Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Musical Climax and Musical Essentialism

The Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan is the most remarkable music. For those first audiences, it must have felt as if music, which had always hinted at orgasm but never fully revealed it, finally revealed what had been veiled for so long. Perhaps the more explicit verbal expression of the subject through Freud was inevitable afterwards.

But it is the nature of the climax itself in Tristan which is interesting me - particularly how it might be interpreted biologically. In my musical studies, I often encountered an anti-essentialist tendency in musical analysis which saw music as a culturally conditioned phenomenon where the mannerisms of high romanticism (for example) were regarded as normative, not ontological. I have always felt ill-at-ease with this position. Sonata form may have been codified and taught in the conservatoires, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something essential about it.

But musical essentialism is a slippery slope. It either leads to a kind of physicalism which privileged physics and denies the power of the human mind and society, or it falls prey to mentalism, which over-emphasises the causality of individual psychological mechanisms in musical affect and appreciation at the expense of obvious physical qualities or indeed, palpable shared experience.

The problem stems from different models of the human being. The psychological model produces a somewhat isolated organism, rather like a computer, obeying the rules of the programming prescribed in their mind, and picking up signals from other individuals programmed on a similar basis (although having specific differences in personality, etc). The 'physical' model on the other hand tends to be a puppet of their environment, with mental mechanisms always subject to the rule of physical nature (harmonic series, etc).

I prefer to think about the 'convivial model': The Convivial human always lives with others in the world. Partly, my reason for thinking this is that the pure psychological model or the pure physical model isn't (actually) thinkable: we do not know a world of no other people. The social world pre-exists us. Consequently, we do not know of a world without our own and other peoples' bodies, or without our own or other peoples' communications. And this leads to the strange paradox of the convivial model - that it is impossible to say where the individual ends and the world begins. Indeed, the very concept of boundaries is tied up in the human-world relationship: to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, the world, its boundaries and distinctions, is as much of my flesh as my little finger.

How does this help in thinking about musical essentialism, or the musical climax? What I believe we can do is to talk in a common-sense way about experience. The remarkable thing of Tristan is that the experience is immediately recognised: we all know about the climax; we know what it means, because it is such a fundamental part of experience. What it means is letting go at the point at which nothing can be held on to any longer.

I think that raises a number of questions:

  • What is in nature that we seek to 'hold on' to things in the first place?
  • What is in nature that we eventually have to let things go?
  • What is in nature that drives us through holding on and letting go?
  • What are the different forms of 'letting go'?
  • What are we holding on to in music that we then let go?

I think this question can be addressed through thinking about the continually shifting relation between ourselves and the world... or rather the shifting organisational relationship within the self-world system. I think this relationship might be expressed as a mechanism of 'attachment'.

I think that identity and meaning are the things which we seek to hold on to.

I think that identity and meaning is established through managing relationships with the world... through managing attachments.

I think that our relationships with the world, and ultimately our identities and effort to establish meaning, are ultimately unstable.

I think that the climax occurs when we can no longer manage our attachments.

I think that at the point at which attachment can no longer be maintained, the only thing the individual system can do to preserve itself is to divest attachments, to give up trying to manage what it can't manage - and this is usually done with some explosive force.

This is when the climax occurs.

But there is one question which remains, and which I will have to deal with in a future post. Because given this struggle, Camus is right when he says at the beginning of the Myth of Sisyphus that:
"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide"


dkernohan said...

Great post. Do we try to hold on to our harmonic and patterned response to music - understanding and responding to repetition and comprehensible development (pace your earlier thinking on the "caress")? Do we "let go" as we move from this understanding of music to a more visceral response?

You've got me thinking about the musical semiotics of hard rocking guitar solos (a microcosm of tension/release in music), which is not bad for tuesday morning!

Mark William Johnson said...

It's all relevant David! I think we need a JISC project!