Music as a Space of Possibilities

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

A rhythmic approach to music can also be extended to the rhythms of everyday life. John Rundell notes the mechanised rituals associated with modern social existence: we keep time, we check our pace in relation to others. We are early, late, rarely on time. On the other hand, the art of music extends beyond the everyday. It “increases the range of interpretation of human experiences”. In that sense, the space of possibility inaugurated by music opens out beyond the everyday, beyond the recognisable domain of human experience into the liminal. Rundell speaks of three spatial dimensions: internal, inter-subjective and socio-cultural space. We might say the same of dance, that its spatial (and contrapuntal) possibilities make room for something beyond the everyday. — Philipa Rothfield

Email to someonePin on PinterestTweet about this on TwitterShare on StumbleUponshare on TumblrBuffer this pagePrint this pageShare on FacebookShare on LinkedIn

I. Like love, music is often viewed as enigmatic. Perhaps love in all its shades and music with all its tonal qualities simply go together as two of the great expressive, yet impossible media. Yet are love and music enigmas? Perhaps they are more than this – spaces of possibilities. The space of music is one of possibilities where creativity, communication, of the one and the many occurs. Music is polyvocal. It is also a space of dissonance and not only of harmony, where surprise and adventure also occurs. It is an expressive space, where we often make highly intuitive connections with ourselves and with others. This musical space of possibilities is not only a space of performance, of reception, of listening and interpretation that is of concern here, but also the internal space of creativity, as well as arranging, voicing and dancing in which imagining, feelings and emotions are forever and constantly present. This spatiality creates what might be termed a specific musico-reflective space where thinking, reflexivity and particular moods are created and performed, and in which multiple forms of interaction take place.

The history of music and musical forms, including dance, also suggests the continual opening of musical space, and the changes that have occurred particularly in terms of polyvocality and dissonance. In the social-theoretical tradition, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and Theodor Adorno are illustrative; but they are exceptions, and it is not simply due to what might, illegitimately, be seen as limits imposed by musical-technical knowledge. Each has something to offer – Simmel, because he explores the conditions of rhythm and melody, whilst separating them out; Weber because he realises and explores the importance of multiple voicing and dissonance, both of which for him, modern music cannot do without; and Adorno because of his emphasis on the freedom that is set loose once these occur, but which, at the same time, is curtailed. This short essay, though, is not simply one about the history of music or theorists or philosophers who have had something important or insightful to say about it. In looking at their work, I want to explore music not only as constituted through time or rhythm, melody, or social context, but as a spatial form.

Let’s begin with some observations drawn from the work of the German social theorist Georg Simmel. Whilst music may not be an explicit point of reference for Simmel’s reflections, his comments on rhythm and melody are of interest here. He places great emphasis on the changing rhythms of modern life, where rhythm is his self-consciously chosen expressive category. For Simmel, initially at least, rhythm refers to the general ‘periodicity of life’, the coursing of natural time – day and night, the changing of the seasons and the passing of the years. In other words, it is a stand-in category for a naturalised background sense of historicity. What might be termed ‘the rhythm of life’, according to Simmel, ‘satisfies the basic needs for both diversity and regularity, for change and stability. In that each period is composed of different elements, of elevation and decline, of quantitative or qualitative variety, the regular repetition produces a regular re-assurance, uniformity and unity in the character of the series.’1

In modernity, for Simmel, regular musical rhythm once abstracted and notated qua ‘clock or metronomic-time’, becomes synonymous with the industrialised, symmetrical pulse of the mechanised factory – of the time of work. Here keeping time is keeping the beat, of keeping the melody in check, of checking oneself against others. (Am I playing too slowly or too fast, or simply out of time? Or am I in time, or being conducted?)

Melody, on the other hand, for Simmel is reflexive; the tonal quality of song increases the range of interpretation of human experiences beyond the immediate rhythm of the day-to-day.2 Melody, as well as syncopated rhythm, becomes symptomatic of a creative-intensive, sporadic expressiveness beyond and not derived from the everyday world of work, consumer objects and alienated relations between people, but the newly formed space of internal life, which for him is the basis for individual authenticity and creativity.3 Notwithstanding Simmel’s own quest and emphasis on inner authenticity that limits rhythm and melody, what is insightful here are the images of social and inner spaces, especially musically created and mediated ones.

II. We can explore this idea of musical space in a way that does not necessarily separate rhythm and melody but treats them within a combination of musical relations which we can term ‘polyvocality’, or ‘multiple voicing’ and we can do this by drawing initially on the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. He argues that polyvocality comes into its own with the development of counterpoint, and the way in which Bach especially experimented with it in his ‘inventions’. According to Weber, although counterpoint is known in pre-modern times and non-Western settings, from the late 16th century onward it increases in range and sophistication due to the increased usage of chordal harmonies that in his terms ‘think’ two-dimensionally, that is vertically and horizontally. This means that firstly there was an extension and development of thematic range, possibility and density, and secondly the progressions occurred between several independent voices or instruments requiring harmonic regulation.

This relentless expansion of musical themes and ideas, which is at once polyvocal and spatial is also taken up insightfully by the German philosopher and critical theorist Theodor Adorno. He identifies this spatial dimension in Bach’s music, especially, when he argues that ‘the structure must be so conceived that the relationship of the voices to each other determines the progression of the entire composition, and ultimately its form. It is the skilful manipulation of such relationships, and not the fact that he wrote good counterpoint in the traditional sense of the word, that constitutes Bach’s true superiority in the realm of polyphonic music. It is not the linear aspect, but rather its integration into the totality of harmony and form’. 4 But it is more than simply a matter of integration here. For Adorno, Bach’s work is illustrative of the attempt to work with the paradox of harmonic composition that organised itself ‘polyphonically through the simultaneity of independent voices’.5

This idea and practice of polyphonic voicing neither begins nor ends with Bach, but is also a part of classical and post-classical music experimentation up to and including the present period. Adorno argues in a way that connects Bach with Schoenberg, that in twelve-tone technique, for example, ‘all simultaneous sounds are equally independent … [it] taught the composer to design several independent voices simultaneously and to organise them in a unity without reliance upon harmonic logic’.6

Alongside and even internal to polyvocality, the breakthrough and experiments with dissonance is of equal importance. There is a wild card, which Weber recognises in his own analysis, and tries to account for, make sense of, and integrate into his thinking. This wild card is the continuous and necessary tension between harmony and dissonance without which ‘no modern music could exist’.7 And for him, the seventh chord (and beyond) represents the permanency of this tension – to resolve it or not to resolve it. In other words, Weber’s concern appears to be the formal structure of music; and yet the existence of the seventh is interpreted by him through concerns with concordance and dissonance, unison and multivocality and the ways in which melody interpreted as the spaces between notes, has been addressed in ways that avoid, or screen out, this unavoidable tension. Music, especially modern music, involves tensions between concordance and dissonance, unison and multivocality in terms of the formation of melody itself. For Weber, the penultimate development of musical modernity is the formation of polyvocality in the context of increased chromatic range and melodic sophistication once the ‘irrational’ dimensions of the third and especially the seventh come into play.

Several issues emerge once polyvocality and dissonance are brought together – is dissonance integrated and resolved? Or is it left hanging and ‘worked with’ within the context of polyvocality? If Bach, for one, emphasised resolution amongst his polyvocal experiments, as Adorno acknowledges, then the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, for example, resisted it, whilst Richard Wagner expanded it to the point where tonality nearly breaks down. Musical modernity sets loose a dynamic of experimentation and adventure in which polyphony is central and gives rise to plays of dissonance, especially, that are neither decorative nor dysfunctional.8 For Adorno, counterpoint and the polyphonic dissonances that it frees vertically, signifies the permanency of co-existences. Perhaps Nancy Huston, in reference to Bach, says it best in one of her fictional dialogues between two of her characters in The Goldberg Variations:
‘[The fifteenth], you’ve told me’ is the Variation you love most of all – perhaps, indeed, the only one you truly love. Because of its chromaticism, that lovely word that bespeaks colour: the careful shadings of its notes; the phrases tranquilly ascending and descending the scale of G minor in half steps. Chroma means the skin – through what semantic association? You display us these variegated skins, the successive surfaces of something with no core. For what the variations repeat is not the melody of the theme, but the organisation of its harmonies. There is no progression towards a climax, no revelation of an ultimate meaning – there could be a thousand variations, couldn’t there? – and the empty centre would remain the same.’ (p. 88) … Instead of resolving on the tonic, it prolongs its questioning with three notes from the right hand – three notes still rising from the unknown’ 9

Contrapuntal polyphony with its play and disruption of dissonance brings to the fore the co-existence in voicing or instrumentation of independence, uniqueness and difference set within a frame of musical relationships that are held open and open onto something else.

III. In music that is spatially conceived and which has been discussed above in terms of polyvocality and dissonance, the pre-occupations become ones concerned with presence, co-presence, relationality, concord or harmony, dissonance or tension, emptiness and silence. In other words, music may be termed a ‘space of possibilities’. In order to pursue this ‘space of possibilities’ I would like to suggest that music is a human creation conceived in three different spatial dimensions – an internal one, an intersubjective one, and a socio-cultural one.

Feelings are neither cognitive creations nor secondary – they accompany imaginary creations giving them a sense of involvement and orientation.

Rather than drawing on Simmel’s image of internality, we can draw on one derived from the work of the Greek/French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis in which it is viewed as an outcome of the work of what he terms ‘the radical imaginary’. In the wake of Castoriadis’ reading of Kant, musical creativity, like creativity for human subjects generally is predicated on an ‘empty space’ filled by the spontaneous creativity of the radical imaginary. It is the capacity for creating meaning and representation where none exists prior to it. Music is not exhausted by it technical side – notation, arrangement. Nor can its creation be reduced to either biological or neurological factors. One cannot predict or prejudge what will be composed, how, or where, and in this sense, music is always a ‘surprise’.

Yet, musical creation is not wholly autological or singular. Whilst, the song smiths Rogers and Hart write that Johnny may only sing one note, principally because in this case he is tone deaf, nonetheless Johnny does sing with others, and there is always more than just one note. Music is intersubjective. It is built into its practices as something that is not only composed, interpreted in and out of the context of its traditions, performed and listened to – it also involves what Alfred Schutz terms ‘musical communication’.10 Notwithstanding Schultz’s reduction of music to a Bergsonian notion of dureé, or meaningful arrangement of tones that occur in inner time, his reflections on the practice of music are predominantly intersubjectively spatial, rather than intersubjectively temporal.11

Musicality and its practice is a space of communication in which the composers, performers and listeners (and they can often be interchangeable) creatively ‘tune-in’. As Schutz states, this mutual tuning-in between composers, listeners and performers (each of whom are the addressees – even across the temporal and technological divide – rather than barrier – of historical time, of the recording, DVD, or download), is established by the often imagined “reciprocal sharing of the other’s flux of experiences”.12 This shared flux of experience constructs an often imaginary present together in the form of the “We”. Sometimes, however we have to ‘tune-out’ in order to tune-in – tune-out to others around us who are not involved, tune-out to the chatter of everyday routine in order to concentrate and tune-in to the musicality and the musical task at hand.

In addition, this task of musicality, which is a task of conveying meaning, is conveyed in both musical and extra-musical ways – through the playing and the deportment of the musical instrument, through facial expressions, gait, posture and gesture. Even across historical time, music is a polyphonic conversation within this musical space. Past works are reinterpreted, re-arranged, broken-up and re-mixed, as well as re-evaluated from the vantage point of the creative engagement of the present.

In other words, musical communication, more than linguistic communication, presupposes a simultaneous multi-dimensionality of interactions through which partners creatively interact. In this sense, music extends our expressive range and ourselves in ways that language does not. Language both structures and provides short-cuts. In this sense, language is a handy short-cut to communication. It runs along the surface. If we follow Simmel’s insight here, musicality is also constituted through internality and depth in a way that language both cannot because it reaches its limit at the unsayable even in the poetic. To be sure, one way of exploring this dimension of unsayability might be to invoke the image of the imaginary horizon that constitutes all of musical creation. In the light of my previous remarks this horizon is the ontological fact qua meaning. Yet, the sensory dimension of music that emotionally moves and opens – resides not only in the feet or in one’s head as a cognitive experience, but also in one’s soul, stomach and heart, is another aspect of unsayability. It indicates the depth, and not the surface of subjective formation and experience. When music moves and stirs us, it so often does in ways that words cannot.

Music evokes – we become involved, merged with the music, or even reflective, still involved, yet detached, thoughtful. In our involvement feelings stir, we become attentive, aroused. In this sense, feelings are neither cognitive creations nor secondary – they accompany imaginary creations giving them a sense of involvement and orientation. As Agnes Heller notes ‘feeling means to be involved in something’.13 In this sense one surrenders oneself to the object or subject of feelings, in this instance music.14By having a feel for the music, by being involved in it we are also selecting and discarding what has meaning and importance for us, what has meaning and centrality in our life and what does not.15 This means that there are many feelings – for there are many things that are important in more or lesser degrees at any given time in which we can be involved, and hence we have to learn to discriminate between them. In this sense and as Heller somewhat musically states, feelings are “polyphonic”, and we learn them as a complex repertoire of feelings.16 For Heller this complex repertoire of feelings and our capacity to learn to discriminate between particular ones entails that there is a hierarchy of feeling states, so to speak.

Moreover feeling or being involved occurs not only through direct and immediate experience; rather and more importantly it occurs through indirect and mediated ways that emit a gap between direct experience, feeling and thus sets our imagination free to explore this involvement further in flights of fancy.

In addition, feelings are directed outward, to the outside world, and hence connect us to the world around us. Feelings connect us to the world because they are also bearers not only of ourselves and our imaginaries, but also of the world. They are value saturated, evaluative and we evaluate the world through them, and not simply by reason alone. In this sense, feelings function as a bridge between the inner and outer worlds. They may enable us to identify whether a piece of music was composed from a religious, national, communitarian, universalistic or Romantic orientation or point of view, and thus help inform and express the appropriate emotional registers – grace, devotion, stirring passion, joy, grandeur, or sorrow and grief.

But the question still remains: Can we judge music? Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’ if judging is an interpretative, intersubjective activity. Adorno, for example, attempts to capture this intersubjective dimension of music, and by extension musical judgement, through musical reception. To be musically receptive is to be neither autological, nor deaf to its polyvocality. In this sense, the receptive quality of music entails that it cannot be reduced to the sense of its own creativity or its technical rules. It involves an openness to ‘musical personalities’, their passions, emotions, dramas and comedies. It also enables an openness to musicality itself.

This musical reception exists in music’s own musicality in the spatial ways that I have suggested above. Rather than singling out particular musical genres, techniques or perspectives it is more accurate to say that all forms of music convey and evoke certain feelings and emotions, for example tranquillity, joy, love, discomfort or pain. Music creates and ‘tropicalizes’ aspects of the human condition in emotionally enriched registers.

Music is our anthropological gift – more so than language. It is an outwardly directed and practised meaning saturated form of human expression that explodes in three-dimensionally created walls of sound. These dimensions include imaginary creation, inter-subjective modalities of ‘tuning-in and reception, where the full range of feelings and emotions are readily available. Perhaps, in the end, all we should do is sit, stand, dance, tap our feet – listen to the music and hopefully be moved and involved in it – whatever its genre and with regard to the feeling state that it evokes. In other words, music conveys the rich density and polyvocality of inner and outer life, and we can listen to this density and not turn away from it. Moreover, perhaps ‘musical communication’ is just like love after all – it’s all in the expressivity as well as the composing, performing and listening; an expressivity that words can never fully convey. Music is the unsayable.

  1. G. Simmel, Philosophy of Money, 1978, London, Routledge, p. 486
  2. G. Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, p. 487
  3. G. Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, p. 490
  4. Theodor Adorno, The Philosophy of Modern Music, Trans Anne G. Mitchell and Wesley V. Bloomster, London, Sheed and Ward, 1973,p. 94
  5. Theodor Adorno, “Bach Defended Against his Devotees”, Prisms, Trans Samuel and Shierry Weber, Cambridge, MIT, The MIT Press, 1981, p. 138
  6. Adorno, The Philosophy of Modern Music, 90-91.
  7. Weber, The Rational and Social Foundations of Music, p. 10
  8. Adorno, ‘Bach Defended Against his Devotees’, p. 143
  9. Nancy Huston, The Goldberg Variations, p. 92. See Alfred Schutz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations, Edited with an Introduction by Helmut R. Wagner, Chicago, Chicago University Press, pp. 209-217
  10. Nancy Huston, The Goldberg Variations, p. 92. See Alfred Schutz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations, Edited with an Introduction by Helmut R. Wagner, Chicago, Chicago University Press, pp. 209-217
  11. Schutz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations, p. 210
  12. Schutz, On Phenomenology and Social Relations, p. 216
  13. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, Assen, The Netherlands, 1979, p. 11
  14. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, p. 17. This is different to Heidegger’s version. As he says in his own inimitable way, “mood has already disclosed being-in-the world as a whole and first makes possible directing oneself towards something”. Being and Time, Stambaugh translation, p. 129. For Heller,unlike Heidegger or Schutz mood or attunement is not at the forefront of an ontologically motivated phenomenological investigation, but rather is, in her own more precise definition of it, is a “feeling that predisposes us to feel certain feelings rather than others, to feel certain feelings more frequently than others, certain feelings more intensely than others, more feelings more profoundly, others superficially”, and may or may not last shorter or longer periods. In other words, for her at least, a mood is an emotional predisposition characteristic of an entire life. In many ways, Heidegger uses the term mood as a synonym for the more general term of involvement
  15. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, p. 41
  16. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, p. 29