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May 2010

A recent essay by the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt discusses the prevalent phenomenon of humbug (Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). In his essay Frankfurt aims modestly for a development of “a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis” (2). On the path the author exposes a range of phenomena that appear relevant to music and musicians. In particular these include the subtle distinction between lies and bullshit. His discussion has considerable relevance for the presence of falsity and fakery in music.

Before considering the latter further in their relevance to musical listening, however, let me redraw some main points and distinctions. The inventions of the bullshitter, Frankfurt argues, are distinct from those of the liar. The liar recognises the importance of truth – be it through a denial. This recognition motivates in the first instance any falsification and fabrication. However, the bullshitter simply ignores the demands of truth altogether. The bullshitter “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does and opposes himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.” (61). The liar wishes “to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality” (55) whereas the bullshitter is unconcerned “how the things ...truly are.” (55). Bullshit is a form of brazen ignorance of the kind Socrates condemns as most damaging to an individual’s existence. Bullshit excludes any questioning stance, any capacity and intention to seek refutation of one’s convictions and opinions which is central to truthfulness. The bullshitter ignores (or actively obscures) any path that may lead to truth. Instead she flees the possibility of truth - in spectacular cases with frequent reference to a bold “vision” and noisy acclaim.

Needless to say, the bullshitter thrives in an increasingly complex world where the notion of truth itself has become relative and obscure. Humbug becomes the norm where people feel called upon to hold and articulate views about matters they know too little about. Where listeners shun the arduous journey of discovering facts and of searching for the truth of a matter for themselves – activities that can be difficult, confronting and unsettling- and instead follow comfortable conversation and superficial chatter a humbugger and bullshitter will remain at large, recognised, however, often by a dramatised posture of authority and kaleidoscopic, flamboyant babble.

Whatever the circumstance, bullshitting aims at creating, sustaining and promoting impressions. Bullshit is a form of impressionism and essentially a musical phenomenon. The impressions of the bullshitter are created by performances which resemble music making. They are the result of an energetic flow, advanced often with much conviction and charisma, which persistently stimulates the sensuous perceptions of the listener. Such stimulation seeks to limit the listeners’ capacity to reflect and to think for themselves. It resembles tones and sounds which require persistent sounding. If the sounds appear agreeable and the listeners remain captivated the performance will distract from any further reflections on the validity of the impression. Thus, the bullshitter produces a distracting variety of music: noise, operatic distractions and excitement or intimate and flattering personal attention. These musical manoeuvres suppress reflection and thinking which essentially occur in silence, in calmness and in distance.

Bullshitters and humbuggers are musical performers of a particular kind. They are “pied pipers” – with all the theatrical attributes that serve to orchestrate such a role. They solely seek to captivate and persuade the imagination of listeners – often by appealing to insecurities, fears or needs of their captive rats. They must deny listeners any possibility to inquire into the meaning of their impressions for fear of being discovered- hence the interest of the bullshitter and humbugger in reaching and manipulating the marketplace through publicity, through acclaim and through claims of success. The noise of the marketplace allows the bullshitter to conceal any emptiness of meaning. The marketplace is too noisy for real listening. It is no place for genuine dialogue that might expose substance, but thrives on impressions, on chatter and on gossip. In the marketplace the bullshitter has little to fear. The bullshitter in fact supplies the marketplace with the colourful and noisy monologues that inspire much of her- and its yearnings.

The trouble with all this is that humbug provides us with no opportunity for real listening. Musical listening does not develop from any monologue in the marketplace. It is a dialogical process to which a listener must be invited to bring an autonomous and a qualified reflection. The dialogue between composer, performer and autonomous listener constitutes what is heard in music, its meaning and truth. This dialogue, naturally, can occur within the same person and need not be restricted to a concert-performance in which performers and listeners are in fact separated. In fact any musician is ultimately a composing and/or performing listener or a listening composer and/or performer. The critical point here is that only where the listener is allowed, indeed is challenged by the creator (or the creative consciousness) to unfold an autonomous imagination and critical curiosity does musical listening take place. Such listening as “reflection in action” (Donald Schoen) hears and brings music to presence. It unfolds paradoxically in a context of silence -in other circumstances we hear noise.

The rhetorical, operatic dimensions of musical performance, the overstatement of emotion or the invented projection of drama and excitement which are the hallmark of humbuggers and “pied pipers” leave a listener essentially mesmerized and dazzled. The task of a listener is to constitute musical experience in reflection. This is a difficult and fragile task. It is difficult, because it requires attention and alertness. It is fragile, because it brings some ambiguous attributes of attention to music. As an audience we are in fundamental ways unable to critically challenge our own musical experience without disrupting the perceptual flow at the time. Critical and reflective challenge to this flow which articulates limitations may be undesirable as it disturbs our consciousness while musical performance unfolds. It undermines the musical experience which is primarily sensuous, subjective and particular in nature. A genuine sensory experience needs to position itself initially beyond critical reflection to be freely available and to be appreciated. However, such a position denies authentic aspects of reflection, dialogue and critical listening to the formation of an enlightened experience. How do we close the gap between sensuous immediacy and critical reflection? How do we ensure that our listening is not bamboozled by humbug?

The key here is an understanding of musical – or interpretative listening itself. Musical listening is not merely determined by sensuous particulars, notwithstanding that its primary experience is defined through sensuous particularities. Musical listening in fact reflects, retains, recognises and relates. It relies on conscious transformations, it reacts to emotional projections and it refers to cognitive demands. Musical listening is dialogical. This seems essential to the constitution of musical sense. What we hear does not just sound beautiful, it also does - and must make sense. Music is not a mere kaleidoscope of unrelated, pleasing sounds. Music is a field in which we search for meaning, for sounding, moving form and for clarity. This search takes time, progresses dialogically and with respect to a musical logos. It must be allowed to occur. The listener must be free to exercise it. This search cannot be suffocated by noise or seduced through confusion.

Music has the constitution of a question, a riddle nature (as Adorno puts it). It unfolds best without hysterical noises and without dazzling acclaim. Impression and illusion are contingent in music (as they are elsewhere) upon truthful substance. It is the task of a listener to pursue and search for this substance. It is the task of the performer to assist this search – not to prevent it. This means, however, that a true musician pursues openness of perception, promotes critical alertness, welcomes the unexpected and transforms intuitions and convictions into questions. This is indeed bad news for the humbugger and bullshitter for it suggests that no matter how talented, they serve themselves and not the music.