Understanding Music

Effing the Ineffable

The first question is not an easy one. When the question of the meaning of music was urgently debated in the 18th century, and the idea began to emerge that there is an especially pure kind of music that would encapsulate what music really and truly means, without the adulteration of words, dance or theatre, it was in the context of a shared musical culture, a culture of performance and listening, based on a musical syntax that had been tried and tested over centuries – the so-called ‘common practice’ grammar which unites Bach and Palestrina, Mozart and Schubert, and to which even Wagner and Richard Strauss made only marginal additions. At a certain point critics and philosophers began to refer to ‘absolute Tonkunst’, the absolute art of sound, in order to distinguish the purely instrumental music of the concert hall, designed to be listened to in silence, and presented in an atmosphere of reverential attention, from the applications of music in opera and song, in dance and Gebrauchmusik. There are of course many distinctions here, but there is one that has come especially to the fore in recent years, on account of mass communication and the ready availability of music through ‘mechanical reproduction’, and that is the distinction between listening and hearing. Much music is heard, not much is listened to. And among the music that is heard, far more is over-heard than directly heard, as it were, in the centre of the ear. Indeed, we live in an over-hearing culture, and a new kind of music has emerged precisely to provide for people who live in this way. You hear it in bars and restaurants all across the world, and people habituated to it can be encouraged to hear music only if the music is pushed rudely through the barrier of background noise – say by a loud beat, or a sexy voice, or both.

Clearly, then, if we are to talk of music as having a relation to the transcendental, it is only a certain kind of music that we have in mind – music construed as an object of listening, where listening involves an awareness of, and attention to, the meaning of what is heard. And then we are landed in another problem, which is that of the meaning of music. Before addressing that problem, however, I need to say something about the transcendental. This term has many uses, and I take it that two of those particularly concern us: the theological use, in which God is said to transcend the world of creation, and also to transcend our attempts to define or describe Him, and the philosophical use, typified by Kant, according to which certain objects of thought transcend the conditions laid down by the understanding, and can therefore be thought only negatively, as lying beyond thought, so to speak. The two uses are connected; but theologians are often prepared to allow knowledge of God, even though he transcends our cognitive powers; while Kant did not allow positive knowledge of the transcendental. There is, in the literature, a lot of having cake and eating it, and it is rare to find a philosopher or theologian who takes seriously his own conclusion that this or that is really transcendental.

Wittgenstein’s famous conclusion, that that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence, has rarely been obeyed by those who have concluded that the most important things in life are indescribable. Schopenhauer devotes half a million words to the Will, which lies beyond concepts and can be known only by some non-conceptual acquaintance that defies translation into words. Kierkegaard tells us that truth is subjectivity, and therefore cannot be given objective form. But he devotes a million or so words to evoking it nevertheless. If we are to get anywhere in discussing the transcendental, it seems to me, we must adhere to the crucial point, namely, that it lies beyond the world of our theoretical knowledge. This might be because it exists (if it does) in a sphere that is inaccessible to us, like God, or because our cognitive capacities are inherently incapable of formulating thoughts about it, like the thing in itself according to the Kantian argument. Whether we can or should clearly distinguish those two conditions is of course part of the problem, and maybe when we have duly consigned what we cannot say to silence we will find that no real distinctions can be made at all. All that we can know of the transcendental is that we cannot know either what it is or that it is.

In that case, however, why refer to it at all – indeed, can we refer to it? The whole concept only makes sense on the assumption that we can in some way reach beyond the ordinary empirical world, to the something we know not what that transcends it. Can we or can’t we? This is the dilemma that Kant bequeathed to his immediate successors and they did not resolve the dilemma, but tried to have things both ways – espousing a kind of idealism that both denied access to the transcendental, and then allowed it in through the dialectic of reason – as in Hegel’s Logic. But in that case, of course, it is no longer transcendental. Hegel called it ‘absolute’ instead, and the word entered philosophy in this way, just about the same time as it entered the study of music in the writings of Wackenroder and Tieck. Now I have a lot of time for Hegel. Nevertheless, I do not think that the path of absolute idealism is the one that we should take out of the dilemma that I stated. The assumption in Hegel is that whenever we encounter a limit in thought, feeling or conduct we can, as it were, rise above it, and thereby see to the other side. To say that is both to affirm and to deny that there are limits. It is not to advance beyond the limits but simply to muddle them, so that we don’t know where they are.

I take it that those who have turned to music in this dilemma have done so precisely because approaching the transcendental through music does not require the belief that we can approach it through language, or through our ordinary conceptual powers. In this way we can maintain the belief that the transcendental is incapable of being defined or described while surreptitiously offering a back route to it, so to speak. We offer a way of effing the ineffable. Just such a move was made by Schopenhauer, in the essay on ‘The Metaphysics of Music’ included in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation. According to Schopenhauer music is a non-conceptual medium which, for that very reason, is able to ‘get behind’ the world of representations, so as to present the underlying reality, which is Will. Music presents the Will directly, without the intervening veil of concepts. Is this a coherent response to our dilemma? Does it not invite Frank Ramsey’s remark to Wittgenstein, that if you can’t say it you can’t whistle it either?

The first step in confronting that response is to recognise that there is more than one kind of knowledge. Philosophers are used to the distinction between knowing that and knowing how, and to the wider distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge. Someone who knows what to do in some difficult situation certainly has a cognitive possession that the merely bewildered lack: but it is not a possession that could be stated as a collection of truths. He could know what to do even if he had no words to describe it. And his knowledge exists not as a prediction of some future state of affairs but as a readiness to act, spread over intentions and perceptions that lie below the horizon of language.

Kant was inclined to say that the only way to understand the transcendental is to flip from theoretical to practical reason, to recognise that we are wrong to think that we can have knowledge about the transcendental, but right to think that, when we reach this limit, there is still somewhere else to go. We should step sideways, as it were, recognise that reason does not merely describe the world but also commands us to change it. And really the invocation of the transcendental is a reminder that reason knows the world in another way – as a sphere of action, in which we can freely change the way things are.

Whatever we think of Kant’s way out of the dilemma, it is clearly not what people have had in mind in invoking music, as a channel to the transcendental. Music is not an invitation to action, but an object of contemplation. And it is precisely this, many people feel, that enables music to lift us free from our ordinary preoccupations. It works on us like the Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques, detaching our thoughts and emotions from the things of this world, and directing them to a place of tranquillity, where we encounter ‘the peace that passeth understanding’.

But that suggestion is open to an important objection, which is this: what would be the difference, on this view, between contemplating the transcendental by means of the music, and just contemplating the music? Granted that fixing your attention on the music conveys a sense of sublime peacefulness or release from this world, why is that not simply an effect of the music, rather than of something transcendent that we perceive through the music? The very transcendent nature of the alleged object implies that we could not make the difference in practice between the two accounts, and that therefore the invocation of the transcendental is, so to speak, doing no work of its own. It is just something we say, without grounds and without knowing what we mean by it.

To make progress, it seems to me, we must shift our attention to the concept of ineffability. It is not only the transcendent that is ineffable: many of our experiences are like this, containing some core content that we cannot put into words, since all words fall short of it. A nameless fear, an indefinable joy, a je ne sais quoi, an inexpressible longing, and so on. There is an interesting example of music filling in the gap left by words in Beethoven’s setting of ‘Namenlöse Freude’, ‘nameless joy’ in Fidelio. Here we really do feel that the music has supplied what words could never express – a joy that is not of this world, and which unites Florestan and Leonora in a space of their own, visitors from the transcendental. Is this an example of music effing the ineffable? Not exactly. After all, the words go some way to identifying the feeling that the characters are trying to express. And the music works in the way operatic music works in general: by taking a defined situation and filling it with a movement of its own.

We can draw a few lessons from the example nevertheless. First, the music is presenting us with something. It does not describe the ‘nameless joy’ of the protagonists, and is therefore not a vehicle of ‘knowledge that’. But it makes us acquainted with their feeling: in other words, it conveys a kind of ‘knowledge by acquaintance’. And perhaps this is a useful paradigm in art. Susanne Langer once wrote of art as a system of ‘presentational symbols’ (in Feeling and Form and elsewhere). I am not sure what she meant exactly. But there is certainly a cognitively significant process which involves presenting something for attention, without describing it.

In general ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ is not replaceable by knowledge by description, and contains a component that could reasonably be described as ‘ineffable’ – the critical ‘what it is like’ which we might attempt to capture in metaphors but which can be properly known only through acquaintance, as feelings are known. It is a plausible claim that this kind of knowledge is conveyed by works of art. And maybe there is a sense in which the ineffable heart of our more elusive experiences can be ‘effed’ by a work of music, even though it cannot be put into words. The Schubert songs seem so often to work in this way, taking a simple situation and conveying a ‘quite peculiar’ emotion towards it, an emotion which comes immediately to mind in the music, but which we struggle in vain to describe.

(Cf. what Collingwood says about the ‘particular’ emotion conveyed by Brahms’s song ‘Feldeinsamkeit’, in Principles of Art, and Wittgenstein’s remarks in The Brown Book, contrasting the transitive and intransitive senses of ‘particular’. When you say that a piece of music expresses a quite particular or peculiar feeling, you are using the words ‘particular’ or ‘peculiar’ intransitively, so as to refuse any further description of the feeling than the one you have given. You are referring to just this particular feeling, the feeling conveyed by ‘Feldeinsamkeit’, which is the full and sufficient identification of what you have in mind. And you are implying that the feeling could be fully and sufficiently identified only in this way. In the language of literary theory, you are saying that here form and content are inseparable.)

But this leads me to draw another lesson. When we speak of the way in which a work of music captures or presents some state of mind we are not speaking neutrally, as though recording some conventional or external connection. We are referring to the achieved content of the work. In general works of art have meaning only to the extent that they are meaningful, and meaningful only to the extent that they are successful acts of communication with the audience. A work of music that succeeds in effing some ineffable emotion is, to that extent, a successful work of music, one that has crossed the barrier from artistic nothingness into the realm of aesthetic value. Only a minority of works do this.

Thus if someone were to say that music in general acquaints us with the transcendental then, even if we can make sense of that, it would not amount to very much. So what? is the response. If all music does this, even the trite and the meaningless, then this gives us no reason for thinking that music tells us anything that we wanted to know. The relation with the transcendental, on this reading, is not part of the meaning of music, since it is not part of what distinguishes meaningful from meaningless works. The only interesting thesis would be that there are pieces of meaningful music, in which the meaningfulness resides in presenting, in some way, the transcendental, and thereby effing the ineffable.

You can appreciate what I have in mind by returning again to the case of meditation. People use many different props and catalysts in order to meditate. Some burn joss-sticks, some play soft music, some listen to Indian ragas, some sit by still waters and dream. But clearly none of those things bears within it the essential reference to the transcendental that the meditating person hopes to recuperate. If there is a case of music actually putting us in touch with the transcendental then this must be an achievement of the same order as that of Schubert’s ‘Doppelgänger’, as it presents us with the dreadful experience recounted in Heine’s poem and so leads us, cynical postmoderns though we are, to know by acquaintance the corrosive jealousy of unrequited romantic love, in those days when you couldn’t get on your bicycle and check out the girls across the valley.

If we are to make headway with our quest for a relation between music and the transcendental then we should think of some particular piece of music, which is both meaningful as music, and points, through its meaning, towards the transcendental, in such a way as to make the transcendental present to our minds. I suspect that many people want to say some such thing of the late Beethoven quartets, which so often have the air of an inner communing with God, or of sacred polyphony set to simple words, like the Ave Verum Corpus of Mozart or that of Byrd. But it is seldom clear that we could distinguish, in such cases, between a piece of music that presents us with the transcendental, and a piece that presents us with feelings towards the transcendental. There is much religious music, and the great examples, Victoria, Palestrina, Mozart, Rachmaninov and similar, acquaint us with profound religious feelings. It would be normal for religious people to describe their feelings on hearing such music as directed towards, or about, the transcendental. But that does not mean that the music expressing those feelings is about the transcendental. In all musical communication sentiment is passed by sympathy from the music to the listener, but it is sentiment that is passed, not the thing it is about. And when this thing is described as transcendental – in other words, as lying in some way beyond the reach of human knowledge – the natural conclusion to draw is that music cannot reach that far.

We seem to have come up against an impassable barrier, therefore. We can assign a role to music in effing the ineffable, when the ineffable is the non-propositional content of our states of mind – a content that can be presented to the imagination but not described in words. But it cannot eff what lies beyond human acquaintance entirely. Is that, then, the end of the story? Not quite.

Consider our knowledge of each other. When I react to your words and behaviour, to your facial expression, to the many signs that you give of your awareness of me, I am reacting to a human being. My emotions and thoughts are focused on you, as revealed to me in the flesh. But that is not how I see you. I see you as a subject like me, another in whose point of view I too appear as another. My feelings and responses reach across to you, but over-shoot their target, so to speak, not latching on to the visible embodiment of you but seeking out the I in you. I address my words and looks to the thing that addresses me from your words and looks, and that thing I see as an individual centre of consciousness, located nowhere visible, but standing as though on the horizon of our shared world. I suspect that this is a primary experience of the ‘transcendental’ – i.e. of that which is somehow beyond the limit of the empirical world. To describe this transcendence manifest in the other as though it were a kind of object is of course to repeat the mistake of Descartes. But my emotions and responses towards the other reach out beyond the observable other, as though to make contact with this thing on the horizon, this pure perspective which I cannot reach because to reach it I would have to be you.

In other words, there seems to be, contained within our ordinary inter-personal attitudes, an element of over-reach, a direction on the world that looks through the world to that which cannot be contained in it. When other people enter into relation with us it is as though the transcendent has been made present, has visited us in the here and now. Hence Levinas describes the face as ‘visitation and transcendence’. In my Stanton lectures I have tried to explain this strange idea and to show that it captures something deep and puzzling in the human condition.

I have also argued that the over-reaching intentionality of our inter-personal attitudes extends from our encounter with other people to our encounter with the world. There is, in our outlook on the world, a kind of hunger for the transcendent – a reaching beyond what is given to the subjectivity that is revealed in it. This hunger is satisfied only when we can sense ourselves to be in the ‘real presence’, the shekhinah, by which what is transcendent makes itself manifest in the here and now. Religion lays great store by this experience, which of its nature cannot be given an a priori guarantee but which is recorded by all the great mystics and divines as the core of their faith. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans referred to by Rudolf Otto in his The Idea of the Holy. And it is an experience whose ineffability is part of what is valued: for it is a visitation of the individual life from a sphere that cannot be reached by any merely human effort, and cannot be known except in this way. It is a kind of gift, for which we cannot ask since we lack words to summon it. Hence, in usual religious parlance, it is identified as one manifestation of the Grace of God.

Could it be that music can capture this experience, and make it imaginatively available in some way, to those to whom it has not been directly granted? I think this is what people have had in mind, when they have defended the view that music can reach to the transcendent. Music can put us in the presence of something that has no place in this world, and which moves in a world of its own. And it can do this in a way that seems both orderly and personal, moving with a complete necessity that is also a kind of freedom. Two features of music contribute to this effect. First, the space of music, in a listening culture, is what I call an ‘acousmatic space’: it is a space full of movement and fields of force in which nothing actually moves, and of which we ourselves could never be a part. In a mysterious way the order of music transforms sequences of sounds into melodies that begin and end, chords that occupy whole areas and gravitational fields that push and pull in ways of their own. I have elaborated on this in The Aesthetics of Music, and I think one conclusion to be drawn is that musical space is a space in which things move with a singular freedom, precisely because it contains no obstacles – no part of it is occupied, in the way physical space is occupied, but all of it is open.[1]

Secondly, the virtual causality that operates in musical space is or aims to be a causality of reason. In successful works of music there is a reason for each note, though not necessarily a reason that could be put into words. Each note is a response to the one preceding it and an invitation to its successor. Of course, sequences in music may sound facile, mechanical or arbitrary, so that the listener has no sense of a reasoned progression. But when that happens we are apt to dismiss the music as trivial or meaningless. Real music is not a sequence of mechanical movements but a continuous action, to which the ‘why?’ of inter-personal understanding applies. The important works exhibit both the freedom and the necessity to which our self-sufficient actions always aspire – each detail must be as it is and where it is, and yet each detail must also be freely chosen. It is as though the space of music were awaiting visitation, and whatever appears in it is called upon to live the life of reason, just as we do.

Thanks to these features we hear music, at least music of a certain kind, as imbued with an intentionality, an ‘aboutness’ of its own. It is as though it is reacting in its own way to something that we cannot know or observe, since this thing is buried in that space that we cannot enter, audible, so to speak, on its far horizon, but heard only by the music and not by us. Yet we move with the music’s sympathetic movement, and it is this, I think, which gives us the impression that we have been put in touch, in some way, with the transcendental. I suggest that this experience is familiar from the world of chamber music, and from the instrumental works of Bach, as well as from much sacred music. The pure polyphony of Palestrina, the plangent Responsories of Victoria, the solo violin Partitas of Bach, and the latter’s Art of Fugue and Goldberg Variations all seem to move in sympathy to some source beyond the limits of this world, which also visits the sacred space of music.

Of course, the best we can conclude from this is that the music helps us to imagine some kind of contact with the transcendental. It certainly offers no proof that such contact is possible. Perhaps our hunger for the transcendental is a primitive fact about us, which corresponds to nothing real. But about that there is nothing to be said in any case. The transcendental is ineffable, and that which we cannot eff we must consign to silence. Of course, the desire to find comfort in the unknowable is always with us, the knowable being so devastatingly devoid of it. But we are led always into contradiction by the pursuit of this desire. Consider St Paul’s and the Prayer Book’s reference to the ‘peace which passeth understanding’: is this not already a contradiction’ for if it really passes understanding, how do we know it is peace? It would not offer comfort to think of this thing, if we did not think of it as bringing the peace and reconciliation that we long for. And the same goes for the transcendental realm that we glimpse in the sacred space of music. We feel that music is putting us in touch with another world, beyond the reach of our human knowledge, the very world that appears in the epiphanies referred to by Rudolf Otto, in Das Heilige. But we also want that world to be good to us, to contain a solace and a vindication, and to ease us as it were onto its breast. What would be the point otherwise? And yet music can do this only as the Prayer Book does it, by helping us to see that unattainable world in human terms – providing us like Beethoven’s Heilige Dankgesang with an image of healing, or like Bach’s Erbarme Dich with a supreme act of penitence, into which we are drawn and which comforts us with the sense that, if there is forgiveness, then it will be granted in return for this. These experiences transcend our ordinary ability to articulate them, and do so thanks to the music. But to say that they reach beyond the empirical to the transcendental is to misrepresent their way of working.

[1] See Chapters 1 and 2 of The Aesthetics of Music. The musical space that I describe there is a phenomenological space, whose places are identifiable without strain by ordinary listeners. In my view this space has nothing to do with the geometrical representation of musical relations given by Dmitri Tymoczko in The Geometry of Music, who shows how to collate common practice voice-leading with transformations of points on a Möbius strip.

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