Theorist: To compose music is to engage philosophically with music. Music is always about other things–about a bigger picture.
Pragmatist: Not at all–to compose music is to engage tactilely with putting sounds together.
Music is always about just music.
T: But surely you want to know to what end you’re doing the organizing?
P: I know my ends–I’m composing according to the sounds I have and the demands of the gig, the style, the context.
What other ends are there?
T: Well, one end is the bigger picture.
P: That’s vague. Isn’t music’s sound the picture–the picture that your ear takes in?
T: Yes but there’s more. I have the sense that anyone working in music–be they composer or performer or even listener–are in fact trying to do something else or be somewhere else. The picture is elsewhere as it were.
P: I don’t understand. You mean a string quartet playing together or a listener lost in headphone reverie are trying to achieve something outside of music?
T: Exactly! I think we use music as escape, as a way of imagining other states and ways of being, even as a way of experiencing virtual transgression.
P: Hmm. That last bit sounds somewhat radical. It brings to mind Jacques Attali who in his book Noise (1985) said that music is “forecast” and “prophecy” (21)–that music is like a crystal ball of sorts, anticipating future social change.
T: I like that formulation. But I’m convinced that the change music heralds or helps bring about is mostly internal.
What I’m saying is that music is a way to be virtually in several places at once.
In this way it teaches us about ourselves, about how we think and feel.
P: So this is what you mean when you say that music has a bigger picture and that music is always about other things?
P: Interesting. Okay, now this reminds me of a passage in Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (2016).
Ratliff wonders whether music may be “actually necessary to consciousness.”
He asks: “What if music teaches you qualities of motion, ethics, ambition, in the most basic sense?” (88)
T: I could get behind that formulation.
P: So tell me, Theorist, what is it that you’re trying to do in your work?
T: I’m trying to connect music outwards to so many other realms of experience to show music’s bigger picture.
And what about you, Pragmatist?
P: I simply love making music–the smaller picture, if you will.
As an end to itself, there’s nothing else like it.
T: Now that, my friend, is most resoundingly true!