Monday, November 09, 2009

If a Cosmos Bangs in the Void and Nobody Hears it, Does it Make a Sound?

How is music even possible?


I said, HOW IS MUSIC EVEN POSSIBLE?! What, are you deaf?

"What must the world be like, what must I be like, if between me and the world the phenomenon of music can occur? How must I consider the world, how must I consider myself, if I am to understand the reality of music?"

Good questions. They were asked by Victor Zuckerkandl in his cult classic, Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World. Unfortunately, the cult consists only of me, so it seems that no one took Zuckerkandl's ideas and riffed with them. I briefly touched on them in my book of the sane gnome (see page 44-45), but this is another one of those motifs that could have been a symphony in itself. I needed to change keys and move on.

But with my new found slack, I've been revisiting the book. Referring back to the previous post, what if the ears provide a better account of the nature of reality than do the eyes? This would certainly be consistent with Judeo-Christian metaphysics: in the beginning was the Word, not the brightly colored object.

But the Word is only heard by those with ears to hear. Seeing is different. In order to see, all you have to do is open your eyes, and the image forces itself upon you. Remember what happened in the Garden: eating from the tree of good and evil results in the eyes being opened. What were they before?

I would say that before that, the ears were dominant over the eyes. This is how it was possible to have such an intimate relationship with the Creator. Again, the ears do not divide the world in a dualistic sense, as that which we hear is not exactly outside, nor is it inside; rather, as we shall explain in more detail in a subsequent post -- hearing -- or, more specifically, music -- uniquely occurs in the mysterious transitional space between matter and neurology. It can by no means be located in just one or the other (for example, a tune-deaf person hears the identical notes, but not the melody).

Zuckerkandl discusses the interesting differences between the blind and the deaf. Upon superficial consideration, one would think that the blind person would feel more cut off from the world, and have more reason to be irritable, paranoid, and distrustful. "Yet it is not the blind man who shows the typical reaction of the prisoner, the man spied upon, who must always be on his guard; it is the deaf man, whose most important organ of connection with the world has remained unimpaired" (Zuckerkandl).

During my internship at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, my supervisor was a blind man. He was the sweetest and most gentle, not to mention, perceptive, soul you could imagine. But you may have noticed that when people start to lose their hearing, they often become sullen or cranky. Often they deny that it's happening, and blame the world. How come movies these days are so damn quiet! Why does everyone mumble!

For the blind man, "other modes of connection with the world are revealed to him, modes that are otherwise overshadowed by the dominance of the eye -- as if, in the realms with which he thus comes into contact, man were less alone, better provided for, more at home, than in the world of visible things to which the deaf man is directed and to which an element of foreignness always clings."

Now interestingly, there was a time, not so very long ago, that man was blind half the time. It was called night. I don't think we appreciate -- in fact, I'm sure we don't -- the psychological effects of having light at night; not just a little candle, mind you, but the complete conquest of darkness. The total blackness of night is almost inconceivable to us today, and with it, a host of mysteries to which we only gain entrance by facing and living with the darkness. No wonder early humans worshiped the sun, and readily "saw" the connection between light and thought (likewise the feminine moon, which is to unconscious as the male sun is to conscious).

What did human beings do back then in the dark of the night? Well, for one thing, they huddled around the campfire and told stories. As I have mentioned before, there are many things that only make sense at 2:00 AM, in total silence and darkness. Just because they don't make sense at 2:00 PM hardly means that they don't make sense. Think of some of the epic stories of the Bible -- floods, giants, talking serpents, etc. If these aren't engaged with the imagination -- which only comes out at night, or by somehow suppressing and "endarkening" the dominant, light-filled left brain -- then they won't reveal their secrets.

Furthermore, there are some stories we tell by day that make no sense whatsoever in the darkness of night -- for example, Darwinian fairy tales, or silly myths about whole universes suddenly banging into being out of nothing and for no reason. Such things are easy to believe for someone who doesn't know that reality extends beyond the securely enclosed firmament of egoic consciousness. It's like imagining that the world is encircled by the sky, just because we see it by day. At night, the comforting sky recedes into the infinite darkness, and we are confronted by the billions of things concealed by daylight and tenure.

Could it be that "man attains the inwardness of life by hearing and its outwardness by seeing?" (Zuckerkandl). Hmm, let me listen to that question for awhile...


Feel free to vote. True, it's a frivolous exercise, but the notoriety may help some lost and lonely member of the vertical diaspora find us, like how Manny finds Ellie in Ice Age 2:

The 2009 Weblog Awards


lance said...

Good stuff today. I love music and you raised some very interesting points about blindness and deafness and what electrical light has done to the idea of myth. I liked it a lot.

walt said...

Could it be that "man attains the inwardness of life by hearing and its outwardness by seeing?" (Zukerkandl)

Last night I was reading about how the Japanese traditional arts often include the use of sound, with the specific intention of evoking "inwardness," and serenity.

Mentioned as examples were the interval in the Tea ceremony when the only sound in the Tea House is the humming of the boiling Tea kettle; the tolling of a small bell to indicate an activity; or the sound of a spring in a garden or water trickling from a bamboo cane. The idea being that these simple sounds beckon the awareness of the participants to be present and bring the overall environment "alive."

I was struck by the description of their singing, because it reminded me of how you said you wrote OCUG:
"...the strange fascination of Japanese singing lies in its ability to produce the inaudible note, which is at the heart of all notes which are actually sung. The song seems to appear out of eternity and disappear again into it, without beginning or end, awakening in the listener that unsingable note which represents the soundless plenitude -- the source of all notes."

Gagdad Bob said...

Says Who: There once was a note, pure and easy / Playing so free, like a breath rippling by / The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me / Forever we blend and forever we die

Anonymous said...

Some common notes struck in today's post and a lecture I saw a couple of weeks ago by Dr. David Berlinski.

If you haven't had the pleasure yet, allow me to introduce you to him.

Northern Bandit said...


Big Berlinsky fan here. Bob recommended him ages ago. One-stop antidote to Dawkins/Queeg form of intellectual autism.

Northern Bandit said...

Today's musings on the dark, dark night spontaneously brought me back some years to an experience near the Arctic circle. The world's best goose hunting exists in Inuit-run camps which are among the remotest places on earth (aside from Antarctica). Getting there is expensive, and it was surreal to see a parking lot of Gulfstream other private jets (Texas oilmen are legendary hunters) next to the last dirt strip on the continent. I went in there in a rather more humble bush plane.

When it is cloudy the darkness at night is absolute in a manner impossible for most people to imagine. There are no villages for hundreds of miles -- far over the horizon. The closest city of any size is more than 1,000 miles away. Absolute inky blackness without end. Lighting in the camp is minimal. Before dawn we get in motorized canoes. The Inuit guides take us on an hour-long ride up a winding river, across part of a bay, and finally to a small island where we'll wait for the geese. These men navigated entirely without the benefit of any light whatsoever. It was both unnerving and exhilarating. Once the boat motors were off there was nothing but the sound of lapping waves; eventually the faint calls of the geese.

Big darkness.

slackosopher said...

And to make the obvious connection here...Camarillo State Mental Hospital is where Charlie Parker spent 6 months gardening.

Is Sound and Symbol from a Jungian perspective?

Gagdad Bob said...

Ralaxin' at Camarillo. Interestingly, they've now converted it into a university campus, i.e., an out-patient facility.

No, the book is purely from a musicological standpoint. Frankly, Zuckerkandl doesn't pull it all together in this volume, hence, my need to do so. Hopefully he will in the second volume, Man the Musician, which I haven't yet started...

Retriever said...

From Matthew's gospel. Chapter 13:34 All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes, and without a parable he spoke nothing to them. 35. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, who saith, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been hidden from the foundation of the world."

Not only is the world created by the Word, but the divine mission is revealed thru stories, as you noted, told in the dark. One can't see the stars by daylight or in urban nighttime glare. Parents teach the most importantthings to their kids thru bedtime stories, kids scare the he'll out of each other with stories at camp, and so on.

Remember how Thomas HAD to see and feell the wounds of Christ to believe. I smile fondly at this, the literal mindedness of the autistic spectrum (beloved child of mine), but the message is blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Because they have heard.

The most maudlin lyrics can tear our heart out when sung to a good tune. Luther set his hymns to drinking songs, "why should the Devil have all the good tunes!?"

stories used to be sung by wandering bards.

Enough of my blather. Thanks for your post.

Van said...

"At night, the comforting sky recedes into the infinite darkness, and we are confronted by the billions of things concealed by daylight and tenure."

Anyone recall sitting around the campfire, maybe at summer camp, and telling ghost stories? Remember how at the end when the camp councilor said "Remember, they're only stories, back to your tents and get some sleep"... remember how little believability those words held as you left the reach of the campfire?

The story may be told, but the meaning is heard and understood far beyond the ring of light.

Blind Homer and Tiresias come to mind. Particularly Oedipus scoffing at Tiresias's words, but shuddering as he feared and soon discovered their true meaning.

Light only touches the surface, but sound (and warmth) reach and reverberate into the depths.

Van said...

Another difference between vision and aural, vision is far less likely to be disturbed by something out of place in a scene. A living room might be carefully designed and coordinated, but someone walking in dressed in a fashion that doesn't match the couch, doesn't have everyone rubbing their eyes and shaking their heads.

Aurally, however, a finely scored symphony and choir can throw it's listeners into agony, with one out of tune violen or singer off key.
What is heard is far more integrated, harmonized, than what is seen.

jp said...

I think I spend a lot of time seeing with my mind rather than seeing with my eyes.

I should probably spend more time listening to music.

Van's right with respect to discord. One wrong note can bring the entire structure crashing down.

Gagdad Bob said...

Just found out Kathy's cause of death: inguinal hernia.

Northern Bandit said...

Inguinal hernia.

Well that's really sad. Wikipedia says this is usually corrected with outpatient surgery. Also quite rare in women.

We'll all go for some reason though, I suppose. The important thing is that she came to know O while she was here.

debass said...

When I get out into the woods at 3 or 4 in the morning, I often stop, turn off the lights and engine and just stare up at the milky way. If there is no moon, you can't see your hand in front of your face. It is so quiet and the air is so
clean and crisp, I could linger there for awhile or until I hear a mountain lion panting which is my cue to leave. I can take a hint.

debass said...

I don't know what to say about music. I think about it all the time. It's always running around in my head. I've spent most of my life studying music. I listen to music differently than most people. I almost had a doctorate in music theory but had to give it up to save someone's soul. Whenever I hear two successive pitches, I'm thinking of a melody. Even my chickens sing theme songs. I can tell my speed in my truck by the pitch of the engine. I hear music all around me all the time and I feel sorry for people that don't. Their life must be hell. I can't even imagine.

Gagdad Bob said...

They say that Roland Kirk was that way, which is why his music incorporates so many "non-musical" sounds, not to mention different genres. This is one of the reasons he was initially snubbed by jazz purists, who "know better" what music is supposed to be.

Gagdad Bob said...

(And for those who don't know, Kirk was blind.)

Gagdad Bob said...

Back when I was in school, in order to keep meself from being bored to death, I would come up with lists... like "dead rock stars," or "blind musicians": Ray Charles... Stevie Wonder... George Shearing... Art Tatum... Diane Schuur... Moondog... Clarence Carter.... The Five Blind Boys of Alabama... or is it Mississippi?... Jose Feliciano... Doc Watson... Ronnie Milsap... Marcus Roberts... I think the Winter brothers are legally blind... and John Lennon must have been legally blind to be married to Yoko...

Northern Bandit said...

Five Blind Boys of Mississippi


Blind Boys of Alabama

Two different groups. The former from the 1930s, the latter still active and famous for "Way Down in the Hole" theme song from The Wire (best TV drama series ever made).

jwm said...

When I was in my God hating atheist stage (long time ago) I was a fanatic for classical music, especially Mozart, and Bach. Despite the bad case of Jesus willies, I always found myself drawn to sacred music. Somehow the pieces written for God were always deeper, more luminous- they just had something that moved me, sometimes to tears.
I find I enjoy simpler musical forms anymore. I love the Traditional American stuff: Old Time, Bluegrass, Cowboy, Blues, even some Cajun here and there. But mostly Old Time, and Bluegrass. The mountain music touches me where I live. Like this simple, rawboned song which has been running in my head for days now:
For Ximeze, and all of us


Djadja said...

We hear while we live in the womb, while we are forming in the darkness.

Djadja said...

The Carter Family piece jwm linked to reminded me of a funeral I went to for a good neighbor, slain in a gang initiation. He was a musician in a family of traditional appalachian Christians. It was an intimate funeral, and we were welcomed outsiders. The music was familiar, but what I was not prepared for was when some of the women began keening. I may as well have been in another land or another time. A sound unlike anything I had ever heard, it raised the hair on the back of my neck. it opened the door to the numinous.

Northern Bandit said...

I was confused by the "Best Blog" site for a bit. I nominated OC, but couldn't figure out how/when to actually vote. Finally read the fine print and discovered voting isn't until January. They could make that a bit more obvious with better site design.

Also noted Queeglings nominating the truly execrable LGF for best religious blog. *shudder*

Northern Bandit said...

With respect to Queeg's "religion" the Times of London today observes:

Darwin looked forward to a time when Europeans and Americans would exterminate those he termed “savages”. Many of the anthropomorphous apes would also be wiped out, he predicted, and the break between man and beast would then occur “between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon; instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla”. He took a sanguine view of genocide, believing it to be imminent and inevitable. “Looking to the world at no very distant date,” he wrote to a friend in 1881, “what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.”

Countdown still in effect as to when Queeg "turns" on Israel and ultimately the Jews generally. It must be really tough for him, hiding those "progressive" impulses long enough for people to forget his ironic "Religion of Peace" heyday.

Northern Bandit said...

Happy Veterans Day to all coons who served, are serving, or had/have family members who served.

I didn't (vision issue) but my dad was in the Navy. Those old pictures of him in uniform still inform my sense of what it means to be a "real man".

Northern Bandit said...

Special Veterans Day salute to USS Ben! Thanks for serving, Ben!

slackosopher said...

There is no truer truth obtainable
By Man than comes of music.
~Robert Browning

Susannah said...

"in fact, I'm sure we don't -- the psychological effects of having light at night; not just a little candle, mind you, but the complete conquest of darkness."

That's really something to contemplate!