Sunday, November 15, 2009

Listening to History: The Testimony of Music

If music is meaningful -- if it wordlessly says something about reality -- what does it say, and can we translate it to mere speech?

Here we are not so much concerned with what this or that performance conveys, but with what music as such tells us. And according to Zuckerkandl, music transmits fundamental truths about time, space, and motion, which are only the fabric of reality. As I said somewhere in my book -- here it is, p. 44, quoting the Z man:

"The knowledge of space that hand and eye possess is exactly matched by their ignorance of time.... A true image of time must be an image for the ear, an audible image, an image made of tones.... Thanks to music, we are able to behold time."

That right there is an earful: behold time. Everyone knows how difficult it is to say what time "is," because as soon as we begin to look at it, it slips through our grubby fingers. Indeed, it is one of those fundamentals, like consciousness, that defy verbal description. We cannot describe time or consciousness because we are "in" them, and could never be outside of them. It would be like a fish trying to describe the ocean, or a member of the MSM trying to look at liberalism.

But if Zuckerkandl is correct, music is a way to stand "above" time while still being in it. That is, music is a meaningful organization of time, an "ordered motion" which serially reveals its meaning as we listen, like a kind of rotating object.

Hold it right there -- "ordered motion?" Surely music doesn't "move" in the conventional sense of the term. We don't have to follow it around the room in order to keep up with it. In this regard, it "moves" and "flows" in the same way the mind does, like a con-versation (literally, "flowing together") that wends its way to its nonlocal "point." What are we talking about right now? Frankly, we don't yet know. All we know is that we're in the process of arriving there. Don't you feel the cool breeze blowing along your neocortex?

This very much reminds me of the "fundamental rule" in psychoanalysis, which is free association. The purpose of free association is to liberate the right brain from the tyranny of the left, so that we can stop making sense for a while -- superficial sense, that is. The left brain always has a ready store of excuses, cover stories, alibis, personal myths, and other "time binding" structures. It is the spinmeister extraordinaire.

And that's what any narrative is, a time binder, a way to contain and organize time. Consider that idea for a moment: just as we require structures to bind space -- for example, our home -- we also need structures to enclose us in time. Think of all the shoddy and substandard temporal shacks people live in to keep the hostile elements out of their little myths!

The Islamist myth is quintessential in this regard. By the way, I read The Looming Tower last week, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is the best book of which I am aware of the whole history of Islamism, which is even more bizarre and bloodthirsty than you may think. It is interesting that the Islamists especially detest any form of western music. But the Islamist myth is like a kind of insane opera that binds all of history into one dramatic arc.

This kind of insane monomythology also afflicts the left. In his Our Culture, What's Left of It, Dalrymple writes of the "various branches (feminist, gay, and so on) of academic resentment studies, in which history is nothing but the backward projection of current grievances, real or imagined, used to justify and inflame resentment."

Such individuals are not living in time; rather, they are living in an "eternal now" of resentment which is then widened out to encompass the past and future. This is the basis of Obama's never-ending World Apology Tour, as if his personal shame is a reliable source of information about America.

Note that "the object of such historiography is to disconnect everyone from a real sense of a living past and a living culture." The point of these leftist monomyths is to oust us from the deep vertical narrative that unites us, so that "people find themselves cut off from the past as a matter of deliberate policy." As the cultural left has made its long march through the institutions, it has waged a brazen campaign against our past, enforced by the dehumanizing newspeak of political correctness. In the end, "nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."

To bring this back around to the original point, any enforced political dystopia must be rooted in a kind of existential amusia, in which one has lost (or is prevented from exercising) the ability to detect the rhythm, melody, and harmony of history.

In his outstanding Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Jourdain talks about how the greatest works of music parallel the greatest scientific achievements: "In all branches of cognitive endeavor, our highest praise is reserved for works that build the deepest hierarchies. When these works are scientific theories, they explain the world more comprehensively than lesser ones." They aren't like, say, metaphysical Darwinism, which simplistically and fanatically eliminates so many other vital truths of man -- without which man is no longer even man, so that the theory cannot be said to actually explain him as he truly is. Man must be eliminated in order to save the theory.

The kind of cognitive synthesis we are describing is very much analogous to the uniquely horizontal basis of western music, through which many different instruments and musical lines are harmonized and brought together in a moment of listening. It takes a capacious musical mind to compose a work capable of unifying so many diverse strands, both in time and space. Such works "show us relations far deeper than we are normally able to perceive," and reach far "across time to encompass the deepest relations." And interestingly, "harmony became elaborate in Western music at about the same time that perspective was introduced into painting during the Renaissance."

And wouldn't you know it, "it turns out that the left ear, which channels primarily to the right brain, displays clear superiority" in "making sense of melodies." Which is why the harmelody of the cosmos can only be heard through a great imaginative synthesis of its many voices, passages, and movements.


Anonymous said...

What a remarkable post. So much to comment on. Too much.
Bob's back like never before.

But at the moment, about that last paragraph, I find it very difficult to use a phone handset on my right ear. And I am right-handed.

Anonymous said...

In other words, I can hear better out of my left ear (hee hee) but it never occured to me it might not have anything to do with the ear itself.

Anonymous said...

Oh.. and I'm glad you tied-in psychoanalysis, because I think you've mentioned before that your job is to get the patient up and out of their world in order to look at it from the "outside". Do I have that right?

Gagdad Bob said...

Yes, to look at their narrative and its sub-plots as objects, not subject. These objects purloin subjectivity for their own ends.

Anonymous said...

"ordered motion"

Brings to mind:
Classical pieces are called "movements".
And time "travel" suggests a change in location.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that the Islamists especially detest any form of western music.

Edward Said was not an Islamist, but he was a leading Palestinian nationalist which I'm sure is just as bad in your book. Yet he was also a widely-read music critic who worked with Daniel Barenboim and now has a music conservatory named after him. Yes, it is quite interesting as you said.

Moron said...

1) Interesting that Islamists especially detest any form of western music. 2) Said was not an Islamist. 3) Therefore, it is interesting that Said enjoyed western music.

Anonymous said...

Well, actual Islamists reject Western culture by definition, music included. Some want to ban music of any kind, as do some Christian extremists. So the original statement was pretty vacuous.

I'm just trying to show that Islamic and Arabic culture in general does not reject Western music and in fact some segments embrace it wholeheartedly, such as Said and the Pasha of Egypt who commissioned Verdi to write Aida.

Speaking of Christian extremists, isn't Christianity exactly about binding "all of history into one dramatic arc"?

debass said...

I always hated history in school until I started to study music history. When I tied the musical events to the political ones it suddenly became much more interesting. I don't know why a more comprehensive history, tying many aspects such as music, art, politics, etc. together is not taught or at least I'm not aware of it.

Gagdad Bob said...


Exactly. I have this idea that history even has a bass line underneath, and then maybe a drone under that. The bass line would be human nature, whereas the drone would be the laws of physics. Events on the surface are like the sax solo. The rhythm is the years, decades, centuries, etc.

Anonymous said...

I've followed your thoughts here for a while and I have to say that that is a new one to me. I've though of life, like many do, in terms of a movie or a book having chapters, rises and falls, comedies and tradgedies, etc, but never musical as you described in your comment. Just goes to show how deeply music, jazz in particular, must affect you. Very neat.

I've almost always found, though, that musical instruments do indeed speak another language, each in their own voice that goes beyond verbal description or comparison.

One time long ago I was under the influence (back when I did those things) listening to a song I had heard dozens of times, I suddenly zeroed in on the bass line and stayed with it for the rest of the song. It blew my mind to hear what it was actually saying after all that time.

debass said...


That's funny. Whenever I write music, I write the bass line first, then the harmony. Sometimes I have the melody in mind, so that is next, then I fill in the the parts. I usually keep time for the groups I'm in. I drag the drummers back if they rush and play on top of the beat if they drag. It makes playing more work and less fun. That's why I like to play without drums in small venues, usually as a duo. More freedom musically.
"So many drummers, so little time".

xlbrl said...

The dividing line separating Muslims and music is, first, insularity, and only secondly, what is allowed or forbidden.
The Taliban will forbid music of any kind even as their unfortunate subjects may appreciate music. But it is in those regions where cousin marriage, particularly along the male side, is the preferred form of marriage and which drives the culture, that the product is so culturally insular as to not be partial to music (among other things) at all. Bernard Lewis notes that this peculiarity was true of all the Muslim Ambassadors to Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and these were the most learned Muslims of the day.

Gandalin said...

The thing about music, is that a piece of music, a melody, doesn't actually exist at any point in time . . . at any moment, we only hear one sound . . . the rest of the notes in the melody, both those we have heard and those we anticipate, are only in our minds . . . and yet the music, over time, is indubitably real.

The late, great, lamented Clarence Brown had a guitar solo piece in one of his songs, where he would use his guitar to make the sounds of a man and a woman in a "discussion" - at the same time, he would mouth the words, without making any vocal sound. The effect was uncanny. If you watched his face, you could actually hear the words being enunciated, but if you closed your eyes, all you heard was the tones of the notes on the guitar. What he was doing was creating something that existed only inside your mind, where your mind made the necessary connections and adjustments.

All music is like that to a degree.

There is more to be said about the experience of participating in a live performance of music, either as an auditor or a creator . . .

Susannah said...

You have such a way with words, Bob! You've given me much to chew on...

debass said...

"at any moment, we only hear one sound"

Speak for yourself. LOL
I can play the bass line to a song I don't know by listening to where the melody is going. I can prehear the harmony, so I know where it's going. I also read tunes out of a fake book on a gig once and am able to play it without the book and solo over the changes.
Of course, when I'm checking the tires on my truck, if they sound a fourth apart, I'll start singing the Olympic theme song. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

The dividing line separating Muslims and music is, first, insularity, and only secondly, what is allowed or forbidden.

Tell it to Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan.