On Pärt: the mirror of subjectivity

1. We lose the most important structural insights of intentionality when we approach the objects of experience only under the model of vision and the individuating effects of perspective and distance. In seeing, only the smallest, imperceptible lag—which is known to us only in phenomenological reflection*—separates the continuous synthesis of noemata from the unifying apperception of the one who perceives. The subjective illusion consists in the inversion of simultaneity and difference: the apparent simultaneity of the subject with its noetic activity compels us to affirm a difference between subject and object where in fact that (real) difference is in the subjective. What remains is to demolish the proscenium of the Cartesian theatre fully to understand that the location of consciousness is between subject and object.

*This illusory simultaneity that passes us unnoticed, like seeing our reflection in a mirror, also accounts for why, on the one hand, in the natural attitude we are all solipsists (I insist that the world appears to me and that, should the world be dissolved, I alone might remain) and also why, on the other, the mirror stage can only result in an imaginary act of identification.

Listening, on the other hand, affords the possibility of an experience of pure presence (without, like the sublime object, placing presence into question).

“To be listening is to be at the same time outside and inside, to be open from without and from within, hence from one to the other and from one in the other. Listening thus forms the perceptible singularity that bears in the most ostensive way the perceptible or sensitive (aisthetic) condition as such: the sharing of an inside/outside, division and participation, de-connection and contagion. ‘Here, time becomes space,’ is sung is Wagner’s Parsifal.” (Nancy)

Instead of the distance between the object there and the subject here there is only the pure presence of and as space itself (whereas distance is the measure of space). Listening abolishes not only the difference between subject and object but also the difference between presence and the thing (and therefore presence to …).**

**What Ingarden’s phenomenology ultimately refused to acknowledge—and thus the source of its fundamental tensions—is simply that there is no musical object. To use Benson’s terms, there is only a musical ergon within its energia.

2. What Pärt accomplishes in the tintinnabular technique of Spiegel im Spiegel is to cast in sound what Hegel had said of Romantic poetry where “spirit is pushed back into itself out of its reconciliation in the corporeal into a reconciliation of itself within itself … beauty becomes the spiritual beauty of the absolute inner life as inherently infinite spiritual subjectivity”. Pärt renders the inner life of subjectivity exposed to itself only in being reflected by an experience of bare harmony with little to no melodic interest. The triad is like a prism that divides the unity of the fundamental tone but it is the prism itself that “could be the spirit of the listener”. The subject only finds itself reflected infinitely between the notes of the triad and the accumulation of overtones in a sort of feedback loop where, as we know, even the most minimal differences create infinitely complex phenomena.

3. Spiegel im Spiegel stands in dialectical tension with the dissolution of subjectivity in Beethoven’s symphonies (see especially the third and fourth movements of the fifth and the second movement of the seventh). If Pärt exposes pure subjectivity, in Beethoven subjectivity and subjective intentions are subsumed by the perfection of form. In Pärt there is only the listener; in Beethoven the listener is merely accessory, like the gaudy ornaments for which an austere sensibility has no use. Beethoven’s symphonies are totalities to which the listener has no choice but to submit in unity. The great temptation of the symphonies is precisely this promise of redemption in the completed whole where nothing remains to be done. Between the tyrannical externality of form and its inversion into the infinite self-reflection of subjectivity, it is the world that must be called into question. Perhaps the resolution of this tension, then, lies somewhere between Mahler and Boulez.

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The sound of madness

1. There is something true in the banal observation that madness cannot name itself and, consequently, analytic discourse always requires a triadic structure (whence the problem of ethics that requires that there is no third). To put it simplistically, madness indicates a radical and often irreparable departure of the cogito from the ego. What Derrida observes of the “me” of analysis applies mutatis mutandis to madness: how is it possible to translate what is in principle unpresentable into a discourse that by its nature must make it present? How is it possible to say something outside of sense when speech itself is nothing other than the repetition of sense?* It is in the midst of this bind that Derrida explicitly invokes the notion of iterability in the now familiar deconstructive technique of showing that what resists signification is ultimately the “real” of sense such that every act of analysis becomes its own subversion (in his words, “in this sense, deconstruction is the interminable drama of analysis”).

*Contrary to popular psychology, madness is neither chaos nor “complete nonsense” but, rather, a particular relation to sense that prevents reflection.

As Foucault observed, what was at stake in their confrontation over the possibility of writing (of) madness is whether philosophical discourse can tolerate an exteriority to which it must be blind. When Derrida says that everything can be historicized except the hyperbolic project—which, in classic Derridean fashion, requires a madness more radical than that of psychological madness—Foucault sees confirmation of knowledge fortifying itself against its own unconscious (conditions). But the archaeological “we” who must analyze these conditions, Derrida says, can never be its own contemporary, i.e., can never be present to itself, which simply defines the analytic position. For both, however, because knowledge can never renounce itself, the double bind of Enlightenment (or, more specifically, Kantian) critique is that knowledge only crosses its limit precisely by seeking to know itself: thought can never intend anything outside of itself.

2. This double bind is “endured in a thousand different ways” (Derrida) in a sort of passio essendi. Madness brings us to the limit between life and death, i.e., to the point where the dissolution of the conditions for life nevertheless persists in a sort of second life. Death lingers on the far side of madness at the impossible moment when madness can name itself; madness expresses itself, however, perilously close to us ourselves in ecstasy (which includes not only the experiences of the mystics but also, as Derrida points out, the problematic of finitude in Heideggerean ek-stasis).

Such expression, however, can never be in the order of signification (thus analysis is only what Derrida calls the “reconstitution of the symbolic pact”). But what Munch did for anguish in “The Scream”, Ornstein has done for madness in the eighth of the Poems of 1917. Ornstein’s tone clusters, instead of tarrying at the limit of tonality and noise, express tonality without being tonal. Ornstein never rejects the language of tonality. All the architectural and melodic elements are there but it is the very persistence of the triplets that attempt to establish a tonal center that fails to sublate the minimal (semitonal) differences into a standard resolution. The “center” of the eighth Poem is nothing other than the minimal difference that defines unison as the interval that differs from itself only by returning to itself. But the only difference, then, between a single note (unison) and silence is its negation in melodic progression.

What Ornstein’s “melody without tonality” expresses, by the absence of a tonal center, is simply the trace of tonality by its persistence in our relation to it. Against the referentialists, Meyer has argued that “affect … is aroused when an expectation—a tendency to respond—activated by the musical stimulus situation, is temporarily inhibited or permanently blocked” (emphasis added). In a sense, this thesis is the key to all modernist music. Meyer’s contributions to music theory have been to show that musical meaning (which is preferable to “sense”) is fundamentally triadic, i.e., that it is neither in the work nor the conscious observer but between those two and the extra-musical referent of the work. In the case of the eighth Poem, the latter is simply madness itself or, to put it another way, the eighth Poem is not a mad statement like the man who declares that his head is made of earthenware but simply an** expression of madness itself as a flight from sense that can, in principle, never be “made sense of” but nevertheless remains as a resistance and temptation to the reflective consciousness.

*I mark the article to insist that, strictly speaking, there is not one but many madnesses.

The case of Mahler; or: Why it is impossible to love Mahler

In what one imagines is a frustrated project manager’s last laugh at a misguided project, the cover of Deutsche Grammophon’s 2010 “People’s Edition” of Mahler’s symphony cycle displays a half-profiled, black-and-white Mahler with his hands resting on his hips against a red background. Apparently, for this collection, DG asked listeners to vote for their favorite recording of each of the Mahler symphonies (presumably from some pre-determined list).

The existence of such a collection provides contrary evidence to Adorno’s hope—who was not wrong about much when it comes to music—that “Mahler, to this very day [which at the time was 1930, though the sentiment persists in pieces Adorno wrote thirty years later], has remained the only exemplary composer who realistically stands outside the space of aesthetic autonomy, and—what is more—whose music could be used truthfully and by living human beings, not ideological Wandervögel [something like Boy Scouts]”. The DG collection effectively did to Mahler what Mountain Dew did in its Dewmand promotions: to reify music into an object of consumption.

The fate of Mahler in the artworld is analogous to that of Kafka in the university. Kafka understood the inevitable fate of discourse and asked his executors to destroy his manuscripts on his death and even himself expressed the wish that his completed works not be published and given to posterity but that they should rather simply disappear and cease to exist. Unlike others who feared of being perpetually misunderstood, Kafka’s writing is at once too intimate and too expressive.

Writing, Kafka said, is like a prayer. We pray, however, only for one reason: to wait for redemption. This is the single idea of all of Mahler’s symphonies: recall, for example, the creator God who never arrives in the Eighth or the unbearable experiences of the finales of the Sixth and Ninth. The latter exemplify the effect of Mahler’s compositional and structural techniques at their highest: through the fragments of an exhausted musical language (i.e., romanticism), Mahler presents the ruins of a world whose redemption has already been lost. What is more impossible than the idyllic simplicity of the folk dance* (see the strange anti-symmetry of the second and fourth movements of the Ninth), Mahler asks, in world where Auschwitz is possible (the untimeliness of Mahler’s symphonies is significant—note that Mahler died prior to World War I)? Mahler’s symphonies are totalities that nevertheless leave us with an awareness of what is missing.

*Scriabin attempts a similar type of expression in his opus 21 polonaise: instead of nostalgia for youthful dances, Scriabin writes a polonaise only to show its impossibility in the modern world.

Instead of inventing a new musical language, Mahler calls for the rescue of traces that linger from what has already been lost. If today Mahler is banal due to the bourgeois pacification of the dialectical content of Schönberg and Stravinsky by their appropriation into affirmative culture, it is because we insist on the past as given (postmodern pastiche is only possible given this conceit). Redemption can only occur once the world has been completed; but instead of an infinite becoming, Mahler’s symphonies are expressions of infinite ruination—of a non-absolute totality. Everything in Mahler’s symphonies has a place—each theme and motif is determined by its function within the whole—yet the whole fulfills no intention (this is what differentiates Mahler from Mozart). As Adorno observes, Mahler is missing from the symphonies, which simply express the world itself. But, on the other hand, to whom could the symphonies possibly be addressed without miring us in the mourning of those caught in infinite waiting for an event that never happens?

The conditions that make it impossible for us to hear Mahler today are many and largely coincide with the obstacles to the constitution of a people, not the least of which is the failure to distinguish between the ochlos (the so-called “wisdom of crowds”) and the demos. To hear Mahler could not be an act of affirmation—for Mahler himself prohibits any such act—but only an acknowledgment that what could be affirmed is still to come, just as the people only exist as the ideal of the democracy-to-come.

The body of the soul (continued)

1. The popular masterworks of American composition in the last ten years have shared at least one distinctive trait: the manipulation of sonic architecture. Architectural theory in the last half of the twentieth century has shown how spatial organization and orientation not only affects our understanding of time and place but are at least partially constitutive of understanding and subjectivity itself. The task of contemporary architecture has been to raise the art from the bottom of Hegel’s hierarchy to the top: i.e., to construct experience as such. If the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries consisted of the inversion of the baroque, i.e., as an attempt to control the flight of the soul by mechanisms of discipline (the panopticon* is the obvious example here), however, current “neo-Baroque” chic should come as no surprise (and notice that what should be most irrelevant in any depictions of futuristic architecture is a body whose motility is no longer limited by continuous locomotion).

*As Bentham said, the doors of the panopticon, as the building’s name suggests, must, “like the doors of all public establishments ought to be, thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large—the great open committee of the tribunal of the world”—the consequences of which Foucault understood immediately.

Yet that future is already here, for example, in works such as Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body”. What Theofanidis attempts is not a representation (in the way, for example, that Tchaikovsky gives us a life in the sixth symphony or Hayden’s famous oratorio narrates the creation of the world) but, through the materiality of sound, the creation of new bodies. The term “rainbow body” he explicitly borrows from the mystical notion of the body’s transformation into light, which should not be confused with a separation of body and soul but, rather, the soul’s final and complete unification with the body.

Although Theofanidis draws the principal motif of “Rainbow Body” from Hildegard of Bingen, such unification has been the singular mystical vision not only of the Tibetan and Indian traditions but of the Latin west easily since the thirteenth century. In a strange sort of anti-Platonism, as Bynum has shown, the mystical act consisted not of the escape of the soul from the body but their transformation. The eucharist is not only the transubstantiation of the body of Christ but, in consumption, an ecstatic encounter “with that humanitas Christi which was such a prominent theme of women’s spirituality. For thirteenth-century women this humanity was, above all, Christ’s physicality, his corporality, his being-in-the-body-ness; Christ’ s humanity was Christ’s body and blood”. Lest, however, the body be confused with the source of base and carnal desire, Catherine of Siena reminds us that in the search for the eternal truth “the soul catches fire with unspeakable love, which in turn brings continual pain. … Still, this is not a pain that troubles or shrivels up the soul. On the contrary, it makes her grow fat [emphasis added]. For she suffers because she loves me, nor would she suffer if she did not love me”.** Just as the body suffers to give birth to life, so does the soul suffer to give birth to beauty—to become beautiful—by its communion (koinonia [Plotinus!]) with the divine.

**Later in the dialogue we read that “often … the body is lifted up from the ground because of the perfect union of the soul with [God], as if the heavy body had become light. It is not because its heaviness has been taken away, but because the union of the soul with me is more perfect than the union between the soul and the body”.

2. But, as Catherine says, such beauty consists in a life of virtue and charity. For us, however, who are unable to hear the convertibility of conscience and consciousness (on which little work has been done, unlike the Anglo-Saxon misspellings of “God” and the “good”)—we have been forced to adopt the morality as the child of a poor will with the resources of technically advanced intellect. In this respect, Kant is thoroughly medieval: the moral will is necessarily beholden to an intellect that can never satisfy the task necessary to motivate virtue; on the other hand, if Schopenhauer were right, (reflective) consciousness would be impossible. Perhaps we might in the end be able to rescue something of the moral sense: neither understanding nor will but as a capacity (dunamis) for suffering. Moral suffering, however, is not my suffering but suffering for suffering, embraced for the love of the good.

Some pedagogical notes on music

Citing a sentence by Chopin, Ravel claims that no one has understood it: “nothing is more detestable than music without hidden meaning”. The ideal of affirmative culture presupposes, of course, this very dictum—that music expresses the highest meaning of human experience insofar as it mimics the spiritual language of the heavens. Until we began searching for meaning—whether such meaning is understood as the cosmic language of creation in mathematical proportions or the expression of the genius’ original intuition—“music addressed itself to the emotions. It was then shifted to the understanding, but understanding did not know what to do with it”.

That was 1910. Understanding still does not know what to do with the paradoxical universality of music. The significance of something like Beethoven’s Ninth is immediately apparent, yet in the face of such a profound musical idea we find ourselves excessively poor in our ability to give an account of it and are often reduced to the embarrassed repetition of banalities that would be otherwise inexcusable were it not for the lack of alternative expressions.

We will never understand the musical idea, however, as long as we approach it by analogy with the concept.*

* Music, Jorge Bolet once said in a master class, is “the art of communication between two people by means of musical sounds. So whatever you’re doing at the keyboard you’re telling them in musical terms—in musical sounds—exactly what you’re thinking or what the composer thought”. The word “thought” here should be understood literally and precisely.

The first approach to the musical idea, of course, must be in listening (which we know after phenomenology and critical theory is a historical activity). Apart from the effects of what Adorno called the “regression” in listening—i.e., the neutralization of form by fetishized music—what we lack are the proper analytic concepts (yes, concepts) for listening.** As Adorno points out, fetishization extends even to “serious” music, which “mobilizes the pathos of distance against refined entertainment”. One way we see this occurring is the inane quibbling over the “correct” or “best” interpretation of a piece in precisely the place where the notions of measure or truth are nonsensical.

**The fundamental analytic concept for listening in music is the line. This concept, of course, originally comes from Schenker with the appropriate modifications from the row (Schönberg) and structure (Boulez).

Rather, the dialectical character of listening is of the sort Plato had described in the Phaedrus as the collection and division such that we are “capable of discerning a single thing that is also by nature capable of encompassing many” (266b). Yet, as Leibniz has shown us, the result ofeither collection or division results in the unity of a “one” in the same sense.

In short, it is not “listening to Mozart” that makes us smarter but being able to experience singularities.

This is why, given the choice between two interpretations of a piece, the choice is not that of a “correct” or “better” one; the appropriate question to ask is what idea is being expressed and whether it is being done consistently.

Experience in such listening is precisely the kind of musical education Plato had described in the Republic and why, if we want philosophers who can recognize ideas when they encounter them (instead of the parasitic activity of textual commentary prevalent in Continental philosophy and theory), we must learn how to distinguish Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, and Bronistlaw Huberman not to pass judgment but simply to discern the difference between them.

The politics of music

“By voicing the fears of helpless people, [music] could signal help for the helpless, however feebly and distortedly. In doing so it would renew the promise contained in the age-old protest of music: the promise of a life without fear” (Adorno).

“… [music] is not a copy of the phenomenon, or, more accurately, the adequate objectivity of the will, but is the direct copy of the will itself, and therefore represents the metaphysical of everything physical in the world, and the thing-in-itself of every phenomenon … music gives the universalia ante rem and the real world the universalia in re” (Nietzsche).

A sort of constellation: Adorno and Nietzsche. But, instead of drawing a line through Wagner (as Bauer and Ramply have already suggested in their respective ways), perhaps we need instead to detour through Kant’s first Critique.

The temptation is to think that what we need is an undistorted image of suffering, such that there could be a direct correlation between representation and the will by means of the concept. But it is precisely because of the distortion of the image that an aesthetics of thought is possible—through a secondary mimesis that refers thought to nothing other than non-coincidence. But this space is unlivable, perhaps even unbearable—and we express or discharge this experience in our bodies: in a tremor, the closing of our eyes, in the next step, in the sense that something—I know not what—has happened.

Addenda: 1. “Music” cannot be the name for a genus. There is no essence of “music”. We can only relate singular performances to a unique line extending to each of its inter- and contexts on the one hand and to its future effects on the other. Consequently, there is no one criterion for music (and its redemptive power).

2. After hearing “Blue Cathedral”, one would be quite justified in the hope of a truly feminine music from Higdon. Unfortunately many of the other works, such as “City Scape” ultimately amidst the bombast try to do too much, i.e., attempt to communicate a concept or a representation instead of quite literally creating a new space (a new aesthetic) through the material of the sound image (which is the greatest virtue of the tone poem). Instead of an image proper, “City Scape” gives us the self-indulgence of infinite romantic subjectivity masquerading as a beautiful object.

Notes on Chopin

Outside the conservatories (and sometimes even within) a pianist’s facility and prowess are often measured by virtuosic showpieces (who can play the fastest Islamey or the Cziffra “Flight” transcription). People who can play the “Hands Reunited” etude are a dime a dozen. When listening to a pianist’s “musicianship” (a horrible word), on the other hand, there is perhaps no better indication than the ability to play Chopin. The Barcarolle, for example, is among the most difficult pieces in his oeuvre, not because of its technical demands, but because of the aural sensitivity and intellectual rigor necessary to play it. The technical difficulties in playing Chopin are similar to those of Mozart: although he, like Mozart, was not a great formal innovator, he was, even more than Brahms, an absolute master of classical form.

It is this formalism that prohibits classifying Chopin as a “romantic” (there is perhaps no word more inappropriate). Only the most naïve historicism could call Chopin and Liszt “romantics” because they lived in the same time period. Chopin was heir not to Beethoven but, as he himself professed, to Bach, Mozart, and Weber (it is not mere accident that among the early variations, Chopin chose the Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni). Chopin himself, if we rely on Mikuli, played “classically”. Mikuli reports that the metronome was always on Chopin’s piano and that the left hand was always in strict time (it was the right that was permitted the temps dérobé). The pianist enters into the form of the piece. If in Bach the pianist disappears behind the formal perfection of the piece, Chopin’s pieces “give form” to the performer’s expression. Conversely, the first duty of the performer of Chopin is to enter the form of the piece and to explicate the expression (the “content”) from within. The piece itself speaks out of the perfection of its form; the performer does not speak by means of the piece. There is no sentimentality in Chopin and it is revealing of the pianist who plays him so.

If romanticism consists in the involution of form into content or the gnosticism of an infinite spirit that is nevertheless chained to the prison of materiality and nature, Chopin offers no escape. Rather, Chopin is the exact opposite—he is, rather, architecturally Baroque in the way Deleuze has described (in the first part of The Fold). This is nothing other than Chopin’s harmonic mastery—the ambiguity and generativity that emerges out of the most rigorous form. The closure of each piece is precisely that which refuses the piece’s self-identity (the so-called interpretive “richness” of Chopin’s music).