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.

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.