisure, an activity which calls on our capacity for reflection, for listening, for calmness and relaxation and for the acceptance of the present in its presence. Music does not primarily crave public success. It invites human participation. It leads an autonomous existence of creative possibility and freedom. This explains Aristotle’s warning against becoming a professional musician. While professionals will “necessarily perform better than those who practice only long enough to learn” (Politics 1339a) the professional performance of music contains dangers of introducing business, urgency and confusion into this art of leisure. “We may consider” he writes “the conception that we have about the Gods: Zeus does not sing and harp the poets himself. But professional musicians we speak of as vulgar people, and indeed we think it not manly to perform music, except when drunk or for fun.” (1339b).

Aristotle’s point about the barbarity of the professional musician is familiar to us. In fact it is an echo of his insistence in the Nicomachean Ethics that the superior life is the contemplative life, the bios theoretikos. The busy life among practical tasks and acquired things commits to results, to public achievement, to applause and acclaim. It delivers us into a form of slavery. It transforms us in extreme cases into barbarians, into hunters of media fame, into warriors for market dominance and into killers of time. But music rejects haste, urgency and business. It is itself temporal form and it grants us time.

The rejection of urgency and business is by no means a rejection of all activity, though. Aristotle makes it quite clear that only an active life has the potential for happiness. However, the active life needs to be pursued within self-sufficient activity whose ends must not to be confused with spectacular achievements, accumulation of matter or public acclaim. An important passage in the Politics points out that the “active life is not necessarily active in relation to other men, as some people think, nor are only those processes of thought active that are pursued for the sake of the objects that result from action, but far more those speculations and thoughts that have their end in themselves and are pursued for their own sake; for the end is to do well.” (1325b)

This definition of an activity as aiming for “well-doing” (eupraxia) is highly relevant to the musician. It grounds the relationship between music and leisure. Music and music making exist as “energeia” – as actuality. In other words they have their ends in themselves and not in the products of their making. This, however, means that music is not driven by an intention to make a product with attributes that exist outside the activity of production. Music is thus not driven at all. It is leisured – it lets itself- and those who make it- be.

When considering music further, Aristotle identifies three possibilities through which we can identify the leisure of music: Firstly, music may be a form of relaxation (anapausis) which grants us relief from the relentlessness of the every-day. In this sense we engage with music “as one indulges in sleep or deep drinking” (1338b). Secondly, music may be a form of education. After all, it influences our being, forms our character and sounds out our mood creating an attunement to the world. In this way music may accustom us “to be able to rejoice rightly”. (1339a). Thirdly, music may be a form of cultural or “intellectual entertainment” (diagoge), a sophisticated form of cultured leisure. All three possibilities are according to Aristotle relevant to music - it is “reasonable to reckon it under all of these heads”. Their common theme, however, is the self-sufficient activity which identifies music as leisured. Education, relaxation and cultured entertainment all deny the pragmatic urgency of the every-day. Their excellence resides in themselves. They present us thus with the possibility of freedom.

There is a danger that such reflections on music and leisure are perceived as removed, abstract and perhaps irrelevant. However, this is a superficial impression. In fact these thoughts have very real correlations in concrete life. Musicians know that the aim of their performance cannot be – whatever the appearance- the attainment of acclaim and applause. Playing to the gallery will not enable them to be at their best. The aim of music making must be the achievement of “doing well” itself (eupraxia). This attitude aims at potential and achieves the crucial convergence between possibility and actuality.

Musical performance is thus concretely determined by leisure and by the capacity to conceive and work with leisured states of mind, body and spirit. This can be clearly seen when attending performances by highly accomplished virtuosi: their playing is always distinguished by ease, by freedom and by leisure. Their artistry is a combination of intuition, timed intensity and insight within a self-sufficient discipline. Even the most difficult work becomes seemingly effortless in the hand of a master. The virtue of a virtuoso in fact lies in the capacity to distinguish between the heightened intensity of music and the urgent energies which qualify business and politics. Unlike the urgency of noise, the timing of virtuosity is natural and self-sufficient. Unlike the busy trader or fervent politician the musician does not react to deadlines, emergencies or critical situations. The strength of his connection with leisure always includes any concrete realities of playing. He remains self-sufficient in the present, directing this playing into the future. Music as leisure cannot be otherwise. It closes the gap between possibility and actuality.