Cosmic Rhythm, Divine Harmony, Planetary Funkmanship, and the Prodigal Melody
The first thing I want to say about music is that it had damn well better be important, because if it isn't, then I've wasted a huge chunk of my life.
To put it another way, does the near universal attraction to music imply anything about its significance, or is it nothing more than ultimately pointless noise, just sound and fury signifying sound and fury? The fact that it "speaks to us" implies that there is something in us spoken to. But what is being communicated, to whom, and why?
I made an initial foray into this subject in the book. I believe I've mentioned before that one its working titles was The Cosmic Suite, in that it has four movements -- matter, life, mind, and spirit -- each with a motif that is developed in different ways. Plus, the opening Cosmonaught section is supposed to be like the overture that previews the motifs that will later be developed in the individual sections, while the Cosmobliteration section is the crescendo or finale.
Along these lines, one of my initial inspirations was Schopenhauer, who is one of the few philosophers to appreciate the meta-cosmic significance of music. I'm guessing that he too needed a grandiose alibi for spending so many hours listening to AM radio as a kid and hanging around in used record stores.
Let's drag some Schopie from the shelf and see what he says. The idea that he was only a pessimistic sourpuss is a bit of a caricature. Like Bob, Schopenhauer basically wrote one book that he never stopped working on (in his case, editing and adding new material), The World as Will and Idea. From the introduction:
Schopenhauer wrote of all forms of art, but felt that music was the highest: "Whereas architecture makes transparent rather elementary Ideas, music expresses most distinctly (partly because of its non-spatial character) the inner nature of the whole world" (emphasis mine).
Ah ha! Now we're on to something: we are drawn to music because at its core, it actually communicates essential truths about the very nature and structure of existence.
That's what I think. Music is able to "capture what has evaded scientists and philosophers and theologians," because it is in a non-discursive language they do not speak; it communicates truths that cannot be articulated in such cutandry & wideawake terms. Plus, music is essentially temporal, so it reveals some important things about time.
Here he analogizes the cosmic hierarchy to a kind of great resonant chord of existence, in which "animal and plant are the descending fifth and third of man," while "the inorganic kingdom is the lower octave."
I might express it slightly differently and suggest that nature is like the rhythm section, with a repetitive groove consisting of day, night, seasons, lunar phases, years, etc., while the biosphere -- or, let's say our instinctual life -- provides the ground notes, or the bass guitar that serves to unify and hold together the rhythm below and the melody above. Or, we can only "improvise" above -- i.e., exercise free will -- because of the excellent and very tight rhythm section below.
The piano is also considered part of the rhythm section. In particular, it usually provides the chords over which the soloist improvises. I like to think that tradition feeds us those chords, but that it is up to us to use them to jam. In the words of John Lee Hooker, let that boy boogie woogie.
Thus, to paraphrase Schopie, the melody "surges forwards," and "may be regarded as in some sense expressing man's life and endeavor." The melody is played over "the ponderous bass," and "completes" the music, incorporating "the animal kingdom and the whole of nature that is without knowledge."
In other words, only man may play the cosmic suite, and this may even be man's sufficient reason -- as I put it in the Coonifesto, "we are each a unique and unrepeatable melody that can, if we only pay close enough attention to the polyphonic score that surrounds and abides within us, harmonize existence in our own beautiful way..."
Later in the book he devotes another ten pages to the subject, reiterating that "we must attribute to music a far more serious, deeper significance for the inmost nature of the world and our own self."
Here he implies that music is a kind of two-way mirror, as indeed is nature, in that the endless intelligibility of the latter is a mirror of our infinite intelligence, and vice versa. "In some sense music must relate to the world as does a representation to the thing represented."
Most people think of music as a non-representational art form, in that it supposedly conveys nothing except its own abstract patterns. But Schopenhauer agrees with Bob that music actually does represent something -- a little thing called reality. In semiotic terms, if music is the signifier, the world-process is its signified.
This relationship is "very deep, infinitely true, and really striking, for it is instantly understood by everyone, and has the appearance of a certain infallibility..." By examining -- or dwelling in -- the "inner essence of music," we may perceive "its imitative relation to the world."
Interestingly, we perceive how low notes persist longer than high notes which are heard and gone. Here gain, the bass is an expression of the biosphere as such, not the individual species, whereas, say, birds darting around in the sky are like the notes of a flute (and often sound like notes of a flute). These latter notes "die away more swiftly." But all living things are grounded in those resonant bass notes.
Where we differ from Schopenhauer is that he believes the score was essentially "written" by nature, or is a product of the impersonal world-will, whereas we believe the score is written by God, at least in its harmonic outlines and overall structure.
At the lowest level of quantum mechanics, we see a kind of music of pure vibration -- which is precisely what audible music is, i.e., vibration.
Again, it is up to man to harmonize the whole existentialada: "all these bass and other parts which make up harmony lack that coherence and continuity which belong only to the upper voice singing the melody."
Man is the quintessential melody maker, or improviser, taking the repetitive rhythms and unchanging chords and then making sometune of himself. "The deep bass moves more slowly and.... ponderously of all.... It rises and falls only in large intervals..." If it were to suddenly improvise all over the place, it would produce earthquakes and extinctions. Indeed, a real revolution might be thought of as a change in the bass line.
But we can all participate in our own private revolution by creating our own melody: with its relative freedom, it can express the meaning and coherence of the whole, or in other words, weave the whole thing together in a three minute pop masterpiece. (By which I mean that the span of our lives in comparison the the 14 billion year old cosmos is like a pop jingle.)
Even so, "Only the melody has significant intentional connection from beginning to end." It "is a constant digression and deviation from the key-note in a thousand ways," but "always follows a return at last to the key note" -- like one of those marathon thirty minute solos by John Coltrane or Keith Jarrett. Call it the prodigal melody.
The composer reveals the inner nature of the world, and expresses the most profound wisdom, in a language which his reasoning faculty does not understand... --Schopenhauer