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Music and Civilisation

In the past decades Australian Higher Education has undergone a stunning development. For one, the sector has become obese and exploded in size. Inevitably, it has declined intellectually, consolidated and streamlined disciplines and subject matters to conform to a homogeneous culture of analytic knowledge and seemingly critical learning. Left with little more than a mere desire to survive and conform, it has become a trading post of qualifications pedaling impressions and praising opportunity, its life marked by political expediency.

This development has been largely driven by political, social and economic forces. Government imposed reforms and funding levers pin Australian Universities into corners where they say they have little choice. Not surprising, as the spectacular change in the culture of Universities themselves has also starkly reduced their ability to remain creative. Styling themselves as corporate players without comparable competence or compliance at management levels, some disciplines face dynamics that may see their disappearance from credibility within anything truly resembling “higher education”.

We are rightly mourning the loss of biological species, polar ice or indigenous languages from our world at a daily rate. The loss of knowledge, skill and excellence in disciplines that have for centuries determined our culture and identity appears to proceed unnoticed. Worse, it seems to be progressed by those who should know better. If we substitute discipline with mere experience the damage will only become apparent when it has become irreversible. Already now, many students and some of their academics can no longer read musical notation competently and would fail simple aural dictation tests.

I am talking in particular of the fate of musical performance in Higher Education. Since the French Revolution musical performance has been at the centre of cultural definition and development of an enlightened society. Like museums, art galleries and universities themselves, symphony orchestras, chamber music societies and opera companies have defined central parts of spiritual life for citizens of modern societies. Musical performers have played crucial roles in defining collective imagination and identity. In times of existential need they formed spiritual life rafts in which societies saved what was most essential to them. The musical performers of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany affirmed spiritual identity and humanity on a daily basis against bestial and oppressive regimes. Their interpretative musical performance reminded society of its true values and communicated strength of spirit and freedom where noisy rhetoric had wreaked abysmal havoc. The capacity to confront and transform despair, a prevalent sentiment of modern man, is characteristic of musical performance and interpretation which seeks meaning. It reveals an ongoing, immediate and powerful creativity at the heart of humanity and builds a path towards a free and authentic self. Combined with a persistently replenishing imagination, the interpretation and performance of artistically created music is unsurpassed in developing human abilities on all levels and achieving a transcendence of limitations in all aspects of life. Its benefits for cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual and cultural development continue to be well documented.

Despite characteristics that should in essence privilege musical interpretation and performance as an activity of formation of self (surely, a core aim of education) Higher Education discourages it in any expert sense and depresses community attitudes in turn. Though they be the last to admit, Australian universities are driving excellence in musical interpretation and performance from their Conservatoria. In its place we find a theoretical thought about music and a relentless advance of an inclusive, superficial curriculum that mirrors the scholastic attitudes of the Middle Ages, albeit spiritually entirely adrift. A general, most basic musical practice, or in fact no musical practice at all is invading curricula and disciplinary structures serving the interest in music as psychological, ethnological, anthropological, educational and social-scientific phenomenon and requiring no significant artistic competence or skill. Institutional narratives and ideological agendas actively demolish artistic perspectives to make way for a curiosity fueled by immature imagination and infantile creativity. The more or less spectacular collapses of major music schools in Australia, the decline of musical performance at major Australian Universities, once centres of artistic performance excellence, are not accidental. They signal how far we have advanced in our thoughtlessness and neglect as caretakers of culture.

The ideological euphemisms that accompany this demolition can do little to appease a significant concern: A society that accepts the decline of rigour in the artistic interpretation and performance of music must not wonder why demagogues thrive who violate human interpretative autonomy and rally their charges around “fake news”. As Plato reminds us, when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state will change with them.

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.