Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting Into the Melody of Existence

Zuckerkandl discusses some of the interesting philosophical -- and I would say theological -- problems raised by the existence of melodies. After all, what is a melody? A melody is a succession of tones. However, a cat scampering over a piano keyboard will produce a series of tones, but that's not a melody. Unless it's one very hep cat.

So why are some series of tones meaningful, while others are not? It's a tricky question, because meaning usually involves one thing that stands for and symbolizes another; there is the signifier (the symbol or word) and that which it signifies (the object, concept, activity, etc.).

But melodies don't refer to anything but themselves. Yes, there is programmatic music intended to evoke preconceived ideas and emotions, but that is the exception. The greatest music is completely abstract, and has no external referent.

Zuckerkandl writes that "when we hear a melody, we hear things that have no counterpart in physical nature." This is again why music occupies that third area, the mysterious transitional space alluded to in the previous post. A single tone -- or the cat running across the keyboard -- is not a musical phenomenon, but merely an acoustical one. Does this imply that music is therefore "unreal," like an auditory hallucination? Perhaps, so long as we agree with Terence McKenna that there exist true hallucinations.

What is it that converts the tone into a note, and the note into a melody? I would suggest that it is the same cosmic force that converts an atom into a molecule, molecule into a cell, and a cell into a body. As discussed somewhere in the Coonifesto, one of the problems with philosophical Darwinism is that it presupposes a very particular kind of cosmos, one in which wholeness is built into its very fabric. Neither music nor natural selection would be possible in any other kind of world.

But ironically, Darwinists nevertheless promulgate a very different kind of cosmos, one in which cats running around on keyboards will eventually produce the works of Bach. As a result, there is an infinite and unbridgeable gap -- literally -- between matter and life, to say nothing of life and mind. There is simply no plausible explanation for how a universe of logical atomism -- of distinct notes wholly external to one another -- could every have snapped to attention and begun reflecting upon itself and singing the Sounds of Science.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand tenured maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening

Again, as explained in my book, wholeness implies both interiority and meaning. It implies the latter by virtue of the fact that the parts may participate in a higher entity which is their meaning. And it implies the former for the simple reason that meaning of any kind can only take place in an interior. But again, this meaning is not merely an eccentric and wholly private hallucination (although it certainly can be). Rather, it takes place in the transitional space between world and neurology, where truth, beauty, and virtue enter the world.

The point is that a melody is a whole through which the individual note derives its meaning. The note is only meaningful in the context of the melody. Nor does a random succession of tones make a melody, as with the cat. When we perceive a melody, we are perceiving none other than "wholeness in action." Just as we can perceive static wholeness in space -- say, an animal or building -- we are also able to perceive wholeness in time. Thus, we see how intimately related to music are history, biography, and narratives of any kind.

Zuckerkandl writes that "such a thing as 'mere matter' does not exist in music; its very material is permeated with relation to wholeness." In music, "we hear the promise of a whole that it bears within itself."
The promise of a whole. What does that remind me of? (No, not the promise of a-holes; that's a different subject.)

Oh yes. Religion -- and the faith required to "hear" what it discloses if only you sharpen your ears. For "in the outer world there are forces active whose activity transcends the physical, and at least one of our senses is an organ capable of directly perceiving nonphysical occurrences."

Again, the existence of music cannot be understood in dualistic terms, i.e., physical and psychic. Rather, Zuckerkandl speaks of the "external psychic," but one could just as well say "interior material," for both are ineluctable properties of cosmic wholeness. But "so greatly is our thinking under the spell of the two-worlds schema!" As a result, philosophical explanations swing from the one to the other, even while the explanations -- and music -- can only occur in the transitional third. This is why solid matter is "transparent" to mind, which can "see" and "hear" what is going on "inside" of it.

"In." That might be the most mysterious little word in our entire vocabulary, even more mysterious than being, or AM. For science posits a world of pure exteriority, an IT IS, as it were. The problem is how the IT IS ever results in the I AM, which requires something being "inside" the IT IS. But how do we get in?

Many of us don't. Perhaps you've noticed that one of the most painful aspects of depression is that it prevents one from "getting into" things. It is as if the world is reduced to its IT aspect, with no meaning or depth, i.e., interiority.

Stupidity (e.g., materialism, neo-Marxism, Obamism) results in the same thing, which is why it is so depressing to be around spiritually opaque and dense people who are exiled from the deep interiority of the cosmos, or just living in a collective hallucination. Religion is all about disclosing and reconnecting with this interiority, of "being in." This being in is the tonal center of both man and cosmos, from where all the best melodies arise and return.

Here's a swingin' little loony coon for you:


Northern Bandit said...

Depression and autism.

So many of the "reality-based community" are spiritually autistic, if not outright regular autistic or Asperger's.

I don't know enough about "regular" autism to say much, but I am 100% convinced that what I call "spiritual autism" is amenable to repair through Grace.

slackosopher said...

I was a big John Cage fan back in my naive college days, and while I still believe he did some interesting things (especially in regards to form and expanding the range of musical timbre/sonority) I think his views line up with the lefty view--all the while calling it "zen".

But I think Cage is, if not the source, than a symptom, of believing that the cat walking across the piano is as "musical" as say, Beethoven. Perhaps to "enlightened" even more so.

It is a dangerous reversal of what any sufficiently deep musical tradition has taught--unless Cage's minor truths are integrated more fully into this longer/deeper current of human musicmaking.

Why spend so many hours a day over a lifetime attempting to become adequate enough to the transcendent source of music, if it's no different or better than what a child beating on a pot can produce.

The project to explicitly recontact the transcendent possibilities of music in our time is a huge one. I am 100% on board. Music can have an impact on our hearts/souls/minds that is far deeper than any lefty propaganda or even pristine logic...via a deeper "logic" that connects one intuitively to the Source.

Van said...

" In music, "we hear the promise of a whole that it bears within itself.""

What a huge thought, effortlessly contained by a single line...

"... we hear the promise of a whole that it bears within itself..."

What capacious space is found in the poetic, art & music... the great within....

Anonymous said...

The other day you used the expression “glorified stenographers”. I may have used “trans-scribers” – and the way I’d use it, you may agree. As in, “scribes of the transcendent”, say. I mean, I would not suggest, for example, Moses was just some glorified ordinary-fellow at all, and that he was just writing down what was spoken to him. I don’t believe he was an ordinary who just rose to the occasion, but instead up in that special place with Saints, or very close to it. I certainly don’t think what he was “given” could just be written down. Not anywhere near that easy. But I think you are onto something with this music business. Perhaps what was “given” to Moses, and the Saints, is more akin to music as you’ve been describing it lately…and that these souls where equipped to understand it “as is” (maybe we all are) and then ex-plain it to the restofus.


Retriever said...

He is so adorable! I liked the picture with the coon cap also.

Loved this post. Echoes of Eliot again in the conception of time past, present, future folding in upon itself and unfurling like a lily.

Gloomy politically today, so it also made me think of this verse from Ezekiel 12:

1 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying: 2 “Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, which has eyes to see but does not see, and ears to hear but does not hear; for they are a rebellious house.

Because we are spoiled by bread and circusses, with things like reality TV and soundbites and consider people who read from teleprompters to be journalists and leaders. It's all part of the feed. Fattening us for the slaughter. Like cows or geese stuffed with grain in a cell. Instead of grazing and scratching in a field.

This is part of the reason why many good people turn off spiritually, so sated with the garbage that poses as reality/truth. We cover our eyes, change the channel, stop our ears, so as not to be poisoned or driven mad or led to destruction (Odysseus knew he would die if he did not). And then we cannot see or hear the true and the beautiful either.

Northern Bandit, I am still ignorant about autism, despite years raising a kid now a teenager diagnosed on the spectrum. It's probably better as a metaphor than as a description of real people. For example, my "autistic" (albeit high-functioning, verbal) son is loving, has many friends, is writing a novel, will discuss the motivation and character of a person he know or is writing about for hours, is devoutly religious, gets into fights with his atheist friends (not a good advertisement for his faith in a PC school...)and has a sense of the mystery and love of God that is deeper than that of the handsomer, more socially skilled suburban A and F clad "typical" kids at our church who mostly whisper about getting drunk the night before in confirmation class...Although I know that some of those on the autistic spectrum can be incredibly obnoxious because some are blind and deaf to the offense they may be giving (sometimes inadvertently)...But some also have a quality of attention, reverence and memory for things sacred that we miss or forget...And then sometimes the kid just obsesses about Red versus Blue and makes me want to plug my ears...

As far as music goes, I think another commenter on another post here remarked that some of this is culturally bound. Japanese music sounds weird to me. Presumably other cultures might not like Bach? Some love and some loathe African drumming. etc. I think rhythm is more universal, but tone? That seems to vary more. But just theorizing, not a musician beyond butchering Beethoven as an angsty teen an age ago.

Jeff said...

I found this at YT a few months ago. It fits with what you're saying at least to a degree.

xlbrl said...

Music is made in math, but not by math.
Your analogy is powerful. Cats, keyboards, Bach and Darwin would have started me thinking if I were still an atheist.
We are given tonality, as we are givin color. Neither is necessary, or perhaps even possible in a Darwinian world. But they existed before man, before life on earth. Why is that? Tonality and color didn't evolve. Art and music did.

jwm said...

Everything in the universe is composed of one element, which is a note. Atoms are really vibrations, which are extensions of the Big Note...

From Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy album

I have really enjoyed these last few posts on music and spirit. This is the kind of material that helps keep us centered- and the more leisurely blogging pace seems to agree with you. This is very cool.


Van said...

JWM quoted "Everything in the universe is composed of one element, which is a note. Atoms are really vibrations, which are extensions of the Big Note..."

Sort of puts "String Theory" into a whole new perspective.


Yep, very much enjoying these posts as well... BIG frontal lobe swirlers!

Northern Bandit said...

I agree that the new posts are really working.

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, I'm just going at a leisurely pace rather than forcing the issue. That way it doesn't become a slackless burden, but remains a joyful process of discovery.