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Music and Truth

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.

Eduard Hanslick, the notorious Viennese music critic and writer on musical aesthetics, has had a rough time. After a start that was notably spoilt by Wagner’s mocking portrayal of him as Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger he has been disqualified more recently as the “chief polemicists for the absolutists” (Susan McClary). To be sure, contemporary philosophers of the analytical tradition have shown sympathetic interest in- and appreciation for Hanslick, who was incidentally an accomplished pianist with skills in composition. But the reasons for this may ultimately be self-interested: Hanslick’s arguments prove useful to professional philosophers of music. They can be neatly dissected. In addition Hanslick is interested in the nature of emotion and in the role cognition and judgement play in their constitution. This attracts those yearning for an escape from the dissonant curses of consciousness and passion to a life of academic equilibrium.

I am arguing here that Hanslick still deserves a fair go. This may require us to turn down the noise of operatic or academic opinions (two phenomena which in combination wreak havoc on the life of the spirit) and turn directly to a reflection on his essay On the beautiful in Music. Here we find two well-known arguments: a negative thesis that music does not represent emotion and feeling and a positive thesis that music is essentially self-referential - not a language of feeling but simply “sounding, moving form.” It is one characteristic of the Hanslick reception to focus on the distinctness of the arguments all but ignoring that both theses are in fact expressions of a more fundamental and unifying view.

In fact, the crucial point is Hanslick’s contextual understanding that music addresses itself properly to pure intuition. He insists that music is neither an intellectual nor an emotional, but a spiritual art. The human faculty most relevant to music in this context is neither reason (Verstand) nor feeling (Gefuehl) but imagination (Phantasie). “It is peculiar”, Hanslick writes at the outset of his treatise, “how the older Aestheticians merely moved within a contrast between “feeling” (Gefuehl) and “reason” (Verstand) as if the main issue would not have to be settled in between this alleged dilemma” (VMS, 41). The identification of this “in-between” (inmitten) is the important point. It warrants a closer look.

For Hanslick a mediation of emotion and reason is firstly achieved by limiting exclusive claims such as the suggestion that the spiritual essence of music amounts to a representation of emotion (his negative thesis). He is clearly insistent on this as he separates the spiritual from the emotional emphasising the peculiar characteristics of the latter in instances of purely emotional responses to music: “We oppose this pathological seizure (Ergriffenwerden) to the conscious, pure contemplation of the sounding work. This contemplation is the only artistic, truthful form of listening; it qualifies the raw passion of the savage and the gushing reaction of the musical enthusiast as belonging to one class” (VMS, 119).

While we are not mistaken to talk about emotion in relation to music, the exclusive account of music in emotional terms is always incomplete and ultimately inauthentic. Music is a spiritual art. This suggests some affinity with the emotional life, but it also suggests a realm of conception and experience that is autonomous - and ultimately independent from mere feeling. Feelings and emotions are totalitarian and tend to claim exclusiveness. They can in fact establish a tyranny over consciousness overwhelming our spiritual consciousness on its way. In this process they reveal their pathological roots.

Such a decisive demarcation of the spiritual essence of music from emotional representation has often generated a view that Hanslick might instead be advocating some kind of intellectual formalism in his positive thesis of music as “sounding moving form”. This seems equally mistaken. An exclusive approach to beauty through understanding or reason would transform – for Hanslick- our relationship with music from an aesthetic one into a logical one. It would amount to an entirely dispassionate relationship with music. However, “without inner warmth, nothing great or beautiful has been achieved in life” (VMS, 97) Hanslick tells us. Neither logical nor pathological approaches to music have a privileged - or even an authentic place in our relationship with music. Hanslick is clear why this is the case: feeling and reason are merely “boundary regions” of the beautiful. Our perception of sounding beauty occurs through intuition (Anschauung) and takes place in our imagination (Phantasie), its natural homeland–neither in our abstract understanding nor in our feeling alone.

Pure contemplation or intuition (Anschauung) transcend feeling and understanding. The “reflection of the imagination” (Nachdenken der Phantasie, VMS 120) reveals the essentially spiritual characteristic of music. A musical work is “spiritual” (geistvoll)- not merely emotional (gefuehlvoll) or merely logical. Feeling is an appearance of spirit but should by no means be confused with its essence. It is a partial and in extreme dominance an inauthentic appropriation of music. In the case of musical performance feeling assists in the communication of the spiritual dimension of music enlivening the moment of recreation. The performer unleashes the emotional dimension of music through the sensuous attributes of music – music “ravishes” the listener in the “amorphous, demonic power” of the tone itself (VMS, 102). However, this emotional – or ultimately physical- impact of music in performance (pathological in a higher sense) will transform our aesthetic relationship to music into a pathological one if it is afforded exclusive influence.

This instrumental importance of emotion in music should not be confused with the pure contemplation which reveals the work of art as a “pure metal”. Once we contextualise the elementary powers of music, the artistic dimension of music is revealed in spiritual perception. This requires an entirely different attitude towards music in which the reflection of the imagination can perform its unique function. The careful distinction between passion and spirit alone suggests that Hanslick deserves a fair go if only for the reason that our contemporary culture constantly confuses the two.

VMS: E. Hanslick, "Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen", in: E. Hanslick, Vom Musikalisch-Schoenen, Aufsaetze, Musikkritiken, Leipzig: Reclam, 1982, 33-145.

Music has a perplexing relationship with truth. According to the analytical philosopher Nelson Goodman known musical works cannot be forged. This supposed characteristic grounds Goodman’s well known classification of music as an allographic art. Allographic works of art are distinguished from autographic artworks. The identity of the latter is defined by a “history of production” whereas the identity of the former is defined by their notation. Autographic artworks such as paintings can be copied. Any such imitation may corruptly claim authenticity. For this to be the case, someone needs to claim- or pretend to claim a particular “history of production” of the work in question. The difference between a copy and a forgery in art is then essentially an historical – not an aesthetic- difference. We establish the authenticity of an artwork by making findings about the true history of an object.

According to Goodman, however, such a differentiation does not apply to pieces of music. A “known” musical work cannot be forged. Goodman’s argument relies on an epistemic grounding of musical identity. We supposedly know a work of music through its notation, that is, when we know its pitches and its timing. We may listen to different versions of a work or encounter different copies of the score. But in effect any copy of the work is simply a different version of the work. A known musical work cannot become subject to forgery because the identity of a copy is – for Goodman - not dependent on a history of production. It is only dependent on the notation of the original score itself. Thus, forging Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is simply a process of copying the score of the original symphony. There may be mistakes in such a copy. There may be instances of deviation from the original, of error and inadvertent or intentional misrepresentation. But, a copy of a notated musical work can never become a forgery. It will always be a “version” of the work.

How good is the argument? And how does it accord with the musical phenomena or realities? Does it account for fakery in music? Does it explain the phenomena of con-artists and musical pretenders?

One problem with Goodman’s view is that his concept of a “known” work is largely unclear. The epistemic conditions under which we can claim to know a musical work are in reality not complete. Knowledge of a musical work is a matter of ongoing interpretation. This process is in essence never closed. The interpretation of a musical work is always incomplete as we continue to search for the meaning of an intentional object. This implies that only a history of reception or interpretation of the score in its totality approximates the known work. In essence we can never fully “know” a musical work. Restricting knowledge of a work to notated symbols, symbols of pitch and duration as Goodman does, does not reflect how we get to know a musical work or why we actually engage with music of the past. I am suggesting that recognising familiar or known works does not sustain our interest. We continue to be attracted by musical works of the past because despite their familiarity they reveal themselves as mysterious and unknown to us. A compelling performance or reading of a “known” work leaves us with a sense of surprise about our ignorance of the work. Such a performance leaves us with a striking impression of having heard the work anew, perhaps even for the first time and in fact suggests that we did not know this work very much at all.

Our dissatisfaction with Goodman’s view has to do with an understanding what a musical score is and what it does. For Goodman, the score is epistemologically a literal device in which a code signifies sound unambiguously. Knowledge of the work is derived from simply reading and articulating the pitches and rhythms. For Goodman, the signs of a score are the necessary and sufficient conditions articulating the identity of a work. However, in practice that is not so. A score or a text (the case is the same in the allographic works of literature) is dependent on a complex context and history of interpretation. This history includes various moments of articulation, from the notation (which is an approximation of the composer’s or author’s imagined conception), through the publication process with its historical determinations and transformations to an entire history of interpretation and reception. A different way of looking at this phenomenon would be to say that a musical work (or any allographic work for that matter) establishes its identity through a complex dialogue between composers or authors, readers or performers and listeners unfolding in time. This dialogue as a whole establishes our knowledge of a work of music. The identity of the musical work cannot be separated from our essentially historical search for its meaning.

There is a slightly different way of looking at this which also alerts us to some potential cultural demands: The musical work is an intentional object. We engage with – and know it through listening. Listening is an active process that includes perception and reflection. Listening is essentially dialogical: The composition and the performance propose. The listener reflects and responds. The musical work is the topic of a historically determined dialogue between creators, re-creators or performers and listeners. This means any concrete knowledge about it is subject to a dialogical unfolding. Listening is an active search for knowledge including dimensions of interpretation. (Adorno seems to imply as much when he speaks of the “riddle-nature” of the musical work) This search can be truthful or it can be faked and even forged, that is, deliberately, pretentiously or corruptly imitated.

Knowledge of a work of music is conditional and contingent on the confidence we have in the authenticity of the history of musical interpretation. A work is only “known” at a point in history because we have confidence in the authenticity of the search to that point. Since authenticity requirements play a part at any point in this dialogue and since they can be conceivably “forged” we can also “forge” the work. Peter Kivy (“How to forge a musical work”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol 58, 3, 233-235) has provided us with an interesting example which points into this direction: A complex forgery in which a manuscript, supporting historical documentation and aspects of the history of reception are forged can actually alter the identity of a work of music at any point in time. While we would have to revise our conception of any original work at that point, a revision of that intentional conception is possible at the point where the forged aspects are proven to have been faked. However, to establish this we require from all participants in the dialogue a will to truth.

If the combined history of creation and interpretation indeed determines the authenticity of the work of music we are faced with some pretty strong cultural demands: All musical engagement needs to be truthful or we will contribute to the fakery or forgery of musical works. Performers need to be serious in their interpretative search and listeners need to be critical, that is, attentive to the search for meaning. Otherwise the ongoing interpretative dialogue may become a sham. A musical work makes a claim to authenticity and identity by virtue of its history of creation and interpretation. If this history is shaped by fakery or forgery, the identity of the musical work is in question. Music which loses its claim to identity turns instead into decorative babble. The implication for musicians and listeners is clear: Either we face the music truthfully or we endure the tedium of a faceless music.

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.

Using a blog for a serious topic raises a question: Will web-readers who are known to skim their texts fleetingly and read carelessly, endure sustained reflection? The answer could present us with a problem but also with an opportunity. Perhaps the challenge is to invent a new, double-headed style? In thinking aloud we may need to proceed aphoristically- igniting the imagination and reflection in quick sparks – staccatissimo. At the same time, we may need to try to sustain long phrases.

According to anecdote, after starting to use his typewriter, Friedrich Nietzsche’s style changed to become more punctuated – more on the interesting topic of how technology modifies thinking can be found in this thought provoking article by the way.

Music is not really a topic about which one can think quickly. In this regard it is like time: St. Augustine famously found that we all seem to know what it is but when we contemplate it, it disappears and we become confused. Much philosophy is like this. We must be able to endure perplexity. Perplexity is a most important state of mind for a thinker. Without it we are likely to remain captive to the ignorance that hides within convictions.

On this site I hope to share some ideas on music. While these ideas are articulated within a historical philosophical framework, I hope to relate any historical discussion to the here-and-now. In fact, the here-and-now has motivated this blog in the first instance. Music making, listening and learning are central activities of the human spirit. I regard them as fundamental to human essence and as fundamental to a flourishing society. In that respect, music is more than an aesthetic phenomenon and more than an instrument of pleasure. It is an “Existenzial” – it articulates the ontological condition of human existence. We are human because we make and participate in music. When Heidegger states that “language is the house of being” we should add that music is the ground on which such a house can stand. Relentless noise – the denial of music- is akin to nonsense and babble: it destroys our spiritual being and well-being.

One of the essential determinations of music is silence. Our capacity to endure silence has audibly declined. What is there to endure? What do we fear? In silence we are confronted with the limitations of our existence. The silence of reflection connects us at the same time with the infinite ground of such an existence. In silence we think, we imagine and we listen. Without silence we cannot conceive matters clearly. Silence is fundamental to the authentic experience and conception of music. We listen to music when- and because we ourselves are silent. Without silence, music turns into noise. Silence connects us with the truth of music. If we wish to master music, become musicians and make music well we need to master silence.

Our circumstances here-and-now may be remembered for their noise, for their non-sense and for the restless activity that flees from silence. This time may be remembered as a time with little music notwithstanding the overwhelming availability of music and notwithstanding the noisy propaganda that accompanies music and public musical productions.

I invite all to browse the various entries to which I hope to add regularly. Most importantly, I welcome critical comments.