Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Musing on music

“Korean flamenco” might appear to be an oxymoron, and in a sense it is. After all, flamenco is as Spanish as one can get in the realm of music … and indigenous Korean music is nothing like it. But last night we – the delegates to a conference on English literature organised by the English Language and Literature Association of Korea – were entertained by two Korean teenagers, who treated us to a rendition of flamenco music that no one there would have thought possible.

Not merely because intuitively one might expect Eastern people’s appropriation of Western music, as specific as flamenco guitar, to be less convincing than Spanish guitarists’ rendition of it – an unjustifiable prejudice, as we would find out – but further to this, the spare figure of the teenage Korean girl, whose brother was not much bigger than she was, somehow seemed no match for the strength and energy required by flamenco.

Whoever had thought this, proved to be sorely mistaken.

Within a few minutes of launching into their first flamenco number, it was clear that we were witnessing a prodigy of the performing arts. Although one could not fault the boy on his technique, meticulously playing the background notes to the girl’s vigorous strumming and drumming on the guitar strings and the guitar’s acoustic box, it was the latter who captured the show. It was as if she became one with the instrument; her head bent low over it, and her long, fine hair flying as her body moved in rhythm with the hypnotising beat of the music.

It struck me that what we were witnessing was the living embodiment of the original meaning of music among ancient nations, such as the Greeks whose word for “music” is intimately related to the word “muse”. Ancient Greeks recognised nine muses, one of who putatively inspired the arts – including music.

They believed there were times when one could be possessed by a god (in Iliad Homer describes some such instances), which made submitting to the god impossible to resist. And just like the ancient Greeks’ belief, this young Korean girl – who seemed no older than 15 – was evidently in the grip of the muse of music. There was no time for deliberation in her choice of strings or chords; it was all a creative blur emitting a wonderful, mesmerising sonic canopy that descended on and enmeshed all the listeners. Experiencing the complete performative abandon on her part, gave new meaning to the word “enthusiasm” – the etymology of which amounts to the affirmation of being “in God (or a god)”.

I cannot – nor should one expect to be able to – do justice to the sheer exuberance of their performance in a mere verbal account; all that I can do here is to reflect, verbally, on what struck me last night, for the umpteenth time in my life, as the miracle of music. Small wonder why Plato wanted to disallow ancient Greek dithyrambic music, which was supposed to whip listeners or dancers up into an uncontrollable frenzy.

He preferred the “rational” kind of music which displayed what one may gather from his description to be a rhythm similar to military or marching music. Consonant with Plato’s understanding of music as something that addresses the deepest, oldest sources of being in one’s psyche (what Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, called the “realm of the mothers”) – Arthur Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the history of Western philosophy, declared music to be the only one among the arts to be the “direct” or immediate expression of the irrational, blind world-will, which comprises the “groundless ground” of all being.

In contrast, all the other arts can only represent the will indirectly through some or other idea. Architecture, for example, expresses its relation to the will through the idea of mass (heaviness or lightness), but in music one can experience the creative and destructive aspects of the blind world-will directly in the cadences of rhythm, the joyful affirmation of compositions in a major key and the melancholy registered in those composed in a minor key.

Anyone familiar with the theatre of the absurd, especially the plays of Samuel Beckett (Endgame, Waiting for Godot), would recognise in them the dramatic counterpart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the “musical” will. Similarly the work of Kafka testifies to what some individuals experience as the absurdity of existence.

In the Jewish Quarter of Prague there is a Kafka statue inspired by an image from Schopenhauer’s work, that of a headless (in Schopenhauer a blind), strong man bearing a paralysed, clairvoyant man on his shoulders. The blind, or headless man represents the blind, irrational will, and the clear-sighted but paralysed man represents reason, which is capable of offering accurate descriptions of the world, but is powerless to influence the will decisively. In other words, unlike the majority of philosophers, who valorise reason’s capacity for determining what happens in human life, Schopenhauer, Kafka and Beckett believe that it is illusory, and that it is the will, or unreason, which drives human beings, no matter how much we may rationalise after choosing or acting on the basis of an irrational impulse. And if Schopenhauer is right, it is in music that one encounters this “determining cause” face to face.

From a different, but equally illuminating perspective, Julia Kristeva’s notion of the “semiotic” sheds light on the powerful effect of the Korean flamenco guitarists’ musical performance on their audience. For Kristeva it is not sufficient to employ Lacan’s imaginary and symbolic registers (that of particularistic images and universalistic language, respectively) to be able to understand how meaning is generated in iconic or verbal communication – one needs a concept for a wholly different register of meaning, one that is not yet either image or word, but is not outside of language either (like the unsymbolisable “real”). Hence the “semiotic”, which is the register of meaning in which music, noise, sounds in general, colours, smells, texture, grain, and so on, belong.

The timbre of Nina Simone’s voice, inimitable as it is, functions at the level of the semiotic, as does a perfume with its own, distinctive, inimitable aroma. Hence, the “semiotic signature” of a musical performance is itself unique, unrepeatable in its time- and space-bound specificity.

This means that the young Koreans’ flamenco performance may well continue exercising its muse-emanating musical magic in memory for a long time after that evening; it was a singular, unique occasion of the muses addressing a small group of humans through the gifted hands and bodies of two very young performing artists.

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  • 13 Responses to “Musing on music”

    1. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Hey guys at TL – I mean the editors – I know you mean well, but sometimes your editing leaves a lot to be desired. I wrote (deliberately employing a word with musical resonance): “Consonant with Plato’s understanding of music as something that addresses the deepest, oldest sources of being in one’s psyche…”; I did NOT write: “Constant with Plato’s…” That makes no sense. And what’s with the cases where you put an apostrophe where I did not have any? For example: “Ancient Greek’s recognised nine muses…”? There should be no apostrophe there: “Ancient Greeks recognised nine muses…”!

      December 15, 2012 at 5:24 am
    2. Keith Hart #

      I once knew an old man who had been a student of Leo Frobenius, the founder of a school of anthropology known as Kulturkreis lehre (the spread of culture in circles from a given point). He used to say that the Suzuki method of teaching the violin which came back to the West from Japan was the first example in world history of such a reverse movement.

      Clearly the Koreans are onto something. The pop song “Gangnam style”, released in July this year by the Korean known as PSY, has been viewed a billion times on YouTube and constitutes the ebiggest, fastest dance craze ever.

      And of course the Koreans are taking over the market for smartphones, so watch out.

      December 16, 2012 at 1:50 am
    3. Thought Leader Editor #

      Thanks for pointing that out Bert. We have updated it.

      December 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm
    4. Maria #

      Bert, music (or rather, people’s love of music) may also be the best chance we have of entering a genuinely “open source” kind of society. The other day I read an account of the sheer deluge of music that anyone can download from the internet – FREE, or at least, freed from a price-tag. The combination of the internet and the many performers who are in favour of sharing their music with everyone, free of charge, adumbrates the kind of society which beckons in the future. This must be the reason behind the latest attempts, by certain governments (including the so-called democracies) to impose greater control on the internet – the corporations are losing too much profit. On another topic, your experience of Korean music reminds me of the chapter on “Music and architecture” in your recent book, “Intersecting Philosophical Planes” (2012) – the way you use Derrida’s notion of “differance” there to differentiate among divergent varieties of music (and architecture) can be used productively in the case of a Korean rendition of flamenco (“flame-like music”) too.

      December 19, 2012 at 3:48 am
    5. Richard #

      This is an interesting post, and one that struck a responsive chord (excuse the pun) in me. I was particularly interested in the Schopenhaurean reference: the idea of music and the will. As I understand it, music can represent the will without being the subject of the will. Music, like the world, is the imprint of the will. In other words, we construct music according to the will. As I would rephrase that: we hear in music what is contained within the will. So, in other words, music can only ever give us what is already within us, as is the case with literature, or, indeed, any of the arts. Particular musical form must therefore be a prisoner of culture, since aspects of the will would presumably be dominant or recessive according to the tenets of differing cultures (one would suppress or express according to what is considered meaningful). In this light – the presumed differentiation of the will – it is possible to understand why music actually operates within a narrow range. It is able to express mood most elegantly, and either in a “raw” or “developmental” state. I think, for instance of the difference between, say, African drums and a Beethoven symphony. In the one, the mood is presented immediately, without the element of tension introduced temporally, and in the other, mood occurs gradually, tempered by theme and resolution. However, both presuppose a state-of-will. What happens in the case of, say, sublimated will, perhaps in a person who is a long-term prisoner?

      December 21, 2012 at 3:48 am
    6. Richard #

      contd. That is, a prisoner without hope of release? Or in somebody who is dying? in these states of diminished ego or will (it seems to me that in this particular case they could be used interchangeably), music surely is not able to reflect anything? Speaking personally, in times of great anxiety or suffering caused by caring responsibilities, I have found music to be singularly void of any power at all. In times of normal ego-expression, music is very powerful, but in times of ego-suppression (or ego-transcendence as I prefer to think of it) it is all quite hollow. I am speaking of live performances of Goetterdammerung, Mahler symphonies, Beethoven piano concertos, Schubert works of varying kinds, Strauss songs, ad infinitum, all performed by key exponents of their form. The results were singularly unimpressive. And yet, Billy Budd shook me, but I suspect more from the immense pathos of the story than the abstract “story” of the music. Do you know of any psychological studies of people with poorly developed ego, whether they evidence any emotional response to music? To me, in a state of what might be considered trauma, the only art-form that has ever had any real impact has been non-narrative visual art, perhaps of the Francis Bacon variety. I had always assumed that was simply because the visual is more primary than the auditory, but the idea of the will and its representation is intriguing. Why, in your opinion, might visual form represent the will more than the…

      December 21, 2012 at 4:04 am
    7. Richard #

      contd 2. auditory? And why non-narrative more than narrative? Could it be that without the mediation of ego or will, non-narrative art expresses (rather than represents) some fundamental universal truth that is not related to any individual impressing-upon by will? Would that make it some sort of equivalency of a scientific truth rather than an artistic creation? I think of, say, Bacon’s 1981 work “Study from the Human Body” as a fine exemplar. In that case, it would simply represent a flight to reason.

      Somehow, what music has to say, without the will, is entirely trivial.

      December 21, 2012 at 4:18 am
    8. Maybe the Apocalypse (21/12/2012) will change society?

      This is how Wikipedia defines Apocalypse:

      An apocalypse (Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning ‘un-covering’), translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, hidden from humanity

      In my opinion what Nostradamus predicted was the Internet, which stops propaganda filtering out people communicating with each other direct.

      He “saw” a “wandering planet” and “a bright comet in the sky”. Planets do not wander, but a satelite, which orbits the earth and not the sun, would appear like a wandering planet to the people of his day, who could have had no concept of the possibility of a satelite.

      December 21, 2012 at 6:32 am
    9. Richard #

      This is an interesting post, and one that struck a responsive chord (excuse the pun) in me. I was particularly interested in the Schopenhaurean reference: the idea of music and the will. As I understand it, music can represent the will without being the subject of the will. Music, like the world, is the imprint of the will. In other words, we construct music according to the will. As I would rephrase that: we hear in music what is contained within the will. So, in other words, music can only ever give us what is already within us, as is the case with literature, or, indeed, any of the arts. Particular musical form must therefore be a prisoner of culture, since aspects of the will would presumably be dominant or recessive according to the tenets of differing cultures (one would suppress or express according to what is considered meaningful). In this light – the presumed differentiation of the will – it is possible to understand why music actually operates within a narrow range. It is able to express mood most elegantly, and either in a “raw” or “developmental” state. I think, for instance of the difference between, say, African drums and a Beethoven symphony. In the one, the mood is presented immediately, without the element of tension introduced temporally, and in the other, mood occurs gradually, tempered by theme and resolution. However, both presuppose a state-of-will. What happens in the case of, say, sublimated will, perhaps in a person who is a long-term prisoner?

      December 22, 2012 at 11:18 am
    10. Richard #

      contd. That is, a prisoner without hope of release? Or in somebody who is dying? in these states of diminished ego or will (it seems to me that in this particular case they could be used interchangeably), music surely is not able to reflect anything? Speaking personally, in times of great anxiety or suffering caused by caring responsibilities, I have found music to be singularly void of any power at all. In times of normal ego-expression, music is very powerful, but in times of ego-suppression (or ego-transcendence as I prefer to think of it) it is all quite hollow. I am speaking of live performances of Goetterdammerung, Mahler symphonies, Beethoven piano concertos, Schubert works of varying kinds, Strauss songs, ad infinitum, all performed by key exponents of their form. The results were singularly unimpressive. And yet, Billy Budd shook me, but I suspect more from the immense pathos of the story than the abstract “story” of the music. Do you know of any psychological studies of people with poorly developed ego, whether they evidence any emotional response to music? To me, in a state of what might be considered trauma, the only art-form that has ever had any real impact has been non-narrative visual art, perhaps of the Francis Bacon variety. I had always assumed that was simply because the visual is more primary than the auditory, but the idea of the will and its representation is intriguing. Why, in your opinion, might visual form represent the will more than the…

      December 22, 2012 at 11:18 am
    11. Richard #

      contd 2. auditory? And why non-narrative more than narrative? Could it be that without the mediation of ego or will, non-narrative art expresses (rather than represents) some fundamental universal truth that is not related to any individual impressing-upon by will? Would that make it some sort of equivalency of a scientific truth rather than an artistic creation? I think of, say, Bacon’s 1981 work “Study from the Human Body” as a fine exemplar. In that case, it would simply represent a flight to reason.

      Somehow, what music has to say, without the will, is entirely trivial.

      December 22, 2012 at 11:19 am
    12. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Richard, Schopenhauer would agree with you that music can ‘only give us what is already in us’, but he would also insist that it is not ONLY in us – the will manifests itself in everything, from the law of gravity to plants growing and animals living according to their distinctive zoological signature. I find your question about whether people with a poorly developed ego show an emotional response to music interesting, because (if I understand you correctly) you seem to presuppose that the response is – or should be – in terms of the ego. Schopenhauer as well as Nietzsche would agree about the necessity of the ego being involved, but I think for a different reason: music, which corresponds to the will (or the id, if you like), is capable of shattering the rational confines of the ego. In fact, the stronger the ego, the more liberating the effect of experiencing the will ‘directly’ in music – rather than indirectly, as through painting – would be, according to them. I would tend to disagree with them in at least one respect – different people are addressed in differing degrees by distinguishable arts. `You single out the painting of Francis Bacon; some people would respond more readily to music, or film, or literature. I think I am just as receptive to music as to the visual arts, and if the two are combined in a powerful way – as in the Qatsi film-trilogy – it touches the Empyrean for me.

      December 24, 2012 at 6:39 pm
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      May 1, 2013 at 4:56 am

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