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Musicians, their work and their world

Human life is sustained by the instinct for survival and by a drive towards self-affirmation. Nietzsche identified this famously as “the will to power”. Nietzsche also drew attention to the fact that truth and survival do not of necessity form a harmonious balance and may in fact be in conflict. This is already identified by Socrates when he rejects survival as a self-sufficient aim. The dictum that the “unexamined life is not worth living” is an unambiguous affirmation of truth over mere life. The assertion here is that a human life which is merely interested in its own completion and not in its connection with truth looses its legitimacy. Human life – Socrates argues- is not only subject to the will to power, but must commit to a will to truth. This commitment may well come at a paradoxical cost – namely survival itself. Nietzsche in fact argues that such a commitment may be a delusion: the will to truth could be a disguise for a will to power.

If Nietzsche’s view is taken to mean that any search for truth is ultimately a different expression of the will to power, a displacement of physical conflict with intellectual conflict for example for the purpose of domination and survival, humanity, civilisation and community are in doubt. They would in fact be delusions or sentimental distractions. Life is then synonymous with a primordial struggle of all with all. The ultimate purpose of an all-encompassing will to power is domination on all levels. There is a conception of this dialectic paradigm, however, that would afford us a different perspective: A will to power understood without biological or personal value-dimensions may simply describe an ontological principle of growth, of becoming, of gathering, persevering and prevailing. In this most abstract understanding the will to power also describes the structural workings of the will to truth. Such a conception, however, is only possible within a commitment to abstraction in the first instance which has already affirmed the will to truth when seeking to transcend a contingent conception of the will to power as a concrete will towards individual prevalence.

Understood in this way, will to power and will to truth appear in mutual harmony and permeation: Without the will to truth a will to power decays into tribal cacophony. Without the will to power the will to truth remains silent. The balance between will to power and will to truth is an important foundation for the artistry of musicians. While the musician seeks to project his art and articulate his inspiration with force and with a sense of ambition, dominance and self-affirmation, his articulation itself is subject to a discipline and to an art. The musician borrows the intoxicating powers of the rhapsode for a purpose. He harnesses the will to power to sound out truth. He exposes the will to truth to the winds of power. While it is easy for the musician to become intoxicated with the powers of suggestion, such intoxication cannot be sustained and may in fact carry him astray like a somnambulist. Thus in his use of the will to power the musician must remain conscious of his will for truth. Handing himself over to the will to power would not only deny the achievements of civilisation, but it in fact undermines the central foundations of his art.

The musician is at home in a harmony of sound and silence. Our primary attention is initially and naturally directed to sound. Sound is the external appearance of music and it has features and characteristics that can be described. Sound also relieves us of our solitude and establishes connections. Silence, on the other hand, remains initially internalised, seemingly subjective, self contained and isolated. In silence, our experience of the world recedes and our experience of isolation and interiority increases. In silence we are withdrawing into our self. The importance of silence, of that which is closest to us, is, however, often least likely to be noticed and understood.

Sound without silence would be noise. Silence without sound would leave us with an empty void. Silence in fact determines musical sound as the phenomenon of rhythm and rest indicate already within musical appearance. Silence describes the space between sounds. Without silence, musical sound would thus lack meaning. Silence is threatened by incessant talk, chatter or babble which undermines music and leads listeners into confusion. A performance culture which demands increasingly noisy, extrovert or flamboyant sounds to stimulate the attention of an audience, leads to a neglect and decline of silence. In the mistaken belief that more attention to sound will also generate more attention to the performance extrovert activism underestimates the importance of silence to sound. However, without silence, sound becomes nonsense.

Initially the phenomenon of sound is a phenomenon of semblance. In silence, semblance is suspended and truth may be uncovered. Yet, silence itself is mute. It is unable to articulate itself. Silence has a negative, fleeing appearance. It is present because sound is absent. The sounding semblance thus becomes necessary to direct us towards its ground: silence. From the perspective of silence, sound acquires an instrumental dimension. It uncovers silence, which is always already there.

A musical performance is initially heard as sound. But its meaning is gathered in its silence. We often do not attend to this, focussing instead on the obvious: sounding semblance. Sound and silence also determine our relationships. Continuous sound, incessant babble and chatter drive us to despair, lead to withdrawal into silence and a fragmentation of community. A dialogue in which silence is gathered is among the most successful forms of communication- hence the importance of humour, ambiguity and questioning to discourse. These are means of gathering silence. Musicians must heed silence for more than musical reason as their understanding, community and harmony is determined by it.

The activity of performance is fundamental to music. Even where it does not take place in reality, music only comes to presence through the sustained and coherent activity of internal listening and imaginative presencing. The phenomenologist Alfred Schütz has identified this active ontological modality of music as “polythetic”. Like a mathematical proof, we must experience music and participate in its temporal unfolding to perceive and understand music at all. Music cannot be understood as objectively present in front of us. It exists within human intentionality, as temporal form and because of our directedness into the future. Music reveals itself in actuality and as formed in the activity of performance.

The existence of music as a temporal form distinguishes it from other realms of being that are a-temporally and objectively constituted. Music, however, does not admit objective identification readily and on its own. All musical presence differs on account of the essentially differing temporal horizon in its performance. At the same time, the intuition of a musical form can apparently be present in an instant. Mozart famously identified the act of composition as an articulation of an idea, present to the composer at once in a synoptic view. The intuitive conception of musical ideas in an instance thus appears to be the driving force of the unfolding of musical performance. The musical performance is then the clarifying and approximating reality of a synoptically conceived musical form only present in a directedness or intentionality of our consciousness.

The relationship between form and performance determines any corresponding human activity. Aristotle famously identifies their difference as the difference between praxis and poiesis. Praxis or mere doing, is self sufficient. The aim of the activity lies within the activity itself. Aristotle refers to sight as an example. The activity of seeing is self-sufficient. Its aim is simply to see. Poiesis or making on the other hand takes aim at a form outside the activity itself. Aristotle cites the activity of building. We build in order to build something. The activity itself is informed by taking aim at the potential object that is made. Praxis or doing is characterised by its actuality (energeia). Poiesis or making is characterised by its work (ergon).

Musical performances collapse the differences between actuality and work. We can thus only speak about making music in a sense that is different to Aristotle for whom all making is instrumental. It distinguishes possibility from actuality and identifies modalities of how a given aim is achieved. A doing or praxis preserves the unity of process and product and does not separate the “what”, the aim, from the “how”, the activity itself. In musical performance, a separation between the “what” and the “how” is ultimately not desirable. It leads to an inauthentic aesthetic experience. Music exists in a unified experience where process and product are joined. The musical work exists in the musical working. The paradigmatic form of musical creation is accordingly “play”. We do not make, but we play music.

Musicians appropriately tend to take a view that anticipated musical outcomes or aims determine paths teleologically and are in fact congruent with such paths. Their teleological paradigm suggests that where the imagination, inspiration and conception of an aim are strong enough, the activity and path towards its achievement will reveal itself without further reflection. In musical performance imagination must suffice to guide us towards reality. The deliberation or reflection about the “how” distracts the performer at the moment of performance and undermines the constitution of the musical work.

The play-reality of music contrasts with a reality where paths distinguish themselves from aims and in fact assume a detached importance in themselves. In the aesthetic context of music making a failure of achievement presents no critical problem. It may in fact not even be perceived in the power of the moment. The musical reality is after all a praxis and the activity and its aims remain united. The musical performer and listener exist in this sense in a suspended, aesthetic “play” reality. In the reality of human lives which deals with objective realities, a failure to respond appropriately to a partially known reality may have serious consequences to individual lives and result in significant failures of individuals and communities.

Collaborative conceptions of outcomes in particular imply a detached conception and articulation of aims and activities. They require a poiesis. Human society is no play reality and must be determined by a capacity to form and articulate aims and visions, to devise - and agree on paths towards their realisation and establish interpretations of outcomes and achievement. This dynamic is subject to a dialectic which separates aims (the “what”) and paths (the “how”). This has good reasons: Harmonious co-existence in a civilised society suggests that we approach challenges collaboratively. We cannot be confident that individuals conceive aims and understand outcomes completely at all times to determine a path adequately without further thought and assistance. In addition our individual imagination and inspiration may not hit upon the best or indeed most productive path towards the realisation of an aim immediately. We need to deliberate collectively about aims, outcomes and paths to achieve optimum results and thus need to separate them conceptually. From a perspective of praxis and the self-sufficiency of doing, a detached path is perceived as an obstacle, as a distraction and as unnecessary. Conflating contexts of praxis and poiesis in human communities leads to confusion and ambivalence but also to ignorance, fanaticism and intolerance. In extreme circumstances it will lead to a breakdown of human collaboration and of humane community altogether.

Our lives unfold in action and thought. Acting and thinking are fundamental modes of human being. They are also in some respects mutually exclusive. Reflection requires a suspension of action and action requires a suspension of reflection. Reflection and action, however, nevertheless inform each other. Their harmonious balance is necessary for action to be effective and for reflection to remain relevant. Musicians are not naturally led towards thinking and reflection as they tend to be actively creative in an extreme way. Performers in particular must often make decisions in an instant relying on instinct, habit and committing to unreflected risk. However, their performance nevertheless incorporates a form of reflection. This silence of activity is called listening.

Musical performance cannot accommodate conscious or sustained critical reflection. In the moment of performance, sustained reflection distracts and undermines a compelling performance. The performer captivates her audience through her conviction. Conviction, however, is directly undermined by reflection. Conscious reflection progresses from perplexity, doubt and scepticism- attributes that would question a musical performer in the moment of her performance. Reflection requires a silence of activity and a suspension of actual renewal. Activity and renewal are central features of intense music making. While the musician is familiar with the phenomenon of reflection through listening, her active engagement in performance must suspend critical reflection and submit to the rule of conviction. In some cases conviction can reach levels of narcissistic absorption – this can prove successful in sustaining a performance but will also arrest development and disable the musician to develop their artistry over time.

A synthesis between action and reflection is achieved in musical performance through rhythm and through the silence of rests. The determining factors guiding the interplay between action and reflection are similarly timing and intentionality. Reflection cannot directly guide action if there is no time afforded to it or if it does not occur at the right time. In addition, reflection cannot determine action if we are not directed to it at all but are instead caught up in a vortex of activity. Considered action requires time for reflection and the capacity to suspend action in time for reflection or until such time as reflection is considered to be completed. In addition reflection requires a competency, an organisation and a discipline which is authentic to itself. An incontinent, loose assembly of ideas does not constitute thinking. Thinking requires internal cohesion, direction and a consistency of principle. The steps of the process of reflection must evidently and clearly suggest themselves. We refer to this cohesion as “logical” progression.
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Decisions to act or to reflect are made continuously by people and by organisations without necessarily stopping larger contexts of activity. Like musical performers, organisations need to develop rhythms synthesising critical reflection and action. A conscious organism will thrive if the switch from reflection to action flows easily and effortlessly and if the co-ordination of intention, reflection and activity is organic. Ordinarily such a switch and transition is the responsibility of “leadership” which gives the impulses for reflection or action and determines timing. In the case of a leadership that is rhythmically incontinent and incapable of switching organically from activity to reflection or alternatively is incapable to engage in either with sufficient ease, a harmonious reality cannot be achieved.

Notwithstanding that music is essentially wordless Plato suggests that musicians cannot accept a gap between words and deeds. He suggests that a true musician is precisely a person whose actions harmonise in reality with his expressions, intentions and aspirations. The Gorgias is a dialogue dedicated to the exploration of rhetoric and its contribution to truth. It features a paradigmatic clash between Socrates, the critical voice of reason, and Callicles, a representative of the mono-thetic view that action is self-sufficient. For Callicles active power is absolute. Outcomes justify means and might is right. Such a view remains stubbornly unconvinced by any dialectical arguments for truth which look for alignment of what we do with what we say. Instead Callicles affirms the supremacy of success and holds fast to political expediency in an essentially pragmatic world. What is said about such conduct remains to him irrelevant.

It is hard –if not impossible- to argue with anyone who is unwilling or unable to see the difference between reason and cunning, between truth and praxis. However, and as Socrates points out, an absolute commitment to Realpolitik (often accompanied by impunity for wrong done) diminishes internal harmony and ultimately imprisons the person or her community in a sustained discord. The implication is that unless we harmonise the articulation of truth with our actions externally we will experience debilitating dissonances internally. It is the internal dissonance which worries Socrates more than any external discord when he asserts: “And yet, I my very good sir, should rather choose to have my lyre or some chorus that I might provide for the public, out of tune and discordant, or to have any number of people disagreeing with me and contradicting me, than that I should have internal discord and contradiction in my own single self.” (Gorgias 482c)

A harmony between what they say and what they do seems central to individuals and organisations who aim for a flourishing existence. It appears that here musicians and the communities of musicians frequently fail spiralling seemingly towards a tribal chaos and a cacophonous discord. There is ample evidence that the dissonance between words and deeds that undermine musicians’ own interests and intentions are in fact created by musicians and their artistic imagination itself. Measures proposed to address this disorder tend to address the consciousness and conscience of the individual and her community. In particular they focus on standards of individual or collective behaviour. However, it is a question whether we are facing an ethical challenge or whether the matter has essentially intellectual roots and derives from confusion and ignorance. Socrates suggests the latter. This implies that any solution to this challenge may in principle be simple.

It is not too hard to see how intellectual confusion and ignorance are responsible for dissonance and why we must tackle and seek to confront it. Active confusion is the result of intellectual incontinence. The cleft between word and deed opens up because we say more than we can mean. At times this can be simply the function of babbling enthusiasm, at other times it shows a disorganized intellect at work. If we strive for intellectual discipline the cleft between word and deed closes. The measure needed here is clarity. Clarity includes attributes of distinctness, coherence, connectedness and consistency. In our perceptions clarity includes immediacy, simplicity even, recognition and identification. In our thinking clarity is identified by similar features and includes further association with meaning, significance, absence of perplexing contradiction, the presence of logical harmony and the absence of debilitating cognitive dissonance. These attributes are naturally only achieved if an individual displays a will to clarity. Such a will articulates itself in a capacity to search for clarification of our inevitable ignorance.

Advancing clarity leads to intellectual harmony which in turn leads to organisational harmony. If we focus on clarity we must subject our thinking to discipline and our actions to transparency. This overcomes cognitive dissonance. Fortunately, clarity and its benefits are familiar to musicians as clarity also plays a strong role in their experience: clarity of musical perception is guided by clear musical ideas and is concretely expressed in a clear articulation in sound. Tuning and balance are the relevant features of order here. Musical clarity is guided by inner hearing and directed listening. These are essentially reflective processes.

The process of active listening constitutes formal musical understanding and provides the consciousness of musician and listener equally with an experience of meaning. Without clarity a constituted meaning decays and becomes dysfunctional. A perception of musical meaning is essentially clear. Where clarity disappears musical understanding becomes confused, sense becomes nonsense and euphony becomes cacophony. While musicians are familiar with clarity in their realm of experience, their capacity to conceive clear forms of sound does not necessarily imply a capacity to actively conceive abstract, intellectual clarity, organisational clarity or indeed other forms of perceptual clarity to an equal degree. Nevertheless, if it applies to all levels of existence musicians will do well to transpose their familiar expectation of clarity into the abstract, intellectual realm.

Musicians know that the attainment of clarity requires deliberate practice. We also know that poor practice – worse than no practice – may lead to a decay of perception, to confusion and to ignorance. This suggests a need to wake up, practice our attention and sharpen our discernment. In reflecting about the existence of musicians and their communities it is time to explore dialectic divisions that may help to conceive the reality in which we musicians find ourselves. In particular we should look for authentically musical commitments that mould our habits and modes of thinking, shape our characteristics and determine our capacity to interact effectively with each other and with our world. We could think here of such dichotomies as action and reflection, pathos and logos, form and performance, past and future, will to power and will to truth and sounding semblance and silent significance. It is important to ask whether commitments that musicians must make in an aesthetic reality are productive in other contexts as well. Some dialectical divisions may alert us to dangers when applied to real world situations, others, however, may expose opportunities.

Behaviour matures on the basis of considered decisions. But such decisions rely on cognition. A harmony between word and deed is a function of understanding concepts and realities in their dialectic tension and synthesis. If we can clearly conceive such tensions and their sources any gap disappears or becomes synthesised as our words and our deeds follow our insight. Improvement of understanding and the promotion of clarity (provided it is sincerely sought) will lead to improved listening and may in fact offer the significant solution in bridging the gap.