Conference review (first day only): Music and Philosophy 2013, King’s College London, 19th-20th July.

Music and Philosophy 2013, King’s College London, 19th-20th July.

The first day of the 3rd Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association’s Music and Philosophy Study Group was, in the most part, very enjoyable and interesting  (I was unable to make the second day due to a family commitment). There were some great formal presentations and discussion. I also had some excellent informal chats with people outside of the sessions. Inevitably there were also some weaker moments. What I provide here are a few brief thoughts on the first day of conference, session by session. A conference programme can be viewed here.

Opening plenary discussion panel

The first plenary discussed the bodily nature of music although, in true philosophical (philosophers’) style, this was posed as a question to which the answer seemed obvious; “Is music a bodily art?”. Three musicologists/philosophers gave short presentations and a discussion followed. Jenefer Robinson’s opening paper was introductory, and explored that age-old dualism of music as structure (e.g. ‘the work’) and music as performance. She suggested that in the latter we might see (hear) music’s bodily aspects being foregrounded. Given the introductory nature of her talk, it might be unfair to criticise her safe walking of well-trodden ground. But, I was left thinking, given this dualism, perhaps it would be more fruitful to explore inherent tensions between the two ideas, or explicitly try and take the former conceptualisation of music (‘as structure’) as a place that concerns ‘the bodily’. Otherwise we may find that this dualism (structure/performance) merely reproduces an exclusive mind/body dualism – the first terms are abstract and disembodied, the latter terms concrete and embodied – with all the ideological and philosophical baggage that comes with it.[1]

Nicholas Baragwanath’s presentation overcame some of these problems. Put in the terms of Robinson’s presentation, he considered the place of performance in the structuring of music works. For example, he noted that counterpoint, what we consider a compositional, structuring/structured device, was, until the 19th century, often taught by vocal teachers. As Baragwanath put it, this was to learn to speak (i.e. sing counterpoint) before learning to write.

For me, Jeremy Begbie’s presentation was the most stimulating of the three that made up the opening plenary. Drawing on philosophy and theology, Begbie considered the historical quality of music’s transcendentalising – i.e. its positioning beyond matter, it being seen to evocate spheres beyond the human world, language, and so on. Interestingly, he noted that the spiritual quality that music is often ascribed – in contrast with the material nature of the world – is at odds with conceptions of spirituality under Christianity, as encompassing and encountered in the materiality of the world.

Parallel session I: Aesthetics and Embodiment 

Three papers made up the first of the parallel sessions. I attended Aesthetics and Embodiment. The first paper – by Jin Hyun Kim and entitled ‘Kinaesthetic simulation in the experience of music – asked how we might begin to formulise a theory of expression beyond a cognitive view. I found it a bit problematic (despite not myself subscribing to cognitivist models of expression and embodiment). Whilst the presenter drew heavily on theories of expression from a specific period of thinking, the first half the 20th century, without reference to particular music – of this age or any other – it seemed that they attempted to put forward an ahistorical theory of expression. At the end of the paper I asked a question with this implication in mind: Why draw on these theories? Is this choice related to the music contemporary with them, or do the theories explored form the foundation of or undermine later cognitive views of embodied expression that the author wishes to critique? I answer I received was that the author wished to set up a general and minimal framework for understanding embodied expression in the arts, so that it might be as far-reaching as possible. This I thought to be insufficient justification for omitting references to particular examples of music and art where this framework might be useful.

The second paper of the session was excellent. Alex South considered what the phenomenologies of Husserl and (especially) Merleau-Ponty might tell us about playing instruments. He considered how instruments are incorporated into their players’ body-schema, or the space of their skills and capacities as these regard objects in the world and their relation to the subject. Incorporation, put differently, means that instruments, for skilled players, become extensions of themselves, and hence places for new, extended expression possibilities. Indeed, the subject/object divide itself breaks down where embodied incorporation is concerned; “The distinction between subject and object is blurred in my body”, Merleau Ponty writes in his Phenomenology of Perception.[2] This talk also interested me as I drew on similar thinking (and Merleau-Ponty) in my recent Ph.D. thesis, where I considered how established body-schema of musical performance are problematised in some modernist musical compositions (Helmut Lachenmann’s Serynade, for solo piano, in particular).

The third paper, by Denitz Peters, I was stumped by. Admittedly, this in part perhaps derived from my own ignorance of the philosophers and theorists that Peters made constant reference to. That said, Peters professed to develop ‘a concept of embodied listening that takes its phenomenological, social and intellectual aspects into view’ (I quote from his abstract). I could not, however, detect the broadly ‘social’ aspects of his framework, a stain of theory with which I am more accustomed. Despite this, given my unfamiliarity with the philosophical frameworks he drew on, I should reserve judgement.

Parallel session II: Sound

After lunch the second set of parallel sessions began. I attended the Sound session, which was well attended and of a very high standard. Rachel Beckles Willson[3] talked on ‘Sonic Relations’. She considered how one’s situating – and I use this term as distinguished from one’s “situation”[4] – opens up certain interpretative possibilities for thinking about music. Situating, in contrast with one’s “situation”, is taken here as affirming an active mode of listening and the self-conscious consideration of one’s place as a listener, embedded within certain historical, musical, and interpretive conditions. Beckles Willson investigated how situating enables both for interpretations of music and for reflections on oneself as a listener. Her experiences as a student of the oud and of Arab music where taken as a case study. One insight I found particularly striking was best formulated in the question and answer session after the paper: music can act so as to separate and even alienate individuals (for example, in certain practices of listening) as well as bring them together, a more widely held idea.

Stephen Decatur Smith’s paper was also very good. It was expertly clear considering the complexity of the ideas he discussed. He considered the place of the soul in Hegel’s thinking, as a mediating concept between Nature and Spirit. This he discussed with Adorno’s philosophy of music in mind. Smith argued that Adorno’s idea, jotted in his Beethoven manuscripts – that music “represents the act of animation, of being endowed with soul, over and over again” – should be understood in terms of its indebtedness to Hegel’s conceptualisation of the soul. Indeed, for Hegel, sound played an important part in these relationships between Nature, soul, and Spirit. Thus, Adorno’s idea was shown to bring together these three concepts under a dialectical, retrospective gesture: music remembers the soul and Spirit’s emergence from Nature. It looks back on these origins and laments our alienation from Nature, but can only do so as the negation of the negation, that is, through first emerging from it. Music, ‘endowed with soul’, recognises the memory of its own emergence from Nature.

Keynote: Peter Szendy – ‘General Fetishism, From the Piano to the Big Store’.

I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with Peter Szendy’s work. After his excellent keynote, however, I will definitely make the effort to familiarise myself with it. This highly imaginative talk moved between discussions of keyboard technique and commodification, from the Marx brothers to Karl Marx (‘the other Marx’, as Szendy put it), and from the fetishism of the latter to its Freudian counterpart (although this move was achieved by refreshingly unexpected means). First, with reference to the Marx brothers’ (1941) movie The Big Store, Szendy considered the piano keyboard and pedagogy in terms of reproduction and commodification. The gestures of the keyboard teacher, as depicted in the movie, found themselves reproduced in the gestures of his students. This exchange value symbolised in microcosm by the keyboard technique of the teacher in the movie – each finger takes the role of any other – is writ large in the exchange value of commodities in the department store of the film’s title. In a later scene, Harpo Marx finds himself part of a phantasy of reproduction, when he himself multiplies into innumerable simulacra; this has direct musical results as he is able to accompany “himself” on a potentially infinite number of harps in one of the store’s showrooms. The horizontal keyboard thus becomes a metaphor for the exchangeability of values – first the teacher’s fingers on the literal keyboard, and later the commodities of the store, all reduced to a plane of monetary commensurability.

The horizontal is supplemented by the verticalisation of fetishes in the movie: the musical technique of glissando on the piano is fetishized as the height of technique; in the big store the elevator becomes a focal point for our access to the commodities of our fetishism, which are distributed throughout the floors of the store. This vertical aspect of fetish – in contrast with the horizontal quality of Marxian “exchange” in monetary terms – Szendy related to Freud’s conceptualisation of fetish, which derives dramatically from the boy-child looking upwards at his mother, and coming to realise that she literally and symbolically lacks a/the phallus. This lost object, in Freud’s view, the child cannot give up, and thus becomes the repeated site of various insufficient substitutions (fetishes).

Plenary: ‘Musical Understanding: a Dialogue’

The last session of the day, a plenary on ‘Musical Understanding’, consisted of two short papers by Nick Zangwill and Lawrence Kramer, responses from one to the other’s paper, and then a discussion that was opened to the audience.

Zangwill’s paper was perhaps the weakest set of arguments I’d heard all day (I say ‘set of arguments’ as I couldn’t determine an overriding argumentative trajectory, beyond his periodic assertions about Hanslick being right about music). He started by claiming that in order to formulate what ‘musical understanding’ is we must first know what music is, so we can correctly judge if we are understanding it. This, of course, revolves around a tautology: we need to understand what music is before we can come to determine the conditions by which it must be understood (i.e. know ‘what music is’).  After founding his reasoning on a tautology Zangwill added layers and layers of discourse that was (1) problematic in terms of its reasoning, (2) rhetorically empty, and (3) highly questionable ideologically:

1. Zangwill maintained that despite musicologists’ (variously held) positions that music is by its nature a plural phenomenon – put most simply, there are many kinds of music – we can generalise about Music (with a capital M). There are many kinds of dog, Zangwill noted, but we still can conceive of dogs in general, and the concept ‘dog’. The same is true of music, he said. This is patently ridiculous; foremost, unlike the concept dog, music is a process (or collection of processes) within which we find values and meanings, which we partake in, which we create and which engenders us cultural, historically, and socially. To assert it as only conceptual (‘Music’) is to foreclose the possibility of finding it meaningful in these terms, a form of meaning that I, at least, want to preserve.

2. The emptiness of Zangwill’s rhetorical gestures became most apparent when he asked, ‘Why is music more valuable than trainspotting?’. Neither did he answer this question nor did it provide insight, as a rhetorical question, into any other parts of his presentation.  Another wonderful moment came when he asserted, ‘Beauty is the point of Absolute music’, to which I will only respond: Really?!

3. Ideologically, Zangwill’s presentation and the views he espoused in the following discussion were highly problematic. Misunderstanding Hanslick – and, in so doing, using Hanslick’s writing as a blank canvas on which to pin his own agenda – Zangwill argued that we need to understand music for itself, on its own terms. Music, Zangwill claimed (following his (mis)reading of Hanslick), is most pure and thus most excellent when it is uncontaminated either by the other arts (e.g. poetry, as in music with words) or by interpretative frameworks that consider music in terms of its “extra-musical” features (sociologically, historically, etc.).

It is by way of the first contamination – music by another art – that ‘rap is crap’ (yes, those were his exact words); its dependence on words negates its purity.

With regard to the second – music’s contamination by “extra-musical” interpretations – Zangwill claimed that musicology ‘turns music into something else’ (e.g. when considering it contextually). I’m not going to respond to this claim directly, but rather suggest that Zangwill go away and read some more musicology written in the last 30 years or so (or it least engage with it!). He won’t then consider knowledge of music and its context – outside of the purely music, whatever that is – to be ‘extraneous knowledge’ (yes, another unbelievable quote). This last phrase I find particular ironic, coming from an educator and a philosopher (a word literally meaning “lover of wisdom”).

Zangwill’s position was decimated, most articulately by Lydia Goehr (thanks, Lydia!), who advised him against his discourse of “purity”, his use of it as an exclusionary principle through which to denigrate forms of “impure” music. (With his denigration of rap, for example, Zangwill not only showed his ideological hand, but with that hand gave the finger to musicology, which by its nature requires we always consider the “extra-musical”). Zangwill responded naively to this: If the word ‘purity’ makes you uncomfortable, simply replace it with another, he said. Kramer immediately pointed out, quite rightly, that to do so would leave the same ideological framework in place. Goehr’s point was very well put: stop playing logical games, what you do is naïve and dangerous. Talking about ‘purity’ matters – it is the means by which people and their actions (music included) have been excluded historically, or have been labelled as impure (and, ultimately, as ‘less’ human). Notably, Goehr enacted this critique whilst managing not to fall back on postmodern relativism.

Lawrence Kramer’s presentation, and his part in the ensuing discussion, was, needless to say, more insightful that Zangwill’s. I must admit I have had a few issues with some of Lawrence Kramer’s writing (I extensively critiqued some of his work in my thesis, for example), but I found this presentation to be both clear and well thought out. He suggested that we should think about both the understanding ‘of’ music and how we may understand the world ‘by’ music (‘the two are twins’, he said). Kramer suggested that music always pushes us towards understanding it, whilst at the same time resisting codification; in his terms, it both ‘enacts and attracts’ interpretation. He also warned against trying to come to terms with Music (capital M); affirming the singularities of musics and of musical experiences were key to interpretations.

If I have one general criticism of Kramer’s talk – not so much a criticism, but rather a missed opportunity – I feel that Kramer could have spent more time considering how the acuteness of particular musical experiences related to more general understandings. I.e., What is the relationship between the universal and the particular where musical understanding is concerned? Put practically, what is the relationship between commonly held paradigms for musical understanding, such as musical forms, and their manifestation or treatment in particular works?

What I did like about Kramer’s talk is that it treated music as ‘world-disclosive’, as Andrew Bowie put it in his Music, Philosophy, and Modernity (a work often cited by paper givers at the conference). Bowie wrote that, ‘Music is world-disclosive: the world itself can take on new aspects because of it, and an adequate approach to music must be able to respond to this’.[5] Kramer’s talk approached this possibility.[6]


[1] These basic though deeply influential dualisms have been subject to various critiques over the past twenty five years or so (as exemplified by much feminist thinking). Feminist thinking was in fact a notable omission from all the discussions of ‘the bodily’ that took place at the conference.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty 2002, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 166).

[3] Full disclosure: Beckles Willson was my Ph.D. advisor at Royal Holloway.

[4] This distinction wasn’t present in Beckles Willson’s paper itself, but I think it is useful to help summarise what can be taken from it.

[5] Andrew Bowie, Music, Philosophy, and Modernity (Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 27.

[6] I should add a general note about the conference: It would have been nice, as ever, to have seen more engagement with the political implications of music and philosophy; even Feminism, as I note above, didn’t seem to be (explicitly) represented. Szendy’s keynote was a wonderful exception to the apolitical “neutrality” found throughout much of the rest of the conference (Friday, at least).

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