Ascent, limit, dialectic

How does one stop talking about music and start doing it? Or, even if you are composing, how do you continue to compose when the musical problems necessarily become aesthetic problems and start to generate a discursive problematic, with discursive solutions? Isn’t there a kind of infinite regress in philosophy that leads you further and further down the path of abstraction and not back towards matter? Hegel’s point that art no longer carries the spirit of history finds itself instantiated here, and I suppose it’s our job to combat it.

So, do we simply counter this ascent with a descent without reason? A kind of pure act of renunciation?

Let’s be clear, that kind of act cannot exist. There can be no pure act of composing that dodges all philosophical or conceptual (not to mention political) concerns.

Nor is there a ‘natural’ mode of composing that ‘intellectuals’ just don’t understand. That is, “if you’re so interested in aesthetic conceptual problems, go be a philosopher. I’m a composer and I never feel the need to challenge these fundamental problems.”

Obviously this position elides the conceptual apparatus supporting its own musical constructions. Or, if it recognises that it has such an apparatus, it makes the decidedly nihilistic gesture that all apparatus are equal and so it is just a matter of cultural background or personal taste that determine this.

The point is to resist on a number of fronts: resist the destruction of art by philosophy (qua superior form of thinking), to resist a naive belief in art as a pure space outside of conceptual thought, and to resist merely accepting whatever inherited aesthetic paradigm and composing more or less within those confines.

Perhaps axioms, first principles, are necessary here. They would provide a ‘limit-point,’ halting the infinite regress of self-reflection, under which an artistic practice can unfold. Then the artistic process could remain a dialectic of materials, constructed in works, and musical categories, expressed in language or diagram. Conceptual thought and music do not have to be at odds, since there interaction maintains its material focus, anchored by the axiomatic. Likewise the axiomatic would be prescriptive, rather than descriptive.

This, however, potentially confuses the way axiom systems actually function. Speaking of the mathematical discipline of foundational studies, Goldblatt in his truly awesome Topoi (2006) notes:

It would be somewhat misleading to infer … that foundational systems act primarily as a basis out of which mathematics is actually created. The artificiality of that view is evident when one reflects that the essential content of mathematics is already there before the basis is made explicit, and does not depend on it for its existence.

Mathematical discovery is by no means a matter of systematic deductive procedure. It involves insight, imagination, and long exploration along paths that sometimes lead nowhere. Axiomatic presentations serve to describe and communicate the fruits of this activity, often in a different order to that in which they were arrived at. They lend a coherence an unity to their subject matter, an overview of its extent and limitation.

As far as Foundational studies are concerned the role of axiomatics is largely descriptive. A Foundational system serves not so much to prop up the house of mathematics as to clarify the principles and methods by which the house was built in the first place. (p. 14)

Goldblatt’s view is therefore either dialectical (axioms come to clarify systems and provide new problems which will then need new axioms) or purely reflective (axioms come at the end “to clarify the principles and methods by which the house was built in the first place”).

However, the axiom systems of mathematics are not themselves philosophical prescriptions or first principles. Perhaps the most abstract philosophical prescriptions are not touched by the dialectical unfolding of musical practice. Something like: “Be faithful to the sublime possibility of true musical creation,” “Attempt to write truly great music,” or “Create truly affirmative music for our time,” etc. (Of course these are all variants of the same). Perhaps these remain despite the intense thinking through of musical materials. Perhaps challenging them is an act of philosophy and not of compositional practice.

Circling back to the initial question then, it is a matter, as François says, of being inspired to continue to compose. The construction of conceptual apparatuses need not detract from that, quite the opposite. But letting the desire to ground them run rampant will certainly lead to less composing – up to a point this should be tolerated, after which it should be stopped.


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