Resonant Thoughts: Arnold Berleant’s “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance” (1999)

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“The performer necessarily comes at the music from within…Most often the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness, free, at least to some extent, from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness. What is this perceptual condition like?”

– Arnold Berleant, “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance”,
Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), p. 75.

Resonant Thoughts: Thomas Clifton’s “Music As Heard” (1983)

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“The theoretical act involves ‘observing the self observing the music’ (37).

“The logic and sense of music are different from the logic of propositions” (71-72).

“Before becoming a cultural artifact, a style,
or an object of study, music is a presence” (80).

“But to inhabit the world of music, it is necessary to be able to identify that world and refer to it, not its representative. And the only way to refer to it is by reflecting on it as a phenomenal object which one’s abilities recognize to be expressive” (298).

Reset

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In my current work of performing music, perhaps the most useful “secret” for maintaining a high standard of playing is my ability to reset. In my life outside of music, there are very few occasions in need of resetting—at home, there’s pressing the small button on the kitchen thermometer, or unplugging the cable modem now and then so it can find the signal. The resetting I do at the show is similar to this, but a tad more involved. In a nutshell, when I reset I pretend—suspend disbelief—that this show is the first show. Even though I have memories of thousands of previous shows, this show is the first and last of its kind, and so worth paying close attention to. Paying close attention makes it more interesting because it makes it a game of noticing details. Phenomenologists might describe my stance using the term bracketing—a way of setting off the here and now of immediate experience from everything else that might be beckoning for my attention. To reset is to re-consider the details of this performance one more time without past experience getting in the way. To reset is to be a (trained) beginner (again).

I had this thought about reset just as I was picking up some mallets and standing there, waiting to play. I thought about how for the audience this was their first time at the performance and their first time encountering my sounds (somewhere in the overall mix of sounds and sights clamoring for their attention). I thought about how extraneous, non-musical claptrap that had gradually infiltrated my consciousness over the years—tiny stories about the music, gossip via and about fellow musicians, workplace politics (oh the drama!)—is of zero use in the moment of performance. Zero. I thought about how powerful it feels to have a “higher” gear I can kick into to silence that cognitive noise by resetting, over and over again. In that moment I don’t measure my experience by the number of shows I have already played (in the thousands, in any case), or by the lessons I have stowed away (few, in any case) that I can recycle and reapply. The cleanest way to (re)encounter the moment is to let go of my assumptions about it and attend to its unfolding, just like this, in this way, right now. When you keep things empty, they remain fresh and full of potential. And then the music started and I began to play.

Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

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If I were a fictionalist, I would write in the analytical-introspective manner of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). In Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, we follow one man’s attempts to increase his inner awareness by increasing his consciousness of his surroundings. Mr. Palomar is a practicing phenomenologist who tries to understand the world through all of its perceived details and in each brief, self-contained chapter we read Mr. Palomar’s meditations on various topics. My favorite part of the novel is “Reading A Wave” (a sub-section of the chapter “Mr. Palomar On the Beach”) in which Calvino unpacks Mr. Palomar’s experience trying to describe the difficult to describe experience of watching a single ocean wave.

Mr. Palomar could charitably be described as a nervous control freak, and one of his strategies for dealing with the noise of the world is to reduce it by framing it in particular ways. In Mr. Palomar’s “desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object”, hoping that “the key to mastering the world’s complexity [is] by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.” But framing a single ocean wave is a difficult perceptual task that involves “separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away.” A wave is never in isolation and you can’t look at one wave “without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself generates.” Even so, Mr. Palomar believes he can somehow focus on the essence of a single wave at one point in time—to “simply see a wave–that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them.”

Finding it difficult to isolate a single wave, Mr. Palomar “now tries to limit his field of observation” by imagining a larger, 10 by 10 meter square for analysis. Within this frame “he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.” But this too is exhausting  work, because a lot happens within any arbitrarily chosen section of the ocean. By the end of the story Calvino reveals that the idealistic goal of Mr. Palomar’s observation exercise is to hack his own faculties of noticing: “Is this perhaps the real pursuit that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?”

As I read “Reading A Wave” it struck me as an excellent model for thinking through the difficulty of describing and writing about musical experience. The problem, simply put, is that music never stays still. It’s nothing but ceaseless movement. Even a “static” drone is continuous vibration over time. Like the breaking ocean waves, music ebbs and flows over durations. Another problem with music is that so much happens at once. It’s often composed of simultaneities. Even a simple song with voice and accompaniment contains several lines to pay attention to. And what about a fugue? Or polyrhythmic drumming? Maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture!

What I take from “Mr. Palomar” is the intensity of his attempts to describe a single wave. Even if his enterprise is somewhat futile, I like that Palomar goes all in trying to pay attention to as many details as he can notice. I like too that he has established a “limited and precise object”—even if his choice of object is perhaps too fluid to submit to anything longer than a momentary descriptive capturing. Whatever the anxious origins of his motivations for perceptual precision, Mr. Palomar is doing the Difficult Critical Work of framing the world around him so to slow it down just long enough so he can take some of it in.

You can read “Mr. Palomar” here.

Owning The Phenomenal World: Jeong Kwan On Creativity

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“Creativity and ego cannot go together.

If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind,

your creativity opens up endlessly.

Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment.

You must not be your own obstacle.

You must not be owned by the environment you are in.

You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you.

You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind.

This is being free.

There is no way you can’t open up your creativity.

There is no ego to speak of.”

(From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, season 3, episode 1)

On Resonant Thoughts: Sarah Bakewell’s “At The Existentialist Cafe”

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“This experiential music is the one I can speak about with certainty.”
– Sarah Bakewell, At The Existentialist Cafe, p. 41.

“If I want to tell you about a heart-rending piece of music, phenomenology enables me to describe it as a moving piece of music, rather than as a set of string vibrations and mathematical note relationships on which I have pinned a personal emotion. Melancholy music is melancholy; a sweet air is a sweet air; these descriptions are fundamental to what music is. Indeed, we do talk about music phenomenologically all the time. Even if I describe a sequence of notes as going ‘up’ or ‘down’, this has less to do with what the sound waves are doing (which is becoming more or less frequent, and longer or shorter) than with how the music plays out in my mind. I hear the notes climbing up an invisible ladder. I almost physically rise in my chair as I listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; my very soul takes flight. That’s not just me: it is what the music is” (42).

Merleau-Ponty On The Organist

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In his treatise on phenomenology, Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes compellingly on the role of our bodies in our experience of the world. Merleau-Ponty touches on musical experience here and there, so of course I blazed through the book in search of those heres and theres to see what he had to say. One striking passage concerns the example of an organist who is faced with a new organ but little time to prepare for a performance on it. Merleau-Ponty brings us through what a musician might do in this situation.

First, he gets to know the new organ, “he sizes up the instrument with his body, he incorporates its directions and dimensions, and he settles into the organ as one settles into a house” (146). Next is the problem of what exactly is rehearsed on the unfamiliar instrument. The answer is a series of gestures or physical moves that serve as explorations. The organist’s “rehearsal gestures…put forth affective vectors, they discover emotional sources, and they create an expressive space” (147). The organist’s gestures in turn reveal his habits of performance which may or may not fit the new instrument. The problem, says Merleau-Ponty, “is to determine how the musical signification of the gesture can be condensed into a certain locality to the extent that…the organist reaches for precisely the stops and the pedals that will actualize it” (147). In other words, will this new instrument actualize what the musician hopes to achieve through his gestures? Finally, the musician’s goal is to gain a connection with the new instrument and start playing. But where does music reside in all of this? In several places at once—in the score, in the organ sound, and in the relationship or what Merleau-Ponty calls the “passage” between the organist and the organ: “Between the musical essence of the piece such as it is indicated in the score and the music that actually resonates around the organ, such a direct relationship is established that the body of the organist and the instrument are nothing other than the place of passage of this relation” (147).

Later in the book, Merleau-Ponty clarifies what it means to make and listen to a musical sound. He distinguishes between three modalities of sound listening which he calls objective sound, atmospheric sound, and an unnamed “last stage” sound. Considering that Merleau-Ponty was not a musician himself, it’s quite a feat of imagining the different ways in which musicians hear music from inside the musical experience. These three sound modalities move us from listening to sound emanating from the instrument, to listening to how the sound vibrates within us so that we feel as we have become the instrument, and finally, to listening in such a way that it feels as if our sound-making has altered our entire selves. Merleau-Ponty: “there is an objective sound that resonates outside of me in the musical instrument, an atmospheric sound that is between the object and my body, a sound that vibrates in me ‘as if I had become the flute or the clock,’ and finally a last stage where the sonorous element disappears and becomes a highly precise experience of a modification of my entire body” (236).

Here is a recording of Merleau-Ponty discussing our perception of “sensible objects.” Though he doesn’t discuss music here, he does touch on painting, and more intriguingly, honey. “The unity of a thing is not behind each of its qualities” he says, “it is reaffirmed by each of them, each of them is the whole thing.”

And finally, here is an outstanding piece of organ music by Olivier Messiaen: