What is music? And how can it reveal something of the ontological dynamics of existence?
Music, like language, is common to all human beings and for some, it is an essential part of what it means to be a human being. But why? what is so special about music? And, equally so, what can we learn from thinking about music?
Is music just ‘decoration’? Something that belongs to the decorative arts? Or is it a serious art form, coming to life in dialogue with philosophy?
Music is a dynamic temporal structure (rooted in repetitive patterns and complex evolving harmonic relations). This is explicit in the rhythmic music of Nik Bartsch. Musical structures only exists in a flow. If the flow ceases so does the music. The structures – the musical patterns or forms – you are listening to, also mutate, distort and shift over time, giving us something like a narrative. All music seems to share these two properties: structure and narrative. In the classical tradition we have forms of the fugue, the canon and, critically, the sonata (still one of the best images of a dialectic I can think of).
Let us say that ‘truth’ is like a seed buried deep in the fabric of the world. Under the right conditions it will emerge, it will flower and appear in the manifesting surfaces and forms of the phenomenal. Music creates a set of conditions. Think of these conditions as a dynamic scaffold, constructed over an infinite abyss (cf Meister Eckhart). If the listener is tuned in to the music then they sense this flow, moving both upwards and inwards through the musical scaffold.
That is my contention. And it is a fragile contention. It requires thinking Swedenborg with music but it also links Bartsch to the dynamic of Qawwali music, an ecstatic spiritual form which explicitly enacts this upward and inward movement through the scaffolding of the music.
Nik, I suspect, senses this in music. He calls his music “Ritual Groove Music” or “Zen-Funk’.
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This discussion came a lot closer to touching the vast philosophical edifice underlying my work. It is enormously difficult to impress upon the listener what price I pay for this originality. THanks to Thomas I manage to approach some of the key ideas in fairly uncomplicated ways.
In the film ‘Brainstorm’ there are two profoundly spiritual moments – the ending, which portrays a return trajectory back to a transcendent root, presented in almost mystical terms (no surprise that the director Douglas Trumbull created the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a moment quite early on in the film when the Christopher Walken character returns home to find his wife and a quartet of string players playing Schubert’s “Trout Quintet”. Schubert? I hear you say? Spiritual?
The film’s ending is the familiar and well established classical image of the spiritual – one that points away from the world, one that returns the soul to God, restoring its original unity from an exile in the finite. One you find in most mythologies. My favourite example is Dante’s Commedia. My favourite philosopher expressing this is Plotinus.
But what about the scene with Schubert? Here we find something new and different. Here, the movement is not the narrative of “exiled from some heavenly abode until death restores and returns you to your true spiritual home”. Firstly, in the hands of a Hegel, it points to the world as the paradoxical (finite) location of the highest point of the Spirit’s self-realisation. The world is not far from the root but, in the order of things, actually the site of its fullest realisation and self-revelation. (These ideas are familiar to anyone who has digested Jacob Boehme, Emmanuel Swedenborg or even Spinoza). The world, at these moment, discloses the transcendent root and, to paraphrase Arthur Danto, transforms itself in the process (much like James Joyce’s notion of Epiphany – itself rooted in Aquinas). And, more importantly, this root is the very same one we see at the end of the film – flowing upwards and into the world, the light we return to.
Ironically, given Hegel seemed to dismiss music, it is hard to find a better image of the Hegelian metaphysic and aesthetic than the sonata form in classical music. But I digress. I wanted to talk about Dutilleux. And I’ve ended up talking about Schubert. Perhaps next time I will get there. In the meantime listen to this stunning piece, built out of forms that do not fit any simple school of thought, but somehow gather them, weave them together to allow The Spirit to see itself.
Whereas the first Sophie Fiennes film, ‘Pervert’s Guide To Cinema’, worked this one sadly does not. I am curious to look at why. The first film was fresh and lively, there were real moments of spontaneity and Zizek was enthusiastic and eccentric. You could watch him, take in the psychoanalytic theorising and enjoy the whole experience as entertainment as well culture.
The moment Zizek turned to ‘ideology’ he began to slow down, to speak differently, to pause for effect, to try and sound serious and ‘deep’. But it didn’t work. I am not suggesting he is not a deep thinker – no, he clearly is a philosopher of some depth and wit, part of a generation of post-postmodern thinkers who are willing to reclaim parts of the enlightenment project – like Badiou. If there is a problem it is in the selection he makes and what he does with it. Typical of this post-postmodern generation his thought is ‘syncretic’. He constructs new positions entirely from a tapestry of ideas formulated by a handful of others.
So, back to the scene above. The film is a great Carpenter B-movie – with a deserving target: the corporatisation of the world. Put on the glasses and you will see the ‘truth’. The problem is this: the sheer explicitness and obviousness of this film leaves very little room for depth. I find it a companion piece to Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness’. Zizek labours over this scene in exactly the same way he did not in the first film. In that film he was swift and sharp, moving fluidly between scenes and ideas. Here he is stodgy and familiar. That, for me, is why the film fails. The novelty of Zizek has gone. Zizek feels it. His own discomfort is – they’ve heard all this from me before but –
But he still repeats it. And it doesn’t work. Stitching his syncretic thought patterns leaves us with a sense that what we really wanted was a sharper sequel, a faster and more integrated vision of the world that would not only challenge our complacency – how ideology hides in our pleasures has been done to death – but would open up some real imaginative pathways.
But it does not happen. After the first wave of Zizek I expect him to push his thought and imagination and start doing something new –
His Hegel book was repetitive and abstruse in the worst possible ways. His journalese has become a little knowing and predictable.
So I wait for the third film in which he goes all ‘Utopian’ and does a film on science fiction and fantasy – and how it tries to imagine new worlds, new way of being – from personal love, to society, to glorious alien-infested science fiction universes in which Arthur C Clarke’s vision is finally redeemed.
I leave you with one final thought: why can’t a revolution in society, politics and the economy not resemble the kind of revolutions we get in the arts, in the sciences or mathematics?
In John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ MacReady (Kurt Russell) and one of the Doctors go to the cramped Norwegian Base – ostensibly the location of this prequel. When they leave the building they glance across the snow to discover what looks like the charred remains of ‘some kind of animal’. When we next encounter these charred remains on a laboratory bench – we discover a unique property of this ‘alien’ – how it passes between forms. At the end of the laboratory scene, the men are standing around, some holding their hands over their mouths in disgust – the camera zooms into the ‘face’ of this strange mutilated being – it is a split ‘face’. The 2011 film attempts to give you an origins story, a prequel. I read, with some interest how the production team went over the original film again and again – studying the sets, the aesthetic, that very 1980s look and tried to replicate it so it wouldn’t jar in the way Lucas’s ‘Phantom Menace’ does. (Why does a later film, purporting to be a prequel actually have more advanced technology than the film that should follow it? A problem with Star Wars, Prometheus and much, much more – )
But something went wrong, terribly wrong. In staying true to the letter of the original – well done for that – they lost hold of its Lovecraftian core – something that is intrinsically linked to its Antarctic location and to Campbell’s original short story. They lost the ‘Thing’. They tried, but failed, to not overuse CGI – but there is simply too much of it and the scene above demonstrates just why it does not work. It is no longer a paranoid nightmare – it is a surface, a ‘spectacle’.
Sadly, someone also forced a real compromise of the film’s integrity – by placing Americans on the Norwegian Base. In the original film we get a sense of isolation, not a sense that the nearby Norwegian base has fellow Americans. Of course it does not work. Neither group of Americans know of each other’s existence? Or bother to mention it? And each base is dramatically under siege. You’d think: contact the nearest Americans we know. I would speculate that the contract required Americans and not just Norwegians. But don’t have US Actors take on Norwegian roles – think of Fincher’s remake of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ (which had more integrity) or even go the whole way: a ‘Nordic noir’ with subtitles. It is a shame. A missed opportunity. As Anne Bilson explains the ‘Thing’ is a landmark in ‘Alien Terror’, set in a universe very close to Lovecraftian cosmology – one that signifies, for me atleast, a modern, nihilistic, cosmic indifferentism, a spectacular metaphysical failure.
In this conversation I introduce the background of the book – Shovian Thought – and we explore the concept of a context boundary, an interaction junction, that frames much of classical modern thought.
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