On Identity, Take 1: The Beauty is in the I

Philosophy and Music are full of parallels.

Both are not exactly sciences; yet both are often driven by logic. Both tend to pretend to be objective; and yet both are often very much about some of the most subjective things of all, like a need for human connection, or curiosity. Or worse of all for some, feelings. And there are musicians and philosophers who will take you to court for saying that.

Differences can be found when one asks: why do people make music/philosophize? Few will answer that they play/compose/listen to try grasping deeper significations of existence, although some might. Some people do experience music in a manner similar to how spiritual and religious acts are lived. On the other hand, many will tell you that they think about/read/write philosophy because it allows them to untangle parts of the complicated web that is life. It allows them to make sense of things. It might allow them to learn from the investigations of intelligent, thorough people – well, mostly men – who came before them, and who published books about what they thought. It might allow them to understand more what this is all about. But what is this need to understand, if not a need to hold on to this thing that’s slipping away from you?

Well, what if music could be seen as giving more meaning to time: for many, its inevitable passing is one of life’s most fundamental flaws, or fatalities. To others, it’s one of life’s most defining features. It’s all philosophy, you might say. But music is a way to decorate it. Music could be a way to decorate time.

There are many explanations and interpretations. What’s missing is a consensus, and thank God for that. The point is that there isn’t a single way to look at both, and that uncertainty, that multiplicity, that irreducibility, becomes this thing’s defining feature (not to sound too Adornian).

Alright, where am I going with this? I’m making another tie between the two. First, I have to mention Michel Onfray, a French philosopher who is very active on multiple platforms in France. One of his goals is to write the counter-history of philosophy (and of literature), correcting the bias against materialistic (among other) philosophers, dating back to the Greeks, all the way until today. Something he frequently advocates, for example, is the necessity for philosophers to use the pronoun “I” when writing. To speak of concrete, personal experiences, not only as illustrations of personal philosophies, but as concrete, existing, acknowledgeable realities of writing, of philosophizing. Because how can you write, think, especially about philosophy, without being fully present, you – and your past, your predispositions? By refusing to say I, by refusing to be personal, you’re really just in denial. By pretending you can devise entire systems of thoughts, of looking at the world, without recognizing that these ideas work for you, because you are you; by pretending like you’re coming up with absolute systems of thoughts that work outside time, outside space, outside concrete personal histories, but also that work for everyone else, you are not only diminishing the overall validity of your ideas, but you are also removing from the equation some of the most interesting, personable, relatable facets of the work.

mirrorI’m not saying that the biographical, personal dimensions of the work are the most important, and that a certain amount of objectivity doesn’t exist. But many are saying it’s all that exists, it’s the only aspect of the work that can be discussed; that if emotional and cognitive reactions are inevitable, they cannot be discussed, and as such are ignored when discussions of works occur, especially in the academies.

In no way am I a specialist in philosophy, I just really enjoy reading it when I have the time. But I just can’t help finding a parallel with the approach many composers have had over the last century. What’s surprising is how prevalent this view still is today in some academic circles. Composers speak of their work as if it mostly consists of research, as if by writing their pieces, they’re only investigating possibilities of sound, the way a scientist investigates mixing chemicals in certain conditions, or the way a geologist might study tectonic plates. In a way, discussing how a piece of music makes one feel, or how it reflects how the composer relates to certain things, is basically opening a can of worms. But can we stop seeing things in black and white?

Saying that a piece of music often communicates more than just frequencies, harmonies, textures, even intra-musical references, that it can speak to somebody on a very personal level, but also that it communicates very personal sides of the composer’s persona, does not mean that it cannot also be analyzed on a technical level, in parallel; saying that considering the context in which a piece of music was written, taking the composer’s intention, their life, their experience into consideration, is basically blasphemous, that true analysis needs to ignore all biographical traits, and take the piece of music as an object that stands by itself in time: isn’t this wasteful? Yes, sometimes it’s really interesting to analyze a piece of music without relating every aspect of it to its creator, sometimes it’s great to analyze a work by Mozart without thinking of the context Mozart was writing it in, and to look at it from a completely different perspective (analyzing a Classical piece spectrally, for example), while sometimes it’s also interesting to think of Mozart’s relationship to a certain subject (his aversion to the flute, for example); it can only add to the richness of our perception and our assimilation of the work. I’m criticizing some theorists’ adherence to one way or the other, exclusively.

As a composer, on the other hand, you really can only say “I”. You’re not your own analyst, you can’t pretend to be researching an objective process which would exist without you. The popular question: would this piece be the same piece if it were written by someone else or at a different time in history; this question that spills so much ink in aesthetic discussions by philosophers and musicologists cannot be seriously asked by a composer looking at her own work: your piece is your piece, and to you, as a composer, as far as you are concerned, it can only be your piece, it reflects who you are. So don’t hesitate to say I when you speak, and stop pretending like you’re doing the work that someone else could be doing. The piece you write would not be written by anyone else if you were not to write it. Maybe at some point in time, Schoenberg did the inevitable, what would have been done, eventually, in European concert music. For one, this is only true of a very small and narrow musical circle at a very specific time in music history.

But even one adhering to this viewpoint in Schoenberg’s case does not necessary translate into this view holding today. Things have changed, but also the entire world visibly and actively participating in these exchanges, with their own influence, their own directionalities, their traditions, their different ‘languages’, only further complicate the extrapolations necessary in order to “read” History and its progression, especially in the world of art. Being able to think ahead might work in very specific circumstances, but at the end of the day, every decision, every new piece by every composer represent steps on the journey of that specific composer, one that reflects that specific composer’s predispositions, their personality, their taste, their moods. You can experiment by using a specific bowing technique, or quoting a different style in a piece, and see what it gives, the way a cook can see what happens if they throw pepper flakes into a creme brûlée, but at the end of the day, it mostly says that you like pepper flakes and crême brûlée – or not – and that you’re trying something new, as much it says anything about the chemical properties of either.

It’s very personal. And I would want to hear you speak about it saying  I, I, Iat the risk of sounding self-involved, because to me, this alternative is much more interesting, much more genuine and appealing than you sounding detached, self-important, and quite frankly deluded.

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