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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.