Form and force in Wagner

As of Saturday morning I have returned to Brisbane, after three months in Paris. It is time now work through the consequences of this moment. There will be many, I’m guessing. You’ll probably hear about some…

So, to continue.

In my final session with François we looked at Wagner and Parsifal in particular. In 2005-6 François gave a course on a possible way of approaching of Parsifal (which was also the genesis of Badiou’s Five Lessons on Wagner), trying to rescue it from the clutches of over a century of negative readings by thinkers from Nietzsche and Debussy onwards – Parsifal as regressive, christian, proto-nazi, etc… I won’t comment on all that, but just go to the question that particularly interests me at the moment: Heterogeneity and musical thinking.

The ‘cloud effect’

Somewhere in Five Lessons on Wagner Badiou mentions Nicolas’ theory of the ‘cloud effect’ in Parsifal. I remember reading this over a year ago and thinking “what wank! cloud effect? really?” I was thinking of something like a fuzzy drizzle over thinking, all wrapped up in a bad (or badly translated) metaphor. But no, what François is talking about with regard to the ‘cloud effect’ is a ‘nephologic’ or ‘meteorological’ theory of the use of the leitmotive in Parsifal, and it is an interesting thing and the metaphor is not as unjustified as I thought. Essentially the point is as François states: “It is the dynamic of forces which explicate the stasis of forms: a form is the result of a formation (rather than a force being simply a transition between two forms.”

So the leitmotive are referred back to an essential base of force – of process, of movement, of formation – rather than to static ideas. There is no essential leitmotive form, only realisations of types of force. If there is an ‘essential’ form, it is an analytical construct, and in no way appears as such in the work.

Throughout the long work you have many many instantiations of many many leitmotive. To get a sense of the structure on this level of the work you’d have to draw up complete charts of each manifestation of each leitmotiv and then analyse their inter- and intra- relations and how these play out across the work (and then in relation to the drama).

From force to forces

Firstly this harks back to the rejection of necessary deduction I mentioned recently: there is no original ‘A’ form of the leitmotiv that might be transformed into a ‘B’ and so on like the model A→B→C→D, and it is clear that the overture doesn’t state original forms that are then worked through in the opera proper. “Sorry but your truth is in another castle!”

Secondly – and more importantly since the necessary deduction idea is long-since debunked as a mystifying nihilism – is that there is indeed movement to each of these leitmotive, these leitmotive are movements, and yet they in themselves are not the truth of the work, they’re just musical material. Again our princess is in another castle. This is important. Why is this important? Because after you reject the happy simplicity of the deduction idea, you might decide that there is 1) a field of pre-existent objects and then 2) an ‘Idea’ that traverses them; a field of more or less static musical objects which are only made to budge by some subterraneous Idea.

You find yourself with a duality of a plot of forms on the one hand and on the other a force which comes to act on them (you might also be clever and try to make sure that the force in some way dialectically emerges from them). The lesson of Wagner is to to go one step further and say: One must not only accept the heterogeneity of forms but also the heterogeneity of forces.

The question then is what to do with this heterogeneity of forces and where a musical ‘truth’ or ‘subject’ or just plain old ‘thinking’ might be found in all of this.

(Note: This could just be a little game for speculative philosophers of music – “where’s the truth? where is the love? in which castle is my princess?” – but what is a composer if they are not trying to work up a musical truth, and thus trying to figure out where to go to best do this work? No, the question will not go away)


You’ve got yourself a murky situation now if you believe in a musical truth. But you have two clear options: 1) argue that the forces of the leitmotive are themselves the truth of the work, or, as I suggested above, 2) argue that there is a truth that is not these forces (“our princess is in another castle”).

The problem with the first one is that it conforms to a vitalistic notion of reality and for music today is clearly not our model to take since who out there can say that the immediate materials they are working with are true? I suppose this could also carry a vulgar kind of Hegelian totality to it, insofar as the whole is developing all the time but it’s not exactly dialectical then is it since there’s no contradiction?

The next option is I think what François goes for and he names it the ‘moment-favour’ and the ‘intension‘ arising from it, etc. There is another force (intension) which is not the force of the totality of the work nor the force of the individual leitmotive (in this case), but it is a subterraneous force delivered by a moment (moment-favour) in the work (in fact it is revealed by a performer’s particular interpretation) where a hitherto unnoticed contradiction is most poignantly localised. This other force is the force of the musical subject, the truth in music in its properly creative capacity. Etc etc. Evidently this is a construction indebted to Badiou’s theory of the event and the subject, and it fits in general with a kind of approach to the dialectic that Bruno Bosteels identifies as the logic of ‘torsion’ in his book on Badiou. It is this dialectic, different to the dialectic of self and other in Hegel, that is characterised by splits, ruptures, etc. Very French post-Lacanian-Althusserian-Maoist…

There are two large problems here:

1) If there is force and there is force, how do you know the one from the other? The subjective force from the objective? This is a great (the greatest?) problem for Badiou’s philosophy also in Logics of Worlds as far as I’m concerned since he sets up the becoming of a truth as a becoming against the becoming of the world. Which I agree with. But how are the two differentiated and how do they interact, since surely they must?

2) This raises the question of the composer’s relationship to musical truth since for François, this torsion, this moment-favour is unknowable as such by the composer. The composer composes the moment-favour but can’t know it as moment-favour – likewise for the intension. This is perhaps just a way of restating the question of how the two levels of force interact. Since the composer must only compose with the forces on the side of the objective, how then does the work of the objective forces yield a subjective force? The Badiousian kind of answer might be that it is simply undecidable: you can’t know, in any absolute or abstract sense, the difference between the force of the situation or the force of the subject. The answers will be concrete and (dare I say) local, and will emerge and change with the working through of the musical material itself. A composer must be content with the experimentation on threads that seem to be promising. It’s not dissimilar to politics today. Forget about your singularities until they arise. Just work for now.

But now we’re well above the clouds and out in the naughty heights of what might illegitimately be called philosophy. What about my leitmotive and what about what we do now!? For my part I take this idea of Wagner’s leitmotiv as an interesting one for thinking and creating global forms that are liberated from both 1) the logical deduction model (which announces itself as the truth and gives us instead the nothing), 2) a simple collage of existing objects and their mobilisation by an external force (which mistakenly sees the world as static and all movement as subjective proper, which is clearly not the case: look at capitalism, it sure moves!). This is all handy for a composer.

How might the conception of force in the leitmotiv interact with more classical architectonic form and its proper force, for instance in Brahms? There’s a question.


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