On Musical Pictures Of The World

by Thomas Brett

In an interview on The Marketplace Of Ideas podcast, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses the value of the humanities:

“The great task of the humanities is to draw on the rich body of human creativity in literature, the arts, music, film, and so on to help us interpret and live in our world.  And a kind of cold descriptive analysis of our world leaves out things that are important for human beings who are going to live in it.  There has to be a perspective on the world that is the perspective of a human being–facing the world that is full of demands on her attention, demands on her time, things that excite her, things that attract her, things that repulse her.  And that perspective on the world, that irreducibly human perspective, is one that naturally goes with the humanities, which are full of invitations to respond to the world in those ways.”

“We humans live with many pictures of the world.  We do not live with one picture.  Nobody has a totally integrated picture of the world. (…)  I have many poetic pictures of the world, I have literary pictures of the world, I have musical pictures–I have many ways of representing reality and the needs and challenges of the world. And I move among them.  I need them all to make human sense of the world.”

So, if we are to talk about our musical picture(s) of the world, what are we talking about?  How does music act as a prism through which we experience the world?  And how do different musics do their prismatic filtering differently?

One way music provides a picture of the world is by modelling the world’s relations (social, temporal, physical) in one way or another and through sonic signification.  There is an extensive literature of these topics, but ultimately we need to remember that music carries out its modelling and signifying work metaphorically: it’s an abstraction of our lives.  Which is to say that there is not usually a one to one correlation between music’s sounds and things and events in the world outside of music.  Rather, music works by suggestive enchantment, conjuring up a world through its internal relations against which, you, the listener, bring to bear your own experiences.  Whatever meanings may arise–”That music made me cry!”–do so out of this encounter.  I should say too that this whole process I find quite wonderous, which is why I keep writing about it from different angles.

Different musics provide different pictures of the world.  I leave you with two examples, chosen somewhat randomly but also because they are so different from one another.  The first is a clip of the American drone-noise-metal band Sun O))) who make a (spectacularly) loud form of slow and heavy electric guitar-based drone music.  The second example is a clip of Japanese koto player Yoshie Sakai performing on the koto zither. As you listen (and remember: you don’t have to like something to listen to it), you might think about the different “pictures of the world” your encounter with each music suggests to you.

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