The Sound of Ontology: Music as a Model for Metaphysics 1498551874, 9781498551878

The Sound of Ontology: Music as a Model for Metaphysics explores connections between Western art music in the late 19th

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The Sound of Ontology: Music as a Model for Metaphysics
 1498551874, 9781498551878

Table of contents :
Table of Contents
1 Wagner in the Role of Kant
2 Schoenberg’s Fatal Step
3 Interlude
4 It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage
5 Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum?
6 Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not)
7 Blooming, Buzzing Cohesion
8 The Undeniable Subject
9 Locating the Thing-In-Itself
10 The Copernican Revolution (Or Not)
11 Intentionality as Value
12 The Return of the Thing-In-Itself
13 Finite, Definite, Infinite
14 An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies
15 Coda
About the Author

Citation preview

The Sound of Ontology

The Sound of Ontology Music as a Model for Metaphysics Kenneth LaFave

LEXINGTON BOOKS Lanham • Boulder • New York • London

Published by Lexington Books An imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc. 4501 Forbes Boulevard, Suite 200, Lanham, Maryland 20706 Unit A, Whitacre Mews, 26-34 Stannary Street, London SE11 4AB Copyright © 2018 by Lexington Books All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote passages in a review. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: LaFave, Kenneth, author. Title: The sound of ontology : music as a model for metaphysics / Kenneth LaFave. Description: Lanham : Lexington Books, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2017038351 (print) | LCCN 2017039880 (ebook) | ISBN 9781498551878 (Electronic) | ISBN 9781498551861 (cloth : alk. paper) Subjects: LCSH: Music--Philosophy and aesthetics. | Metaphysics. Classification: LCC ML3800 (ebook) | LCC ML3800 .L14 2017 (print) | DDC 781.1--dc23 LC record available at TM The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992.

Printed in the United States of America

For Simon Critchley, who supported it from the beginning.

Table of Contents

Prelude 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15


Wagner in the Role of Kant Schoenberg’s Fatal Step Interlude: Sic et Non It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum? Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not) Blooming, Buzzing Cohesion The Undeniable Subject Locating the Thing-In-Itself The Copernican Revolution (Or Not) Intentionality as Value The Return of the Thing-In-Itself Finite, Definite, Infinite An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies Coda: The Razor’s Edge of Ontology

1 9 17 23 33 41 49 53 61 69 75 83 91 97 107

Appendix: IV, the Phantom Tonic






About the Author

127 vii


The theme of this book is the relationship of Western art music’s recent history to the ideas of Western philosophy, and how an understanding of that relationship might serve as a guide to thinking about ontology/metaphysics. For most of my life, I have worked as an arts critic, while also composing music. Whether wondering what note should come next in a newly commissioned score, or explaining the merits of a symphony or a jazz set, I have been beset by a whisper in the ear: “It’s just your opinion.” After all, the subjectivity and relativity of art is essentially unquestioned in everyday discourse: “I like this, you like that, and there’s an end to it.” At most, the word “taste” might be introduced, yet this only gives a name to the condition. Marxist critics pave it over with positive considerations of material culture and class identity, but it remains that the work of art as such is said to exhibit no intrinsic value, and even inter-subjective communication about an artistic experience is regarded as suspect. In music, each listener is locked inside, as it were, with nothing more than upbringing/culture/class/politics to explain why this and not that. Subsequently, when listeners congregate according to their likes, communication is necessarily limited to upbringing/culture/class/ politics. That the experience of music might constitute a value in and of itself, aside from matters material and cultural, is today an odd idea, and odder still when applied to “absolute music”—music that stands alone, devoid of words or images. What in a purely musical experience could be valuable, when music by itself is powerless to “refer to” anything? This confusion is encapsulated in the groundless assumption, widely held, that the only thing we can say for sure about music is that it involves sound. To assess value requires an attempt to understand the thing being valued, so I set out to examine the history of harmony in Western art music from Tristan und Isolde to 4’33”—a shorter span than one might think: eightyix



seven years. The former, Wagner’s watershed opera, and the latter, John Cage’s experiment in random sounds, at first blush seemed not to have anything in common. On examination, they did. The Wagner initiated a conceptualization of music that at length resulted in the Cage. Researching this, I discovered that no less a figure than Nietzsche had foreseen precisely where Wagner’s aesthetic would lead. At this point, the project could perhaps have been classified as “philosophically informed criticism.” But with help from Arthur Schopenhauer and Leonard Bernstein—a musically savvy philosopher and a philosophically sophisticated musician—I began to see musical experience as cognate with experience in general. Schopenhauer’s insight that music is both will and representation, a conflation of the noumenal and the phenomenal, suggested the possibility that the proper word for existence might very well be “experience.” The project swung from a philosophy of music to music as a condition for doing philosophy. Two words came into view and would not leave: adequation and hierarchy. Adequation means “the result of making equal.” The basis of much traditional metaphysics in the form of subject-predicate agreement, it is not a concept in good favor among today’s philosophers. And yet, when we listen to a piece of music there is clearly a kind of adequation between what we hear and what we feel: We feel a circus march one way and a funeral march another. (That examples differ from culture to culture does not change the essential point. For instance, the mood of a listener trained to hear ragas will be different when, for example, hearing a “vakra” or “crooked” raga, as opposed to a raga in which the swaras or scaleequivalents are in their usual order.) Hierarchy is an even more fundamental concept. It refers here simply to the fact that, in all perception, some perceived elements are more important than others. Without the ability to hierarchize, we would not be able to see, hear, or smell; in other words, we would be unable to know anything. Its role in human understanding is impossible to overestimate, yet it is barely dealt with in the philosophical literature. Alas, the introduction of hierarchy led directly back to the original problem, for isn’t the assigning of hierarchy a matter of, well, opinion? That is the question addressed in the final third of the book. To tackle it required the help of two philosophers who knew nothing of each other and yet had a remarkable amount in common: Martin Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead. At length, I try to bring into focus some suggestion of an answer to the contrary, or at any rate make a case that one is possible. I owe thanks to many, first of all to Simon Critchley, who encouraged me from the start, and to European Graduate School and my committee there— Professors Critchley, Christopher Fynsk, and Wolfgang Schirmacher. To my sons Max and Emmett go thanks for their patience; to Susan Simpson, gratitude for an early reading of the manuscript. Natalie Mandziuk pointed me in the direction of Lexington Books, where Jana Hodges-Kluck and Rachel



Weydert have given the project their unflagging support and attention. Finally, I wish to thank Jeffrey Maitland for his professional support, his collegial friendship, and his deadpan suggestion that my book, originally titled Tonal Affinities, might better be called The Sound of Music—which led to the current title.

Chapter One

Wagner in the Role of Kant

You cannot find thought without something that is, to which it is betrothed. —Parmenides, v. 35. 1

Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde is the rough musical equivalent of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. As Critique of Pure Reason is a turning point in Western philosophy, Wagner’s score is a turning point in Western music, and for a similar reason. Kant’s text famously placed a limit on what we might know; the synthetic a priori meant that experience is shaped by the categories that populate our consciousness, and therefore we cannot know “the thing-in-itself.” Centuries of assumptions to the contrary were overturned, even made to look naive, by Kant’s observations. Likewise, the harmonic ambiguities of Wagner’s music revealed the foundation of the tonal system developed in Europe after the Renaissance to have been built on sand. From the late Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century, the system of major and minor keys had held the place of an absolute. Systematic tonality defined music-making with its hierarchies of pitch classes. The root tone (called tonic) of a given piece was the measure of all other pitches in the composition, which were in turn ordered so as to reflect the relative strength of their relationship to the tonic: the fifth tone of the scale was called dominant, the fourth subdominant, and so on throughout the remaining four, increasingly weaker, pitches. Europe’s more sophisticated audiences recognized these relationships as they played out in works by composers of the day; recognized them so closely, in fact, that when Haydn introduced unexpected key changes in his late symphonies, many listeners expressed surprise. Musical vocabulary was ordered according to a stable hierarchy, the only choice regarding this hierarchy being the composer’s selection of which



Chapter 1

pitch might serve as tonic, and which hierarchical mode to employ—major, or minor. Tristan und Isolde changed all that with one chord: the so-called “Tristan chord.” 2 This single grouping of four tones—from the bottom up, in Wagner’s voicing: F, B, D-sharp, G-sharp—was used strategically by Wagner to create a sense of suspended animation, musically apt for the story of timeless love told in his opera’s libretto. In context, the chord sounded as if it could “go” almost anywhere: to C major, or E major, or F minor, or perhaps nowhere at all. The technical and acoustic reasons for this are less pertinent than the aesthetic revolution inherent in the idea of a pervasive ambiguity. How, after this experience, could audiences rely on keys behaving themselves? In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures for Harvard University in 1973, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein demonstrated the musician’s vexation at Wagner’s process, based on the ambiguity of the Tristan chord: “(T)he highly chromatic opening bars of the Prelude”—to Act I of Tristan und Isolde—“have fascinated analytical minds for over a century,” Bernstein writes. (In the video lecture from which this text is transcribed, Bernstein illustrates the following musical moves at the piano, as he discusses them.) “What key are we in? Or no key at all? Did that cadence on the dominant seventh indicate A minor? But the dominant never resolves to the A minor tonic. Instead, there is a long pause, and the phrase is repeated, higher, more intense, with the rising minor sixth now stretched, transformed to a major sixth, again ending on a dominant, but in a different key.” 3 Bernstein continues, astonished at every turn by Wagner’s ability to suggest multiple possible keys—or no key at all?—at once. One needn’t understand the technical harmonic terms to catch the thrust of what Bernstein is saying: From the moment of Wagner’s Tristan (1868), harmonic stability can no longer be taken for granted. After Kant, there was no way to know “the thing-in-itself.” One might say that, after Wagner, there was no way to know “the key in itself.” Of course, the parallel with Kant is wildly inexact. For one thing, no composer-equivalent of Hume preceded Wagner. Where Hume divided cause from effect and thereby became the cause of Kant’s repositioning of reason, none of Wagner’s major immediate predecessors—neither Beethoven, nor Schubert, nor Mendelssohn, nor Schumann, nor any of the bel canto composers—wrote anything that bent traditional tonality to such an extreme degree. To be sure, ambiguity was employed (a famous example is Beethoven’s use of what amounts to an eleven-tone row in his Symphony No. 9), but always to the end of strengthening the tonal center already in place. The point was not ambiguity as an end-in-itself, but as contrast with the solidity of the key center, which was taken for granted. What Wagner accomplished in Tristan was to use the very elements other composers had previously employed (the “Tristan chord” had already shown up in Chopin, for example, folded into a securely tonal context) to unveil the arbitrary nature of single-

Wagner in the Role of Kant


hierarchy tonality, thus clearing the way for its eventual defeat as the unquestioned foundation of Western art music. Wagner was, then, in a way, both Hume and Kant in our hyperbolized comparison, first challenging the hegemony of single-hierarchy tonality, as Hume had called out causality, and then proposing in its place, parallel with Kant’s removal of a knowable reality firmly “out there,” an ambiguous musical grammar in which harmony can serve to obscure, rather than strengthen, any sense of a single tonality. The work of philosophy is the examination and creation of concepts, to the end of better grasping our most fundamental terms: being, existence, truth, value, etc. The work of the composer is to write a piece of music, generally to the end of engaging listeners in some manner. How could concepts employed by a composer express relevance to philosophy? It is common enough for philosophers to examine art, of course, from Aristotle’s explication of tragedy to Heidegger’s fascination with a particular painting by Vincent van Gogh. On the other hand, while art, like science and politics, might be said to reflect in some sense the ideas of its time, it is far less common for an artist to innovate a concept that closely mirrors a specific philosophical idea. Beethoven attended lectures by Kant; however, beyond an increasing abstraction in his later work—which may just as well be attributed to the composer’s growing deafness—there is nothing that stands up and says, “We cannot know the thing-in-itself.” Yet that is precisely the case I would make for Wagner’s innovation, or at least for the way in which that innovation was interpreted. The Tristan chord was employed as an engine for the removal of musical stability. There is ample reason why Wagner is thought of as a philosopher’s composer, why he is frequently the focus of philosophical discussion in a way that, for example, Handel or Verdi or Berlioz is not. Wagner had connections to two major nineteenth-century philosophers: Schopenhauer, whose thought changed his way of making music, and Nietzsche, whose life he profoundly influenced. An encounter with the former’s The World as Will and Representation forged an epoch-making juncture for the composer, while a personal relationship with the latter is generally held as the most significant ever formed between a composer and a philosopher. Because his initial embrace and eventual denunciation of Wagner parallel, in a way, the argument I wish to make, Nietzsche will be left until later. Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer, however, must be addressed now. Wagner was a successful composer in early middle age when he read The World as Will and Representation. His operas, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhauser, and Lohengrin had announced a startling new voice in music, one that offered a distinctly German way of composing. The German language is not, compared with Italian, rich in pure vowels, and it is on vowels that we sing, consonants hanging on like bothersome appendages. Italian cantabile style, the singing style that dominated the operas of nineteenth-century bel canto masters Bellini and Donizetti, exploit-


Chapter 1

ed the purity of Italian vowels and the tendency of Italian words to stretch out in luxurious legato; thus Italian music typically employed long melodic lines. Wagner forged a contrastingly declamatory style of composing, shaped to the more staccato rhythms of German. This innovation was significant, assuring Wagner an important place in the history of opera, and the enormous popularity of Wagner’s early works meant he might easily have continued to enjoy success by continuing to compose in that style. But Wagner’s real ambitions were much grander. They centered on the composition of a musico-dramatic tetralogy derived from Teutonic legend, to the end of promoting a vision of humanity that included radical politics and reformed ethical modes. Composed to his own text (Wagner thought himself a poet on a level equal to his compositional genius), Das Ring des Nibelungen was to be the statement of the composer’s personal philosophy. 4 Wagner had already penned the libretti for the four music dramas of the Ring—Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung—and had begun to compose some of the music when he read The World as Will and Representation. According to Bryan Magee, this up-ended everything for the composer, changing his life in a positive sense but also presenting an enormous immediate problem. The Wagner who wrote the Ring libretti had been convinced of the possibility of real-world change. A veteran of the revolution of 1848 (and, for a time, a political refugee), young-to-earlymiddle-aged Wagner championed political transformation, and thought that the Ring’s vision of a newborn world, shorn of old-world corruption, would contribute to that transformation. Reading Schopenhauer put a match to this view, yet it came too late to make it possible to alter the Ring’s text. Magee’s explanation is worth quoting at length: He had started out consciously intending to show first of all the multiple corruptions of a world based on power and wealth, and then to show how this is swept away by a new generation who replace it with a new order based on love. But somehow, in the libretto, the new order of things would never come out right either. The new generation of Siegfried and Brunnhilde also goes down in destruction, and what is more a destruction partially due to the failure of their love for one another and their consequent mutual betrayal, followed by a desire on one side for revenge. . . . Now at last, having read Schopenhauer, he believed that he understood why this had been so. His conscious programme . . . had been to expose the evils of a particular phase in the world’s development, but unconsciously he had apprehended that these evils are not confined to a single historical epoch but are perennial, so that in following the promptings of his unconscious he had been unable to avoid attributing the same evils in other forms to the successor society. 5

The result is a text whose ending is at war with its beginning. The gods are overthrown, but for what purpose? The establishment of another generation

Wagner in the Role of Kant


destined for similar downfall? Understanding this, post-Schopenhauer Wagner attempted to rewrite the end of Gotterdammerung’s libretto to reveal explicitly the philosophical foundation of this sea-change. Known as “the Schopenhauer ending,” the text was never set to music and is not a part of any staged version of the Ring, though it appears in some editions of the printed text. In it, Brunnhilde was to have sung: “From the realm of desire I depart, the realm of illusion I abjure forever. . . . My eyes were opened by the profoundest suffering of grieving love. I saw the world end.” Wagner must have realized that the Schopenhauer ending would seem grafted on rather than inevitable, a structural flaw so glaring that it might very well sink the whole enterprise. So he stuck with the original libretto. But the music was another matter. The music for the last three of the Ring’s four installments pushes tonality in the direction of its seeming dissolution, analogue to the Schopenhaueresque theme of renunciation. What could be musically more illustrative of the illusion of material reality than the unraveling of the music itself? What could be dramatically more effective than a libretto in which the characters attempt to maintain the lie of creating a new world through political and ethical reform, while the music denies this possibility in its very nature, seeming to dissolve the world of sound through sound itself? Of course, the actual unravelling of music would not be possible. To do that literally, to eliminate music, would be, perhaps, to tell the singers and musicians to go their own way and sing and play whatever they wish (a notion to keep in mind when we trace the lineage of Wagner’s influence). No, the depiction of disillusion, the musical portrayal of abjuration, could not consist literally in the removal of music, but rather the employment of music to the end of suggesting that the real world is illusory. There is a doubling-back here that is fascinating. In order for Wagner to sketch this portrayal of a world of illusion, it was necessary for him to employ musical skills, which were in turn assumed to be non-illusory. In other words, systematic tonal music (the only music at the time) was based on a system that deployed notes in perfect hierarchical relation. By manipulating this relation, by employing the sort of harmonic ambiguity related above by Bernstein, Wagner was able to suggest that the relation did not exist—that tonality, and by extension, the world of the senses, was indeed a world of illusion. But this suggestion of illusion rests in turn for its effect on tonality’s non-illusory validity! The point cannot be overemphasized: Wagner did not deny tonality in the Ring and his later operas; rather, he skillfully exploited its potential for ambiguity, painting in music a world in which every sensible thing—including tonality—does not “really” exist. Little wonder Claude Debussy called Wagner “the poisonous old magician,” and W. H. Auden, saying the same thing with an opposite normative twist, dubbed him “the greatest genius who ever lived.”


Chapter 1

As the Herculean work on the Ring operas drew to a close, Wagner’s last period began to take shape. It would comprise three enormous music dramas: Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Parsifal. Die Meistersinger was the composer’s only comedy, and owns a special place outside the story of Wagner’s harmonic innovation, which we will call for the sake of convenience “extreme chromaticism.” But the other two are the twin peaks of this endeavor, and the opening bars of Tristan are its epitome. No wonder all major observers of classical music’s history consider Tristan the turning point. This is true whatever the observer’s view of the art form’s subsequent history, which could be said to follow from that turn; true both for Bernstein and for Pierre Boulez, Bernstein’s ideological opposite in the matter. Just what did follow from this turn? At first, composers were divided between those who embraced Wagner, and those who rejected him. Johannes Brahms was the most famous of the latter, a classicist in Romantic times, as has been said; Camille Saint-Saens was his French counterpart. On the other hand, it has been said that for German symphonist Anton Bruckner, there were only two entities of any importance, God and Wagner, and that he frequently mistook one for the other. At length, Wagner’s influence won out over the forces of conservatism, and the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries saw the emergence of three German/Austrian composers whose debt to Wagner was nearly unpayable: Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Arnold Schoenberg. (In France, Claude Debussy saw Wagner’s influence looming like a Teutonic giant over Gaul, and made concerted effort to forge a style that was neither traditionally tonal nor Wagnerian; an acknowledgement in the negative.) That Wagner’s three greatest inheritors composed such contrasting kinds of music testifies to the importance of personality in art, and to the many ways in which Wagnerian extreme chromaticism might be applied. Strauss at first composed operas ridden with deliberate tonal ambiguities. Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) exhibit the Wagnerian idea of stretching harmonies to their near-breaking point, the better to portray the intense dramas at hand, in this case epic tragedies from sources in the New Testament and Greek mythology, respectively. With Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and his subsequent work, however, Strauss put on comfortable slippers and became the ultimate bourgeois composer. Strauss compressed Wagnerian ambiguity into sentimental moments in which the music flirts with another key, only to fall coquettishly back into the home key, blushing. Mahler, who as a teenager tracked down Wagner for a visit and later became one of his greatest interpreters on the conducting podium, composed sprawling symphonies that threw folk tunes and folk-like original melodies into a broil of chromatic harmonies. Key centers were alternately observed and ignored. Mahler inherited a symphonic form that invariably began and ended in the same key, and left it a form that roamed the keys morosely, often ending in a signature quite

Wagner in the Role of Kant


distant from the one in which it started. Bernstein, a major Mahler champion and interpreter, has said that Mahler knew what was coming, and that this knowledge stained his music with a sense of constant farewell, as if every D major triad were “a farewell to D major.” 6 Schoenberg took more seriously than either Strauss or Mahler the importance of extreme chromaticism, treating it essentially as an historical inevitability, relentlessly infusing every measure of his music with ambiguities of increasing complexity. This resulted in scores of Olympian power, works that have never entered the repertoire in the way that those of Strauss and Mahler did, but which cry out to do so. Strauss, by first embracing, and then consciously rejecting the language of extreme chromaticism; Mahler, by shaping it as the matrix for his oftenironic, gaudy jewel boxes of tunes; and most of all Schoenberg, by facing with a theorist’s mind the implications of tonality’s shifting existential sands, together forecast that, indeed, something was on its way. What was coming? In a sense, a farewell to D major. NOTES 1. Parmenides, quoted in The Library of Original Sources: The Greek World, trans. John Burnet, 158. 2. Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (partitur), Leipzig, 1870, C.F. Peters, 7–8. 3. Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard, Harvard, 1976, 231. 4. Bryan Magee, The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy, Henry Holt and Co., 2000, passim. 5. Ibid., 180. 6. Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, 319.

Chapter Two

Schoenberg’s Fatal Step

Schoenberg was the most devoted advocate of Wagnerian extreme chromaticism. Yet he also took great exception to the formal ramifications of that innovation. 1 His objection lay along the same lines as his admiration, because the very ambiguity that forged a new harmonic language had also dissolved the traditional structures of Western art music. For example, in a fugue, a subject or subjects are submitted to contrapuntal development over a series of overlapping statements in different keys. Sonata-allegro form presents an expository section that explores themes in contrasting keys, followed by a development that at length returns the themes to the main key of the piece, etc. Without stable key centers, these forms and others were rendered inchoate. Schoenberg, then, sought to impose structural norms on the new, but anarchic, language of harmonic ambiguity. He viewed increasing harmonic ambiguity as historically determined and therefore inevitable, but the accompanying dissolution of structure could not stand for long. 2 From the late 1890s through the first two decades of the twentieth century, Schoenberg pushed Wagnerian harmonic ambiguities to their limit, eventually composing what is sometimes called “atonal” music, but which Schoenberg dubbed, with greater accuracy, pantonal music. Pantonality consists in the avoidance of single-tonic tonal implications altogether, as opposed to the ambiguity of Wagnerian chromaticism. The razor-thin line dividing one from another is difficult to define. It is better illustrated, ideally, by listening to Schoenberg’s major scores, from the clearly Wagnerian Verklarte Nacht (1899) to the doubtlessly pantonal Gurrelieder (1913). Eventually, however, the ambition of avoiding single tonalities, and the mentally draining task of note-to-note decision making that such avoidance entailed, overwhelmed Schoenberg. His solution: “He opted for Wagnerian chromaticism, but then he relentlessly adapted it to creations of Brahmsian 9


Chapter 2

autonomy.” 3 In the final number of the four piano pieces making up his Op. 23 (1923), Schoenberg deployed the system that Theodor Adorno would call “a comprehensive principle of construction . . . transformed into an a priori form,” 4 and that American composer George Rochberg, after first embracing and then vehemently rejecting it, would term “the pathology of the 20th century.” Borrowing from his hero Brahms the intense manipulation of short melodic motifs instead of long-lined melodies, Schoenberg struck on the idea of treating each pitch sui generis, without reference to any wider concept of “tonality.” Treated thusly, the composer could manipulate cells of notes in an abstract manner, shaping form, not from harmony, but from “objective” patterning. So we arrive at the single most important development in Western art music after Wagner, dodecaphony. We shall call “dodecaphony” the idea that the pitch-selection process should follow a pattern of involving all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, in such a way that no tone may be employed twice until the other eleven have been sounded. Dodecaphony is not equivalent to serialism, though it is fundamental to the contemporary meaning of that word. Serialism is, rather, a mode of manipulating series (or “rows”) comprising all twelve pitches, so as to provide a result that conforms to the dictates of dodecaphony, while exhibiting certain formal attributes. One is material; the other, form. Schoenberg invented both simultaneously. Dodecaphony served to erase any tonal connections between notes, thus completing the work of extreme chromaticism, in Schoenberg’s view. This was the “Wagner” half of the undertaking. The “Brahms” half consisted of creating a structure to house this new chromatic vocabulary: the variation of the rows by transposition, inversion, and retrograde procedures; in other words, serial composition. In this way, a single row could generate forty-eight different twelve-tone statements for the composer to manipulate. Here is Schoenberg, recalling in his essay, “Composition with Twelve Tones,” how he came up with his inventions: After many unsuccessful attempts during a period of approximately twelve years, I laid the foundations for a new procedure in musical construction which seemed fitted to replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies. I called this procedure ‘Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Which are Related Only with One Another.’ This method consists primarily of the constant and exclusive use of a set of twelve different tones. This means, of course, that no tone is repeated within the series and that it uses all twelve tones of the chromatic scale, though in a different order. It is in no way identical with the chromatic scale. [The method involves ordering the twelve tones of the chromatic scale into a row, known as the Basic Set, and using that row and its properties exclusively throughout the composition in question.] 5 (Emphases Schoenberg’s.)

Schoenberg’s Fatal Step


The bold statement “twelve tones which are related only with one another” is the crux of what musicologist William Thomson calls “Schoenberg’s error.” Schoenberg avers that it is possible that tones may be considered as “related only with one another,” without supporting the assertion. And by “related only with one another,” Schoenberg means related merely by virtue of being placed in positive relation to each other; as John Cage would later explain it, notes in Schoenberg’s method (and in Cage’s) are “related” in the sense that one piece of furniture in a room is “related” to the other pieces of furniture in that room—they are all in proximity to each other. “Related” in the old tonal sense had meant related to each other hierarchically, as parts of some larger tonal scheme, precisely the thing Schoenberg was seeking to dissolve. Such might better be called a “non-relationship” rather than a relationship; and of course, it is possible to posit non-relationships, at least in the abstract. It is possible to toy with the idea, for example, that each color exists independently of all other colors, that green and purple and orange are not part of a spectrum, but isolated phenomena, and to create a color theory based on that idea. If that were done, however, it can be assumed with relative certainty that the theory would not be taken as anything other than a fanciful “as-if.” Put forth as a universal concept, it would be denied vigorously as clearly and incontrovertibly false. Not so, dodecaphony/serialism. The idea that the abstract manipulation of unrelated pitches formed, not just a brief detour from tonality or an “as-if” experiment, but the undeniable future of all true musical art, took hold shortly after Schoenberg’s introduction of the notion in 1923, and grew in intellectual prestige through the 1960s. The demand for students to write “twelvetone” music was notoriously widespread among composition faculty in American music conservatories in the 1950s and 1960s. Wendy Carlos (born Walter Carlos), the synthesizer artist whose work appears in Stanley Kubrick’s film, A Clockwork Orange, wrote an open letter to the New York Times in 1997 recalling what it was like to be a tonal composer studying music at Brown and Columbia universities in the 1960s. One experienced “arrogant condescension” if one did not agree “with this ‘Holy Grail’” of serialism, Carlos recalled. “No one claims there was a systematic attempt to force all composition majors into atonal practices. . . . No meetings were held, not secret handshakes created, to allow a Serialist Elite to disenfranchise the (tonal) nonconformist. None had to be. It was ‘a mere case of prejudice,’ as . . . unconscious (an act) as what white neighbors did to keep out black residents during this era, or the corporate heads who somehow always sidestepped women, non-whites, and known gays for major appointments in their companies.” Carlos goes on to make a scientific point:


Chapter 2 (I) went over from a Physics major to music composition (which) left me with a much stronger background in math and acoustics than most musicians. Thus I was unlucky enough to grasp that Schoenberg’s systematized serial methods are based on a lie—that all intervals of the 12-note scale can be treated democratically in a row. . . . (T)hese intervals aren’t the same acoustically, having developed from tetrachordal tonal and diatonic scales of at least as far back as Pythagoras. 6

In other words, the notes of the chromatic scale are an afterthought, a neutral collection of diatonic scales that overlap and interlock with each other. As a member of the chromatic scale per se, each note sits in neutral relation to all other notes. (We’ll return to this.) But when a single note receives “pitch focus” (William Thomson’s phrase), 7 it becomes a tonic, and certain other (but not all) notes in the chromatic scale then line up in hierarchic relation to this tonic, according to the patterns inherent in the overtone series. The overtone or harmonic series can be conceived as a physical phenomenon that corresponds to the perceived hierarchies accompanying pitch focus. When a string vibrates, it vibrates as a whole, but also in sections, producing multiple, related frequencies. This is the famous discovery of Pythagoras, alluded to by Carlos, and used by Johannes Kepler to explain “the harmony of the spheres.” When the ear hears a single pitch, it actually hears that pitch, called the fundamental, and at the same time the resonance of certain pitches above it, called overtones. If, for example, one plays the “C” two octaves below middle C on the piano, the ear will also hear, in order of prominence, the C an octave above the fundamental; the G above the second C; the middle C; the E above middle C; the G above middle C; the B-flat above middle C; and the C above middle C. The series continues upward, getting increasingly weaker, until at last it contains most of the pitches comprising the C major scale. (Except for B, which is closer to a B-flat, and the F, a special case but not a contradictory example, explained by Schoenberg in his theoretical writings and examined elsewhere by this writer. See the appendix to this work.) In other words, when a human hears a pitched sound (periodic frequency), she hears other pitched sounds implied in a hierarchical arrangement. The overtone series is physically contained in all naturally produced periodic or pitched sound. (A sine tone—a pitch stripped of all overtones—can only be produced electronically.) To deny it is to deny a simple, empirically verifiable fact. Schoenberg, to be clear, did not deny it: he mentions it repeatedly in his Harmonielehre. But he apparently did think it possible to ignore it. In other words, dodecaphony proceeds from the belief that how we hear pitched sound has no necessary implications for an art based on pitched sound. This remarkable assertion, offered without any intellectual defense whatsoever, will become important when we consider the philosophical ideas that supported Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic theory.

Schoenberg’s Fatal Step


To review how, in Western tonality, tones relate to each other: Each of the twelve tones in the chromatic scale is capable of receiving what Thomson calls “pitch focus” to become a tonic. Therefore each note is a tonic, or a dominant, or a subdominant, etc., depending on which note among the twelve receives pitch focus. Focus on a B-flat as tonic, and F is the dominant. Focus on the F as tonic, and B-flat becomes sub-dominant. On and on this relational interchange goes, and as the focus shifts, the same B-flat that was tonic to itself and subdominant to F becomes dominant to E-flat, a major third to G-flat, a second (the supertonic) to A-flat, etc. It is a kaleidoscope of shifting pitch relations that eventually produces twelve major and twelve minor scales. (See illustration.) Such is the syntax of the major-minor system: the deployment of pitches in relation to each other as multiple, interlocking hierarchies. The hierarchy is fluid (giving it the inherent potential for ambiguity so brilliantly exploited by Wagner) because any of the twelve notes can “take turns” being the home pitch, or tonic; in other words, a piece may be in any one of twelve different keys (twenty-four allowing for major and minor deployments), and may change key from passage to passage, or even measure to measure. This is how each of the twelve tones functions individually—taking turns in a game of sonic hierarchy, playing roles from royalty (tonics and dominants) to peasants (neighboring chromatic tones, perhaps), complete with the possibility of revolution in the form of key changes. Taken as a whole, however, the twelve tones of the chromatic scale are just a collection, a vocabulary lacking a syntax that is added only when a single note receives pitch focus and is “made party to hierarchical relationships” by this focus, Thomson writes. “As a construct, the chromatic scale is nothing more than a useful representation of pitch resources, a listing of ingredients,” 8 lacking the tension of hierarchy that underlies the phenomenon of tonality. This is demonstrable by the fact that the chromatic scale can start on any note and the resulting scale will have the same note-to-note relationship as if one started on any other note. This is not true of the major and minor scales, for which note-to-note relationships must change as the tonic moves from one pitch to the next. Even the whole-note scale, developed to intensity by Debussy, has two possible, mutually exclusive iterations (C–D–E–F#–G#–A# or C#–D#–F–G–A–B), but the chromatic scale has only one. This was exactly what Schoenberg sought to exploit in the idea of dodecaphony: a flat assemblage of notes without hierarchy. No more concern about which key(s) might be present, because the twelve-tone row banishes all keys. No more worry about note-to-note procedure, because by avoiding all possible tonal connections in the very form of a piece, one’s path to atonality is smoothed. Manipulate the forty-eight possible permutations of your original twelve-tone row, and you have composed without fear of having made connections between notes, save in the positive sense that the notes


Chapter 2

are gathered in proximity to each other (“twelve tones which are related only to one another”). But there’s an obvious problem. The same flatness of relationship that made the chromatic scale fodder for “equal” treatment of tones divorced it from syntax; indeed, the two statements, “lacking hierarchy” and “lacking syntax” are restatements of each other. The chromatic scale, played sequentially or arranged as a row, is inherently non-syntactical, and music—all music of all cultures at all times in history to which we have access—had, until this moment in Western history, always exhibited a syntax deriving in some manner from the inherent hierarchic implications of the overtone series. This derivation was not theoretical, but practical. As Thomson writes, it came from “people opening their mouths” and singing 9; vocal practices were later transferred to instrumental ones. To take a representative example from outside the Western tradition, the drone of the Indian sitar results from the direct observation of the acoustic fact of hierarchical pitch-relations. Six or seven of that instrument’s seventeen to twenty strings are fretted, and the player plucks these to produce tones. But the remainder are free-floating strings intended to vibrate along with the pitches produced by the player. They ring in sympathy in accordance with the pitch played; in other words, when a fretted note is played, the amount of resonance exhibited by any certain string will depend on its place in the overtone hierarchy of the plucked note. If the note played is, for example, a “D” (in Western nomenclature), then any string tuned to “A” will resonate boldly, as that is the first pitch in the overtone series of “D” other than other “Ds.” A string tuned to “B” will resonate less boldly, and one tuned to “E” still less so, etc. As the player moves from note to note, each individual sympathetic string resonates at varying levels of intensity, depending on its place in the pitch hierarchy of the note played. This makes the color of the sound shift constantly as the overtone series glides from note to note, altering the hierarchy of its pattern with each change of the fundamental tone. We must stop here to consider the difference between the two different, but related meanings of “tonality,” a difference potentially as vexing as distinguishing between the two meanings of “being” in Heidegger. As we have noted, all musical cultures, prior to the advent of dodecaphony, have in some manner involved relating notes to one another in a hierarchy. Europe’s major/minor scales and India’s ragas are but two examples. Native America’s cedar flute tradition employs a minor pentatonic scale; traditional Chinese string instruments are played according to the ratios of 1 / 2, 1 / 3, 2 / 3, etc., ratios exactly correspondent to the overtone series. There are no exceptions. It is in this broad sense that all music (except dodecaphony, apparently) is tonal (first meaning): its practice relates in some manner to the inherent hierarchy of the overtone series. But Western musicians often use the word “tonality” to refer to the major/minor scale system that was modern Europe’s

Schoenberg’s Fatal Step


particular response to the overtone series (second meaning). This was how Schoenberg meant “tonality,” when, for example, he contrasted it to Europe’s earlier modal system of organization, which involved fewer notes and a less definite sense of the tonic pitch. (This is why medieval chant, which is modal, sounds “floating.”) Modality was tonal in the first sense, like all other music. But it was not tonal in the second sense of exhibiting major-minor scale relationships. Thomson points out that Schoenberg declared modality to be “pre-tonal” (implying the first meaning) because it lacked the diamondhard relationship of dominant to tonic that characterizes tonality (second meaning). This conflation of tonality/first meaning with tonality/second meaning is all the more confusing because, in its first meaning, tonality allows no “pre-tonal” state; it is an always-already reality of pitched sound. So, by abandoning tonality in the second sense of the Western majorminor system, and substituting for it a system that expressly undermined any other possible tonal connections in the first sense, Schoenberg made in essence the claim that Western tonality was the only system of tonality-in-thefirst-sense that mattered. Tonality-second-sense was the only possible ultimate expression of tonality-first-sense; therefore, Schoenberg reasoned, the time had come to abandon tonality in both its meanings. The advent of serialism, far from being the liberating act its champions professed it to be, was actually a bold example of Eurocentric hubris. Schoenberg conceived of “tonality” narrowly, only in the sense of the European major/minor system, and his (seeming) innovation of dodecaphony was announced from within this system alone. A pall of cultural hegemony hangs over dodecaphony, confirmed by Schoenberg’s most infamous statement regarding his invention of it, from a letter to a friend in 1923: “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” 10 Boastfully nationalistic, the statement is also made tragically poignant by the fact of Schoenberg’s Jewish heritage, in light of the coming Holocaust. It is at last clear that Schoenberg’s error was to ignore the inherently hierarchical nature, not just of Western tonality, but of pitched sound itself. It is hierarchy that makes the lower relations among overtones perceived as “consonant,” while the upper partials are heard as “dissonant.” 11 It is hierarchy that puts a melodic line in the foreground and its accompaniment in the background. It is hierarchy that links pitch to duration, making it impossible, outside of pure abstraction, to consider a pitched sound separate from how long it endures in time. It is possible, of course, simply to assert outright that hierarchy is of no importance. It is also possible, in designing aircraft, to assert the notion that airfoil is an arbitrary construct, and to design aircraft that ignore the principles of airfoil, and to contemplate these designs in purely abstract fashion. But if these designs were materially realized, the resultant aircraft would not fly. Similarly, music designed along principles that contradict the realities of pitch hierarchy and the perceptual requirements


Chapter 2

of human psychology can be contemplated abstractly, but the sounds thus produced will not “fly”—that is, it will not be perceived as music, and if it is not perceived as music, it is quite possible that it is not music. This is a controversial observation only because its application is potentially conservative. NOTES 1. William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, passim. 2. Note, as this description progresses, a dialectical triad expressed. Tonality (thesis) contains its own self-contradiction as ambiguity (atonality as antithesis), resulting in the synthesis of Schoenberg’s dodecaphony. 3. Ibid., 175. 4. Quoted in Stefan Muller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography, Polity Press, 2005, 118. 5. Arnold Schoenberg, “Composition with Twelve-Tones” (1941), Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein, ed., trans. By Leo Black, Faber and Faber, 1975, 218. 6. Wendy Carlos, Letter to The New York Times, Sept. 3, 1999, reprinted at http://www. 7. William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, 82 8. Ibid., 88 9. Ibid., 142 10. Arnold Schoenberg, quoted in Stuckenschmidt, Hans Heinz. 1977. Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work, trans. by Humphrey Searle. Schirmer Books, 277. 11. Schoenberg put this distinction to one side, re-positioning consonance and dissonance along a continuum, with consonance more and dissonance less “comprehensible.” Yet this does nothing other than restate the distinction. It relieves the distinction of bifurcation, but only by arranging for consonance and dissonance as hierarchy in another form. Even so, Schoenberg writes as if the consonant-dissonant continuum eliminates hierarchy itself.

Chapter Three

Interlude Sic et Non

Rene Descartes’s first treatise, the first thing he ever put down on paper, long before the Cogito, was a study of music. 1 (This is almost entirely ignored by the philosophical community. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy doesn’t even list it among his complete works.) In it, he assumes the validity of the overtone series as the progenitor of the musical scale, because of the series’ perfect expression as mathematical relations. Kepler had established this via experiment and used it as the foundation of his “harmony of the spheres” when applied to the new, heliocentric cosmology. A vibrating string divided in half (2:1) produces a pitch one octave above the string’s fundamental. Similar ratios follow: 2:3 is a fifth, 3:4 is a fourth, 4:5 is a major third, 5:6 is a minor third, etc. The discovery of this correspondence was not new, and was in fact traceable all the way back to Pythagoras. Aristotle spoke non-controversially for Greek philosophy in general when he assumed such correspondences to inform all knowledge: “Actual knowledge is identical with its object” he wrote in De Anima. 2 This statement is not yet realism—not yet a case for the noumenon’s habitation of the objective world, but merely a restatement of Parmenides: knowledge is still “inside,” but finds its betrothed without. What is empirically evident cannot be contradicted by speculative philosophy, and therefore Descartes’s treatise not only assumes the relationship of the mathematical ratios to the generation of a tonal scale, it consists largely of elaboration on that relationship. There is little in it of philosophical interest, per se, yet it is intriguing to see the foundational figure in modern European philosophy find his first intellectual passion in the subject of music, and to assume its correlation with physical reality to be solid. 17


Chapter 3

But Descartes was a pre-Kantian thinker, and it is in the critical, postKantian world that we live. Descartes might have been able to assume that ratios in the physical world would have some inherent meaning in the experiential world—that experience, in short, was capable of delivering knowledge. The critical philosopher is forbidden to do this. Peter Price has supplied a clear outline of some of the critical thinking that supports Schoenberg’s seeming innovation. His key points regarding Schoenberg follow, numbered by sentence so as to order my ensuing commentary. ^ (1, 2, and 3) “To think about consonance and dissonance historically is first to understand that consonance and dissonance are socio-historically determined functions, not material states. A dissonance is a state that, in a particular quasi-semantic system, needs to be resolved by a consonance. The correlation between these virtual organizing principles and actual material states is historically contingent.” 3 ^ (4 and 5) “The so-called ‘emancipation of dissonance’ puts this entire system under erasure. This . . . is an historical irruption and can’t be blamed on Schoenberg or anyone else.” 4 ^ (6) “The death of tonality, like that of God, is a social fact unaffected by the existence of those who continue to believe.” 5 ^ (7, 8, and 9) “With the loss of tonality goes the concept of dissonance as signifier of affect. What dissonance is ‘emancipated’ from is this signifying aspect. . . . The rejection of atonality is aligned with the belief in an ahistorical symbolic matrix of onto-theological presence, for instance ‘German’ music from Bach to Wagner for traditionalists.” 6 We’ll consider Price’s sentences one or two at a time. Regarding sentence No. 1: “To think about consonance and dissonance historically is first to understand that consonance and dissonance are socio-historically determined functions, not material states.” In one sense, this statement could be read as saying simply that “to think about X historically” is to “understand that X is (determined) socio-historically.” In other words, the (strictly) historical consideration of a subject (in this case consonance and dissonance) should be couched in socio-historical terms. If that is what Price is saying, one would be hard-pressed to disagree. But the statement goes beyond this by asserting that “consonance and dissonance are . . . not material states.” Again, this may be seen prima facie as precise, since consonance and dissonance are indeed mental objects, or concepts, not material states. But Price misrepresents the argument for consonance and dissonance, which is not that consonance and dissonance are things that in point of fact they are not (material states), but that, as concepts, they are grounded in certain material states; they are immanent in the act of hearing pitched sound as such. It will not do to rehearse what we have already repeatedly said, but perhaps it can be put a slightly different way: The overtone series presents a materially observable, mathematically confirmed, hierarchy of pitches. The pitches most prominent in this



series are those that every musical culture on earth (save the dodecaphonic) has pronounced “consonant.” The pitches less prominent in this series are those that every musical culture on earth (save the dodecaphonic) has pronounced “dissonant.” Price does not address this. Regarding Price’s sentence No. 2: “A dissonance is a state that, in a particular quasi-semantic system, needs to be resolved by a consonance.” Here, Price admits that dissonance is a “state.” Having dismissed its possible status as a material state (above), he must mean that it is a mental or experiential state. This state belongs to a “particular quasi-semantic system” which requires its resolution via consonance. We are in agreement, provided “quasisemantic” be made “semantic.” In fact, it is unclear what the prefix “quasi” means here. Its usual meaning is something like “resembling superficially” or “acting as a simulacrum.” With this in mind, let’s restate Price’s comment as follows: “A dissonance is a state that, within a certain simulacrum of semantics, requires resolution to a consonance.” Semantics govern relationships between signifiers, and as Price points out in sentences 7 and 8, the “concept” (his word) of dissonance has a “signifying aspect” within tonality. If dissonance enjoys a signifying aspect within tonality, how can the semantics governing this signification be nothing more than a simulacrum? Either the semantics are false (“quasi-semantics”) and the signification was false from the start, or the semantics are valid and the signification can hardly be dismissed or “erased.” So the argument rests on whether or not the semantics of tonality are valid (“quasi-”) or not. Price does not pursue this issue or even define it as such, and he furthermore ignores the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of Leonard Bernstein’s arguments for tonal semantics in the 1973 Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Regarding sentence No. 3: “The correlation between these virtual organizing principles and actual material states is historically contingent.” Are these the same “material states” referenced in Price’s first sentence? Is Price making elliptical reference in both to the dreaded harmonic series? Nothing in his text suggests what else he might mean by this. By “virtual organizing principles” Price clearly means “dissonance and consonance.” They are indeed organizing principles, but they are “virtual” only in the context of Price’s unsupported assertion that these principles cannot be grounded in the material. Of course, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that these principles are grounded in the material state of hearing pitched-sound-as-such. Regarding sentences 4 and 5: “The so-called ‘emancipation of dissonance’ puts this entire system under erasure. This . . . is an historical irruption and can’t be blamed on Schoenberg or anyone else.” The system of consonance and dissonance has not been questioned, it has not been challenged, it has not been redefined, it has been eliminated—”erased.” By “system,” one assumes Price to mean the Western tonal system, but by extension all systems that cast some combinations of tones as belonging together (consonant)


Chapter 3

and others as not belonging together (dissonant), from Medieval European chant to Indonesian gamelan to Indian sitar, are history. For Price, they are all erased. Regarding sentence No. 6: “The death of tonality, like that of God, is a social fact unaffected by the existence of those who continue to believe.” One rarely sees so bold an ad hominem nested in a scholarly work: “those who continue to believe” are here given a slap on the wrist. Even rarer is that Price has married his ad hominem to an equivocation. The “social” death of God is not equivalent to the existential question of God. One may accept the social “death of God” and still believe in God’s existence. Likewise, one may accept that an historical turn in music rejected tonality and still believe that turn to have been existentially mistaken. Indeed, Alain Badiou has carefully outlined the conditions in which an averred historical “truth” is in actuality a simulacrum of same. In a subsequent chapter, I will apply Badiou’s conditions for a simulacrum to the supposed “event” of dodecaphony. Taking things slightly out of order, we consider sentence no. 9: “The rejection of atonality is aligned with the belief in an ahistorical symbolic matrix of onto-theological presence, for instance ‘German’ music from Bach to Wagner for traditionalists.” This claim allows the claimant to identify the rejection of his argument as reactionary. It is, however, demonstrably false. As referenced earlier, Schoenberg said he invented the twelve-tone system to secure the “superiority” of German music. On the other hand, Hans Werner Henze, arguably Germany’s most important composer after World War II, was both a vocal Communist Party member and an ardent opponent of dodecaphony. Regarding sentences 7 and 8: “With the loss of tonality goes the concept of dissonance as signifier of affect. What dissonance is ‘emancipated’ from is this signifying aspect.” Price writes without reference to the support of any particular axiology, assuming, it would seem, that the loss of affect caused by the abolition of dissonance—an accurate description of the intended result of dodecaphony—is a good thing, or at least a “historically inevitable” thing. One might imagine Price rejoining in protest that “good” is not at issue here, that the matter is not normative, but merely descriptive of a turn in music history. But the tone of Price’s assertions here and throughout his book makes it clear that, for him, the matter is normative. For example: “It is not clear why serial music should be faulted for the inaudibility of its poetic procedures. What is it about the musical that provokes the notion that the listener should be able to trace, through listening alone, the logic of the music’s construction? . . . It remains unclear why Schoenberg (or Milton Babbitt, for that matter) should be faulted for principled solitude.” 7 Price is making a case for dodecaphony’s legitimacy in the face of its rejection by audiences and many musicians. As description, his explanation is without flaw, provided it is recast as speculative: Tonality creates affect



through the contrast of consonance and dissonance, and the removal (the “emancipation,” so called) of dissonance would indeed result in the loss of affect. With this observation, we have reached the crux of Price’s case for dodecaphony, and indeed the necessary foundation of any case that might be made for dodecaphony: That it is possible to remove the affect of dissonance, to “emancipate” it from its role as signifier. 8 This belief rests in turn on the idea that signifiers are artificial, the result of cultural agreement, “sociohistorically determined functions,” as Price says of consonance/dissonance. But if the signifiers “dissonance” and “consonance” can be demonstrated to be existential rather than social, if their function can be demonstrated as deriving from an experiential given in the same sense that the color spectrum is an experiential given, then Price’s case—any case—for dodecaphony as legitimate collapses. NOTES 1. See Bertrand Augst, “Descartes’ Compendium on Music,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan.–Mar. 1965), 119–32. 2. Aristotle, De Anima, book 3, chapter 7. 3. Peter Price, Resonance: Philosophy for Sonic Art, Atropos Press, 2011, 168. 4. Ibid., 168. 5. Ibid., 169. 6. Ibid., 170. 7. Ibid., 172. 8. Deleuze and Guattari stated as baldly as anyone could that the affect provided by the presence of consonant and dissonant harmonies was the very stuff of music, as well as of painting: “Harmonies are affects. Consonance and dissonance, harmonies of tone or color, are affects of music or painting.” (What is Philosophy? Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 164.)

Chapter Four

It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage

Consider the following three sets of English-language words: My cat Luna has thick black fur and a cold wet nose. Has cat a fur and thick Luna nose wet black my cold Luna My fur has thick black cat nose and cold wet a The first group of words comprise a standard English sentence conveying information about a cat with the proper name, “Luna.” From this we know that Luna belongs to me, and that she has black fur and a nose that is cold and wet. The second arrangement of the same twelve words has been deliberately reordered so as to create zero-to-minimal syntactical sense. It is a word-row, devised with the end in mind of treating each word as a thing-unto-itself. Syntactical relations between any two consecutive words were avoided, though “thick/Luna/nose” come dangerously close to forming a semantic trio. The third set was ordered via a process of tossing a coin (a quarter). I divided the initial sentence into two parts of six words each: “my cat Luna has thick black” and “fur and a cold wet nose.” I flipped a coin to determine which half the first word in the new sequence would come from: heads for the first set and tails for the second. I narrowed the choice down further with each successive flip until the sequence reproduced here emerged. It is fair to say that the second and third sets are very much alike, as neither can be construed as exhibiting syntax of any sort, and therefore neither conveys information. An English speaker reading the initial sentence would have no trouble connecting noun to verb to modifier, etc. But in both the second and third sets, while the reader will recognize parts of speech— “cat” as a noun, “my” as a possessive, etc.—the words cannot, because of their lack of syntactical order, be made to fit into any syntactical scheme. 23


Chapter 4

What Schoenberg did with pitches was similar to what I have done with the second set of words above. True, Schoenberg chose his rows from among a chromatic scale that was already, in and of itself, a flat collection of materials, but his dodecaphonic/serial method took special care that this flatness should be maintained as the dozen were deployed in the non-sequential order called a series or row. This does not occur outside a specific set of imposed rules. If, for example, I were to choose from among the twelve chromatic pitches, without reference to any rules, a series of pitches using only my ear as guide, there is a good likelihood that the same intuition which makes humans sing certain groups of notes together but not others would lead me to pick tones that suggested a triad, perhaps, or pyramiding fifths, or some other grouping related to the overtone series. Even within the constraint of having to play all twelve tones before playing any of them twice, it is possible to choose pitches that suggest tonal hierarchy, which is why Schoenberg cautioned serial composers to avoid thirds and sixths in their rows, and how Alban Berg, Schoenberg’s student, managed to compose the only serial works that have entered the repertoire precisely because they contradict that edict. (The row governing Berg’s Violin Concerto is so tonal-friendly that it allows the interpolation of a Bach Chorale.) In the third set, the method has changed, but the result would be equally frustrating for any English-speaker trying to make sense of it. The process of choosing words at random, using a decision-generating device like a coin flip, would seem to be the opposite strategy from carefully selecting words according to a set of rules. And yet, the results are surprisingly similar. Written words are visual representations of the sounds in spoken language, which must, to be language, incorporate syntax. When they are used outside that definition, it is arguable that they are no longer words-as-such. A coffee mug used to plant a violet is a flower pot. Mathematical symbols used to adorn a shower curtain without regard to their function are decoration. And words arranged as patterns—randomly or consciously designed—are, perhaps, objects for some kind of contemplation. But they are not words. There is nothing at all wrong, of course, in converting a coffee mug to use as a flower pot, and mathematical symbols may look elegant on a shower curtain. At issue is the idea of continuing to call the mug a mug and, even more pertinently, the claim of doing mathematics by arranging them for strictly visual purposes. If putting cosigns and tangents willy-nilly on a piece of cloth is not mathematics, how is it that playing notes without regard to their function in music is music? All serialist and most aleatory composers employ pitches that were originally intended to form musical scales, the salient feature of which is the tension created by the hierarchy of relative weights given to those pitches (the tonic, the dominant, the subdominant, and so on down the line), to the end of creating sonic patterns that ignore the hierarchical pitch arrangement that originated the pitches-as-such. (This should remind

It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage


us of Wagner’s use of tonality to suggest that tonality is invalid, mentioned earlier.) It would seem, then, that serial and aleatory musics are more accurately called “anti-music.” But again, this approach is controversial, as it results in a conservative, even reactionary aesthetic. If we are allowed to say that serialism is not “really” music, why not “that hip-hop crap ain’t music”? This is the usual form taken by the fear that too precise a definition of an art will narrowly restrict artistic freedom. Our third example above is there to illustrate the eventual product of Schoenberg’s thesis: aleatory music. The two processes—Schoenberg’s careful plotting of tone-rows and the tossing of coins associated with John Cage—could not, prima facie, be further apart. Yet they each result in the use of pitched sound as something other than pitched sound-as-such, just as the second and third arrangements of words in the verbal examples above used words other than as words. Cage acknowledged Schoenberg as his master, and with good reason. A brief historical sketch of Western art music postSchoenberg to Cage illustrates the relationship: Serialism reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, as the music of Anton Webern, Schoenberg’s pupil, achieved a startling level of chic. Every composer who wanted to be au courant tossed aside Stravinskian neoclassicism for the sonic pointillism of Webern—even Stravinsky, whose “conversion” to serialism in the late 1950s was taken as the final fall of all musics but the serial. Such academic holdouts as existed, labored for the most part in American backwaters. Such a one was the composer Howard Hanson of the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, New York. The (perhaps apocryphal) story told by some of his students goes that Hanson endured the many students of his who wished to pursue serialism, but he had fun with them as well. A student would proudly bring Hanson a serial score, with the tone-row announced up front. Hanson would look the row over, and then, saying something like “Is this what you want?” play a tone-row on the piano. Invariably, the beaming student would say, “Yes,” to which Hanson would rejoin: “Then why didn’t you write that? This is what you wrote.” And then he would play the student’s actual tone-row. The first tone-row had been a made-up series and the student had fallen for it, illustrating in a very direct manner that, unless one is focusing most intently on exact intervallic relationships without reference to a tonal center, one row sounds interchangeable with all other rows, even to that row’s creator. By the time of Stravinsky’s “conversion,” plain serialism was already old hat. In 1951, a young Parisian named Pierre Boulez had proclaimed “Schoenberg is dead” (he had in fact just died, his death possibly linked to an anxiety attack over the digits of his age [76] that year—7 and 6—adding up to 13; Schoenberg, the inventor of twelve-tone music, suffered from extreme triskaidekaphobia) and proceeded to move “beyond” serial procedures. Boulez’s advance took the form, however, not of rejecting serialism, but of


Chapter 4

expanding it to cover all aspects of music. Serialism ordered only the twelve pitch classes, but Boulez’s “integral serialism” commandeered the ordering of music’s other parameters as well. For instance, a dynamic “row” might be assembled thusly: f, ppp, mp, ff, p, mf, fff, etc. So, if the piece being composed began forte (f), its next dynamic would have to be pianississimo (ppp), and the next one mezzo-piano, and so on. A score composed for, say, violin, trumpet, vibraphone, and double bass would likewise have the pitches of its tone-row performed by a parallel series of timbres: If the bowed violin played the first note of the series, then the second note might be played by the trumpet, the third by the double bass pizzicato, the fourth by the violin pizzicato, the fifth by the vibraphone, the sixth by the double bass bowed, etc. And of course each one of these was at a different dynamic as per the dynamic row we have described. So if the first hexachord of the pitch row was, say, D–A#–A–D#–B–C#, the dynamic row might be f–mp–ff– pp–ppp–fff, and the timbre row violin pizz./trumpet/vibraphone/double bass bowed/violin bowed/double bass pizz. This is a marvelous game and entertaining for the composer who plays it. The result can yield an idea or two that might not have occurred to the composer in the normal (non-serial) process of composing music. But its expressive potential is extremely narrow—in fact, the whole point of the process is to turn the usual (in Western terms) expressive voice of the composer over to the process itself. The composer chooses the various rows, but then the interlocking rows are left on their own to manufacture the relationships (in the new, positivist, Schoenbergian sense) of one pitch/timbre/dynamic to another pitch/timbre/dynamic. Control no longer belongs to the composer, who is but a sort of manager of the process. But our example is missing one important factor. For, just as dodecaphony abolished tonal pitch relations, integral serialism abolished the beat. Analogous to Wagner’s blurring of key centers, various composers in the early twentieth century had ruptured the familiar beat patterns of two, three, and four counts with complex patterns that shifted, perhaps, from five to two to seven to one-and-a-half to nine. The beat was “all over the place.” Why not simply get rid of it? The positive aspect of rhythm is simple duration. Therefore, it’s possible to posit durations as related only to each other, and not to the hierarchic arrangement of metered beats. For our set of pitches-withtimbres-and-dynamics above, let’s add durations in the mode of fully integral serialism. I choose for my duration series: an eighth note, a half note, a dotted eighth note, a quarter note, a whole note, and a sixteenth note. This actually leaves some room for personal decision making, as the durations may overlap. Integral serialism’s aesthetic domination was brief and its pure practitioners were few. Boulez and the American Milton Babbitt were its most prominent figures, and a few years in the 1950s were its heyday. Waiting in the

It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage


wings was a young American musical artist grown unsatisfied with his own innovations, which were primarily related to timbre. John Cage’s invention of the prepared piano—a piano with erasers, bolts, wooden dowels, etc. stuck between its strings—made possible the presentation of varied colors on an acoustic piano that normally would have required electronics. Cage achieved a certain fame with this and with his whimsical early compositions, but he was restless to push back what he felt was a Western aesthetic bound up with ego and with fake “self-expression.” Cage wanted the subject out of the picture altogether, and when he encountered integral serialism, the path became clear. In integral serialism, the order of things is pre-determined by rows set in place by the composer, but then “let loose,” as it were, to generate music by means of a neutral playing-out of the material (as illustrated above). Why not then also remove control of the originating rows, as well? Instead of shaping a row of twelve tones and other rows of different dynamics, etc., why not simply generate sounds by chance? It was a brilliant move, and while Cage probably did not think of it this way, it is possible to look at it as, in essence, calling modernism’s bluff. You want notes unconnected to each other save by their mutual proximity? Then throw some dice and let it go at that. Boulez and Cage were musical allies for something like two minutes. As soon as Boulez understood what Cage was about, he withdrew his approval. Composerly control was apparently important, after all, though it is difficult to see why, given the ideal of strictly isolated pitch/duration/timbre/dynamics. The difference between the isolation created by conscious row manipulation and that created by pure chance was illustrated in the manipulations (above) of the sentence about my cat. For all intents and purposes, there is none. The line of thought from Wagner to Schoenberg to Boulez to Cage can now be neatly sketched: Wagner: It is possible to obscure the sense of key center, making the listener unsure of where she is, tonally. Schoenberg: Then let’s be rid of tonal relations between pitches altogether and create a music without the background presence of hierarchic connections. Boulez: If it is acceptable to abandon tonal pitch-relationships, then let’s go a step further and free ourselves from the supposed expressive relationships involving color and dynamics. Most importantly, let’s do unto duration something analogous to what Schoenberg hath done unto pitch. Down with the measured count! Let us free duration from the hierarchy of the beat.


Chapter 4

Cage: You’re right! There exist no inherent relationships among tones, durations, or anything else. Nor are pitch and duration, etc., even necessary to what we might call “music.” Music is sound listened to inside a frame, nothing else. Listen to traffic and frame it as music, and it is music. It’s a short intellectual distance from step two to step four, and it was a brief historical distance as well. Schoenberg died in 1951. The following year, Cage conceived his iconic piece, 4’33,” which calls for the performer(s) (any instrument or group of instruments) to remain quiet for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, while the ambient sounds of the audience and the hall produce the work of art. 4’33” is consistently referred to as a piece of music, and is even published and available for sale at $5 and change. (The idea of copyrighting a set of instructions without any determinate content is the concept of intellectual property at its most audacious.) With it, we have arrived at a place in which, not only are pieces that operate on premises opposite to how we hear pitched sound considered legitimate and even historically necessary, but sound itself is considered equivalent to music, provided it is labeled as such. It is nominalism unchecked, and it is taken today by mainstream academic and popular commentators as common understanding. In Music, Language and the Brain, Anirrudh Patel defines music as “sound organized in time, intended for, or perceived as, an aesthetic experience.” 1 With the possible exception of objections to the word “organized,” which to a Cageian smacks of egocentric control, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking serious exception to that definition, even though it literally means that, if I cough and burp, organizing said sounds by initiating the cough and controlling the rate of the burp’s emission, and this subsequent experience provides me what I or another person perceive to be an aesthetic experience, then I have made music. Lest the reader think I am setting up a straw man, Patel also says, bluntly and with the full force of seeming authority: “(I)t is quite clear that there are no sonic universals in music, other than the trivial one that it must involve sound in some way.” 2 Noise is only noise when called noise; the same sounds called music are music. At the conclusion of his book, Thomson puts it another way, a reframing of Patel’s commonplace that exposes its absurdity. The ultimate utterance about music, given the legitimacy of the line of thought from Schoenberg to the avant-garde, Thomson observes, is simply: “There are sounds.” 3 Thus are nominalism and materialism complicit in the same dead end. But are there even sounds? If music doesn’t exist qua music, but is merely sound framed as music, how can the skeptic be sure that sound itself exists? Pure skeptics, indeed, find a belief in the existence of sound to be quite ridiculous. Sextus Empiricus propounded this in the second century CE. The argument, in his “Against the Musicians,” amounts to saying that just because vibrations in the air are registered by ears as sound does not lend

It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage


existential status to sound as such; sound remains merely an experience, not an entity. 4 This is the same argument used by those who say that music does not exist as a category separate from sound: “Just because certain sounds are registered by ears as music, over and above sound, does not lend special existential status to music as such.” Once a concept is denied as having any status over and above its material ground, then any other concept attached to that material ground is immediately suspect as well. A vibration in the air is measurable by means other than ears. Therefore, this line of argument goes, “hearing” as such, and “sound” as such, are superfluous; their phenomenal existence apart from the strictly material fact of measurable vibration is an empty concept. Consistent materialism, this illustrates, must result in the erasure of the subject entirely, or the subject is opened to the possibility of qualifying material facts in terms of its experience, thus giving the lie to materialism as such. Most materialists, however, ignore the fact that sound is not a positive fact; that it is not strictly material, but always already an experience. Both true skeptics and ontologists recognize this, and come down on opposite sides of it. The skeptic says, in essence: Sound is already an experience, and as such lacks real existence. The ontologist says: Sound is already an experience; therefore, let us start with that. Music, too, is an experience, and the experience of music-as-such is separate and different from the experience of sound-as-such, and it is tone—periodic frequency grasped as pitch—that defines the difference. Roger Scruton was right to make the distinction between sound and tone fundamental to his philosophy of music. 5 The fact that it is possible to make a distinction at all points to the importance of the subject’s inclination toward meaning in any consideration of phenomena. To reduce one phenomenon to mere “objectivity” is to reduce all. The materialist cannot claim that “music is just sound” and at the same time resist the observation that “sound is just vibration.” Ears are not required for the material phenomenon of frequency to occur, and therefore the materialist who claims that music is nothing more than sound must also claim that sound is nothing more than disturbances of the air. In this view, neither music nor sound can be said to exist as-such, because to make either claim is to introduce a subject, and as soon as a subject is introduced, non-material axiology necessarily shows up. There is no subject without the affect of value. To rid philosophy of one is to rid it of the other. Perhaps this is why Alfred North Whitehead called his philosophy “the critique of pure feeling.” 6 We will return to the idea of value as a necessary component of the subject in the last chapter of this book. Having seen where things led, from the first sounding of the Tristan chord in 1868 to silence/noise-as-music less than a century later, we are at last in a place to consider Nietzsche’s rejection of Wagner for what it truly was: A rejection of the very future we have outlined, a future Nietzsche saw coming.


Chapter 4

Modernism, as he said repeatedly, would be the death of Man, save Man’s rescue by the Overman. Only, what was modernism? What idea or philosophical approach distinctive to nineteenth-century Europe was so powerfully destructive that it stood to bring Western civilization itself to an end? Nietzsche notoriously swung wide at every figure in sight, from Plato to Christ, but modernism was not one of these easy targets. His attempt to pin down modernism in music takes this potent form in Human, All Too Human: The artistic objective pursued by modern music in what is now, in a strong but nonetheless obscure phrase, designated ‘endless melody’ can be made clear by imagining one is going into the sea, gradually relinquishing a firm tread on the bottom and finally surrendering unconditionally to the watery element: one is supposed to swim. Earlier music constrained one—with a delicate or solemn or fiery movement back and forth, faster and slower—to dance: in pursuit of which the needful preservation of orderly measure compelled the soul of the listener to a continual self-possession: it was upon the reflection of the cooler air produced by this self-possession and the warm breath of musical enthusiasm that the charm of this music rested. . . . [Endless melody] endeavors to break up all mathematical symmetry of tempo and force and sometimes even to mock it; and he is abundantly inventive in the production of effects which to the ear of earlier times sound like rhythmic paradoxes and blasphemies. What he fears is petrification, crystallization, the transition of music into the architectonic—and thus with a two-four rhythm he will juxtapose a three-four rhythm, often introduce bars in five-four and seven-four rhythm, immediately repeat a phrase but expanded to two or three times its original length. 7

And then comes the prescient intuition of what may come from all this, the sort of foresight that earns Nietzsche the label of cultural prophet: “A complacent imitation of such an art as this can be a great danger to music: close beside such an over-ripeness of the feeling for rhythm there has always lain in wait the brutalization and decay of rhythm itself.” 8 (Emphasis mine.) There it is, from 1878, a vision of integral serialism’s arrival seven decades hence. One wonders why Nietzsche did not apply his observation to harmony as well as to rhythm, and indeed one can substitute the word “harmony” for “rhythm” in the sentence above and it is just as accurate a prophecy. Nietzsche had begun his intellectual life six years earlier as Wagner’s champion in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche perceived the dramatic impact of the older man’s music as Dionysian antidote to the Apollonian “petrification” of the music of the day—something Nietzsche, too, feared. (And rightly so. Mid-nineteenth-century academic music was a frigid landscape.) But now, Nietzsche saw, Wagner’s way out of things was capable of producing something much worse than a temporary freezing up of music’s creative urges: it had the potential of leading to the dissolution of music itself.

It’s Only Sound; or, How Nietzsche Foresaw John Cage


In this light, Nietzsche’s rejection of Wagner in favor of Bizet can be understood, not as some kind of angry filial punishment of the father figure, nor as the frantic grabbing for a life-preserver in the middle of a churning Wagnerian sea, but as the conscious turn of a sharp musical mind from swimming-into-musical-nihilism to standing on solid ground. Only that this ground, while solid, was also new and pronouncedly anti-academic. Carmen was no standard-issue work. Compare it to Bizet’s earlier opera, Les Pecheurs des perles, and the difference is such that a newcomer to the latter could easily be convinced that the composer of Carmen could not have written it. The stamping gypsy rhythms of Carmen, the harmonies redolent of street-song, and the sheer earthy sexiness of its erotic frankness are all startlingly new, as are such compositional subtleties as Bizet’s deliberate musical blurring of the words l’amour and la mort, the better to convey the bloody marriage of lust and death that forms the opera’s thematic core: The love whose means is war, whose very essence is the mortal hatred between the sexes!—I know no case in which the tragic irony, which constitutes the kernel of love, is expressed with such severity, or in so terrible a formula, as in the last cry of Don José with which the work ends: “Yes, it is I who have killed her, I—my adored Carmen!” 9

Carmen was so new, in fact, that the work failed in its first production before an audience expecting yet another academic opera. Bizet died shortly after, never to know that his final work would shortly become the most widely produced opera in the history of that form. NOTES 1. Aniruddh D. Patel, Music, Language and the Brain, Oxford University Press EBook (2008), 2.2.1. 2. Ibid. 3. William Thomson, Schoenberg’s Error, 196. 4. Sextus Empiricus, Against the Musicians, trans. Denise Davidson Greaves, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. 5. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997; passim. 6. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York: Macmillan Free Press, 1978, 113. 7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986, 275–76. 8. Ibid., 276. 9. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Case of Wagner, Project Gutenberg EBook 25012, 21.

Chapter Five

Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum?

Yes, there are sounds; at least, there are vibrations of the air. Such exist. But the positivist will insist that with this observation we must stop, leaving any normative judgments about these vibrations to social-based Critical Theory or cultural studies. The study of music becomes no more than statements of material fact, followed by overlays of normative judgment having nothing to do with the phenomenon of the subject’s experience of the vibrations. Thomson’s repeated point in Schoenberg’s Error is that pitch focus produces the musical phenomenon, because this experience results in the listener intuiting relationships to other pitches. I would like to amend this very slightly by saying that what the listener hears at first is not pitch but frequency—periodic vibration—which amounts to an ontic given. Focus is the very thing that turns the frequency into pitch—an ontological entity, no more merely ontic—causing subsequent focus to fan out into relationships with other pitches. The positivist who stops at mere vibration and forbids its transformation into pitch, with all the tonal implications that concept carries, is adopting for herself the very thing she denies the tonal advocate: the intervention of a human agent, for sound does not exist qua sound without a subject, any more than music exists qua music without one. Speculation as to which ontic realities have pertinence to a given work of art is one philosophical task regarding the arts. Examination of the truths contained in the experience of art is another. The latter has been a focus of Alain Badiou’s work on truth as event-cum-fidelity. In Badiou’s philosophy, truth in art (as in science, politics, and love) is sparked by an “event,” which leads to the creation of a “new way of being.” From chapter 4 of Badiou’s Ethics:



Chapter 5 Let us say that a subject, which goes beyond the animal (though the animal remains its sole foundation [support]) needs something to have happened, something that cannot be reduced to its ordinary inscription in ‘what there is.’ Let us call this supplement an event, and let us distinguish multiple-being, where it is not a matter of truth (but only of opinions), from the event, which compels us to decide a new way of being. Such events are well and truly attested: the French Revolution of 1792, the meeting of Heloise and Abelard, Galileo’s creation of physics, Haydn’s invention of the classical musical style . . . But also: the Cultural Revolution in China (1965–67), a personal amorous passion, the creation of Topos theory by the mathematician Grothendieck, the invention of the twelve-tone scale by Schoenberg. 1

(Badiou here clearly means “the twelve-tone series” or row, i.e., dodecaphony. The twelve-tone scale existed for centuries prior to Schoenberg.) It is indicative of Badiou’s genuine love for the Western art music tradition that both examples of an event under the condition of art involve the art of music. It is also of interest that the two examples he cites constitute the starting and ending points of the trajectory of Western tonality’s prime. Only the midpoint is missing, and that is precisely our focus. Almost perfectly halfway between Badiou’s first example, that of Haydn’s invention of classical style in the eighteenth century, and the second, that of Schoenberg’s invention of dodecaphony in the twentieth century, lies the subject immediately at hand: Wagner’s use of tonal elements to undo tonality itself. Badiou does not elsewhere ignore this middle period: to the contrary, he has devoted an entire short book to Wagner. In Five Lessons on Wagner, Badiou investigates commentaries on Wagner by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Theodor Adorno, revisits Nietzsche’s fabled relationship with the composer, and ponders the meaning of Parsifal. Along the way, he addresses Wagner’s idea of “total” theatrical art, the use of leitmotif (bits of melody associated with specific characters or objects), the idea of ceremony in Parsifal, the pagan vs. the Christian in Wagner’s libretti, the composer’s politics, etc. (It should also be noted, apropos the comparison above of Wagner to Kant, and Wagner’s real-life association with the ideas of Schopenhauer, that Badiou compares Wagner to . . . Hegel.) In a lengthy afterword nominally given over to “Wagner, Anti-Semitism, and ‘German Ideology,’” but really an excuse to examine the history of opera (especially Mozart), Slavoj Žižek makes a compelling case for re-envisioning Wagner’s Ring tetralogy as Christian (turning on its head the usual reading of the Ring as Buddhist-by-way-ofSchopenhauer), complete with Brunnhilde as Christ figure. Yet, the amount of space in Badiou’s book given to the specifically musical aspects of Wagner’s work is very small. Music is examined primarily in relationship to its support for the drama, which does, after all, befit commentary on a composer whose oeuvre comprised opera almost exclusively. 2

Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum?


From a different source, here is Badiou’s description of Schoenberg’s invention: Where the system of scales and fundamental harmonies of a tonality was, we have the free choice of a succession of distinct notes, fixing the order in which these notes should appear or be combined, a succession that is called a series. The serial organization of twelve sounds is also named “dodecaphonism” to indicate that these twelve sounds of the old chromatic scale (thus: do, do#, re, re#, etc.) are no longer hierarchised by the tonal construction and the laws of classical harmony, but treated equally, according to a principle of succession chosen as the subjacent structure for such or such a work. This serial organization refers the notes only to their internal organisation, to their reciprocal relations in a determined acoustic space. As Schönberg said, the musician works with ‘twelve notes that have a relation only among themselves.’ 3

The description of dodecaphony, from the standpoint of Schoenberg’s assertion, is largely accurate. But two statements stand out as misleading, if not clearly false. The first is that “we” (meaning the composers of dodecaphonic music) “have the free choice of a succession of distinct notes . . . called a series.” In fact, according to Schoenberg, we are not free to choose any succession of notes. The row is restricted to necessarily comprising all the notes of the chromatic scale and to containing no repeated notes. If I were to choose the following succession of notes, it would be rejected by the laws of serial composition, as it violates both the restrictions just cited: C–F#–G–G#–B–F#–E–D–C. Serial composition operates from the standpoint of restriction, not freedom. The second misleading statement is the more pertinent to a case for serialism as simulacrum: “these twelve sounds of the old chromatic scale . . . are no longer hierarchised by the tonal construction and the laws of classical harmony.” While it is true that the essence of Schoenberg’s system is the eradication of hierarchy, it was not “tonal construction and the laws of classical harmony” that erected the hierarchy in the first place. Rather, tonal construction and the laws of classical harmony are themselves based on the hierarchy inherent in the human perception of frequency; that is, that of the harmonic series that is an unavoidable element of experiencing periodic sound. Schoenberg either failed to notice the ontic fact of frequency underlying pitch, or his project is directly an effort to deny the relevance of “animal support” (i.e., the perception of frequency as inherently hierarchic) that Badiou, in the quote from his Ethics, cited above, soundly reaffirms as a subject’s “sole foundation.” Either way, dodecaphony perfectly fits the bill of Badiou’s definition for “simulacrum”: When a radical break in a situation, under names borrowed from real truthprocesses, convokes not the void but the ‘full’ particularity or presumed substance of that situation, we are dealing with a simulacrum of truth. ‘Simula-


Chapter 5 crum’ must be understood here in its strong sense: all the formal traits of a truth are at work in the simulacrum. Not only a universal nomination of the event, inducing the power of a radical break, but also the ‘obligation’ of a fidelity, and the promotion of a simulacrum of the subject, erected—without the advent of any Immortal—above the human animality of the others, of those who are arbitrarily declared not to belong to the communitarian substance whose promotion and domination the simulacrum-event is designed to assure. 4

Badiou’s every point conforms to the advent of serialism. Schoenberg’s system exampled all the formal traits of a truth, producing a powerful break with the past, but was erected above the human animality of hierarchical pitchperception. Schoenberg took a radical step, using names handed down from the real truth-process of the tonal system (the twelve tones), but failed to convoke the void, presenting instead a new, purportedly substantial absolute—a “full particularity”—for all future composition. Everything in dodecaphony is nameable, with no allowance for the unnameable. This increases with the subsequent developments that followed, issuing at last in an avantgarde that consists, as we have seen, in nothing but names. Every note in a row and its permutations purports to be a “thing-in-itself,” and knowable as such. Schoenberg’s innovation was invalid; the event of dodecaphony was no event at all, but a mere simulacrum. As is the case with all Evils in Badiou’s way of looking at things, this particular one sprang from the desire for the Good. It was not a deliberate effort to subvert Western art music; to the contrary, Schoenberg was of the opinion that Western art music needed rescuing from the ennui he felt dominated it in the early years of the twentieth century. Yet in attempting rescue, he cut the house of music from his foundations. This is the inevitable conclusion reached if we fully understand Schoenberg’s system and accept Badiou’s definition of simulacrum. Why, then, does Badiou consistently champion Schoenberg? Why the praise heaped upon serial composition in various sources? One can only suppose that there is some kind of confusion over the term “tonality.” “Tonality” by itself, as touched on earlier, describes the facts of hierarchic pitch relationships; it does not, necessarily, refer to the particular system—unfortunately called the “tonal system”—of major and minor scales and chords that Schoenberg sought to replace. All music before dodecaphony was tonal— Native American flute music, Indian classical ragas, ancient Greek kithara accompaniments to poetry, ethnic folk musics of all kinds, everything. It was tonal in the general sense of operating according to the inherent hierarchy of pitch that inhabits how we hear periodic sound (the harmonic series). Music in the Roman Catholic Church prior to the development of the tonal system was of a sort we call “modal.” But it was still tonal (in the original, experiential sense), because notes were frequently repeated and the relationships of the root tone of a given piece with the other tones in that piece fell effortless-

Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum?


ly into the hierarchic arrangement that follows from the experience of periodic sound. Tonality in its broadest sense does not attempt to describe an absolute, it simply defines the parameters within which music exists. It empowers the composer to choose freely, using only ear and artistry to make decisions. The composing artist may do anything at all. Hans Werner Henze, who never embraced dodecaphony, opted for an ever-expanding tonality. The Estonian master, Arvo Part, chooses to re-center on the idea of the root note, while the American Paul Schoenfield throws jazz and klezmer together in symphonic amalgam. Still other composers may, if they wish, employ a system that orders all the tones of the chromatic scale so as to undermine the sense of hierarchy—in other words, dodecaphony. But that will not stop listeners from attempting to hear the implied hierarchies and subsequently feeling frustrated and angry when these are subverted. There is good reason why pure dodecaphony is unpopular in concert halls around the world. The truth-event in Badiou is a powerful experiential modality that creates a subject via an epiphany that breaks from the past to provide authentic innovation in art, love, science, or politics. But not just anything is an event, even when the would-be subject thinks it is. And breaking from the past is not, in and of itself, an innovation. Badiou borrows most of his examples of truth-events from history, which might make it seem as if these historically confirmed occurrences must, therefore, fulfill the role of “event.” We have demonstrated that that is not the case. Badiou posits three modes of Evil, of which one, simulacrum, provides the possibility that the would-be subject is mistaken and that the innovation at hand is illegitimate. Badiou does not, however, provide exact methods with which to ascertain event from simulacrum. His definition of the latter, quoted above, is general, and applicable in cases of major historical development, such as the advent of dodecaphony. But as an ethic, Badiou’s theory needs to be able to apply to ahistorical lives, the loves and arts and sciences and politics of people who never enter the history books. To that end, more precise ways of recognizing the simulacrum must be discovered. It would seem that one of them is evidence of a break with the ontic. Contemporary philosophers rarely meet the idea of dodecaphony headon, preferring to accept and support it as a part of history, without providing due critical examination of its nature-as-music. Slavoj Žižek sees tonalityatonality-dodecaphony as three legs of a Hegelian dialectic. Writing in Absolute Recoil, Žižek, echoing the observation of musicologist David Hurwitz, avers Schoenberg’s “passage from pure atonality to dodecaphony (as) necessitated by the immanent deadlock of atonality.” 5 This deadlock took the form of an impasse to the composer’s decision-making process. Žižek quotes musicologist Charles Rosen’s observation that atonality had produced the need for composers to deal with the intricate manipulation of small units


Chapter 5

without reference to any single regulating center, a task vastly more demanding, in terms of skill, focus, and creative ingenuity, than the composing of even the most complex tonal work. Composers of tonal compositions could rely on the formal relationships of tones to other tones to frame their decisions. The note-to-note process of writing in sonata form, for example, while leaving particular choices to the composer, made global decisions in advance as to the ways in which those choices might be deployed. The purely atonal composer, however, lacked a set of choices comparable to those of the tonal composer. The atonal note-to-note process was purely “intuitive,” tapping the composer’s unconscious. From Wagner’s innovation forward, atonal experiments provided some of the most innovative music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Hungarian-born (but German in culture) Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father-in-law, embraced intuitive atonality as an old man, particularly in late piano pieces such as Nuages gris. Russian composer Alexander Scriabin described a distinctive sound by emphasizing the higher tones of the overtone series, much as Charlie Parker would later do in a jazz context. (See chapter 6.) Russian musicologist Varvara Dernova said of Scriabin’s concept of the tonic note that it existed “in distant perspective, so to speak, rather than the actually sounding tonic.” 6 This is actual atonality in that it is “atonal” only in the sense of rejecting the usual way of construing the tonic, the dominant, etc. In the larger sense of “tonal,” this atonal music remains (strictly speaking) tonal because it does not reject the tonic outright. As late as the mid- to late twentieth century, in defiance of the so-called historical inevitability of dodecaphony, French composer Olivier Messiaen, building on Claude Debussy’s innovations, created music that ignored major-minor categories, yet did no harm to the listener’s innate insistence on note-to-note connection. In some sense, atonality, properly understood, was the potential emergence of a new tonality, one in which the composer used devices—pitch sets, meters, timbres—inherited from major-minor tonality to make connections unlike those created in the major-minor system. Writing atonal music was a kind of test of the composer’s ability to ferret out habit from art: a bad atonal composer will fall into patterns that either suggest tonality without admitting it, or that caricature atonality with stock gestures, such as a waffling back and forth between tritones. A great atonal composer, and Schoenberg was arguably the greatest of them, proceeds from note to note with the inevitability of a dream, and at the same time with a dream’s shocking sense of surprise: the next note must be the right note, but it must be one that the listener could never have guessed would be next. This was demanding work, to say the least. Dodecaphony offered a way for composers to avoid tonality while employing a note-to-note structure that saved them from the mental labor of agonizing over each and every musical decision.

Serialism As Event? Or Simulacrum?


And yet, those agonies produced extraordinary music. Tellingly, much of Žižek’s analysis is given over to investigations of Schoenberg’s miraculously expressive atonal works (Erwartung in particular, but also the Gurre-Lieder) and never to any of Schoenberg’s actual dodecaphonic compositions, a de facto admission of the greater musical appeal and interest of the non-dodecaphonic scores. (This, however, could be attributable to Žižek’s assertion, pace Badiou, that atonality was the true “Event,” and dodecaphony the “fidelity” to the Event. 7) Nor does Žižek deal with the matter at hand of dodecaphony’s insistence of bestowal of existential equality on all twelve tones, save in one, intriguing footnote, which addresses the issue from a metaphorical slant (Žižek here uses the term “serialism” as interchangeable with “dodecaphony): The problem of serialism, of the equality of all variations and the hidden focus of the entire matrix, can be illustrated through a stupid incident that happened in a Slovenian hippy commune at the end of the 1960s, at the high point of the sexual revolution. A ‘coordinator’ of the commune (its de facto master, although masters were prohibited) proposed that, in order to break out of the bourgeois individualism in matters of sex, a complex matrix for varying sexual partners should be introduced, so that, over a specified period of time, every man in the group would have sex with every woman. The group soon discovered that the coordinator had proposed this complex matrix for one purpose only: he wanted to sleep with a particular young woman who was the partner of another commune member, and the matrix appealed to him as the only way to do so without admitting his individual preference and possessive desire. 8

The relationship to dodecaphony here is precise, provided we imagine the lovestruck coordinator in two different roles sequentially: first, a dodecaphonic composer, and, at the end, a listener to that composer’s music. The composer arranges the rows of twelve tones in the matrix familiar to serialists, and carefully makes certain that no single tone will dominate the others, that no two will relate as possible tonal connections; in short, that absolute disconnection between all twelve will serve as the piece’s sonic foundation. Then the listener, hearing the piece, searches frantically for the “particular young woman,” for one tone that will throw the others into relief and make the piece take on a shape that does not seem merely random. If the dodecaphonist has indeed accomplished what in theory dodecaphony is capable of doing—the treatment of pitched as absolutely discrete entities—then the listener will remain frustrated in this search. It is interesting that Žižek tosses his observation into the footnote pile, when the whole point and “problem” (Žižek’s word) of dodecaphony is contained within it: it defies human nature. Elsewhere and frequently, Žižek has asserted that “there is no such thing as nature.” But here he is making a salient case for its persistence.


Chapter 5

NOTES 1. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (New York/London: Verso, 2001), 41. 2. Alain Badiou, Five Lessons on Wagner (Verso Books, 2010), passim. 3. Alain Badiou, “A Musical Variant of the Metaphysics of the Subject,” Parrhesia, No. 2 (2007), 29–36. 4. Alain Badiou, Ethics, 73–74. 5. Slavoj Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, 2014, Verso Books, 168. 6. Quoted in Roy J. Guenther (1979). Varvara Dernova’s Garmoniia Skriabina: A Translation and Critical Commentary. Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University of America, 67. 7. Ibid. 171. 8. Ibid. 170, footnote.

Chapter Six

Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not)

When Schoenberg is discussed, the name Theodor Adorno is inescapable. Adorno, a serious composer as well as thinker, was Schoenberg’s most esteemed and most vocal supporter, to the extent of having pronounced twentieth-century music essentially a struggle between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, with the former a clear winner. Adorno’s thoughts on Schoenberg and serialism are spread among numerous books and articles, and reduce to two lines of argument: 1) that serialism is incapable of commodification, and is therefore truly artistic, as opposed to merely commercial, and 2) that serialism represents the necessary outcome of music history. As the second claim is closer to the concerns of this text, here is a pertinent passage from Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music. (Adorno uses the term “twelve-tone technique” instead of “dodecaphony/serialism.”) “[Twelve-tone technique] reveals the impossibility of achieving a formal articulation that truly remains at every instant equally near a midpoint,” Adorno writes. After the introduction of a row (or series) and the consequent playing out of secondary events as against this primary event, the organization of a mature twelve-tone piece: comes to resemble a structure of theme and ‘elaboration.’ And thus, conflict becomes inevitable. For it is obvious that the specific ‘characters’ of the resuscitated themes . . . do not emerge autonomously from twelve-tone technique; on the contrary, they are imposed by the ruthless will of the composer. Their relation is necessarily external, and this is inseparably bound up with the totality of the technique itself. . . . Twelve-tone technique arose out of the genuinely dialectical principle of variation. This principle postulated that insistence on what is ever the same and its sustained analysis in composition . . . results in what is ceaselessly new. Through variation, the musically posited— strictly speaking, the theme—transcends itself. However, by elevating the principle of variation to totality, as an absolute, twelve-tone technique abrogat41


Chapter 6 ed it in a final movement of the concept. Once variation becomes total, the impossibility of musical transcendence vanishes; once everything is equally absorbed in variation, a ‘theme’ no longer remains, and every musical phenomenon is indifferently determined as a permutation of the row; nothing at all is transformed in the universality of transformation. 1

Adorno sees the history of Western music as a movement toward complete formalism, and twelve-tone technique is its fulfillment, the “final movement of the concept” of motivic/thematic variation. A row, “transformed” into its various permutations, transforms nothing—indeed, the initial row is not, to the casual ear or even to most well-trained ears, distinguishable from its variations. There is no way to tell, for example, if the opening notes of a twelve-tone piece are the row or its retrograde, since later in the piece, when we hear the retrograde, it may very well actually be the row! Adorno sees this dislocation of syntax, this destruction of form via formalism, as a good thing, and promotes it ceaselessly. But he makes no specifically musical case for it, probably because the tenets of Critical Theory would not allow anything so metaphysical as the consideration of an art form’s “nature.” Rather, his support of twelve-tone is (as we have noted above) historical and social. If Western music is seen as the ever-increasing tendency toward formalism, then Adorno is of course right to view serialism as its ultimate expression. Likewise, if the commodification of an artwork means that the artwork is thus invalid, then the formal remoteness and even impenetrability of twelvetone (for what is more impenetrable than a form in which the salient element, the row, is not recognizable from its permutations?) make it the supreme musical art. But Adorno does nothing to support these premises. He doesn’t need to support them, because the intellectual climate of the day supplied all the validation they required. Once more, the confluence of nominalism and materialism had made legitimate the promotion of music without reference to the reality of music’s own nature—indeed, music has no “nature” at all in this view. It is not music-as-such that matters (or is even said to exist) after the Schoenberg faux-event, it is music-as-historical-process, and that historical process was, of course, strictly European. It was from this snugly Eurocentric vantage that Adorno infamously dismissed jazz: “Jazz is a commodity in the strict sense: its suitability for use permeates its production in terms none other than its marketability. . . . It is subordinate to the laws and also to the arbitrary nature of the market. . . . The function of jazz is thus to be understood as above all one which is relative to the upper class. . . . To it, jazz represents, somewhat like the evening clothes of the gentleman, the inexorability of the social authority which it itself is, but which is transfigured in jazz into something original and primitive, in ‘nature.’” 2

Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not)


Adorno’s intellectual calisthenics are breathtaking. He has transformed (or attempted to transform) an art that sprang from the lowest economic classes into an expression of upper-class Capitalist dalliance with the “primitive”—a word that ought to alert the reader as to Adorno’s feelings about the African-American origins of the genre. This means that he has confused jazz with its exploitation. It’s as if he had condemned soul food because white people began to eat it in expensive restaurants. Anything can be dismissed, given such easily assembled parameters: Marxism is tres chic among certain rich people—dump it; no good film directors can be said to exist among those who have had commercial successes, etc. One gets the feeling that Adorno had an agenda and that nothing contradictory of it would be allowed consideration. If he had had a more open sensibility, if he had been out to fill, not an agenda, but an appetite for ever-greater musical apprehension, Adorno might have found in jazz a new take on tonality; for, from its inception among African slaves as “misheard” European music, jazz had radicalized the Western interpretation of the overtone series. Yet it’s not even certain that Adorno heard much real jazz, as opposed to commercial rip-offs. He was especially upset by a 1926 hit called “Valencia” by the Caucasian-American “jazz” band director with the most ironic last name in music history: Paul Whiteman. Adorno returned to comment on it time and again, and yet it is mere popular frippery, unrelated to the work being done at the same time by the likes of Louis Armstrong. It’s as if someone complained about 1960s rock by focusing on “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. As discussed earlier, the overtone series presents the ear with a hierarchy, but one open to interpretation. It is this very plasticity of pitch hierarchy which, after establishing the first three pitch classes, offers the musician myriad choices. For example: Following the order of the series, the fourth step of the scale should be a sharped note, a tritone above the root, but Western musicians, over a period of hundreds of years and for reasons too complex to explore at this moment, chose instead to borrow the fourth step “from below” as Schoenberg put it, so the fourth step on a scale in C is Fnatural, where it could have been F-sharp. Likewise, the seventh step as it appears in harmonic-series order is really closer to a flatted seventh than a sharp one—in C, a B-flat rather than a B-natural. European tonality adopted the B-natural or leading tone because it conceived of the fifth step—the dominant—as anchoring a major triad. Is this description an admission that major-minor tonality is an artifice? Of course it is. But the point is that it is an artifice made from natural materials-at-hand; namely, the complex network of hierarchically interrelated pitches produced as overtones. Everything used by humans is artificial, but derivative from nature. Heidegger’s hammer is the thing-at-hand, but it exists at the end of a chain of other things-at-hand, from the wood and metal used to make it, to the trees and ore from which those are made; this is the network (which spreads also in the opposite


Chapter 6

direction of the hammer’s use) which for Heidegger gives the ontic a preontological signification. 3 Jazz manufactured its own tonal artifice from the natural resources of the overtone series. It preferred the flatted seventh to the sharp one, and interpolated the so-called “flatted” third from the high partial of the sharp ninth. The resulting sound was utterly different from Western tonality (second sense), though it was still tonal (first sense). If Adorno had focused on the musical significance of jazz, rather than its place in the market, he might have noticed the extraordinary blossoming of this new tonality, announced by saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker in the mid-1940s: I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it. . . . I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I would play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive. 4

What was this harmonic understanding? Parker’s discovery was simply that any single note he played could be made to fit into any number of conceivable harmonic schemes at the same time. This is not the same as fitting one note into a single harmonic plan; that is what standard tonality had always done. While multiple possibilities exist in tonality for each note, the note, once given its identity, retains that identity until such time as its identity is changed, through certain rules of modulation, to another identity in a different key. (For example, a D in the key of D is tonic and remains so until, perhaps, a key change makes it the dominant in the key of G, etc.) This was standard for jazz as it still was for most concert music. Within such context, rich and powerful music was made; however, as is the case with so many established modes of expression, the majority of its practitioners assumed that tonality as they practiced it was the horizon for all music. Parker’s hated, ignored, and misunderstood playing challenged this by treating each note as fulfilling multiple tonal roles simultaneously. In a conception that was the exact inverse of dodecaphony, Parker, via his explorations with guitarist Biddy Fleet, played each note as infinitely relatable. Every note in a mature Parker solo relates to every other note throughout the spectrum of the twelve pitch classes. Bird had apparently not received Adorno’s memo that it was not merely possible, but desirable and even necessary, to recognize each of the twelve tones as a “note-in-itself.” For Parker, there was no such thing as a “note-in-itself.” A single note was at once tonic, dominant, subdominant, supertonic, Neapolitan second, chromatic lower-neighbor note, etc., all of which are terms relating that note to all other possible notes in myriad ways; and this instantaneous multiple identity, inextricably interlocked with the multiple identities of the other eleven in a

Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not)


vast tonal braid, presented the savvy player with a set of infinite note-to-note possibilities. Parker’s innovation formed the harmonic basis of what would come to be called bebop, or just bop. (Of course, bop, like all music, was defined not only by its harmonic-melodic methods but as well by elements metric, rhythmic, timbral, etc.) In standard tonality, called “functional tonality” in music-theory parlance, consonance is privileged over dissonance; dissonance exists only as a path to consonance. Dissonance is unrest, instability, and its raison d’être is resolution into consonance. But in the sort of expanded tonality pioneered by Parker, consonance is not privileged over dissonance. Because each note is treated as infinitely relatable, the relationship of one note to another is neither consonant nor dissonant, but both simultaneously. This is, again, the contrary of dodecaphony, which eliminates (or seeks to eliminate) pitch hierarchy and ends both dissonance and consonance because it has emerged from within the context of functional harmony. In Parker’s pantonality, he plays on the upper partials (“the higher intervals” in Parker’s quote, above); which is to say, he retains the fundamental qua fundamental but treats the upper partials, normally construed as dissonant and in need of resolution, as consonant “as a melody line.” Thus, the ear hears the notes as dissonant as regards the vertical element, or harmony, and consonant as regards the horizontals, or melody. This perspectival treatment of tonal elements, innovated by Parker, was taken to extremes by jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk, whom Leonard Bernstein rightly dubbed “a genius.” A number of factors made Parker’s insight possible, not the least of which was the artist’s very isolation from the European mainstream. Parker flourished at exactly the moment when serialism made its ascent to hegemony. Separated by race and class from European intelligentsia, the saxophonist was blessedly ignorant of Webern and company. For him, Western classical music was still Stravinsky, whom he idolized. (The scene in Clint Eastwood’s film about Parker, Bird, in which Parker approaches Stravinsky’s Beverly Hills mansion in the middle of the night in awed supplication, is accurate.) Working within a genre that was still untouched by Wagnerian ambiguity, entrenched in the assumption that major/minor tonality was the one and final horizon of music, Parker could fight to unseat that assumption and bring into reality a new horizon of infinite tonal relatedness. Two other, related factors are pertinent. For one, Parker and the bebop innovators that fought beside him or followed him, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, as well as Monk, were all hands-on, performing musicians. Neither Stravinsky nor Schoenberg performed regularly. Both men conducted their own music, but neither performed in public on an instrument, save for Stravinsky’s foray into touring as a pianist, an adventure for which he took piano lessons midlife and learned to play his own concerto. Stravinsky and Schoenberg composed music abstracted from the day-to-day

Chapter 6


realities of a performing musician’s life. This was not entirely new. Tellingly, Wagner was also not a performer beyond conducting his own music. Nietzsche’s accusation that Wagner lacked sufficient musical training was not just the philosopher’s pique; it contained more than a grain of truth. In some ways, the philosopher, who was a fairly accomplished pianist, was musically better trained than the composer. Neither Berlioz nor Tchaikovsky performed on any instrument at a level sufficient to give them solo careers. (Of course there were also virtuoso performer/composers during the period of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, including Camille SaintSaens, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, George Gershwin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Jan Sibelius chose to be a composer only after his career as a virtuoso violinist failed to launch.) This phenomenon of the non-performing musician originated in the nineteenth century. Composers from Beethoven and back into Western art-music history as far as it goes had all been performers of some kind. Nor did jazz in Parker’s time allow for “composers” separate from performers: the performing was the composing. Jazz was “the discovery of how to use improvisation to make music in which the individual and the collective took on a balanced, symbiotic relationship.” 5 This leads to the final point, namely, that Parker, as a jazz musician, improvised rather than wrote. It is, of course, possible after the fact to write down Parker’s solos and the solos of other jazz musicians. But the creation of jazz happens in the moment of playing the instrument. Jazz is made in a constant present, while traditional, notated classical music is made with linear deliberation, like prose. As a hands-on performing musician, Parker grappled with the materials of music on a daily basis. As an improviser, he was forced to think and rethink the language of his art with every performance. And as a musician devoted to “pure thought” (Crouch’s phrase), Parker would not settle for mere codification. He would not allow one improvisation on “Cherokee” to be like all his other improvisations on “Cherokee.” Each had to be a fresh penetration of the song’s potential. A divide presents itself: On the one side, an art made of sounds and labels—material and names; and on the other, the exploration of infinite relatedness suggested by the experience of the overtone series. Is it reasonable to call them both by the same name? Are a Parker solo and Cage’s 4’33’’ really examples of the same thing? Is it accurate to call them both “music”? NOTES 1. 2. 3. 4.

Theodor Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, 79–80. Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz,” in Essays on Music, 473–74. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 14:93. Quoted in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya (1955) edited by Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro, 354.

Hearing Tonality Anew (Or Not)


5. Stanley Crouch, Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, 2013 HarperCollins, 116.

Chapter Seven

Blooming, Buzzing Cohesion

Perhaps nothing better illustrates phenomenology’s claim that perception is the precondition of consciousness than the existence of the overtone series. The overtone series is part of any hearing subject’s situation in the world. Conscious awareness of the series is unnecessary to experiencing it; it is always already present. The body—in this case via the ear—feels its presence without any intellectual participation whatsoever. I say “feel” rather than “sense” because the overtone series is tucked into the seemingly single experience of the fundamental tone. One does not directly sense the overtones, so much as feel them as background to any encounter with pitched sound. In fact, one is never actually conscious of the overtones, except as they present in the form of different timbres, for a single pitched sound is experienced in a variety of colors, depending upon which overtones in the series are emphasized when it is produced. As Merleau-Ponty states it, one “start(s) from unified experience and from there acquire, in a secondary way, consciousness of a unifying activity when, taking up an analytical attitude, I break up perception into qualities and sensations, and when, in order to recapture on the basis of these the object into which I was in the first place blindly thrown, I am obliged to suppose an act of synthesis which is merely the counterpart of my analysis.” 1 The overtone series is always-already present, yet always concealed, and its concealment takes the form of timbre. It may seem to contradict the idea of a preset hierarchy to say that it is possible to emphasize one or another overtone in the series; to bring out, say, the fifth overtone in the series over the “stronger” third overtone. But this is precisely why a clarinet playing a certain single pitch—say A440—sounds different on a piano or a guitar or a kazoo. In each case, the instrument is vibrating the air at 440 cycles per second, but the timbre, or color, is strikingly different from instrument to instrument, so that the clarinet’s A440 and the 49


Chapter 7

guitar’s A440 will sound quite distinct from one another. (Most very young children, asked if a clarinet and a guitar are playing “the same note,” when both are, for instance, playing A440, will usually answer, “No.” Only a process of abstraction, available to the child as she grows, will eventually reveal that both clarinet and guitar are playing “the same note,” though something is lost when equivalence is made between “pitch” and “note,” the latter being better described in terms of its color, duration, dynamic level, mode of articulation, and relation to neighboring notes as well as its pitch. This primacy given to isolated pitches and their confusion with what constitutes “notes” was a major contributor to “Schoenberg’s error,” as outlined by Thomson.) When the guitar plays the A440, its particular mode of oscillation—a string of a certain kind, plucked by a finger or a plectrum, resonating in a chamber—brings out certain tones in the overtone series, emphasizing them over others. The clarinet, producing the same fundamental pitch, emphasizes a different set of overtones; the kazoo, still a different set, etc. Timbre in sound depends upon a kind of reordering of the hierarchy inherent in a fundamental pitch. This is not denial of the hierarchy, but its manipulation. The overtone series exhibits an already-present hierarchy which is then varied in order to create the “sound” of the guitar, the clarinet, etc. (Or, to put things in proper chronology, musicians experiment with the colors of different instruments, and later discover that these colors are produced because a reed vibrating the air, for example, “brings out” different pitches in the overtone series than does a guitar string, etc. Experience invariably precedes intellectual explanation.) Should hierarchy be denied outright, the result would necessarily be a sine wave, or a pitch artificially stripped of all its overtones. It is time to address this fact: sine tones, fundamental pitches lacking any overtones whatsoever, can be and have been produced via electronic means. It might seem that this overturns any case against dodecaphony based on the persistence of the overtone series. After all, if it is possible to produce sine tones and for humans to hear them as such, then a system in which each pitch is to be treated as a discrete entity, without implied relationship to any other pitch (save the positive relation of the composer’s placement of other notes in proximity to it), should be possible. But problems immediately arise here. First of all, it should be noted that it is only in such a circumstance that true dodecaphony can even be imagined. Only pitch sets that contain no overtones can potentially be heard as pitch sets that contain no overtones. And even this is dubious, since the sine tone has been artificially stripped of overtones which would ordinarily be present; in other words, it’s doubtful that a sine tone is heard as such, because it is likely that the human ear infers the overtones it has already spent years hearing. Of course, it might be theoretically possible to bring up a class of humans or other sentient beings who are never exposed to pitched sounds other than

Blooming, Buzzing Cohesion


sine tones. And in that case, it would be possible, perhaps, to organize pitches along the lines of twelve-tone rows and to develop a sonic art that did not frustrate the ears of its listeners. I say “possible” because this hypothesis demands proof in the form of an experiment. It is not enough to assume that humans are born without genetic inclination to hear pitched sound as dozens of generations of their ancestors have heard them; one needs proof. And an experiment designed to provide such proof, given the demands of its premises, is hard to conceive and unlikely to occur. Finally, it should be pointed out that in 1923, when Schoenberg formalized and presented the idea of dodecaphony, the ability to isolate pitch electronically and produce sine tones was still decades in the future. The anti-hierarchic idea of dodecaphony was birthed in the context of hierarchic tonality, using such overtone-rich traditional instruments as pianos and violins. Its validity or lack thereof should be judged in that context. The issue of hierarchy is essentially one of mental organization; there is no recognizable organization of anything without hierarchy. Psychologist and author Robert Kastenbaum, writing about the most famous phrase of William James, makes the point that this is true from birth: The neonate has been said to experience his or her new situation as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’ The man who said this was William James. . . . If we obey custom and quickly pass over this phrase we will have learned little from this exceptional thinker. Instead, we may ourselves be left in a state of blooming, buzzing confusion. Let’s examine the context in which James introduced the phrase. If you pick up James’ book and open to the following quote, you will see that he became so excited he launched into both italics AND caps: . . . the undeniable fact being that any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind. The law is that all things fuse that can fuse, and nothing separates except what must. . . . The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which come to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space. There is no other reason than this why the hand I touch and see coincides spatially with the hand I immediately feel. . . . You can now appreciate something that has eluded several generations of readers because James’ phrase was reproduced out of context. James was not really trying to persuade us that the neonate is driven to distraction by the stimulation he or she encounters. It’s just the opposite! The world that blooms and buzzes is reduced in the infant’s mind to a unified, global state. Global here is used in the sense of a scene that has few if any component parts, like a bubble or a marshmallow. The emphasis should be on ‘one great’ rather than on ‘blooming and buzzing.’ 2


Chapter 7

In other words, “I start from unified experience” and later “break up perception into qualities and sensations,” in Merleau-Ponty’s words. How does this apply to hearing pitched sound? “Pitch focus” is tantamount to the neonate’s first encounter with everything: We hear a single pitch (defined here as the perception of air vibrating periodically at a given frequency) as a unified object, which on later analysis can be broken into many components. To begin to ascertain the differences among the various presentations of the pitch—as sung by a man, as sung by a woman, as played on a flute or a guitar or a computer—is to start to prioritize certain aspects of that pitch. As described above, these differences are explainable in terms of emphases given certain overtones in the harmonic series. What is true of the pitch in its relation to various timbres is also true of pitch as it relates to its manipulation by musicians in compositions. We have seen that in the example of Charlie Parker, who showed it was possible to hear any pitch as related to any other in an infinity of hierarchical formulations. The composer uses the way he or she hears a single pitch and the overtones implied by it (including the possibility that the given pitch is itself an overtone from a fundamental “below” the given pitch) to build a note-by-note structure, whether this is an improvised solo or a symphony. As pitch cannot be experienced out of time, the duration of the pitch is also a factor in the note-to-note process, as is the timbre of the person or thing producing the pitch. This is what it means to compose music: to begin with the cohesion of initial pitch focus(es), break that cohesion into bits and reassemble the bits as a piece of music, note by note. Every piece of music is an ordered hierarchy, but it is one from among an infinite possibility of such hierarchies. Dodecaphony and its descendants represent the denial of this act, based on the assumption that it is possible to apprehend a sound-in-itself, separate and divided from those other possibilities. NOTES 1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, excerpted from Phenomenology of Perception (1945) in Basic Writings, Routledge (2004), 132. 2. Robert Kastenbaum (1979), Humans Developing. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 103–5.

Chapter Eight

The Undeniable Subject

In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a conference of intellectuals styled “the Grand Academy of Lagado” examines the idea of building houses from the roof down and believes it to be possible. Of course, one cannot build a house from the roof down. And one cannot make music that escapes the fact of hierarchical tonal relationships. 1 Does that mean that the music of middle-period Schoenberg, not to mention all of Webern, Boulez, etc., is worthless? No. It is possible, after all, to make art on faulty premises and still produce something of value. Opera owes its shape to the mistaken notion, adopted by Florentines in the sixteenth century, that ancient Greek drama had been sung throughout. The error does not render opera invalid. This non-relationship of theory to practice pertains even to science. For centuries, scientists operated on the conviction that Newtonian physics were the real thing, making great progress on what later turned out to be faulty premises. The point is not that theory should impinge on art (“You must write tonal music!”) but precisely its negation: theory must not impinge on art. Unlike Romanticism or Impressionism, which grew naturally from the works of various musical artists, dodecaphony, especially in the form of the integral serialism that developed from it, was imposed as dogma, as we have seen in the quote from Wendy Carlos. And while it is true that, even from within the confines of a dogmatically given theory, it is possible to produce art worthy of our attention, when the dogma is used to crush artists who refuse to adhere to its principles, it should be called out. In 1973 at Harvard University, Leonard Bernstein did exactly that. Leonard Bernstein, arguably the most important American-born classical musician of the twentieth century, suffered from his own myriad successes. He was at once “Broadway Lenny,” the composer of West Side Story; “Maestro Bernstein,” the Mahler champion; and America’s Music Headmas53


Chapter 8

ter, explaining Beethoven and jazz on television. The image of one role fought against the others. How can a mere explainer be a serious conductor? How can a classical musician write a hit musical? And, most relevant here, how can a man called “Broadway Lenny” be a serious anything? It may just be the latter image that keeps Bernstein’s aesthetics from gaining traction outside a relatively narrow slice of the musical world. For this was a fourth thing Bernstein did: think about music and the arts. Bernstein became intrigued with aesthetics as an undergraduate at Harvard University in the 1930s, and returned there in 1973 to deliver Harvard’s annual Charles Eliot Norton lectures on aesthetics, a series whose previous presenters had included T. S. Eliot, Igor Stravinsky, Jorge Luis Borges, and e. e. cummings. The subject of Bernstein’s six lectures, entitled The Unanswered Question (after Charles Ives’s composition), had been announced in Bernstein’s book, The Infinite Variety of Music (1966). Bernstein’s introductory essay to that volume is a remarkable document. 2 In five scant pages in the form of an open letter to “My Dear and Gentle Reader,” the author addresses the crisis in music that was at that precise moment approaching climax. Bernstein-the-composer had used twelve-tone rows in various non-serial contexts. They appear, for example, in the portrayal of angst in The Age of Anxiety; the depiction of ennui among the characters of Candide in the ensemble, “Quiet”; and in the notes of the fugal subject in “Cool” from West Side Story, when the Jets are trying to cool their jets in order to remain distant and aloof from the action. In other words, the twelvetone row for Bernstein is the very embodiment of crisis, specifically that of alienation. Bernstein’s conclusion in the essay is that the crisis in tonality was actually a throbbing symbol of the broader crisis in faith. Nietzsche proclaimed God to be dead in 1883, Bernstein points out, the very same year in which Wagner died. Coincidence? Bernstein thinks not. After sketching the descent from Schoenberg to the avant-garde that I outlined earlier, Bernstein asserts that there can be no such thing as antimusic. He does not say that music is better than anti-music, or that people shouldn’t write anti-music, he claims that anti-music cannot exist. Why? Because the ear hears pitched sound as belonging to a harmonic series, the ear automatically infers tonal relations even when the composer intends otherwise. To put it as succinctly possible, no note is an island, even when the composer wants it to be. Every pitch stands in relation to other pitches, and not because the composer says so, but because it cannot be otherwise to a hearing human. 3 The subject decides this, or rather, the subject’s auditory system decides this for her. All music is necessarily tonal, not in the sense of conforming to the specific rules of the Western system of tonality, but in the larger sense that every note will be heard as suggestive of some kind of pitch hierarchy, even if the composer doesn’t wish to suggest one. There are not and cannot be “notes in themselves,” nor can there be random notes. “We

The Undeniable Subject


cannot hear two isolated tones . . . without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them,” Bernstein says, not because our culture gives them a meaning, but because meaning is there in how we as humans hear pitched sound. This idea, which flies in the face of all modern thinking by asserting a kind of natural law is at work, will be greatly elaborated and linked to no less than the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky in Bernstein’s 1973 Harvard lectures: [T]his philosophical science called linguistics seems to have become our newest key to self-discovery. With each passing year it seems to substantiate ever more convincingly the hypothesis of innate grammatical competence (as Chomsky calls it), a genetically endowed language faculty which is universal. It is a human endowment; it proclaims the unique power of the human spirit. Well, so does music. 4

And so Bernstein is off and running on a series of six lectures, titled that make the case for a phonology, syntax, and semantics of music to parallel those categories in linguistics. 5 He begins by imagining an “early hominid” uttering the morpheme, “Ma,” which consists of an ictus (the initial consonant, “M”) followed by the gliding downward or upward of the ensuing vowel. This is how all languages work in their various ways: consonants as anchors, vowels as gliding (to one extent or another) interstices between them. The gliding produced, in Bernstein’s speculative history, the first pitched sounds. (One can sing only on vowels, not consonants.) From this, Bernstein goes on to speculate as to why certain pitch-relations from among the gliding vowels came to be favored, and others not. Unsurprisingly, his answer is the overtone series. This establishes the phonology of music. Bernstein next locates Chomsky in the Cartesian tradition of a two-substance universe, a universe in which “the physical theories of body must be supplemented by the postulation of another substance, called Mind” (p. 54). Chomsky employs “formal universals,” or “genetically inherited types of rule that operate on the most profound level in all languages.” Chomsky’s system “provides us with a new way of looking at the miraculous process by which we structure even the simplest sentences.” All well and good so far as verbal syntax goes, but what about musical syntax? Musical syntax, Bernstein explains by way of a description of the opening measures of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, is a complex theoretical endeavor that requires a great deal of musically technical background; however, it is explainable with minimal loss of content by comparison with verbal syntax. Think of a note as a letter, Bernstein says, and a scale as an alphabet. A group of notes comprising a motive become a morpheme, and a phrase a word, etc. But these seeming parallels are no more than illustrations. As we have seen, the major-minor system of tonal music has its own syntax, one ultimately explainable only in purely musical terms.


Chapter 8

Then comes the big leap. Bernstein even calls it The Big Leap. 6 It is the jump from syntactically organized phonemes to semantics—to meaning. If all we have are sounds organized in some way, then we have tonal music, atonal music, serial music, post-serial music, and the Cageian avant-garde all more or less on the same page. But meaning is the rub (another Bernstein phrase in this context). Again, Bernstein turns to Chomsky, and to transformational grammar. It is by metaphor that Chomsky’s linguistic theory makes meaning possible beyond simple signification. Bernstein uses the simple example of “Juliet is the sun,” which makes no literal sense, but achieves its meaning by fixing both A (Juliet) and B (the sun) in terms of a third, unspoken thing: in this case, radiance. Music works much in the same way, Bernstein argues, when notes—say group A and group B—relate to some third thing, such as rhythm or melodic gestures. Bernstein plays the opening measures of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, and comments: “[W]hen you think of the number of transformations taking place in the short space of those few bars of Brahms, it becomes almost incredible that all of them can be instantaneously perceived.” He points out as metaphors all transformations of intervals to their inverted forms—the opening descending minor third, for example, immediately becomes an ascending major sixth, its complement (the two together comprise an octave). It’s a thin stretch, and works only if one is willing to forget that notes have no literal referents (that descending third, for example, does not “mean” a girl or a star) and that Chomsky’s linguistic transformations all assume the signification carried by words. Juliet is a girl (A) and the sun a star (B), making the third element, radiance (X), common to both. But Bernstein’s musical transformations are all syntactic: interval A (the descending minor third) and interval B (the ascending major sixth) relate to X (the octave) only in an acoustic sense. They cannot relate otherwise, because a note is not a signifier. This is the basis of Stravinsky’s famous (or infamous) saying to the effect that music has no meaning: it does not, cannot, signify. Bernstein puts it simply: “[L]anguage . . . has a communicative function and an aesthetic function. Music has an aesthetic function only.” Even so, Bernstein wishes to attach the word “meaning” to music and give its aesthetic function a semantic—and therefore, in some sense, communicative—aspect. How to do that? Bernstein’s answer at length is to observe a parallel between the “surface structure” and “deep structure” central to Chomsky’s linguistics on the one hand, and on the other, the “prose” of music’s tonal language and the “poetry” made out of it in the form of compositions. For his major example he returns to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. In a move only Bernstein could make, it is performed in a “prose” version (as re-composed by Bernstein), and then as written by Mozart. Bernstein’s prosaic rewrite is a (deliberately) dreadful assemblage of gestures drawn from the everyday vocabulary of the major-minor system. They contain chunks of Mozart’s score

The Undeniable Subject


but without the transformations given them in the form of chromatic alterations, deletions, inversions, etc. (The examples cannot, of course, translate into verbal text, but they are available in the compact disc edition of the lectures.) These transformations are, essentially, manipulations of the affects subjects experience when confronted with pitched sound—the dissonances and consonances that Price insisted were purely conventional, but which the harmonic series and the ratios of its mathematical embodiment would strongly suggest are inherent in experience. Music’s meaning, Bernstein concludes, is metaphorical. This is possible only because of the harmonic series. Without its web of hierarchies and the relations they establish, there would exist no material with which to shape the metaphors—no vocabulary of affects that, in the hands of a great composer, can be assembled into a metaphor for experience. And that is essentially the metaphor at hand when we talk music-as-metaphor: phrase A and phrase B of a given piece may comprise a metaphor, but the X, the third thing to which they relate, is never anything outside the arena of music proper, never radiance or nobility or joyfulness or sorrow, though it may suggest emotions of these kinds, but always the same thing: experience itself. And yet it is always a different thing as well: the particular experience of the particular music being heard: Music has intrinsic meanings of its own, which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions or stories. These intrinsic musical meanings are generated by a constant stream of metaphors, all of which are forms of poetic transformations. . . . Consider the etymology of the word, “metaphor”: meta-, beyond: pherein, to carry—carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible, beyond the grossly semantic, to the self-contained Ding-an-sich of musical meaning. 7

One is certain, reading Bernstein’s introduction of the idea that music’s meaning is “the self-contained Ding-an-sich,” that Schopenhauer is “around the corner, or whistlin’ down the river.” Instead, Bernstein gives us Aristotle and Quintillian. It’s doubtful, given Bernstein’s erudition, that he did not recognize his statement as congruent with Schopenhauer’s famous view of music; it’s more reasonable to assume that he dodged the subject because it opened up too broad an area for discussion. We’ll take it up as best we can, in a following chapter. For now, it’s enough to notice the surprising words, “grossly semantic.” By this, it seems Bernstein means by this the standardissue meaning of meaning as referring to objects, and of course music cannot be “grossly semantic,” cannot go “outside” of itself to mean another thing: it means itself. Or, putting it another way, music doesn’t mean, it is meaning. (Roger Scruton, certainly the most musically knowledgeable of all living philosophers, would later say something very similar: “The musical experi-


Chapter 8

ence . . . is not merely perceptual. It is founded in metaphor, arising when unreal movement is heard in imaginary space.” 8) If meaning in music is a kind of self-referential metaphor, in what sense can it be said to constitute meaning? Meaning in the sense of understanding. The Aristotle Bernstein quotes is the famous observation about metaphors: “It is metaphor which most produces knowledge.” And here Aristotle cannot have meant the tired old subject-predicate form of adequation, since by definition metaphor goes beyond such signification. Rather, for “knowledge,” here read: “understanding” over and above mere representation. It resembles Scruton’s summation of Schopenhauer on music: “Schopenhauer tells us that the nonconceptual awareness we have of our own mental states is really an awareness of the will; he also tells us that the will is objectively presented to us without concepts in music.” 9 Representational concepts are not at issue here. Music is not the meaning of any concept, but the sonically embodied presence of the meaning of meaning itself, its “inner workings.” 10 Bernstein has opened up two lines of investigation. One is the Schopenhauerian view of absolute music (music without words or images) as both the noumenal and the phenomenal at once: a thing-in-itself knowable through experience, in apparent violation of post-Kantian restrictions on human knowledge. The second, which goes back to his observations in the introductory essay to the Infinite Variety of Music, is the reintroduction of the subject, where it had been tossed aside by recent music history. When Schoenberg asserted that notes could be related solely to each other, without reference to some guiding hierarchy, he had essentially claimed that the object (the note, or the piece of music) could be said to exist in and of itself, apart from our experience of it, because our experience of it would only introduce interpretation based on tonal (first sense) expectations. For the consistent postSchoenbergian, a subject (the listener) is there to observe the object (the notes-in-themselves) passively, bringing no affect to her experience of it (save as extra-musical layerings, such as the association of a certain piece of music with event X or Y); in fact, the ideal piece of music for true modernists is not heard at all. The title of a notorious essay by the integral serialist Milton Babbitt is a straightforward admission of this: “Who Cares if You Listen?” What Bernstein said was simply this: As soon as there is a subject, the “note-in-itself” cannot exist. It will be judged, related imaginatively to other potential notes (but not just any notes; notes of weight varying according to their places in the harmonic series), and made pregnant with the listener’s expectations. In a way, he was simply underscoring Babbitt’s point: If you want to engineer sounds that have no relation among each other save their temporal proximity, it’s best not to have those sounds heard, because the listening subject will relate them to one another, or at least attempt to relate them one to another, in spite of your desire. “Notes unrelated except to each other” translates as “Notes unrelated to any listening subject.”

The Undeniable Subject


NOTES 1. For a discussion of the impossibility of hearing non-hierarchic pitch relationships as cohesive, see Fred Lerdahl, “Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems,” in Generative Processes in Music, John A. Sloboda, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 251–59, and Robert Frances, “Recherches experimentales sur le perception des structures musicales,” Journal de Psychologie 45 (1954): 78–96. 2. Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music, Amadeus Press 2007, 9–13. 3. Roger Scruton echoed this when pointing out that listening to serial music resulted for most people in “hearing against the intellectual structure, and incorporating what we hear into tonal or quasi-tonal categories.” (The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997, 94.) 4. Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, p. 8. 5. Ibid., passim. 6. Ibid., 122. 7. Ibid., 139. 8. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997, 239. 9. Roger Scruton, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Oxford University Press 2004, 77. 10. Ibid., 76.

Chapter Nine

Locating the Thing-In-Itself

To follow our investigation into Schopenhauer’s view of music as the confluence of noumenon and phenomenon, we need to drill into Schopenhauer’s foundation in Kant, or more specifically, his disagreements with Kant. Fortunately, Schopenhauer, one of the clearest writers in all of mainstream philosophy, provides us with a compact-yet-accurate statement of Kant’s project, with which we can begin. Whereas philosophy until Kant took the view that certain principles stood outside experience—principles such as time, space, quantity, quality, cause and effect, etc.—and that these principles could be ascertained with the use of pure reason without reference to experience— Kant said these principles are mere forms of our intellect, laws, not of the existence of things, but of our idea of them; they are therefore valid merely for our apprehension of things, and hence they cannot extend beyond the possibility of experience, which according to the assumption, is what was aimed at; for the a priori nature of these forms of knowledge, since it can only rest on their subjective origin, is just what cuts us off forever from the knowledge of the nature of things in themselves, and confines us to a world of mere phenomena, so that we cannot know things as they may be in themselves. 1

Nonetheless, as the world remains a “riddle” and the job of philosophers is to answer or at least address said riddle, Kant attempts to find an answer not “in the world” (as the earlier philosophers did) but “outside the world in something we can only attain under the guidance of those forms of which we are conscious a priori.” This assertion, unproven and unsubstantiated, strikes Schopenhauer as a dead end, for so long as this is not proved, we have no grounds for shutting ourselves off, in the case of the most important and most difficult of all questions, from the 61


Chapter 9 richest of all sources of knowledge, inner and outer experience, in order to work only with empty forms. I therefore say that the solution of the riddle of the world must proceed from the understanding of the world itself; that thus the task of metaphysics is not to pass beyond the experience in which the world exists, but to understand it thoroughly, because outer and inner experience is at any rate the principal source of all knowledge; that therefore the solution of the riddle of the world is only possible through the proper connection of outer with inner experience, effected at the right point, and the combination thereby produced of these two very different sources of knowledge. 2 (Emphasis mine.)

The emphasized statement is so strong, so definitive, that it’s difficult to take it literally and, at the same time, accept that Schopenhauer was a Kantian at all. Either one asserts that, as Schopenhauer states in the first quote, “the a priori nature of these forms of knowledge . . . is just what cuts us off forever from the knowledge of the nature of things in themselves, and confines us to a world of mere phenomena,” which is the core of Kantianism, or it is possible to make “the proper connection” of outer with inner experience. It’s challenging to see how the two can be mutually accommodated. Frank Ankersmit describes this enormous difference between Kant and Schopenhauer as if it were almost incidental. The explanation is, however, accurate: (Schopenhauer’s) argument was that the human mind is Janus-faced: When it looks outside, it will perceive Kantian phenomenal reality, but when it looks inside, it will get an inkling of the noumenon. So the noumenon is not to be found somewhere behind the things of the world—which is, more or less, the picture suggested by Kant’s critical philosophy itself—but in our inner selves. 3

Even so, Schopenhauer’s epistemology can be characterized as Kantian in that phenomenon and noumenon remain separate, requiring a “proper connection.” One exception exists, however: Music. For Schopenhauer, music is at once the will and its representation. The thing represented is the thing itself. (W)e may regard the phenomenal world, or nature, and music as two different expressions of the same thing, which is therefore itself the only medium of their analogy, so that a knowledge of it is demanded in order to understand that analogy. Music, therefore, if regarded as an expression of the world, is in the highest degree a universal language, which is related indeed to the universality of concepts, much as they are related to the particular things. Its universality, however, is by no means that empty universality of abstraction, but quite of a different kind, and is united with thorough and distinct definiteness. . . . All possible efforts, excitements, and manifestations of will, all that goes on in the heart of man and that reason includes in the wide, negative concept of feeling, may be expressed by the infinite number of possible melodies, but always in

Locating the Thing-In-Itself


the universal, in the mere form, without the material, always according to the thing-in-itself, not the phenomenon, the inmost soul, as it were, of the phenomenon, without the body. This deep relation which music has to the true nature of all things also explains the fact that suitable music played to any scene, action, event, or surrounding seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears as the most accurate and distinct commentary upon it. . . . For, as we have said, music is distinguished from all the other arts by the fact that it is not a copy of the phenomenon, or, more accurately, the adequate objectivity of will, but is the direct copy of the will itself, and therefore exhibits itself as the metaphysical to everything physical in the world, and as the thing-in-itself to every phenomenon. We might, therefore, just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will. 4, 5 (Emphases mine.)

Music’s meaning is not something outside the music, in words or pictures or political associations; nor does the music “contain” or represent meaning. The music is its own meaning. In Bernstein’s view, which I find very close to Schopenhauer’s, it is a self-referring metaphor; the piece of music at hand is the particular chunk of experience to which it itself makes reference. Using Bernstein’s example of the opening four notes to Brahms’s Symphony No. 4: interval A (a descending minor third) and interval B (its complement, the ascending rising major sixth) refer to each other, but also to the third thing (X) which is the experience of them as such, against the background of the given hierarchy that is the harmonic series. (The harmonic series provides the always already present modality in which pitched sound invariably resides.) That is, the experience of the complementary phrases directly apprehends them as a re-ordered hierarchy, one derived from the harmonic series yet distant from the original, given order; this amounts to an experience of experience qua experience. The universal and the particular conflate, and are lost in each other. To apprehend a piece of music is to experience immanent objectivity through purely subjective means; that is, to apprehend music is to have knowledge of a thing-in-itself via experience in the shape of concepts. (By “music” I mean ordered, pitched sound apart from any words or images, and by “concept” I here mean the particular order of pitch and duration that makes up a specific piece of music.) This violates the critical philosopher’s postulate of an unbridgeable gap between subject and object, and if true, presents either a major exception to this supposed rule, or obviates it altogether. Music relates concepts (notes-as-related in abstraction) to particular things (notes themselves). A sonic vibration in itself is mere frequency—an ontic thing, a measurable phenomenon but not yet a mental object. A sonic vibration given focus and related to other frequencies becomes pitch, an ontologically informed mental object. These pitches, when notated, become notes, and the play of them one with the other, in varied hierarchies, is music. The concept of Brahms’s descending minor third, answered by a rising major


Chapter 9

sixth, is also the two pairs of intervals themselves; it is the notes and it is the relationship among them at the same time. They are the thought (the relationship) and yet, they have a physical body (the notes). This concept-cum-object process is creative; it is creativity for the music-maker and, to the extent that a listener can grasp the feeling of the concept of the music, it is creativity for the listener. In this way, too, it could be said that musical concepts are concrete rather than abstract, as composer Felix Mendelssohn noted: “People usually complain that music is so ambiguous, and what they are supposed to think when they hear it is so unclear, while words are understood by everyone. But for me it is exactly the opposite. . . . [W]hat the music I love expresses to me are thoughts not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite.” 6 Furthermore, Schopenhauer says, this represents “the true nature of all things.” The true nature of all things? How can such be known, post-Kant, when I cannot even know the “true nature” (the thing-in-itself) of a flower or a desk? Kant must have been mistaken in some way, as indeed Schopenhauer believed him to be. The last three sentences in the quote above go a step further, asserting necessary parallels between certain music and certain lifeevents: “[W]hen music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it.” Here, Schopenhauer holds the key to releasing us from Bernstein’s music-is-only-its-own-meaning trope: Music reveals real-world pleasures, pains, surprises, sorrows, triumphs, disappointments, ironies, loves, etc., because music is a sort of palimpsest of “the nature of things”: a mating of concepts with phenomena. By “palimpsest,” I do not mean “pale copy,” but emblem. This is another way of putting my statement above, that a piece of music is a metaphor “for itself”— that is, for the process that makes it that particular piece of music, a process that is parallel with “the nature of all things.” With music, concept and object are at once the same. With other acts, endeavors, encounters, and experiences of all sorts, there is, it would seem, a gap of some kind. But music offers a startling exception that assures the gap is far from unbridgeable. To Heidegger’s sharp and oft-reiterated complaint that philosophers before him had never dealt directly with the subject of Being, we offer Schopenhauer in evidence to the contrary. He dealt directly with the matter of Being, but called it “Music.” Following Schopenhauer (and to some degree, Bernstein), I make the following claim: A piece of music is a sonic experience that manages to be both a phenomenon and a knowable “thing-in-itself” at one and the same time. To achieve this, more is required than simple framing. It is not enough to say, “This stretch of sound is music because I so name/experience/think it so.” One must bring focus to pitch, and then “break up (that) perception into qualities

Locating the Thing-In-Itself


and sensations” (Merleau-Ponty), each of which is inherent in the initial, unified experience. Earlier, however, I claimed something like this: Dodecaphony fails because it tries to treat each of the twelve tones of the chromatic scale as a “thing-in-itself,” something that literally can’t be done, because a phenomenon (sound in this case) cannot be understood also to be a “thing-in-itself.” Have I slipped on the banana peel of metaphysics and written myself into contradiction? If I thought so, I would glumly but resolutely send the previous 24,000 words to the trash. Fortunately, I anticipated this seeming contradiction and am prepared to demonstrate that these two statements are actually quite complementary. No, more than that: They are the same statement, provided you understand that “thing-in-itself” in No. 1 has a meaning exactly opposite of “thing-in-itself” in No. 2. In the first instance, I have used the term “thing-in-itself” as Schopenhauer used it to refer to thought, or objectified “will.” In the second, I have used “thing-in-itself” in the Kantian sense to refer to a(n) (unknowable) object “out there.” The divide to which we earlier referred traces its origin to this fissure: Kant’s placing of the thing-initself in the world of objects beyond our direct apprehension, known only indirectly via the categories of experience; vs. Schopenhauer’s re-placement of the thing-in-itself where it had been in all the centuries prior to Kant: the subject. [A]fter describing the mere form of perception, (Kant) disposes of its content, all that is empirically apprehended, with the phrase, “it is given.” He does not ask how it comes about, whether with or without the understanding, but with a leap passes over to abstract thinking. . . . He does not say a word about what thinking is, what the concept is, what the relation of abstract and discursive to concrete and intuitive is, what the difference between the knowledge of man and that of the animal is, and what the faculty of reason is. But it was just this difference between abstract knowledge and knowledge of perception, entirely overlooked by Kant, which the ancient philosophers denoted by φαινομενα (phenomena) and νοουμενα (noumena). 7

Schopenhauer then describes the ways in which philosophers from Plato and Aristotle through the Scholastics had maintained this meaning of phenomena and noumena as contrasting sensory input with thought, as exampled, for instance, in the debate between the phenomena-leaning realists and the noumena-leaning nominalists. But Kant now, in an unwarrantable manner, entirely neglects the thing for the expression of which those words φαινομενα and νοουμενα had already been taken, (and) takes possession of the words, as if they were still unclaimed, in order to denote by them his things-in-themselves and his phenomena. 8


Chapter 9

The subject has been stripped of the noumena, which now reside as “thingsin-themselves” in an unknowable (except as phenomena) external world. Despite the usual description of Kant as a “subjectivist,” this separation of the subject from the thing-in-itself destroyed the traditional role of the subject as knower. From Parmenides on, it had been the task of subjects to send thoughts into the world of objects to find their mates. This adequation was understanding. With Kant in the standard reading, however, understanding is reduced to grasping how the categories allow us to apprehend externality, without truly knowing it. From this perspective, the outcome of Kant’s empirical realism is obvious: the external world reigns supreme precisely because it cannot be known; its “essence” is in objects we can experience only via the filter of our limited categories. The subject is powerless before the mysterious, unknowable Out There. Yet, if the subject is powerless, it is also completely in charge. For, while it cannot know what is truly Out There, something must be real, and so it manufactures its own version of reality. From this perspective, the Out There is powerless before the self-generating truth of the In Here. “Out There” and “In Here” battle for control, but the combat is not too serious. For the sake of practicality, when a question of truth regards the physical, we observe physical objectivity, designing aircraft, for example, along the lines of aerodynamic laws, never questioning our ability to apprehend and apply such laws. And when the physical world is not directly involved, the subject moves in, proclaiming that no laws govern the idea of what music is, or love is, or freedom, or justice, or beauty. Opinion sets up shop and stumps for votes. Recall Bernstein’s examination of dodecaphony. He did not say that one shouldn’t write music in which notes were unrelated to some explicit or implied tonal center. He observed that it was not possible to do so, given the nature of the hearing subject and the always already present harmonic series. No “ought” is involved here, only an empirically verifiable “is.” I wish to say that, similarly, Kant’s removal of the noumenal from the subject to the exterior thing-in-itself represents more than a misunderstanding of how Greek terms had traditionally been used; it represents the assertion of an impossibility. The subject cannot literally be stripped of its conceptualizing capacity, save for a handful of “categories.” The mind’s conceptual capacities are, like the harmonic series, always already present. The noumena persist in the subject, despite Kant’s effort to misplace them. Kant did grant, in the place of the subject’s fully empowered noumenal capacity, a limited number of categories. But, as Schopenhauer pointed out, these were unfounded in any preliminary understanding of just precisely what a “category” is. At times, Kant calls them “general concepts,” but without defining what a concept is or justifying why only a dozen should qualify as categories. Schopenhauer ended up rejecting the categories for these and other reasons. In essence, the Kantian categories function as filters, supplying no content of their own, but

Locating the Thing-In-Itself


only forms. It is the “objective” world, the “given” world, that supplies the content, according to Kant. But again, this is not possible. It is not possible for a subject to own concepts without content. If that were so, then the empirical world would simply pour in, the categories serving merely as floodgates, diverting the flow of this impression to quantity and that impression to quality, etc. And yet this is the apparent condition of the Kantian model: All content derives from the outer world; the subject merely organizes its form via categories. Kant did not prove this case; he merely asserted it as true. The Copernican revolution he forged was justly admired (by Schopenhauer, no less than by others) for affirming the constructivist nature of human experience. But Kant’s constructivism gave over all content to the external world, reserving mere form for the subjective world. This is relatable to our subject of tonality. As the listener to a piece of dodecaphonic music is frustrated by the composer’s attempt to avoid a hierarchy of pitch-relations, so a culture based on the idea that subject and object are forever, hopelessly separated, will struggle on, knowing that somehow they must be connected, but confused as to exactly how. Intellectuals will go one way, and the practical world the other, because to live in the actual world means adhering to what is the case, and the separation of subject from object is an untrue state of affairs. The two are intimately connected. This does not mean that subject and object are not different; the whole point of Schopenhauer’s criticism is that they are different in the way they present themselves. Everything is an object to a given subject (other than the subject itself). All humans—as well as, for many thinkers, all other animals and even (in Whitehead’s process philosophy) plants and minerals—are, depending on viewpoint, both object and subject. It means that subject and object are meant to connect in a certain ontological order, as the goddess told Parmenides: There is no thought (which is in the subject) “without something that is, to which it is betrothed.” Even Jacques Lacan, anti-philosopher though he may have been, acknowledged the centrality of mating subject to object, when he quoted Spinoza approvingly in his essay, “Presentation on Psychical Causality,” on the way to making a case for Max Jacob’s assertion (anticipating Badiou) that the truth is always new: “‘Idea vera debet cum suo ideato convenire. A true idea must’ (the emphasis falls on the word “must,” meaning this is its own necessity) ‘agree with its object.’” 9 This is a form of adequation, reviled in post-Kantian philosophy because it is the very thing made impossible by the Kantian turn as it is usually interpreted. Adequation—the act of mating thought to thing, of realizing them equivalent—was the job of philosophy from Plato’s Ideas to Spinoza and beyond. Schopenhauer’s assertion that the job of philosophy is the “proper connection of outer with inner experience” attempted to restate this meme within a Kantian frame. But if adequation was philosophy, and what is


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now called “philosophy” rejects adequation, we are left in the uncomfortable position of saying that, not only did Kant’s Copernican revolution end the old metaphysics, it ended philosophy itself. This view is the genesis of Analytic philosophy, which treats only a very narrow slice of experience, usually language, as matter for something like philosophical investigation. It is the view that pervades contemporary culture, in which Western philosophy is a single bottom shelf in a bookstore corner marked “Religion and Philosophy,” the remainder of which is given over to Buddhism, self-help, and New Age. But both the Analytics and the New Agers—not to mention the culture at large, albeit indirectly—base their conclusions on a certain reading of Kant, in which, not only is adequation of thought and thing ended, but the future is an ever-widening gap between mind and matter, “the bifurcation of nature,” as Whitehead put it. It took no less a thinker than Heidegger to explode this reading, and when his redirection of Kant is fully understood, it may just be that “Western philosophy” will regain its own section in bookstores. In a deep, extensive and astonishing reading of Kant, not to mention one that can only be called “creatively contradictory,” Heidegger pointed out the actual state of affairs: Kant did not actually end the old metaphysics, the thing Heidegger called “the ancient ontology.” To the contrary, he continued it. And yet, taken from a phenomenological perspective, he actually took a first step to destroy it. NOTES 1. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, trans. E. F. J. Payne, New York: Dover Publications (1969), 426–27. 2. Ibid., 427–28. 3. Frank Ankersmit, Meaning, Truth and Reference in Historical Representation, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (2012), 169. 4. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Project Gutenberg EBook 38427, 341–43. 5. Schopenhauer’s evident confusion over whether music is “not the phenomenon” or “the inmost soul of the phenomenon”—two opposing possibilities in the same sentence—points to the broader confusion in Schopenhauer’s philosophy regarding the material world, which at times is the illusory “veil of Maya,” but at others the trustworthy vehicle of phenomena. 6. Letter to Marc-André Souchay, in Felix Mendelssohn, Letters, ed. Giselle Seldon-Goth, Pantheon, 1945, 313–14. 7. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, trans. E. F. J. Payne, New York: Dover Publications (1969), 476–77. 8. Ibid., 477. 9. Jacques Lacan, trans. Bruce Fink, Ecrits, 1970, W.W. Norton, 125.

Chapter Ten

The Copernican Revolution (Or Not)

That what Heidegger called the “ancient ontology” of Being as mere ground for beings pervaded Western philosophy throughout its history until the nineteenth century is hardly to be denied, though in some other context I would make a case for major exceptions, especially in a certain reading of Plato and in the epistemology of Abelard’s conceptualism. The important point here is that while Heidegger found Kant to be bound up with metaphysics, he also found in Kant a gate through which one might pass it by. This gate consisted precisely in the rejection of the knowability of the “thing-in-itself,” where “thing-in-itself” refers to a being without Being, a “representation.” Briefly the problem is the following: How can understanding open up real principles about the possibility of things, i.e., how can the subject have in advance an understanding of the ontological constitution of the Being of a being? Kant sees this correlation, one which we formulate in a more basic and radical manner by saying: Beings are in no way accessible without an antecedent understanding of Being. This is to say that beings which encounter us must already be understood in advance in their ontological constitution. This understanding of the Being of beings, this synthetic knowledge a priori, is crucial for every experience of beings. This is the only possible meaning of Kant’s thesis, which is frequently misunderstood. 1

Heidegger goes on to point out that the misunderstanding generally revolves round the famous idea that Kant’s “Copernican revolution” reversed the mind’s reliance on objects, making objects reliant on the mind, just as Copernicus reversed the idea of the sun revolving around the earth, producing our current heliocentric model. But to Heidegger, this is a false reading. Kant’s real Copernican revolution was



Chapter 10 that ontic knowledge of beings must be guided in advance by ontological knowledge. Far from resolving the real beings into subjective representations, [Kant’s] Copernican revolution elucidates for the first time the possibility of access to objects themselves. 2

To Heidegger’s Kant, objects are no more dependent on mind than mind had previously been dependent on objects. Mind and object are mutually dependent on each other: a condition which in another context might simply be called “experience,” save that Kant’s whole stated point was to avoid experience-dependent knowledge. Heidegger’s conception of Kant’s synthetic a priori is no mere filter of categories, but an “understanding of the Being of beings.” This understanding must be innate (a priori), else it would rely on the merely ontic to contain ontological status, which would in turn suggest representationalism. The ontic represents nothing, is appearance-as-object, and because of this cannot contain its own ontological status without lapsing into the old metaphysics; therefore the understanding of Being is “antecedent”—a priori. But this understanding is also synthetic in that it finds its mate in the ontic, and without the ontic is impotent. Heidegger’s Kant is true to Kant’s insistence that the given world really does exist, but this given, external existence is no longer a self-contained realm of empirical realism. It is an ontic realm that is not self-contained, but waiting for the “antecedent understanding of the Being of beings” that only a subject can bring. This reconnects subject and object, reviving Parmenides’s adequation, but under new ownership. 3 The old adequation was made, subsequent to Parmenides and under the subsequent spell of Aristotleian metaphysics, into a delimiting factor that posited the given as itself, by itself. The subject’s job was merely to conform its mental constructs to the given. Few objected that the given was not itself, though Cratylus was certainly one, when he famously answered Heraclitus’s “You can’t step into the same river twice” with “Not even once.” In some sense, Kant’s whole project in the first critique was elaborating the necessary outcome of such a metaphysics. If things contain their own identity, then the subject, to know them even superficially, must apply the forms inherent to its knowing nature to the phenomena set forth by the thing-in-itself. That is all it can do. If the objective world is as it is on its own, then the correlation of subjective forms with the representation of objective content is all the knowledge we can ever achieve. (Speculative realism gets this right regarding Kant, though in its insistence on the existence of things-without-Being, it is closer to the traditional reading of Kant than its advocates may wish it to be.) For Heidegger, however, Kant goes well beyond this: The concept of the “thing in itself” and all the absurd problems related to it die away in the thoroughgoing critique and restriction of the realm of validity of the ancient concept of being and of the metaphysics which is determined by

The Copernican Revolution (Or Not)


this concept, from the ancients up to and beyond Kant. But it is precisely this that opens the way for an ontology of the extant as such. Kant himself frequently hesitated in interpreting if and how much it is absolutely necessary to proceed from the thing in itself. But this hesitation, which makes an unequivocal interpretation almost impossible, is based on the fact that Kant is still completely entangled in the webs of ancient ontology. By contrast Kant never hesitated in his view that the beings that encounter us are as such extant. 4

The categories are no mere mail slots for the delivery of data, but the stuff of ontological knowledge itself. The “beings that encounter us” are there, but— though an “unequivocal interpretation (is) almost impossible”—the “realm of the validity of the ancient concept of being” (the essence attached to their Being-less beings as “out there”) has been successfully restricted, and that is enough for Heidegger to baptize Kant a proto-phenomenologist. The synthetic a priori, understood from Heidegger’s perspective, is actually an a priori synthesis: it does not promote subjectivity, per se, but rather an immanent objectivity that is the contrary of Kant’s self-contained empirical realism. It is objectivity, because objects are accessed, and immanent, because they are accessed only by the guidance of a priori ontological knowledge. This knowledge is of something; that is, it must consist of more than mere categorical modalities. It must take the shape of something inborn or innate in the human being, as in Chomsky and Bernstein-via-Chomsky, or, for matter, Parmenides. This is a breathtaking reinterpretation of Kant that returns the noumenal firmly to the subject by renaming it “the understanding of Being.” To the noumenal realm, which resides in the subject as the understanding of the Being of beings “in advance of their ontological constitution,” belongs the a priori understanding of Being. To the phenomenal belongs the beings understood in their Being by the noumenal. This is not Kant in any standard interpretation, and it is doubtful even that it was Kant’s intended meaning. While Heidegger calls it “the only possible meaning of Kant’s thesis,” he does not mean that Kant meant it that way: he means that his (Heidegger’s) reading is the only way to make sense of Kant’s assemblage of ambiguities and contradictions, which, over many careful pages of explication, he elaborates. Heidegger mined Kant’s text until he came up with something congruent with his own understanding of the relationship of ontic (the given) to the ontological (understanding) that constitutes knowledge: “that ontic knowledge of beings must be guided in advance by ontological knowledge. For “ontic,” substitute “phenomenal,” and for “ontological,” substitute “noumenal,” and we see that Heidegger is re-positioning the noumenal in its traditional position in the subject, just as Schopenhauer had done, but with other language and within a vastly different framework. Heidegger’s understanding of the widespread misunderstanding of what Kant had to say—including, Heidegger seems to be saying, Kant’s own misunderstanding of what he had to say—has to do, in other words, with this


Chapter 10

very misplacement of the noumenal, used synonymously with “thing in itself” or “ens per se,” in the external world. The thing-in-itself is not “hidden” in the phenomenal, tucked away from the mind’s direct comprehension. The ontic is the given, but it has no ontological status until this is conferred upon it by Being, via the “Being there” (dasein) of the subject. In the old metaphysics, beings had some kind of ontological or noumenal status conferred upon them from inception. But the true home of the noumena is the subject, the bearer of “ontological knowledge,” in Heidegger’s words. The pre-Socratics knew this, and Heidegger knew that they knew it, but I believe it is a mistake to think that it evaporated with the coming of Socrates-Plato-Aristotle. Plato’s Ideas are generally seen as concepts corresponding to things, and yet one reads Plato with the impression that the correspondence is not passive, that the Ideas have an a priori status. It may be apt, and yet it seems uncomfortably easy, to lay blame at Aristotle’s feet for initiating the emigration of the noumena from the inner to the outer components of understanding; and surely “moderate realism” is a misnomer for Aristotle’s outright rejection of Plato’s realism, if by “Platonic realism” we mean the nearidealism of locating reality in the archetypes of the mind. (The entire history of philosophy, it seems, could use a sweeping of its confusing terminologies.) Plato’s metaphorical language may have made it seem to some as if by “Idea” he literally meant some perfect cup “existing” somewhere, as an ontic cup exists, but more likely not. Aristotle, on the other hand, makes it clear that for him essences are “in” things. If “essence” equals “thing-in-itself,” then Kant was, indeed, a crippled Aristotelian, asserting an unknowable objective world to mirror Aristotle’s knowable one. From this vantage, the “Copernican revolution” can be seen as having merely altered Aristotle’s categories, moving them from things to the mind. As categories are form, not content, the “real” remained outside, a set of givens coming pre-packed with their own metaphysical status, their own “essences,” which the subject could never know, but which was represented phenomenally. What was supposed to have been the Rationalist counter to an Empiricist claim, then, was actually capitulation to the priority of the “outer world.” The given—what Heidegger would later call the ontic—was its own, self-contained, and un-self-disclosing domain. Game-set-match, Hume. It isn’t that Kant was too subjective, which is the usual complaint, but that he was not subjective enough—nor was he objective enough. Removing the noumena from the subject and placing them “out there” indeed stranded the physical world in a strictly unknowable space, but this was not a subjective move, it was an anti-subjective and yet at the same time anti-objective move. When a subject is no more than empty forms, various arrays of tabula rasa, it is powerless to find adequation in the objective world: there is no connection between subject and object, or not at least a necessary one, and so the concepts “objective” and “subjective,” which depend on each other for meaning,

The Copernican Revolution (Or Not)


are robbed equally of significance. It is this, standard-issue interpretation of the CPR that leads to an “objective” world of empty things and a “subjective” one of empty forms, and to precisely ideas such as those that supported the decay of Western art music into mere sound-for-its-own-sake. Of course, none of this is true in Heidegger’s reading, which, after complaining (accurately, in my understanding) that Kant gives foursquare support to the “ancient ontology,” seeks to save Kant from himself and make it appear that Kant really believes that the subject confers upon its object the ontological status that Heidegger would have it confer. Heidegger all but admits this in the Introduction: “[A] phenomenological interpretation of the Critique is the only interpretation that fits Kant’s own intentions, even if these intentions are not clearly spelled out by him.” 5 (Emphasis mine.) In other words, as the history of philosophy turns on Kant, let us bring Kant into the phenomenological fold, the better to ensure its victory. There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, provided one sees it as what it is, and remembers that this is not how mainstream European intellectual history has understood Kant. In the war of ideas that is philosophy, all is fair. Heidegger’s interpretation prepares (after the fact) Kantian ground for the founding paragraph of phenomenology, written by Franz Brentano: Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional inexistence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves. 6 (Emphasis mine)

Once more, terms get slightly in the way. “Inexistence” caused some to think that Brentano meant the mental object lacked existence—an absurdity in the context of what he is saying, and doubly so in the light of the second use of the word hyphenated and modified by the word “intentional.” Rather, Brentano clearly meant by “inexistence” a dwelling within mind. Further, Brentano insists on referring to both external and mental entities as “phenomena,” when greater clarity would have been achieved by using, following Schopenhauer, “noumena” for mental entities. But the core is there, including the announcement of “immanent objectivity” as the epistemological fulcrum of the new thinking. Adequation is not ditched, but re-imagined in the context of a post-representational mode of experience.


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NOTES 1. Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly, Indiana University Press, 1997, 38. 2. Ibid., 38 3. I am aware that ascribing to Heidegger’s philosophy “adequation” in any form may be controversial, as it smacks of metaphysics, but I am attempting to make the point that nonrepresentational adequation is creative, not apodictic; that the “antecedent understanding of Being” is a transposed form of adequation that opens an infinite space. 4. Ibid., 69. 5. Ibid., 49. 6. Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, edited by Linda L. McAlister (London: Routledge, 1995), 88–89.

Chapter Eleven

Intentionality as Value

I earlier wrote this: “When Schoenberg asserted that notes could be related solely to each other, without reference to some guiding hierarchy, he had essentially claimed that the object (the note, or the piece of music) could be said to exist in and of itself, apart from our experience of it, because our experience of it would only introduce interpretation based on tonal . . . expectations.” Dodecaphony represented an offshoot of the mainstream of Kantian thought that was still very much “entangled in the webs of ancient ontology.” That it enjoyed a chic associated with the new thought of subjectivity rather than the old thought of faux-objectivity, has no bearing on the truth of this observation. Schoenberg’s explicit statement that notes could stand on their own, unconnected except in positive relation to each other, strands him firmly in the old metaphysics. It was tonality that had celebrated the multiplicity inherent in experience; tonality, in its ability to pierce a single tone and find within it unlimited possible hierarchies—unlimited possible meanings—that had somehow embodied the “new” thought before it even arrived. How is that possible, unless the idea, articulated by Schopenhauer as the truly noumenal’s relationship with the phenomenal, and by Heidegger as the guidance of our knowledge of beings by advance Ontological knowledge, already existed in some form? When we hear a pitched sound, we already have Ontological knowledge of the possibilities within that sound. We ground the being-note (the ontic set of periodic vibrations) in the Being of our advance knowledge of it. In this view, the view assumed by music-makers for centuries, a single pitch has no essence and represents nothing. To merely array a set of such pitches in an abstract “row” would not have occurred to anyone who understood that a pitch is not and cannot be a “thing in itself.” Rather, the single pitch spills over with multiple potentials of relationship to other 75


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pitched sounds, and musicians throughout history have recognized that fact by producing pieces of music. Did this blossoming of music occur quite without any intellectual support? Did it exist apart from and in defiance of the dominating “ancient ontology” that at any moment could have clamped down on its experientialist underpinnings to assert the “aloneness” of individual pitches, and which did, in fact, finally clamp down in the form of dodecaphony in the early twentieth century? Or were there ideas in western philosophy cognate with tonality, ideas that represented an alternative ontology to the ancient mistakes of essentialism and representation? It would seem the answer to the latter is in the affirmative, seeing as Brentano’s quote in the previous chapter refers to the “Scholastics of the Middle Ages” as having known of the “intentional . . . inexistence of an object,” meaning conceptual pre-knowledge corresponding to Heidegger’s advance Ontological knowledge, as opposed to the extensional ontic of the given. There is no opportunity here to research Scholasticism’s cultivation of intentional inexistence, so we shall have to take Brentano’s word for it. But the tantalizing eruption of conceptualism during the high Middle Ages does provide some prima facie demonstration of intentional inexistence’s early appearance. As opposed to realism, which placed the essence of objects inside those objects, and nominalism, which reduced adequation to the application of names to things sans any necessary correspondence of thoughts-tothings, conceptualism placed identity within the mind of the subject. Pierre Abelard, conceptualism’s most ardent champion, retained the notion of essence but made it a product of what ensues when subject encounters object. It belongs to the subject, and neither to the object nor to some social or other arbitrary agreement that this word signifies that object. Abelard rejected the idea that universals “exist,” assigning existence only to particulars. This is, of course, a move in the direction of nominalism, and it is on this account that some commentators call Abelard an early nominalist, or forerunner of nominalism. They regard conceptualism merely as a “bridge” between realism and nominalism, or, worse yet, an “intermediate position.” Of course, there can be no intermediate position between the belief that objects contain their own essences and the belief that they do not. What would that be? That they sometimes do? Conceptualism was rather an attempt to place universals in their rightful home: the mind. Every once in a while, it seems, the noumenal roams, just as it roamed when Kant ripped it from consciousness and threw it to the world of objects. Writing when Aristotelian realism was on the way in, Abelard took the time to destroy the notion of universals in things (Aristotle’s position), and, as Schopenhauer would have to do centuries later with Kant, return the universal, AKA the noumenon, to its home in consciousness:

Intentionality as Value


[N]ow that we have shown the reason why things taken neither singly nor collectively can be called “universals” insofar as they are predicated of several, it remains to ascribe this kind of universality only to words. 1

By “only to words,” Abelard clearly means “only to words as concepts.” The reader who will jump at this quote as evidence of Abelard’s nominalism forgets that nominalism rejects universals altogether, while Abelard clearly ascribes “universality only to words.” Note that this reads “only to words” and not “to only words.” The effort to make Abelard a nominalist extends to outright distortion of what he had to say. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Abelard claims he said that universals were “mere words” and “nothing but words.” In truth, he never used such belittling modifiers as “mere” or “nothing but.” If Abelard is moving the universal from object to word, he must by that mean word-as-concept. Elsewhere, he makes this clear by writing that by “words” he means sermones—words in their function of conveying meaning—and not the flatus vocis of Roscelin, his nominalist-inclining teacher. 2 Furthermore, Luisa Valente, writing in La Sapienza, refers to Abelard’s use of the term intellectualis locutio (intellectual expression) as the true function of words, 3 giving words an ontological role far beyond “mere” and “nothing but.” Valente also traces the idea of the intellect containing “inner words”—that is, concepts that presage external words—back to Augustine, who in turn derived it from an understanding of Plato. “Inner words” are concepts, or, if you will, universals. And of course we have our quote from Parmenides, posited by Heidegger as a keystone. So the idea has always been there—lurking in the middle distance, perhaps, but present—until it was essentially wiped out by the attack on it over the two centuries we most associate with the development of modernism, the seventeenth and eighteenth. John E. Drabinski had the traditional, non-phenomenological Kant in mind when he summarized the arc of ideas from Descartes to Kant thusly: In Kant, with his distinction between the world of appearance (as knowable) and the world of the noumena (as unknowable), one sees the bifurcation of experience, operative in the modern age since Descartes, taken to its logical conclusion. 4

The sweepingly central philosophical seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were purportedly the great struggle between rationalism and empiricism. But in fact, both rationalists and empiricists took as their starting point the bifurcated nature of Descartes’s two-substance world, in one form or another, and their engagement therefore constituted something more akin to variations on a theme than a clash of visions. Descartes said (paraphrasing and condensing), “Extended substance and unextended substance cannot meet” (nobody took his pineal gland thing seriously). Hume then said, “Yes, you’re right,


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and therefore we cannot know for certain that causation is real or how to follow an ‘is’ with an ‘ought.’” And Kant said, “While we can’t really know anything about the external world (save that it exists—Kant was always clear on that point), we can know how we know its appearances.” Descartes, Hume, and Kant all pursued apodictic truth, where “apodictic” refers to truth outside experience, without considering the possibility that truth is not apodictic, but experiential. 5 Kant merely brought this discussion to a head: he was a sunset mistaken for a dawn, to paraphrase what Debussy said of Wagner. Heidegger alone tried to place Kant’s sun in the East instead of the West, pulling out of close-to-nowhere a Kant who was the unrecognized harbinger of phenomenology. But in truth, down to the present time, Kant’s philosophy, as read in mainstream academia, stands for the eternal and hopeless separation of mind from matter instituted by Descartes, shaped by the empiricists, and given its final formulation by Kant. (Some Rationalists did put up a fight. The statement that served as Spinoza’s metaphysical umbrella—“It is the nature of Reason to regard things as necessary, not as contingent”— imposes “Reason’s regard” on the world of things, connecting mind and matter in the proper ontological order. Spinoza’s Reason gives much more power to the subject than did Kant’s Categories.) Kant’s empirical realism has sometimes been conflated with phenomenology. They actually oppose each other. Kant never wavered from asserting the extant world, but neither did he waver from proclaiming it unknowable. An empirical realist of the Kantian stripe must, therefore, view the given world as representational. If she did not, then the claim to know that something exists would be tantamount to knowing something about that existing thing. Representation—hiding the “thing itself” somewhere underneath the phenomenal—is a shield that saves the empirical realist from the weird position of claiming to know something she cannot know. This contrasts with the phenomenologist, the immanent objectivist, for whom the experience of appearances (and of all sensual attributes) is the thing itself. Experience is the real, and therefore cannot be “not known.” The knowing (the experiencing of things, not apodictic claims about them) is the reality. This is a “knowing” in the sense of grasping a presence, and is both a truer subjectivism and a truer objectivism. Nothing is hidden, nothing is represented. There is no bifurcation of substance, only a division of functions. The subjective/noumenal/ ontological serves as penetrator while the objective/phenomenal/ontic is penetrated. The real is a pair of functions in an existential engagement that, unsurprisingly, resembles the sexual act. We are all, as conscious beings, ontological agents. It may not be possible to answer the question “What is Being?” but it might be possible to answer the question, “What is intentional inexistence?” If consciousness is a function, not an entity, as conclusively argued by William James, then the two-substance premise of Descartes is invalid, and

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the “in-existence” of things is, like the consciousness of which it is a part, a function. It should not be surprising if that function turns out to be survival, as in the emergence and maintenance of entities. Alfred North Whitehead, in his first attempt at formalizing his process philosophy, or “philosophy of organism,” drew on the Romantic poets for a conception of reality that elevated aesthetic judgment to epistemology. Value, key to aesthetic judgment, is the product of the function of the objects that are “inexistent” (though he does not use that word) in any subject. The summary paragraph of Whitehead’s chapter in this, “The Romantic Reaction,” in Science and the Modern World, is worth quoting at length: One all-pervasive fact, inherent in the very character of what is real is the transition of things, the passage one to another. This passage is not a mere linear procession of discrete entities. However we fix a determinate entity, there is always a narrower determination of something which is presupposed in our first choice. Also there is always a wider determination into which our first choice fades by transition beyond itself. The general aspect of nature is that of evolutionary expansiveness. These unities, which I call events, are the emergence into actuality of something. How are we to characterize the something which thus emerges? The name “event” given to such a unity, draws attention to the inherent transitoriness, combined with the actual unity. But this abstract word cannot be sufficient to characterize what the fact of the reality of an event is in itself. A moment’s thought shows us that no one idea can in itself be sufficient. For every idea which finds its significance in each event must represent something which contributes to what realisation is in itself. Thus no one word can be adequate. But conversely, nothing must be left out. Remembering the poetic rendering of our concrete experiences, we see at once that the element of value, of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event. . . . But there is no such thing as mere value. Value is the outcome of limitation. The definite finite entity is the selected mode which is the shaping of attainment; apart from such shaping into individual matter of fact there is no attainment. The mere fusion of all that there is would be the nonentity of indefiniteness. The salvation of reality is its obstinate, irreducible, matter-of-fact entities, which are limited to be no other than themselves. Neither science, nor art, nor creative action can tear itself away from obstinate, irreducible, limited facts. The endurance of things has its significance in the self-retention of that which imposes itself as a definite attainment for its own sake. That which endures is limited, obstructive, intolerant, infecting its environment with its own aspects. But it is not self-sufficient. The aspects of all things enter into its very nature. It is only itself as drawing together into its own limitation the larger whole in which it finds itself. Conversely it is only itself by lending its aspects to this same environment in which it finds itself. The problem of evolution is the development of enduring harmonies of enduring shapes of value, which merge into higher attainments


Chapter 11 of things beyond themselves. Aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realisation. 6

Once more, we return to the understanding that to perceive is to judge: value is fundamental to any true epistemology. The difference between mainstream Kantianism of the type associated with CPR (and we will deal presently and very briefly with the Kant of the third critique) and its opposite is simply this: for the CPR Kantian, subjects do not exist qua subjects. That is, for the classic Kant, subjects do not exist as entities engaged in “the attainment of value,” as Whitehead phrases it. They exist only as sets of categories whose sole purpose is comprehending an exterior world of objects, and, indeed, they fail even at that. For a subject to exist qua subject, it must emerge (for it is immanent in experience/process) and endure (because it is objective, and neither fantasy nor illusion) to become “a definite finite entity,” and to do this means engaging constantly with the ontic by way of imposing its intentions on the world of other objects— that is, by acting as an ontological agent, creating value. The world cannot be just anything, for it contains the given, and yet we shape it by judgment to suit our own vision; a pitched sound cannot be stripped of its tonal affinities, and yet we fashion infinite hierarchies from those affinities to make a range of different musics. It is the initial affinities that make the created hierarchies possible. Heidegger proclaims this very relationship when he writes, “The total domain of what is real can . . . be divided into two realms: things in nature and things of value—and the latter always contain the being of a natural thing as the basic stratum of their being.” 7 Heidegger’s statement refers to the example of a table, where the thing in nature is a spatial object of certain dimensions, and the thing of value is furniture of a certain purpose. This division of the real into complementary realms, and not any bifurcation of substance, defines adequation of the new stripe: the adequation of multiplicity. It is not that a truth matches subject to predicate, but that truths occur when the ontological agent establishes relationships between his/her intentional values and the ontic world of things in space/time. These relationships can be, are, infinite in their possibilities, but they cannot be just any relationship. The fact of the ontological agent’s a priori status forbids that. “For if science could not be sure in advance of the identity of its object in each case, it could not be what it is.” 8 There are possibly an infinite number of tree leaves, but a toothbrush, though ontically also an object in space, is not and cannot be a tree leaf. This is not the same as the old relationship of universal to particular, because “essence” is of no importance in the attainment of aesthetic realization. Universals—essences—were posited by way of minting definitions of objects. But in the essence-less adequations of multiplicity, all definitions are, for all practical purposes, ostensive; that is, “defining” something amounts to pointing to it in some way, exemplifying it; thus, the prima-

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cy of judgment over analysis. (In some other, much larger context, one might explore Saul Kripke’s famous work with personal pronouns as an investigation of this very notion. 9 ) The ontic-ontological relationship applies at the most mundane metaphysical levels of tree leaves and toothbrushes, but also at the most exalted levels of art and political thought, and in every case judgment creates infinite truths (values) from inescapably finite givens— “things in nature.” One could place that last sentence in Bernstein’s Harvard lectures without changing what Bernstein had to say: A musical work (a thing of value) always contains the being of a natural thing as the basic stratum of its being; that is, in the case of music, the harmonic series, prior to any possible musical judgment, is always present. Hume long ago diverted our attention by asking the wrong question about value, a question that followed from his Cartesian belief that consciousness and extended substance are separate. His question was: “How do we get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’?” The question assumes we already know what the “it” is in our “is”; it also places judgment—“ought”—somewhere out beyond our ken, instead of “interwoven in the texture of realisation.” Of course, the question is backwards. The actual, fundamental existential question is: “How do we get from ‘ought’ to ‘is’?” Providing answers to that question is the purpose of art. NOTES 1. Peter Abelard, “Glosses on Porphyry,” excerpted in Five Texts on the Medieval Problem of Universals: Porphyry, Boethius, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Ockham, trans. Paul Vincent Spade, Hackett Publishing (1994), 37. 2. John Marenbon, in The Cambridge Companion to Abelard, Cambridge University Press (2004), 34. 3. Luisa Valente, “Verbum Mentis—Vox Clamantis: The Notion of the Mental World in Twelfth-Century Theology, in La Sapienza, Università di Roma, 375–412. 4. John E. Drabinski, in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy Vol. VII, No. 3, 1993, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 228. 5. Phenomenologists sometimes use “apodictic” to refer to phenomenological encounters. I use it here strictly in the sense that the old metaphysics employs it: to mean truths that have necessary validity in the sense of inter-subjective facts, either as representation or as confirmed empirical reporting. 6. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge University Press (1953), 116–17. 7. Martin Heidegger, Ontology – The Hermeneutics of Facticity, trans. John van Buren, Indiana University Press (1999), 68. 8. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh, University of Chicago (2002), 26. 9. Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity, Harvard University Press (1980), passim.

Chapter Twelve

The Return of the Thing-In-Itself

Anecdote of the Jar I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill. It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill. The wilderness rose up to it, And sprawled around, no longer wild. The jar was round upon the ground And tall and of a port in air. It took dominion every where. The jar was gray and bare. It did not give of bird or bush, Like nothing else in Tennessee. 1 —Wallace Stevens

The wilderness is no longer wild, no longer slovenly, when the gray and bare jar-of-the-mind takes dominion “every where.” In immanent objectivism, the ontic sprawl is commanded to rise to the level of the Ontological, as in Stevens’s poem the wilderness “rose up to” the thing that served as subject, being “like nothing else in Tennessee.” All subjects are ontological agents like the jar, just as all subjects are in turn objects to other subjects, in the way that the jar is an object to the reader of Stevens’s poem; the difference is perspectival, not existential. As a perspectival difference only, subject and object can exist separately only abstractly, meaning that ontological agency does not equal the mere “transformation” of the ontic. There are not two different “things” here, the wilderness and the jar. There is one thing comprising the two in mutual reliance upon each other, as the pair of hydrogen 83


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atoms and one oxygen atom comprising water are not separate things, but parts of the same. Of course, it is possible to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, thus destroying water. It is not possible, on the other hand, to separate subject and object, save in the abstract, because subject/object is woven into the very fabric of what we generally call existence and Whitehead called “process” or “organism.” Philosophy addresses this from an anthropocentric position, which means that humans are considered necessary to the presence of a “subject,” but as Whitehead insisted (and as a growing number of young philosophers now insist), all entities are “subjects,” so considered: birds, fish, rocks, water, leaves, seeds, and dirt. Thus the pseudoquestion posed by school-children—”If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?”—can be seen as a trick question, the purpose of which is to make the following point: There is never “no one” there to hear (experience) it, because the vibrations such a fall sends out are felt in some sense (whether auditory or otherwise) by birds, fish, rocks, water, leaves, seeds, and dirt. Keeping this in mind, Stevens’s jar-mind is only one ontological agent among an infinite number of ontological agents in the described landscape. As humans, we insist we and only we are the jar. We are not, but perhaps it is best that, for the sake of continued discussion, we proceed as if we are. That at least narrows slightly what is already a vast and difficult field of discussion, and makes reaching a place of some limited understanding for humans-as-such a relatively attainable goal. (On the other hand, acting as if we are the sole beings-in-Being can lead to disastrous results. But that is a different conversation.) Stevens’s poem limns the action of ontological agency. Poetry itself—and by extension, each art, in its particular way—pushes ontological agency to its limits. The non-poet strolls and sees the shades of green on the trees beside the road, the sunlight catching each leaf differently, but the poet sees the shades of green on the trees beside the road, the sunlight catching each leaf differently so that the seeing and the thing are one; his means and method are the sounds and semantics of words. “But wait,” you object, “I thought you said that a thing and the seeing of it were already one, incapable of separation except by abstraction?” Yes, but we ordinary humans are constantly abstracting, mentally separating subject from object and ourselves from others. Our abstract “seeing” divides us from the thing seen; the whole is a realization never fully realized. The very point of poetry is to smack us back into reality by re-enforcing the concrete (i.e., the wholly engaged intermeshing of the thing of nature with the thing of value). This is the central theme of Simon Critchley’s Things Merely Are: Philosophy in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. Critchley opens his book with a set of twenty-one propositions about poetry. The sixth is this:

The Return of the Thing-In-Itself


The poetic act, the act of the mind, illumines the surface of things with imagination’s beam. This act is part of the thing and not about it. Through it, we detect what we might call the movement of the self in those things: plate, bread, wine, water, rock, tree, moon. In poetry, the makings of things are makings of the self. Poets are the chanting-hearted artificers of the world in which they sing and, singing, make. 2

The act of the poet, thus described, is precisely the act that Heidegger describes as bringing advance ontological knowledge to bear on our understanding of the ontic. The poet is not someone with skills substantially different from the ordinary person, but she uses them to forge a much stronger relationship of ontic to ontological than the non-poet. Critchley underlines this by calling the poetic act “the act of the mind,” an act common to all. We all discern one thing from another, illumining things with “the movement of the self” in those things. But the poet does this at the deepest levels of penetration. The movement of the self in our perception of the tree-lined street is, for most of us, a simple function that turns Heidegger’s “thing of nature” into a “thing of value.” A poet does not stop there. Somehow, a poet, at least a great one, manages to turn the thing of value back into a thing of nature, but now a thing of nature shot through with values we never saw before. Critchley quotes Stevens’s essay on aesthetics, Necessary Angels, to this effect: And having ceased to be metaphysicians, even though we have acquired something from them as from all men, and standing in the radiant and productive atmosphere, and examining first one detail of that world, one particular, and then another, as we find them by chance, and observing many things that seem to be poetry without any intervention on our part, as, for example, the blue sky, and noting, in any case, that the imagination never brings anything into the world but that, on the contrary, like the personality of the poet in the act of creating, it is no more than a process, and desiring with all the power of our desire not to write falsely, do we not begin to think of the possibility that poetry is only reality, after all, and that poetic truth is a factual truth, seen, it may be, by those whose range in the perception of fact—that is, whose sensibility—is greater than our own? 3

This is the true and only “thing-in-itself,” and it corresponds exactly to Schopenhauer’s description of music. A great symphonic composer or jazz improviser creates image-less, wordless music that presents to us an experience-in-itself (i.e., a thing-in-itself) completely without relying on any “meaning” of semantic reference outside itself. The only thing of nature with which the composer begins is pitched sound. But if he or she does not begin with that, it cannot reasonably be said that he or she has begun with, or will end with, anything resembling music, for as Heidegger made clear, things of value will “always contain the being of a natural thing as the basic stratum of


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their being.” This means that a thing purporting to be a thing of value, but lacking grounding in a thing of nature as its basic stratum, is not a thing of value. Which is to say, Cage’s 4’33” is not, and cannot be, a thing of value called a piece of music (though it may be other things of value, such as an experiment, or a joke), as its random, unpitched and durationless sounds lack any grounding in the thing of nature called the overtone series, which is that thing of nature in which things of value called music have their stratum of being, or, for that matter, in any other thing of nature. In a way, Heidegger’s “grounding in a thing of nature” is a retooling of natural law. So also, in this sense, Heidegger never fully left the Catholic church—as the large number of Heideggerian Catholics would similarly suggest. As uncomfortable as it may be for advocates of the avant-garde to accept, not just anything can have identity X. If Dasein as an ontological agent is to be taken seriously, it is the role of the artist to engage with things of nature in such a way as to make them more truly what they are. If, in the act of making a work of art, the artist attempts mere transformation, the artist fails. Yellow is not there to be transformed into blue, but to be made ever more yellow. A B-flat is not there to be transformed into something outside its nature, but to be made ever more itself, as Charlie Parker did by relating it to every other pitch by every possible means. The basis of art is in fact, and its goal is the production of new fact—“fact created in a fiction,” as Critchley puts it, commenting on Stevens’s quote above. 4 That does not mean, as I am sure many who object to this would say, that the artist is limited by this circumstance. To the contrary, the artist whose engagement with her materials is true to those materials, is not limited by them. The artist committed to the ontological engagement with the ontic is free in a radical sense to create a literally infinite number of works of art of every kind. But the artist who is untrue to the materials, who insists on ignoring the ontic, on pulling the thing of value “free” of its basis in a thing of nature, is limited in a severe sense: She is failing to make art. She may create an object, but if the object bears no connection to the ontic that forms the basis of that art—be that the way we see, or the way we hear, or the way we speak or think—then the object is not a work of art. The immediate objection to an argument of this line is almost always the same. The interlocutor, told that not just anything is art, will say something like, “Ah, so only pictures of things that ‘look like’ other things are visual art, and only simple little tunes are music.” This is like saying “There are unlimited odd numbers, but not just anything is an odd number” and being answered with, “Ah, so you think that only 1 and 3 are odd numbers.” Helen Frankenthaler’s explorations of the intersection of color and form did not reject the ontic, yet they are neither simple nor figurative. Yayoi Kusama’s installations start with our perception of light and end with that perception enriched, not denied.

The Return of the Thing-In-Itself


As for examples in music, our grounding subject, we will return to Cage’s 4’33,” which I assert to be an experiment or, better yet, a critical statement, that represents the end of the line for the movement of chromaticism into dodecaphony into music-as-sound. This leads us to another Hegelian triad. Cage’s aesthetic exposes the deadlock that forms the new thesis: Any sound framed as music is music. But this forces us to ask: Which sounds are frameable? All sounds? As a composer, I must choose sounds for the framing. But, which ones? Music-as-sound privileges no sound over any another (a framing device does nothing to change the actual sounds encountered) and so my field of choices becomes a formless chaos—wilderness without a jar. What will constitute my jar in this new wilderness? (It is notable that Stevens’s metaphor does not constitute a frame around the wilderness, but a defining center, not unlike the tonic note of a scale.) The answer to this, and the antithesis embedded in the chaos, is to focus on sound-as-such and listen for answers. The piece that provided a specific answer to Cage, the piece that constituted the antithesis of 4’33,” was Terry Riley’s In C (1964). A set of fifty-three gestures that focus on the note C, the C major chord derived from it, and, eventually, other notes related (some tangentially) to C, In C is not “in C,” as in “in C major” in the old system of major/minor scales. It is a meditation in C—the hearer gets inside the note C (which is always present) to experience it fully. Of course, being “in C” actually means bringing all of our attention, our focus, all the mental we can gather to illumine this phenomenon. It was Riley’s work—one weirdly both harmonically neutral and massively dissonant at the same time—that sparked the turn to Minimalism in the 1960s. Suddenly, serialism was gone, and an insistent repetition took the place of the enforced lack-of-repetition that had preceded it. It would require a thorough history of musical Minimalism to understand that movement’s genesis and progression into maturity, but for here, suffice it to say it was the new synthesis from the thesis of Cage’s music-as-reducible-to-sound and the anti-thesis of Riley’s sound-as-containing-music. Minimalism took on very different styles in America, where Philip Glass’s repetitions utilized phasing, and Europe, where Arvo Pärt combed out the matted hair of liturgical choral music and straightened it into sonorous meditation. 5 With this turn, what value has been added to the presence of music-assound to make it music-as-music? That is not really the matter, for the matter at hand is: the presence of value has been admitted, not “added”; the defining feature of the piece of music is no longer a mere frame imposed, but value uncovered. The subject-as-such has been acknowledged, and with that acknowledgement, the art-work’s status as a thing-of-value is once more comprehended. Which value or what kind is up to the subject, in its noumenal capacity. Pärt’s value and Glass’s value and Riley’s value are all different, and in turn each composer is different to the ears of every subject who hears their music. Their success as composers depends on the degree to which the


Chapter 12

things-of-value they create reveal the thing-of-nature on which they draw— pitched, durational sound—as itself. This is the foundation of all music criticism that is not mere opinion or political posturing. Both Heidegger, by positing “thing of value” as a kind of unconcealment of “thing of nature,” and Whitehead, when he links value inextricably to realization, place axiology, and therefore the subject/Dasein, at the center of any true ontology. This does not make the external world in any sense random. The ontic exists as such, awaiting illumination by ontological agents— who are in turn ontic to other ontological agents. Reality comprises the unmeasurable totality of this interaction of multiplicities. Both object and subject, in their proper roles, are restored to their full power and capacity to fuse, and to “forever re-create each other.” 6 Kant of the mainstream-interpreted CPR, however, did not empower the subject; to the contrary, he weakened its ability to comprehend the objective world fully. As both Schopenhauer and Heidegger in their separate ways demonstrated, the traditional Kant of the categories castrated the subject, making it impotent to grasp the noumenal. It is difficult to understand, since Kant himself repeatedly stressed the impossibility of the subject’s knowing “real” things, how this came to be thought of as the empowerment of the subject. Once reality is asserted to comprise two substances—the extended and unextended substances of Descartes—the scene is set to keeping them forever separate. If mind is here and stuff is there, how can the two possibly ever meet? Pure reason was possible only before the bifurcation of nature into extended and unextended substances; given this bifurcation, its fall was inevitable. A correction, and a return to reason in the fullness of its power, lies in understanding, as William James demonstrated, that consciousness is not a substance separate from other substance(s), but a function of the one substance that makes up existence, and in the working-out of that understanding. Summarizing his chapter of Stevens’s aesthetics, Critchley writes: Poetry is like the light which illuminates objects in the world, it is the unseen condition for seeing, unseen until seen with the poet’s eyes and then seen anew. Like light, it adds nothing but itself. Close to the heat of that light, we can be said to live more intensely. 7 (Emphasis mine.)

When an art form is corrupted, its supporters talk of “transforming” nature, or of ignoring it altogether. This can take the form of state/corporate veneer over the natural (one thinks of socialist realism or “patriotic” art) or of various, seemingly progressive attempts to eliminate the acoustic or visual or conceptual foundations of an art (as we saw with dodecaphony). The thing of authentic value begins and ends in the thing of nature. Music begins in the fact of how we hear and leads us back to how we hear. The fictive begins and ends in fact.

The Return of the Thing-In-Itself


NOTES 1. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Vintage Books (1990), 76. 2. Simon Critchley, Things Merely Are, Routledge 2005, 10. 3. Quoted in Critchley, 50–51. 4. Ibid, 51. 5. This dialectic applies only within the progress of chromaticism/dodecaphony/sound-asmusic. Many composers worked outside the dominating ideology of serialism, developing highly chromatic, densely dissonant modes of music-making that simply ignored the Schoenberg faux-event. These composers did not appreciate the arrival of Minimalism as any sort of turn away from Serialism, though they themselves had never embraced Serialism. To the contrary, they judged Minimalism to be reactionary, or as Krystof Penderecki told this writer in a private conversation in Santa Fe, NM, in 1989, “Philip Glass is an insult.” 6. Leonard Bernstein’s final phrase in the text for his Symphony No. 3: Kaddish, a meditation on the relationship of God with humanity. 7. Critchley, Things Merely Are, Routledge 2005, 55.

Chapter Thirteen

Finite, Definite, Infinite

The relationship of thing-of-value to thing-of-nature forms a kind of adequation that is also a relationship of the Same to itself. This idea of an adequation freed from its relationship to subject-predicate language, yet definite in its ability to forge necessary connections, can provide insight into some of art’s most sublime moments. The poet who makes us see a tree as if for the first time, the painter who alters our way of comprehending figures against a ground, and the composer who brings the ear to attend on fresh relations of melody to harmony to rhythm, are all creating equivalence between a thing of nature (a mode of seeing, or thinking, or hearing) and a thing of value. Yet, while this adequation is created rather than observed, it is not and cannot be random. To illustrate this, consider one of the most striking confluences of music and film in the history of cinema: the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. 1 The music is the second movement of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major, Op. 100. We first hear this piece earlier in the film, played as the couple’s wedding processional, which would be unremarkable save that the piece has all the earmarks of a funeral march—it’s in a minor key (C minor), in a medium-tempo two-beat meter, and its melodic gestures are solemn. In part, this is simple foreshadowing of the doomed relationship, and rather obvious foreshadowing at that. But at the end, the relationship long in the past, we see Lyndon’s former wife and their son, who has engineered the couple’s demise; we see the wife sign the okay for a dispensation of money to Lyndon, and two things evidently come over her: grief, and a feeling of being trapped. And at the exact moment that we see the tears come to her eyes, we hear it: the subtlest of changes in the funeral march theme. Previously sounded in the cello, the theme now transfers to the piano and to a higher register, the better to emphasize the tiny but all-important alteration of the melody: what had been an A-flat becomes an A-natural. The technical 91


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description for this change would be: the melody, previously poised in the natural minor, is now in the melodic minor. That’s what the musician’s ear hears. The ear of the sensitive listener/viewer hears: a strange twist in the soul, a shift from solemnity to irony, the heartbreaking-yet-brittle acknowledgement of the inevitability of the tragedy that has befallen the lovers. A hardness and a finality have entered where once was suppleness and possibility. This is no arbitrary pairing of music and image. It is a careful act of feeling-adequation. Kubrick has found the perfect external aural manifestation of his character’s internal experience. It is a hermeneutic act, an interpretation, and as such it is one among an imaginably infinite range of choices. Kubrick, or some other director, might have found a similar moment in Haydn, perhaps, or Beethoven, or Salieri or Loewe or Mozart pere or Mozart fils or anyone else from the approximate era. (Schubert lived long after the action of Barry Lyndon takes place; Kubrick’s choice is just inside the limits that keep it from being unacceptably anachronistic.) But while a range of possible musical correlations exist that approach infinity, it must be emphasized that not just anything is a correlation. And it is not that the correlations are limited, but that some choices will not be correlations at all. There are, perhaps, an infinite or near-infinite number of choices of music correlative to the scene just described, but that doesn’t mean that Mozart’s Musical Joke would have worked just as well as the Schubert trio movement. No less than Ludwig Wittgenstein put it simply: “Feelings accompany our grasp of a piece of music as they accompany events in our life.” 2 And, just as the feelings that accompany the news of a loved one’s death are not the same as the feelings that accompany the news that one has won the lottery, feelings that accompany the various experiences of music are not interchangeable. Lest this seem an obvious point, it should be pointed out that anti-correlation is precisely what John Cage and his choreographer collaborator Merce Cunningham were about. Cage would compose music without sharing it with Cunningham, and Cunningham would create choreography that he did not show to Cage. The two would come together only when both sounds and steps were separately complete. This is the opposite of the feeling-adequation, yet it is just as teleological: While the purpose of the seeker after feeling-adequation is the correlation of music and image under the umbrella of common feeling, the purpose of the anti-correlationist is the separation of the material from affect, and specifically the erasure of any suggestion of adequation. And here the obvious question is: If adequation is nonsense, why go to such great lengths to escape it? I thought the whole point of Cage as the final horizon of modernism was to demonstrate that there was no such thing as necessary connections between notes or between sound and affect. Therefore, if connections are not “really” there, one should be able to do anything and the connections will still not be there. Why not

Finite, Definite, Infinite


work together and present a unified result, instead of going to the bother of undermining what isn’t there to begin with? One attempts escape from prison only if she believes she is in prison. Apparently, Cage and Cunningham feared the real presence of feeling-adequation sufficiently to construct safeguards against it. Of course, their out was that connections between musical or choreographic gestures and certain feelings were cultural accretions, and the purpose of their “purposeless play,” as Cage once called their work, was precisely to wash these away and leave the positive state of things: namely, material sounds and movement, and nothing more. It’s the “nothing more” that matters here, because if a viewer/auditor of a Cage/Cunningham work were to hear or see something more in these assemblages of material events than assemblages of material events, the artists will have failed. And here is where Bernstein’s point about such attempts at “anti-music” meets Schopenhauer’s point about Kant’s misreading of “noumena.” Just as Kant had placed the noumena inside things, stripping the subject of its connection to externality, Cage and Cunningham imposed the separation of artobject/affect within the art-object itself. We now see how the outline of modern musical history, the one that made the prescient Nietzsche abandon Wagner, grows effortlessly out of the outline of philosophical history. The common feature is the destruction of the subject, a fairly amusing conclusion to reach considering that the usual complaint against Kant and subsequent Kantian philosophies is that they are too “subjectivist.” But—and here is the pitch for which this lengthy windup has been preparation—it can’t be done. That is, neither thing can be done: The noumena cannot be excised from the mind and thrown to the world of things, though one may attempt to do so and convince others that it can be done. Neither can art-objects be produced that lack affect. The latter is not possible for the reason Bernstein pointed out: the listener (the subject) will necessarily search for the connections (the real noumena doing their job) and find affect of some sort, even if it is only frustration or ennui. The former cannot happen, because Kant’s misplacement was exactly that: a misplacement, an error. The noumena persist inside the subject and continue to inform the subject and to do what Parmenides and Spinoza and others said they do: search for the externalities of which they are mates. Adequation will not go away. Philosophy may decide to practice a kind of thinking that acts as if it can be dismissed, but said philosophy will be sidelined, marginalized and ignored in the worlds of science, love, art, and politics, because within those worlds, as within any world populated by humans, adequation continues. We have outlined a prominent example of what can happen to an art form when there is no relationship of the thing-of-value to the thing-of-nature; that is, when there is no adequation of the free-but-definite variety. In music, theories promulgated on the idea that it is possible to consider notes as related “only to each other” (which is just another way to express the place-


Chapter 13

ment of the noumena in the notes, not in the hearing of them; in the object, not in the subject’s apprehension) have torn what once was called “classical music” to shreds. Classical music used to occupy a place in the general culture. It is currently, however, beyond marginalized. Drenched as we are in constant background sound consisting mostly of short vocal works, it may not be obvious to the casual observer that music-qua-music is essentially dead in the current culture. The percentage of Americans who listen to music as itself (without the accompanying words of a song or the accompanying images of a film or video; in other words, classical music and jazz) is now around five. Music serves merely to accompany words, underscore images, and most of all, to situate classes of people. Someone who listens to metal is one sort of person, someone who listens to country is another, someone who listens to jazz still another, etc. Inevitably, the first question from the mouth of an interviewer on public radio when talking with a musician is, “What genre of music is this?” It’s never “What feeling is this meant to evoke?” or “What form does this music take?” or “What made you compose this and not something else?” 3 This is a misplacement of adequation: making connection, not between the experience of a work and its foundation in a thing of nature, but between a work and the demographic of its customer-base. Nothing could better summarize the superficiality of culture in late Capitalism. The domination of the subject-predicate form of adequation makes it seem as if the only possible choice is between it on the one hand and, on the other, a total lack of necessary connection. But this insistence depends for its force on the persistence of the “ancient ontology.” If beings are nested in Being, then the job of language is solely to make subject-predicate statements that connect things to their ground: old-fashioned apodictic adequation. Conservatism consists in accepting this, and the avant-garde consists in rejecting it, but they agree that this is the only possible choice, because both sides accept the old metaphysics as the only possible metaphysics. But if Being-There is an ontological agent for the unconcealment of ontic beings as ontological entities, if the experiential is infinite but definite—that is, finite only in needing to be itself—then truths are no longer subject-predicate adequations, but make up a field of infinitely possible connections. The “limitation” on these connections of having to be the Same is no limitation at all, but merely constitutes an insistence that connections actually be connections (that they be definite) and not random associations. The connection of Schubert’s trio movement to the scene in Barry Lyndon is an example. The accompanying music might have been many, many things (an infinite number, given the potential for writing any number of original cues to fit the scene) and still have been adequate to the scene. But it could not have been just anything (Mozart’s Musical Joke, for example), and still have illumined the feelings of the scene. “Like light, (the music Kubrick chose) adds nothing but itself.”

Finite, Definite, Infinite


The twelve-bar blues provides the perfect example of a definite form with infinite applications, and one which simply and directly demonstrates the concept of tonal affinities. The twelve-bar blues is an African-American song form that, true to its name, consists of twelve measures. These measures always exhibit the same chordal relationships, a harmonic progression known to every musician who has ever spent at least one night playing a working-class bar. The first four measures establish the tonic with a statement of the I chord, the chord founded on the tonic note of whatever key the musicians are playing in. Lyrically, these four measures carry the first of only two lines that typically make up the words of a blues song. That first line is then repeated, making up a second four-measure musical phrase, but this time the harmony moves briefly to the IV chord, based on the subdominant note of the scale. This is the “artificial fourth” of the Western scale, or as Schoenberg explained, the note borrowed “from below,” that is, from the previous key in the circle of fifths. For example, if we are playing our blues in the key of C, the IV chord, or subdominant, will be built on F, which, if it were tonic, would make C its dominant. The result is that the IV chord injects just enough ambiguity to make things interesting, but not distorted. “I heard what I thought was a I chord, but was that second chord really the IV of the I? Or was the first chord a V to the second chord’s I?” But the key is secured and all ambiguity dispersed with a return to the I chord at the end of the second four-bar phrase. With the last set of four measures, this tonal definiteness is still more clearly asserted. Lyrically, we are given the words that expose the real meaning of the first, repeated line. Parallel to this, the musical meaning is nailed down by a V7–IV–I cadence that leaves no doubt as to the key we are in. (The chords are slightly varied when musicians add notes; e.g., the I may be a I7 and the IV a IV7 or IV9. But the I–IV–V foundations are retained.) W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” is an archetypical example of the relationship between the words and music of a 12-bar blues. The words to the first verse are: I hate to see the evening sun go down. Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down. ‘Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round. 4

The first line, sung inside a I chord, makes a complaint about the sun going down. The line is then repeated to a IV chord that briefly takes us away from the security of the I chord, but returns us there, as if to warn that more is going on than an idle protest. And then the zinger from the singer: The singer hates to see the sunset because it reminds him of his mortality. The music for the last line pins down the key center with a finality that almost too perfectly fits the sentiment of those words. It is remarkable how many verbal sentiments are illumined by the emotional arc of the twelve-bar blues: a statement


Chapter 13

(measures one through four, on the I chord), a varied perspective on the statement (measures five through eight, on the IV and then the I chord), and a reveal (measures nine through twelve, on V7, IV and I). The point is that, as with Kubrick’s choice of those Schubert measures for the last tragic scene of Barry Lyndon, not just any music will do what the particular chord structure of the blues does. One imagines a twelve-tone version of the “St. Louis Blues” or a composition to its words based on random throws of the dice either with horror or hilarity, but not with serious approval. The choice of the right chords for a blues, or the choice of the right music for a film scene, must mean that the music already owns an ontological status prior to its application to words or images. Otherwise, how could a match be made— who could match a scene of tragic sobriety with tragically sober music, if one had no idea in advance what tragically sober music sounds like? If music were something of no particular character, if it were the flat, affectless collection of sounds that dominates the ideal universe of the strict dodecaphonist, then it would truly make no difference if the music accompanying the words of the “St. Louis Blues” were a melody crafted from a certain chord progression or “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.” This understanding reveals the fact that artistic values are both subjective and universal, which clears the way for a brief consideration of Kant’s final critique and some concluding thoughts. NOTES 1. Barry Lyndon, film directed by Stanley Kubrick (1975). 2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, MS 110 226: 25.6.1931. 3. I was once asked to share a “favorite” piece of music on a local radio show. I chose John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto. The interviewer seemed flummoxed at first, because the work did not fit any genre she could identify, and that meant she couldn’t identify me. After consulting the Internet, and finding that Corigliano is a vocal advocate for gay rights, she concluded that this must be “gay” music and assumed from this, wrongly, that I was gay. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) I declined to correct her, as she seemed so much more relaxed after having finally used the music to its “proper” end: situating its listener. 4. W. C. Handy, “St. Louis Blues,” song published in 1914.

Chapter Fourteen

An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies

If a given piece of music expresses affinities for certain other expressions of psychical states, as the blues fits the reluctant revelations in the last line of its form, and as the sudden change of mode at the end of the Schubert in Barry Lyndon fits the closing scene, then this affinity forms a kind of pre-verbal adequation in general. Music, without either words or images, must be able to convey an experience in and of itself, as a metaphor for . . . for what, exactly? Above, I called it a “self-referencing” metaphor and a “metaphor for experience.” I shall try here to be more exact. Value is the hierarchical arrangement of data according to judgment. When I see a face, I judge the eyes, nose, and mouth to be features that stand out from against the forehead and cheeks as against a ground of sorts. If I were to misjudge a face and blur the features against their ground, I would be unable to recognize what I am seeing as a specific face. This is exactly the case with the condition called prosopagnosia. People afflicted with prosopagnosia cannot see faces as such. They see something, but they lack the ability to organize what they are seeing into a whole. The condition has only recently been acknowledged to be relatively widespread (as many as one in fifty may be afflicted), so it is not possible yet to name its cause; however, in the broadest possible terms, it is accurate to describe those with prosopagnosia as having lost the ability to judge, to assemble from the visual data presented them a hierarchy that produces a whole. When it comes to facial recognition, they have no jar to place in Tennessee. Such a judgment, for those able to make it, is subjective, yet universal. In other words, facial recognition depends upon the perception of a subject in order to see a face, but in order for that subjective judgment to function as such, they must see a specific face and not a blur or just any face. This judgment is both subjective, as in depending on the subject, and universal, as in having every bit as much 97


Chapter 14

objective correlation to its object as one half of a mathematical equation to the other. Similarly, music is definite. That is, a musical experience contains a specific hierarchy of pitch and duration that must be judged to be itself in order to be understood as that piece of music. And, just as one person without prosopagnosia sees Jane’s face one way, while another person without prosopagnosia sees Jane’s face another way, and yet both see Jane’s face, so any two or three or five thousand people will hear a certain piece of music and experience it differently, yet all of them will hear the same piece of music, and, if they are not afflicted with the musical equivalent of prosopagnosia— which could be either actual tone-deafness or a less-easy-to-define insensitivity to music—they will agree on its general character. If the piece heard were, say, the end of that Schubert trio movement in Barry Lyndon, it would be heard as a solemn turn of events, tinged with finality, though which events and how they turn and what is final are matters of infinite possible fulfillment. Listeners will not hear it and link its sensibility to a brilliant sunrise or a hot sexual encounter, for those connections are objectively absent from the experience. If someone were to claim to hear such things in our Schubert example, they would simply be mistaken, in exactly the same way that someone who looks at an elephant and sees a horse is mistaken. The meaning of a piece of music is subjective—and therefore, infinitely variable—but it is also universal. It can be anything, as long as it’s not something it isn’t. “[W]e praise the Barber Adagio for Strings for its noble solemnity. The metaphor is not arbitrary, since it makes a connection with the moral life, which explains why we feel at home with the piece, and elevated by it. But it is a metaphor that stands to be justified. If this is a true indication of what the piece means, then it must be anchored in the structure and argument of the music.” 1 So writes Roger Scruton, who then proceeds to explain the correlation of Barber’s musical gestures with the meaning he has postulated. This explanation is only possible because “noble solemnity” is one verbal approximation of the piece’s feeling-state. There are others, but, say, “knee-slapping hilarity” would not be one of them. For any phenomenon, there are an infinite number of possible descriptions, but that doesn’t make all descriptions accurate. The correspondence of absolute music to extra-musical sensibility was strikingly demonstrated in Gyorgy Ligeti’s eighteen piano etudes, composed between 1985 and 2001 and among very few recent piano works to enter the mainstream repertoire. Each piece is a study in some demanding aspect of piano performance, but at the same time each bears a title, many of these programmatic, such as Vertige, which conveys in wholly musical terms the sense of falling, and Arc-en-ciel, which uses pianistic colors to paint a uniquely contemporary rainbow. 2 Ligeti is best known to the general public for the use of his music in three Stanley Kubrick films: 2001: A Space

An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies


Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. He was the only composer whose pre-composed music Kubrick used more than once, and I contend this is because Ligeti’s music was rare in being both contemporary and authentically expressive. Ligeti famously—and sometimes at the risk of losing the esteem of more powerful colleagues—eschewed the employment of systematic process in his music, especially that of integral serialism. Jonathan W. Bernard writes, quoting the composer along the way: Ligeti is known today as one of a relatively small number of composers who in the late 1950s sought viable alternatives to post-Webernian serialism, and it is no exaggeration to say that, nowadays, aside from a handful of undisputed masterpieces, much of what was written during the serialist era seems hopelessly dated, Ligeti’s music from about the same time sounds as fresh and original as ever. . . . Ligeti’s difficulties with serialism . . . can be succinctly summarized. He found problematic “the organization of all the musical elements”—that is, pitch, duration, timbre, dynamics, mode of attack—”within a unified plan” because he “detected within it a discrepancy: quantification applied equally within the various areas produced, from the point of view of our perception and understanding of musical processes, radically different results, so that there was no guarantee that a single basic order would produce analogous structures on the various levels of perception and understanding.” Unity, therefore, existed only on the level of verbal description, “clapped on the musical events from the outside.” . . . Pre-planning had become so important that it was the real compositional act. 3

This was in the 1950s, when integral serialism was at flood, the same moment when Cage took the principles of dodecaphony/serialism to their ultimate destiny. What Ligeti did was much more radical: he rejected those principles entirely. His music did not take part in the second of our Hegelian triads, but rather happened outside that historical line altogether. The root problem with integral serialism’s pre-planning, Ligeti said, was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with music’s medium of sound. Ligeti’s final pronouncement on the latter was succinct: “In working out a notional compositional structure the decisive factor is the extent to which it can make its effect directly on the sensory level of musical perception.” 4 To someone unfamiliar with the history of serialism, it might seem strange to hear a composer have to proclaim that “the sensory level of musical perception”—that is, the actual impact of musical sound on a listener—was music’s most important factor, but such was the condition of academic music theory in the 1950s. What is most interesting about Ligeti’s apostasy is the method he proposed as an alternative. Rather than “pre-plan” in terms of structure, Ligeti pre-planned only in the sense of envisioning (or en-audio-ing?—there is no auditory equivalent of this term) the composition in advance, and then allowing the working-out of the imagined piece to be realized according to principles after-the-fact.


Chapter 14 Ligeti has said that when he composes he always begins by imagining the way he wants a piece to sound, in great detail, from beginning to end; then he figures out how to produce that sound. This might seem to be excess at the opposite extreme, were it not that the act of writing the piece, for Ligeti invariably changes the original, imagined plan. This must mean that the imagined sound can only become audible if it is based on consistent principles. The inaudible structure does not justify the audible music, but without structure it will not be possible to know precisely what the music should sound like. 5 (Emphasis in the original.)

This precisely parallels the order of ontology—the advance knowledge of the subject—and its application to the ontic. Whereas serialism posited a selfsufficient ontic realm—the “reality” of empirical realism—this approach posits an infinite creative potential within the subject-as-ontological-agent that must, to be realized, find/create its “betrothed” in the ontic. The real, to be found, must be created. Creation is the creation of something that already exists in the subject as seed; the act of creativity is the realization of this seed, which, in order to become fully real, must be made to exist in the ontic as ontological. Unrealized, advance knowledge remains mere knowledge, as seed lies dormant when unplanted. Harkening back to Wallace Stevens’s observation that the poet’s art is that of the ordinary person taken to the deepest level, I would suggest that this is true also of the composer, and of any artist, for that matter. If, as subjects, we all contain advance ontological knowledge, the seeds of the ontological, the differences among us consist, largely, in our relative levels of ability to realize this knowledge in the creative act, whether said act is the making of an art work, the development of a scientific theory, a political engagement, or an act of love (to stick to Badiou’s four conditions). Note that Ligeti’s process, according to Bernard, had three components. Until now, we have been referring only to two: the a priori ontological knowledge and the ontic features which it illuminates. For Ligeti, there was an initial idea of how the piece would go (the interior audible), followed by a working-out according to principles of structure (the interior non-audible), followed by the creation of the actual music (the exterior audible, informed by the inaudible). I suggest that this triad is truer to the relationship of mindto-world than the dyad of concept/object. A concept is already an act, a decision made about something on the basis of something. It is, it would seem, the very thing created of which we have spoken. The seed, then, the true a priori ontological knowledge, must be pre-conceptual. But, what is this seed? The American Heidegerrean and Zen monk Jeffrey Maitland has made a case for finding it in a reading of Kant’s third critique. The Critique of Judgment tries to accomplish many things at once. . . . But what did Kant actually accomplish? At the conceptual level, he tried to tie

An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies


together theoretical and practical reason through the mediating function of judgment. Most have found this attempt incomplete, unconvincing, and, at best, an artificial exercise in architectonics. My suggestion, however, is that the place to look for the unity in Kant’s system is not in the mediating function of judgment’s a priori principle, but in the pre-conceptual origin of judgment—the transcendental imagination. 6

Maitland goes on to summarize Heidegger’s interpretation of the CPR, and concludes: According to Heidegger, when we ask about the essent as such, we are asking about the Being of the essent and this forces us to recognize that presupposed in the asking of the question is a prior comprehension of Being. Kant’s laying of the foundation of metaphysics points in the direction of this pre-conceptual comprehension of Being. 7

Maitland quotes Heidegger from Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is support of this: “The question of Being as a question of the possibility of the concept of Being arises from the pre-conceptual comprehension of Being.” 8 He then goes on to work out the idea of the transcendental imagination as central to Kant’s laying of a metaphysical foundation, an “ontology of appreciation,” even though Kant himself, as Maitland acknowledges, fought against the idea, weighed down as he was by the “ancient ontology.” The phenomenological reinterpretation of Kant by Heidegger and Heideggerians is surely key to rescuing Kant from standard-issue assumptions that the categories are to be taken as rigid gatekeepers of a given that, in and of itself, contains a noumenal realm which the subject cannot access, and it would seem that the “pre-conceptual comprehension of Being” is in turn key to this rescue operation, even though Kant “recoils” from it, to use Maitland’s phrase. This is the a priori outside of metaphysics, without which any metaphysics is impossible. This is the comprehension-in-advance without which the subject would not be able to recognize its mate. This is the seed in the act of conception. Maitland’s argument, too vast to include here in its entirety, makes a strong case for this. Yet, even when the pre-conceptual is understood to be necessary to the conceptual, we are left with the obvious question: what is this pre-conceptual thing? If the subject comes equipped with pre-conceptual, ontological understanding, precisely in what does such understanding consist? I suggest that music can serve to guide us in the search for an answer. To make music, whether ragas or symphonies or jazz solos or clan songs, is to create hierarchical relationships among pitched sounds of certain durations. Stevens’s jar upon a hill throws everything around it into relation with it, while the one buzzing, blooming confusion of the James/Kastenbaum neonate throws a concept like an umbrella over a chaos of multiplicities. Each imposes a


Chapter 14

single, directional hierarchy to the end of ordering the environment for the sake of comprehension. Music, however, conceived as an infinite potential of variations on the overtone series, offers a subtler and more varied hierarchy, in which the jar moves ceaselessly from spot to spot, and the neonate breaks down her “one” from each moment to the next, in order to reconstruct a new “one” over and over again. Music suggests that the impulse to create an infinite multiplicity of hierarchical relationships from nanosecond to nanosecond is the “prior comprehension” at the core of the ontological agent. It is possible to understand this spontaneous creation of hierarchical relationships by the pre-conceptual, feeling-based comprehension of the given as Heidegger’s Being at work on beings. And though Whitehead, to my knowledge, never used music as a model, this idea fits perfectly with his notion of the real compromising an infinite multiplicity of hierarchically arranged experiences, thin slices of time he calls “actual occasions,” or alternatively “actual entities,” made up of experiences created by the subject’s impulse to find hierarchical order prior to any imposition of “concepts.” It’s important to note that this most fundamental epistemological impulse is not abstract, but creative, and that all perception depends upon it. We have galloped over a rocky landscape, pausing now and then to post at the trot. It is time to slow things to a walk, look back over our shoulder and see where we’ve been. We have seen the essential erasure of an art form— music as music, without either words or images as partners—due to a misunderstanding on the part of Western art music’s pivotal figure of the early twentieth century, Arnold Schoenberg. Dodecaphony, Schoenberg’s declaration that all future music should be constructed of isolated pitches in solely positive relation to each other, according to a schematic that intended to avoid the experiential mode of tonal affinities put forth in the major-minor system of keys, led logically and at length to the randomization of pitch class, duration, and other musical elements, and, by way of frustrating the presence of inescapable tonal affinities in generations of listeners’ ears, led eventually to the essential disappearance of absolute music as a cultural force. Furthermore, dodecaphony’s seeming empowerment of the subject, who was now supposedly “free” of tonal affinities, masked its actual, opposite effect: the disempowerment of the subject. The subject was now cut off from the “thing in itself,” which was no longer the key center of a piece—a guiding principle, graspable by the ear, exampled in ratios of vibrational frequency and providing hierarchic relationships among pitches—but individual pitches themselves, not as themselves (for that would include the overtones that related them infinitely and necessarily to other pitches) but as abstractions, reified as things in themselves. Just as in mainstream Kantian philosophy, these things-in-themselves were unknowable except as purely empirical and value-neutral: “There are sounds.” The descent from Schoenberg to Cage is the musical playing-out of the old metaphysics.

An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies


Drawing on parallels made by Bernstein with Chomsky’s theory of innate grammar, however, we made the case that it is not possible to hear pitched sound as value-neutral, because that would require the elimination of the subject as such, resulting in no “hearing” of pitched sound at all. A subject invariably makes connections between the given of a pitch and the implications of its overtones, due to the subject’s mode of hearing. We went on to point out that this correspondence is reflected in a numerical correspondence as well, that of the ratios of a vibrating string to the hierarchy of pitch experienced by a subject. This implies an innate connection of subject to object, of necessary tonal affinities beyond the specific system of majorminor keys, affinities that obviate the main thrust of critical philosophy’s claim to the unknowability of the noumenal realm. We then looked at Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant’s misplacement of the noumenal in objects, and at Heidegger’s extraordinary re-imagining of Kant’s CPR from a phenomenological perspective, and found them cognate in their attempt to place advanced knowledge of a sort at the headwaters of experience. Whitehead’s theory of value’s role in realization can be read as another version of this general idea, where “aesthetic fulfillment” is initiated by the valuing subject. We then found elaborations on the idea of the a priori’s role in experience in other texts and in artistic examples including poetry and film. We found Brentano’s “immanent objectivity” to be the appropriate term for what amounts to setting the synthetic a priori on its head as the a priori synthetic: recognition of an object by the application of advance ontological knowledge to the ontic. Forced to summarize the epistemology that follows from the mind’s innate recognition of mental objects, it is tempting to write, “We already know everything. But we don’t know that we know it. Only experience can confirm that we do.” By “to know” is meant, then, two different, but intimately related things: 1) The dormant knowledge that waits within the mind, and 2) the awakened knowledge that follows from the marriage of that first knowledge to its external mate, as in Parmenides’s formulation. Thus, it is both possible and not possible to talk about knowledge existing apart from experience, depending on which “knowledge” we mean. This understanding can be viewed as the necessary epistemological parallel to Heidegger’s metaphysics of Being/beings. Within Being dwells the first, innate knowledge, which on encountering beings via Dasein lights them up, revealing them as they really are and letting us know them. Knowledge is first the light that brings ontological agency to the ontic; second, it is the knowledge of what was previously the “merely” ontic as what it truly is, unconcealed in the light of Being. This is the “immanent objectivity” of which Brentano wrote and which, I have attempted to show, finds a model in music. Music is an experience in which Dasein brings to a physical object (vibrating air) its pre-conceptual comprehension of Being (in this case, the intuition of relational hierarchies),


Chapter 14

unconcealing/allowing frequency to be what it really is: pitch. The metaphysical linchpin here is the correspondence of frequency to pitch, a tidy example of the ontological difference. Music is, then, a mental object, and not just the manufacture and perception of sound inside a frame. Alternately, we could say, “Music is the term for a set of mental objects that conform to certain behaviors.” In other words, it is a mental object that presents in “pieces of music”—in the individual acts of creativity that attend Dasein’s encounter with the overtone series. This is the hardest point to come to, and because of that, I need to repeat these sentences from earlier pages in this chapter: “The real, to be found, must be created. Creation is the creation of something that already exists in the subject as seed; the act of creativity is the realization of this seed, which, in order to become fully real, must be made to exist in the ontic as ontological. . . . [The] fundamental epistemological impulse is not abstract, but creative, and . . . all perception depends upon it.” The ontological difference then, is an act of creation-by-selection—of placing the jar in a certain position on that hill in Tennessee. Whitehead, more than Heidegger, makes this point, dividing experience into “stubborn fact” (roughly, the ontic) and “creative advance” (roughly, the ontological). 9 And for Whitehead each tiny slice of time, every nanosecond, is a different and unique product of this creativity, and not just works of art, which are highly specialized and rarified products of this basic universal impulse. Heidegger toward the end of his life more and more strongly emphasized the unveiling of “things as they really are,” intimating an unreality in the veiled and the re-veiled. But for Whitehead it might be said that there was not and could not be any such thing as unreality, as with every tiny moment the creative advance produced ever-newer realities, throwing stubborn fact into the past. Yet these two philosophers, who lived at the same time, wrote in different languages, and apparently never paid an iota of attention to each other, came to some surprisingly similar conclusions, the German by devoting his life to the careful reading of all Western philosophy, the Anglo-American by starting fresh with relatively little reference to that heritage. Having concluded that music is a mental object, we are left with the question, “What does it mean for a mental object to exist at all? What are mental objects?” We can be sure there is one thing they are not: Mental objects are not concepts in the traditional understanding; they are perceived, not abstracted. Just as we see a physical object—say, a tree—without stopping to abstract from the seeing of it that it adheres to the definition of a tree, so we encounter mental objects without thinking about them. Any conceptual thinking about them that does occur is after-the-fact. Indeed, all concepts, qua abstractions, are after the fact and knowable only at a remove. But mental objects as such are known prior to abstraction. It may seem strange to say that a term including the word “mental” is perceptual rather than concep-

An Infinite Multiplicity of Hierarchies


tual, but this is precisely the case with music, which is heard—perceived, felt, experienced—without reference to any conscious conceptual underpinnings in the sense that “concept” means abstraction. If, however, we were to shift the meaning of “concept” to refer to capabilities native to cognitive agents—as Michael Dummett has done 10—then it would make sense for us to use the word “concept” to refer to music, which might be defined as the capability of extrapolating from the facts of frequency and duration an experience over and above that of frequency and duration. This extrapolation (which is not an abstraction, but the employment of a thing-at-hand) is the ontological difference in Heidegger’s phrase, and “the attainment of value” in Whitehead’s. “Music,” then, is the term for a certain set of mental objects because these objects exist as something over and above their measurable vibrations, and this is in turn true because these vibrations exhibit an ontic hierarchy that translates into pitch and duration. Music exists as an experience because it is heard by a subject whose perception of the vibrations is shot through with (pre-conceptual) hierarchic associations that mate with the hierarchies of those vibrations. Given this model, is it possible to say of mental objects in general that they are valid only to the extent that they are based in ontic conditions? In other words, for a mental object to be said to really exist, must it have a material counterpart, as pitch has in frequency? This seems to be what Parmenides meant: “You cannot find thought without something that is.” Neither the ontic given (“something that is”) nor ontological agency (“thought” in the sense of Being’s potential for comprehension) are real by themselves. Only experience is actuality, which means that the mental object “freedom” is not just anything we choose to so name, but a certain experience rooted in particular ontic givens; that “love” is not just anything so named, but again, a specific experience rooted in corresponding ontic givens. To unroll the metaphysics of such relationships is a daunting prospect, to say the least, but again, this seems to be the root command of the founding document of Western philosophy, which Heidegger returns to again and again, Parmenides’s On Nature. Emmanuel Levinas was right when he said that Heidegger’s work was more a summation of the Western philosophical tradition than the destruction of said tradition he and some of his followers maintained it to be. It was a summation, however, that revealed a chasm separating two fundamental visions within that tradition. We began this text with a quote from Parmenides, and toward the end of What is Called Thinking?, Heidegger cites a related quote from Parmenides best translated as, “For it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” For Heidegger, this is “the basic theme of all Western-European thinking,” 11 which over the millennia has been submitted to a series of what he calls “variations.” The most recent lasting variation he


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ascribes, unsurprisingly, to Kant, with this quote from CPR: “The conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time the conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience.” 12 As Heidegger remarks, this is “radically different” from Parmenides’s meaning. Parmenides said that a thought and its correspondent being are the same thing in different modes—it can be thought, and it can be—which places experience (the “same”) at the center of any metaphysics. Kant’s variation, culminating the Enlightenment project, separates experience from the objects of experience and makes them both dependent on the same conditions—the categories. The whole point of the Parmenides quote had been that experience is thought and being at once. Now the Kantian variation, which might be called the founding thought of modernity/postmodernity, has divided them. Two visions emerge—both of them dyadic, yet in vivid contrast to each other—first from the modern, then from the ancient standpoint: a universe split into “objects” and “knowers,” the former knowable by the latter only via representation; and a universe made of “the duality of individual beings and Being” 13 in which the latter’s experience of the former is fully actual, and aesthetics are first philosophy. NOTES 1. Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2011, 105. 2. Gyorgy Ligeti, Etudes pour piano, in three volumes, published by Schott, 1985–2002. 3. Jonathan W. Bernard, “Inaudible Structures, Audible Music: Ligeti’s Problem, and His Solution,” in Music Analysis, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Oct., 1987), 208. 4. Ibid., 209. 5. Ibid, 233. 6. Jeffrey Maitland, “An Ontology of Appreciation: Kant’s Aesthetics and the Problem of Metaphysics,” in Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, Vol. 13, No. 1, January 1982, 45. 7. Ibid., 49. 8. Quoted in Maitland, 50. 9. See Thomas E. Hosinski, Stubborn Fact and Creative Advance: An Introduction to the Metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, Rowman & Littlefield, 1993. 10. Michael Dummett, The Seas of Language, Clarendon Press, 1996. 11. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, trans. by J. Glenn Gray, Harper & Row, 1968, 242. 12. Quoted in Heidegger, 243. 13. Ibid., 223.

Chapter Fifteen

Coda The Razor’s Edge of Ontology

It would seem there exists a kind of adequation between particular pieces of music and certain states of being. As we have seen, music exhibits valueorientation based on a given piece’s manipulation of the perceived inherent hierarchy that is the given nature of pitch. It is commonly understood that specific harmonic constructions produce certain general responses, as we saw most directly with our look at the structure of the twelve-bar blues. Underlying the responses is a web of pitch hierarchies that is the groundwork of all musics worldwide and throughout history, save dodecaphony. And, as we have seen, dodecaphony directly descended from the metaphysics separating subject from object, the “ancient ontology” that makes it (seemingly) possible to consider one pitch apart from the implications of other pitches. This eventually issued in the elimination of pitch altogether, which amounts to reversing the Ontological difference and returning pitch to mere ontic status as frequency. In a very real sense, though it was not conceived of in such a manner, the advent of dodecaphony was indeed the attempt to turn pitch back into frequency, to return to its hidden state what had been unhidden by centuries of Western tonality. If the current state of music is a measurement of this attempt, it has succeeded masterfully. As an independent art, music is disappearing from the Western world. Where once, the population-at-large listened to symphony orchestra broadcasts or to jazz in nightclubs, its relation to orchestral music is largely as an accompaniment to visuals in film and television, and its relation to jazz is via the wallpaper variant known as “smooth” jazz. For the greatest mass of people, music exists to support the lyrics of popular songs. The importance of words over music in songs was on 107


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the way in long before rap and hip-hop took things to their obvious conclusion and made words the primary element in contemporary vocals. Music in most current (2016) popular song conforms to the shape and rhythm of the lyrics; music is there to convey words more effectively. (There are, as usual, exceptions, such as Sting’s melody-driven songs.) This was not true in classic popular song, where the melodic and harmonic content were of sufficient substance that jazz artists did lengthy variations of a sort that are not done on most current songs, because their word-driven, beat-driven music doesn’t present the complex harmonic maps of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. This disappearance is aided by music magazines and arts sections of major newspapers that address artists’ personalities, the sociopolitical significance of their careers, the words to their songs, the production elements of their recordings, their wardrobes, and, once in a while, how the kind of music they make places them within a given genre or demographic (as when Metal is identified with Aryan supremacy). What is tragic beyond the fact that these publications do not address actual musical concerns such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and form, is that their writers are apparently unaware that they are not writing about music, since music for them is no more than a vehicle for words, politics, personalities, etc. In the few places where music continues to be heard as music, things are not significantly better. To judge from the half-dozen world premieres of symphonic works by young composers I have attended in the last few years, the newest generation of classical music composers seems to be in full reaction mode, determined to present audiences (along with the handful of rich business people who commission new work) with music so deftly featureless that listeners will believe they must have listened to something substantial, since, after all, the instruments formed chords for twenty minutes. Some variant of “at least it wasn’t modern” is the usual intermission comment. It’s as if the gods of programming declared there could only be two kinds of music: serial/aleatory on the one hand, and archly conservative “peaceful” music on the other. The only two uses for music in this view are either to upset people or put them to sleep. As of 2016, there are still new pieces being produced by an older generation of composers who were never lulled into thinking that experimentation necessitated either violating the facts of how we hear or eliminating music altogether. Estonian master Arvo Pärt pushes the edges of a bell-like minimalism until they blur into the very history of choral music. American innovator John Corigliano pairs pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart to test the way we hear pitch, or scores a symphony for wind band to test the expressive extremes of instruments usually considered secondary. There are others. But most of their successors write complacent music for tired ears. This complaint will seem contradictory to those who understood my criticism of dodecaphony as “conservative.” The great historical



tragedy of dodecaphony is not that it initiated an era of experimentation, but that it shut one down. Scores from the first two (pre-dodecaphonic) decades of the twentieth century by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ives, and Schoenberg himself are far more rich, interesting, and adventurous than the majority of work being produced now. In other words, having denied is ontic foundations, music of the present is slipping endlessly back into it. The art that Schopenhauer saw as bridging the noumenal and the phenomenal is now just any sound between a starting point and an ending point. But if we are right to see a necessary connection between the overtone series found in the ontic fact of frequency, and the universal musical element called pitch via an Ontological difference, then music is a mental object of a very definite sort, and not just sound occupying time and so named. This is not the same as defining music; this is looking at music as what it is. This is looking at the truth of music. “Not assertions, not sentences and not knowledge, but the beings [das Seiende) themselves,” 1 Heidegger wrote of truth in The Essence of Truth. When Aristotle says (Metaphysics 983 B) that philosophizing is directed . . . ‘to truth,’ he does not mean that philosophy must put forward correct and valid propositions, but that philosophy seeks beings in their unhiddenness as beings. . . . This seeking must begin with the experiencing of the hidden. The fundamental experience of hiddenness is obviously the ground from which the seeking after unhiddenness arises. . . . (O)nly then is it necessary and possible for man to set about wresting beings from hiddenness and bringing them into unhiddenness. 2

What is this “hidden” that is experienced prior to being brought into unhiddenness? It is the ontic, which might be described as sets of modal operations, that is, atomic functions, frequencies, and other measurable data lacking ontological status. What does it mean to seek in them their unhiddenness as beings? It means to ascribe to these modal functions specific hierarchies, to view the molecular structure before us as a stone or a star. Regarding music’s journey from hiddenness to unhiddenness, frequency hides its potential as pitch beneath featureless periodic sound. Encountered as hidden by Dasein, it is wrested from this hidden state and experienced in its Being: It becomes pitch, which is a tool for use by musicians, as sure a tool as Heidegger’s hammer. And this is a sort of adequation: When the hidden becomes unhidden, the hidden X cannot become unhidden Y. There is an existential correspondence, otherwise the very meaning of “knowledge” would be lost. To know a rose as a rose and not a rocket means that a correspondence has been made. It does not follow from this that the subject-predicate form of knowledge is suddenly privileged; the correlation is existential, not grammatical. But there is still a correlation. Truth is “in” the beings; that is the metaphysical. But it is possible to misidentify the beings, because it is pos-


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sible to fail to bring that which is hidden into proper unhiddenness. A seeker might find the wrong thing. Thus, “being correct” cannot simply be tossed out. As long as epistemology and metaphysics have separate meanings, correlation will of necessity play a role. This is a construction, as William Richardson has noted, and not a simple acquiescence to the given-as-objects—not speculative realism or objectoriented ontology. Richardson writes, apropos Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, quoting that text at the end: The structure of transcendence . . . is never considered a being enclosed within itself and already achieved, but always an occurrence-that-takes-place, a process that is being instituted, built or constructed (bilden), indeed that institutes itself. It is essentially a coming-to-pass. . . . (T)he entire problem of transcendence arises simply because of the finitude of the knower. Transcendence is essentially finite—indeed, “. . . transcendence is . . . finitude itself. . . .” 3 (Emphasis mine.)

(The word “process” is here emphasized to point once again in the direction of Whitehead’s process philosophy as enjoying a certain affinity with Heidegger.) The ontic is not tantamount to already-existing objects. As contemporary science repeatedly demonstrates, the given is never more than a set of modal operations, such as frequency or atomic functions. The most definite of objects enjoys no actuality until the construction of the object-as-such from said modalities. This construction, this process, is Dasein acting as a finite being (“the finitude of the knower”) to institute the finitude of modal operations as beings in their Being. Here is the ontological agency of Dasein that lights the given and turns frequency to pitch. Here is the Ontological difference that separates sound-as-such from sound-as-music. In a more general application, here is Heidegger’s de-concealing that reveals the operations perceived as what they truly are: things of a certain sort. But there is clearly a problem. When Dasein institutes the coming-to-pass that issues in a thing, how is it that the thing is X and not Y? If all that is present amounts to no more than modal operations, to a field of possibilities, shouldn’t Dasein be able to institute a rose or a rocket or a snail at will—all as potentials from the same set of modal operations? Clearly, not. And here is where push comes to shove. Note Richardson’s words above, regarding the structure of transcendence as “a process that is being instituted . . . indeed that institutes itself.” The modal operations are potentially actual only as certain objects that institute themselves as themselves and not other objects, no matter how much Dasein may wish them to be other-than. The molecular activity that produces a rose must be perceived as rose, not as rocket. So, then, does it not follow that the ontic is there as things from the start?



To answer this question with an unqualified affirmative is to lay the groundwork for a positivism that amounts to saying nothing other than, “There are things,” just as the natural outcome of eliminating tonal hierarchy from pitches wound its way inevitably toward a single thing that can be said (as per William Thomson) about music: “There are sounds.” The latter is merely a specialized instance of the former. The fact of the matter is that the Ontological difference is a razor’s edge. On one side falls the given, on the other the unhiddenness wrested from it, but telling the difference is often nigh impossible. The Being of beings is in their being known by Dasein. Beings’ veiled status as modal operations does not mean that, upon their unconcealment, they can be anything other than what they are. To get a clearer perspective on this, we pivot from Heidegger to Whitehead. And while there is no evidence that either man ever read the other (neither could read the other’s language, and translations of both men’s works were slow in coming), they have much in common. Both thinkers rejected the subject-predicate form of knowledge. Both posited a metaphysical foundation for logic. Whitehead’s process philosophy often reminds one of Heidegger’s vision of Dasein’s encounters with beings, and Heidegger’s explainers frequently use the word “process” to describe the Ontological difference. I would like to point out a contrast, however, that gives Whitehead’s ontology an advantage in confronting the puzzle of things, as apart from knowledge of things. Heidegger apparently assumes, in keeping with all of Western philosophical history, that individual things enjoy a kind of singularity—that there can be single entities, or individuals in the ordinary sense. 4 He rejects, of course, any naïve realism about the given. But he is clear that there are such individual things as a certain chair or a particular stone. For Whitehead, this is not strictly true. A stone is never just a stone, never “itself,” in the metaphysical sense. For Heidegger, such individuation is possible because he privileges Dasein’s view of the stone, but there is no reason to accept this privileging over the encounters of other entities with the matrix we call the stone. In Whitehead’s view, “experience” is process, and process is universal to all things in nature (Dasein—or something like it—included, but only as one aspect of process). A stone experiences itself as one thing, the ground beneath it experiences it as another. The horse kicking the stone as he plods a trail experiences it yet differently, and the boy who picks it up to hurl it at a window again quite differently. There never is a stone-as-such, and all things—stones and ground and horses and boys—are “alive” in the sense that they are constantly undergoing process-related changes, some almost instantaneous, others over millennia. Changes occur universally, nanosecond by nanosecond, as every arrangement of atoms and sub-atomic particles alters. This is Whitehead’s “principle of coherence”: “[N]o entity can be conceived


Chapter 15

in complete abstraction from the system of the universe.” 5 You can never take a step in the same universe twice—not even once. Heidegger overcame the problem of not knowing “the thing in itself” by instituting the Ontological difference. Whitehead overcomes it by observing that there never is a “thing in itself.” All that is determinate are data—and a datum is not a thing, but merely a given. Steven Shaviro writes, quoting Whitehead at the end: Any given “datum,” Whitehead says, is objective and entirely determinate. In itself, a datum is always the same. But this self-identity does not entirely determine (although it somewhat limits) the particular way in which a given entity receives (prehends or perceives) that datum. There is always some margin of indeterminacy, some room for “decision” . . . with regard to “how that subject feels that objective datum.” (Emphases in the original.) 6

This must apply to the “datum” itself insofar as it is self-experiencing. The stone can never be other than a stone. But as it is prehended, the how of various subjects’ prehending of the stone will change its tone, its feeling, its very being. This is the actual world, an intricately connected web of mutual experience. The real is a human-made abstraction we create from among the knots of experience in order to consider a rose or a rocket or a chair, and yet we can never consider them apart from our own predispositions to prehend them, to feel them, in certain ways. We act as if there is a thing itself, but there never is, nor can there be in the purest sense, given the quantum structure of the universe. Those whose “as-if” is very, very strong, whose reality they make us see as a reality that is universally transcendent, real for all and for all time, are called artists. We in our daily lives do exactly what artists do: We create, slice of experience by slice of experience, a world of our own, encountering stones and roses as themselves, but without the exactitude and power of artists who turn the stone into a poem or the rose into oil-on-canvas. As for music, the greatest composers create worlds (as in Mahler’s famous dictum) of emotional transcendence that we may inhabit with trust in their reality. 7 In some way, this vision suggests Badiou’s view of ontology as “infinite multiplicity,” but it differs wildly by insisting that the multiplicity is an open field of immanence for the creation of transcendent realities. Badiou stops at the moment he asserts “multiplicity,” even saying, when asked of what this multiplicity is multiple, “Multiplicities of multiplicities.” Of course, that’s not an answer. “Multiplicity” is a descriptive term, and cannot refer to itself; something needs to be described. But Badiou here turns ontology over to mathematics, presumably so he can go on to do other philosophy. Ontology will not be banished from philosophy so easily. Still, let’s use Badiou’s term for convenience, while searching for a different answer. If what exists is



multiplicity, and we are to search for the thing that is multiple, what do we find? Inexorably, we find hierarchy. That is in what abstraction consists: the removal of certain characteristics in favor of others. Usually, abstraction is used in connection with concepts, typically defined as essences of the things abstracted. But abstraction has the broader meaning of selection from among data. This was true of the James/Kastenbaum neonate referenced earlier, when she abstracted from the buzzing confusion, one. And it is true of me, as I rise from the chair and turn in the direction of a sunlit window and feel the hardness of the chair released beneath me and note the glint of sunlight where I turn, when I could have noticed the cat instead or the twist of my torso instead. I have abstracted a slice of experience just as surely as the neonate. But it is precisely a slice of experience that I have abstracted, and never an entity per se, never the impossible thing-in-itself. Hierarchy, which, beyond having a bad reputation in general, is not dealt with in any depth by philosophers. And yet, it is all we do: we discern this over that, and that over other-that. These are values in the sense of judgments. I see a face and recognize it by giving greater value to the set of the chin, the length of the nose, the color of the eyes and the shape of the brow than, say, to a mole on the side or the thinness of the eyebrows. I smell X and the smell is the result of a certain (pre-conceptual) hierarchy of receptors in the nostrils. Erase my ability to hierarchically arrange the features of my friend’s face and I will no longer know him. Take away my olfactory receptors’ function of hierarchically arranging themselves in answer to given input, and I will not be able to smell the cookies burning in the oven, or the olfactory difference between a rose garden and a dung heap. These things— the friend’s face or the rose garden—are there, not as ens per se, but as experiences. Remove hierarchy from them and they are gone, and with them, the state of being human. That much belongs to phenomenology, but to Whitehead belongs this much more: they are never there, never fully abstracted in the metaphysical sense of transcendent individuals, but are entities only as they are experienced by other entities, which in turn owe their status to other entities, etc. Whitehead calls the unfolding of worlds as traced by this process the “creative advance.” Thus, creativity, from its lowest form in the wholly unconscious, subatomic matrix of a stone, to the conscious creation of a symphony, is for Whitehead existential finality, the Category of the Ultimate, which “replaces the categorical imperative as the inner principle of freedom.” 8 While Whitehead ascribes creative advance to all of nature, humans are in an important sense apart from the rest of nature for a simple reason: We can consciously choose the hierarchies we bring to an experience. We share with other animals a pre-conscious ability of our olfactory receptors to arrange themselves in order to produce the rose’s scent, but we also own the con-


Chapter 15

scious ability to look at the rose and order our vision in a certain way, allowing our eyes to bring out this faintness of the color here, or there the way one petal slightly droops. Exactly in this same way, the painter makes choices, and, depending on her choices and the manner in which she brings skill to bear upon the canvas, her experience may live for some time beyond the moment of the initial encounter. The composer grabs hold of the limitless web of interconnected hierarchies among potential pitches and assembles them into a permanent hierarchy. (Yet, even in these conscious choices, it should be stressed, we make pre-conscious judgments prior to cognition.) This strongly resembles “assemblage” that is for Whitehead the “primary stage” of philosophy. 9 Hierarchy is nothing other than the act of valuing some things in relation to others in a way that highlights those things in distinction from the others. It is the organizational aspect of valuing, and as such defines as well as any single feature the function of Whitehead’s creative advance. If being is in the knowing—in the de-concealing or revealing of what is otherwise hidden—then perhaps epistemology is metaphysics: knowing is Being. How could there be a metaphysics of things-as-such, or of anything separate from our knowing, if the knowing is the lighting-up, and this lighting-up reveals what once was hidden? The old metaphysics had an old epistemology packed into it. Does the new ontology demand a replacement? In the new ontology, nothing is apart from being known/encountered. With that in place, then, the modal operations preceding Dasein’s encounters are not; the things following Dasein’s encounters are. Periodic frequency is not. Pitch is. Light frequencies are not. Colors are. The old epistemological inquiry, “How do we know?,” would be a question reserved for the verification of averred facts, as in, “How do you know the earth is a globe?” and “How do you know that gold has value?” Epistemology in this sense is merely explanatory—“how?” as in “in what way?” The broader question regarding knowledge would actually be a metaphysical inquiry: “What do you know?” And the answer is: Everything that I know I know, all that I experience, such as the feeling of the chair under my body, the smell of lunch being prepared, the slight hum in my ears, that is, all empirical input. This input is, however, always already value-laden, that is, known in the proper sense of Dasein’s having ascribed to it some hierarchy, as when pitch is experienced upon the encounter with frequency. The chair has a hardness that may or may not be comfortable, the lunch has an odor that may or may not augur a pleasant meal, the hum in my ears exhibits a level of distraction, etc. To know something is to create it—not in the sense of “making it up” in some subjectivist randomness, but in the sense of bringing it under a judgment. And if epistemology is metaphysics (if knowing is quiddity), then, it would follow, metaphysics is aesthetics (quiddity as judgment) or, as we put it at the end of the last chapter, aesthetics becomes first philosophy. The



splitting of experience into “how do you know/what do you know/what is your judgment” evaporates. What does all this mean for music and other mental objects? If such a view should supplant the representative metaphysics that persists unabated in everyday life in the Western world, the view that separates knower from known and sets up an “objective” world opposite its subjects, it would spark a radical change in our understanding of what makes any mental object what it is. Western art music has endured a decline owing to the attempted erasure of its ontic foundations, a restraining of our ability to lift ontic frequency into ontological pitch. Could it be that love and freedom, like music, have suffered under similar restraints, restraints that appear as empowerment because they separate subject from object in a false liberation of judgment from the given? NOTES 1. Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, Continuum Books, 1988, 10. 2. Ibid., 10. 3. William Richardson, Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to Thought, Fordham University Press, 2003, 115. 4. I say “apparently” because Heidegger is as clear as he is about anything when he writes that the unhidden are “not objects.” Still, his referring to them as “beings” indicates their separateness from the whole. 5. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Macmillan Free Press, 1978, 3. 6. Steven Shaviro, Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics, MIT Press, 2009/2012, 55. 7. All this suggests the foundation for a possible theory of criticism beyond the marketbased “cultural” criticism, Marxist-oriented critical theory and mere opinion that currently dominate. 8. Shaviro, 97. Shaviro’s book explicates Whitehead’s complex system with diamondedged clarity, written from the theoretical standpoint of a twentieth century in which Whitehead, rather than Heidegger, held the spotlight. 9. Ibid., 147.

Appendix IV, the Phantom Tonic

The subdominant is a mystery. Every standard Western scale and church mode except the Lydian contains it, but where did it come from? Nicolas Slonimsky once pointed out, in an effort to dissuade readers from the idea that Western tonality is the inevitable result of how we hear (as opposed to a largely artificial invention), that no matter how high one goes in the harmonic series, a fundamental pitch will not produce a perfect fourth above the fundamental. That’s a slight overstatement, but not by much. The closest harmonic to the perfect fourth, either equal-tempered or just intonation, is the 85th, with the 43rd a few cents away. (For a cent-by-cent table of 700 pitches found within an octave, and many of their corresponding places in the overtone series, see Kyle Gann’s indispensable “Anatomy of an Octave” at www It’s clear from this why the major pentatonic, the basis of a nearly infinite store of melody around the world, lacks a fourth step. The subdominant would seem to be an arbitrary construct. But what would happen if we were to build a diatonic scale that truly embodied the first seven pitch classes to appear in the overtone series? The fifth and the major third show up easily and quickly; respectively, they are the third and fifth harmonics. The ninth harmonic gives us the second degree of our scale. The sixth step makes its appearance as the 13th harmonic, though it is woefully “out of tune” unless adjusted. Now we have C–D–E–G–A, the major pentatonic scale that has been the fount of many a beautiful melody, from early folksong to George M. Cohan to alternative rock. 117



Adding fourth and seventh steps is a lot trickier. Just as Slonimsky opined, the perfect fourth above the tonic is nowhere to be found. For a fourth degree, it is easier and more natural to grab the 11th harmonic. This is 551.318 cents above a given tonic, almost exactly midway between the current, equal-tempered perfect fourth (500 cents) and augmented fourth (600 points). In just intonation, however, the perfect fourth lies at about 498 cents, some 53 cents distant from the 11th harmonic, while the augmented fourth is at 582-plus cents, significantly closer at 31 cents away. Conceptually, too, the 11th harmonic feels closer to a flat-tuned augmented fourth than to a sharp-leaning perfect fourth. The augmented fourth, then, takes the place of the standard perfect fourth in our natural diatonic scale. With the elimination of the perfect fourth, the functionality of the subdominant is swept away. The old IV chord was one of three major triads in any major key, forming the familiar primary structure I–IV–V. In our new form of the major scale, only I and II are major triads. The new IV chord becomes a diminished triad, perhaps better integrated as the top three-quarters of a “dominant seventh” chord built on the supertonic (in C: D–Fsharp–A–C). What about the seventh step? Our familiar leading tone wouldn’t be there, either. Unlike the subdominant, the leading tone does show up among the first twenty harmonics: 15th place. But it’s beat out by the lowered seventh’s appearance in both the 7th and 14th positions. In fact, the lowered seventh is the first note to appear in the series that does not belong to the tonic triad. This makes B-flat the seventh step in a scale based on C, and alters the tonic seventh chord into a “dominant” seventh. It gives pause to realize that a system truly based on the strongest overtones would posit a major chord with a minor seventh as stable. Our new scale, drawn solely from the first thirteen harmonics, spelled on C: C–D–E–F-sharp–G–A–B-flat. This is also known as the Lydian Dominant, a favorite mode for bebop musicians in the 1940s and 1950s. The upper four notes are the same as the upper four in the octatonic scale, which—like the pentatonic and whole-tone scales—also lacks a subdominant. So, how did we get the major scale we have, instead of this one? Short of being able to ask Guido D’Arezzo, we’ll never know for sure. We’re all told in early music history that medieval musicians utilized hexachords, and that these hexachords all contained, as their fourth degrees, perfect fourths above the tonic. They didn’t just throw them in. They had to hear them first. Play around with the Lydian dominant on C. Improvise melodies on the scale and structure some changes. Staying within this new diatonic framework, you’ll quickly feel you’re actually toying with the notes of an ascend-



ing minor scale based on G; the pitches are the same. Within the notes given, the only functional progression in C will be the II7 chord resolving to V; or V7 to I in G minor. The sharped fourth degree and the flatted seventh have altered the so-called Dominant seventh and robbed it of its central place in the tonal scheme. One other dominant does exist, however: the one built on the tonic itself. It resolves, not to any note within the scale, but to a foreign pitch—the socalled subdominant. Thus the perfect fourth above the tonic enters the scene, not as part of a stable major scale, but as a tempter, a seducer, a built-in modulation away from the true tonic. The perfect fourth, and not the tritone, is the true “devil in music.” It’s no “subdominant.” It’s the phantom tonic. This is from the book Music and Sound, published in 1937 by the English organist, composer, and theorist Llewelyn Southworth Lloyd: All the evidence shows that, in the early stages of a scale developed in the attempt to sing melody, one of two intervals, the fourth as an interval approached downwards, or the fifth, would almost certainly provide its first essential note other than the octave. 1 (Emphasis added.)

Later in the same paragraph: “Our subdominant is a true fifth below its (the fundamental’s) octave.” Not a fourth above, but a fifth below: the phantom tonic. This is apparently what Schoenberg meant in the Harmonielehre when he said the subdominant came “from below”: The subdominant is to the given tonic a tonic, when the given tonic note is re-conceived as a dominant pitch. When we resolve to the phantom tonic, we suddenly have three new pitch classes. Resolving from the Lydian dominant on C, we would get the scale: F–G–A–B–C–D–E-flat. The F, B (natural) and E-flat are new. The Lydian Dominant on F being no more stable than the Lydian Dominant that resolved to it, we would soon resolve to B-flat below F, where the A-flat is added, and then to the E-flat below that, where D-flat completes the twelve-tone party. The true circle of fifths moves down, not up. What difference does this make to us as composers? We pick a pitch and call it the tonic. We know that assigning tonic status to the pitch is arbitrary; obviously, we can call tonic any note we please. But it is also true, and far less understood, that the concept of tonic is itself arbitrary. We may choose to call B-flat home base, but in the equal-tempered world of twelve pitch classes, no single pitch is ever just the tonic; it is at one and the same time the dominant of the phantom tonic (IV), the supertonic of the pitch a whole step below, the leading tone to the pitch a half-step above, etc. Debussy believed music is made only of rhythm and color. Pitch is a function of color; it is a matter of where, in the span of some universal



monochord with infinite fundamentals, it falls, and of what other pitches are sounding at the same time. In the German-based tonal system we’ve inherited and many of us still use, a B-flat is tonic because we say so and it remains tonic until we say otherwise by modulating away from it. In the French way of comprehending harmony, you can’t do that, for even if you play a B-flat chord and then a C minor chord followed by an immediate return to the Bflat, that B-flat chord has been changed; the second one is not the same as the first. It has a different sonic context and is therefore a different entity. Its relationship to other pitch classes and to its own internal elements has shifted. Roman numeraling is an illusion based on the mistaken idea that tonal relationships must be codifiable or they cannot be tonal relationships. We are told to call the German system “tonality” when, in fact, all relationships of pitch are inherently tonal—not in the sense of adhering to an arbitrary system that posits stable tonics, but in the sense that every pitch in some way suggests every other pitch. There is not and cannot be any such thing as truly “atonal” music. This might seem to some to lead in the direction of eliminating hierarchy altogether and embracing the principle underlying dodecaphony: absolute independence of one pitch from another. It would seem to do so, that is, if you insist that hierarchy cannot admit ambiguity. If the tonic cannot be the tonic securely and without challenge, if its existence implies the phantom tonic below, and very shortly all twelve tones, then the only alternatives are either a sonic world of twelve fiercely independent pitch classes (dodecaphony), or one in which every pitch class connects to every other pitch class in a web of complex relational flux. I think this latter was too French an idea for the Germans who determined much of our music history. Better to disavow the validity of necessary relationship altogether, than to recognize the subtleties and paradoxes of an uncodified tonality. Until our twelve-pitch scale changes to something else, if it ever does, the business of a composer will be to intuit the shifting relationships that grow from playing with the intervals within that scale, and shaping these into attractive structures, framed by rhythm and timbre. This would be true twelve-tone music. Everything else is merely system, grounded either in an arbitrary tonic or in the equally arbitrary denial of tonal relationships. NOTE 1. Llewelyn Southworth Lloyd, Music and Sound, Ayer Company Publishers 1937, p. 34.


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Abelard, Peter, 34, 69, 76–77 adequation, x, 66, 67, 70, 72, 80, 93–94, 95, 97, 107, 109; feeling in music and, 92; phenomenology and, 73, 74n3 Adorno, Theodor, 9, 34; dodecaphony and, 41–42; jazz and, 42–43 Ankersmit, Frank, 62 Aristotle, 3, 17, 57–58, 65, 71–72, 76; quoted by Heidegger, 109 atonality, 13, 37–38; rejection of, 18, 20 Babbitt, Milton, 58 Badiou, Alain, 20, 33–37, 100, 112 Berg, Alban, 23 Bernard, Jonathan W., 98, 100 Bernstein, Leonard, x, 2, 5–6, 6, 19, 63, 66, 71, 93; music as metaphor, 56–58; musical grammar and, 53–55 blues (musical form), 95 Brentano, Franz, 76, 103; intentionality defined by, 73 Cage, John, ix, 11, 25, 26–27, 28, 87, 99, 102; 4’33” (work) and, 46, 85; collaboration with Merce Cunningham, 92–93 Carlos, Wendy, 11–12, 53 Chomsky, Noam, 55–56, 71 Chopin, Frederic, 2 Corigliano, John, 108 Critchley, Simon, x, 84–85, 86, 88

Crouch, Stanley, 46 Debussy, Claude, 6, 13, 77, 108 Deleuze, Gilles, 21n8 Descartes, Rene, 77, 78, 88; treatise on music, 17–18 Drabinski, John E., 77 dodecaphony, 14, 15, 20, 36, 37, 38–39, 45, 50, 53, 65, 102, 107, 108, 117; as rejection of hierarchy, 52; defined in contrast with tonality, 10–13; the old metaphysics and, 75 Eastwood, Clint, 45 Empiricus, Sextus, 28 Frankenthaler, Helen, 86 Gann, Kyle, 117 Glass, Philip, 87 Handy, W. C., 95–96 Heidegger, Martin, x, 3, 14, 43, 64, 75, 77, 80, 85, 103, 105, 109–110, 111–112; Kant and, 67, 69–73, 77, 88, 101, 103 Henze, Hans Werner, 20, 37 hierarchy, x, 1, 2, 13–14, 15, 18, 23–24, 27, 45, 49, 51, 52, 58, 63, 67, 75, 101, 105, 107, 113, 114, 120; essential to tonality, 35, 36–37; inherent in pitch, 54; judgment and, 97–98; Whitehead’s 125



“assemblage” and, 113 Hume, David, 2–3, 77–78, 81 Hurwitz, David, 37 James, William, 51; and consciousness, 78, 88 jazz, 43–44, 45–46, 93, 107 Kant, Immanuel, 1–3, 34, 64, 67, 76, 77–78, 80, 88, 99, 100–101, 105; Heidegger and, 69–73; Schopenhauer and, 61–62, 65–67 Kastenbaum, Robert, 51–52, 101, 113 Kripke, Saul, 80 Kubrick, Stanley, 11, 94, 95, 98; use of music in Barry Lyndon (film), 91–92 Kusama, Yayoi, 86 Lacan, Jacques, 67 Levinas, Emmanuel, 105 Ligeti, Gyorgy, 98–100 Liszt, Franz, 38 Magee, Bryan, 4 Mahler, Gustav, 6–7 Maitland, Jeffrey, x, 100–101 Mendelssohn, Felix, 63 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 49, 52, 64 Messiaen, Olivier, 38 minimalism (in music), 87 Monk, Thelonious, 45 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 3, 29–31, 45, 54, 93 nominalism (contrasted with conceptualism), 76 pantonality (defined), 9; and Charlie Parker, 45 Parker, Charlie, 44–46 Parmenides, 1, 17, 66, 67, 70, 71, 93, 105–106 Part, Arvo, 87, 108, 111 Patel, Anirrudh, 28

phenomenology, 49, 73, 77, 113 Plato, 65, 69, 71 poetry (as ontology), 84–85 Price, Peter, 18, 20 Richardson, William, 110 Riley, Terry, 87 Schoenberg, Arnold, 6–7, 9–11, 12, 13–15, 18, 19, 23, 25–26, 27, 28, 34–36, 37, 39, 41, 42, 58, 75, 95, 108, 119 Schoenfield, Paul, 37 Schopenhauer, Arthur, x, 4–5, 57–58, 61–68, 68n5, 76, 85, 88, 93, 103, 109 Schubert, Franz (Piano Trio No. 2), 91–92 Scriabin, Alexander, 38 Scruton, Roger, 29, 57, 58, 59n3, 98 Shaviro, Steven, 112 Southworth Lloyd, Llewelyn, 117–118 Stevens, Wallace, 83–84, 85 Strauss, Richard, 6–7 Swift, Jonathan, 53 Thomson, William, 11, 14, 28, 49, 111; and pitch focus, 12, 13, 33 tonality, 9, 13, 19–20, 37, 44, 50, 67, 75; contrasted with atonality, 38; contrasted with pantonality, 45; death of, 20; manipulated by Wagner, 2, 5; two senses of, 14–15 Valente, Luisa (on Abelard’s Conceptualism), 81 Wagner, Richard, ix, 2, 3–4, 4–5, 5–6, 9, 10, 26, 27, 29, 30–31, 34, 38, 45, 54, 93; the “Tristan chord” and, 2 Whitehead, Alfred North, x, 29, 67, 79, 80, 83, 88, 101, 103, 104–100, 110, 111–112, 113 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 92 Žižek, Slavoj, 34, 37–39

About the Author

Kenneth LaFave enjoyed careers as composer and arts critic before turning to philosophy. In addition to writing for such newspapers as The Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, LaFave has composed music on commission from the Chicago String Quartet, Close Encounters with Music, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and others. He is the author of two previous books, Experiencing Leonard Bernstein (2014) and Experiencing Film Music (2017), both published as part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Listener’s Companion” series, which he currently (2017) edits. The Sound of Ontology expands on his dissertation for The European Graduate School, which awarded him the PhD in 2016.