Friday, 28 August 2009

From Occult to Mimesis

In Doctor Faustus (1947), Thomas Mann (1875-1955) suggests that perhaps music is not meant to be heard, but to be contemplated. What he has in mind is a musician's pleasure of beholding a score, on which there lies a matrix of mathematical signs that can be translated into a sweeping sensation, a cosmic time capsule in which one escapes the chronometric predictability of our factive universe--a possibility that has yet to be realised.

I had a distaste (or perhaps put psychologically, phobia) for writing orchestral music until recently. I must confess that there is something magical to see the score unfold like a fabric that is woven out of many organic layers that have gone through the process of imperfections, anticipations, and reconfigurations. The greatest joy for me, as always, is to contemplate the various ways contrapuntal relationships fall into a certain harmonic structure. Whenever it happens, it always means that there is a mathematical principle that somehow remains constant in every inversion, retrograde, permutation, and transposition. I am not a serialist, and perhaps because of that, the moment I found myself moving into a realm in which that certain principle is found, I am always moved by this somewhat occult quality of the art of composition.

Because of this occult quality, Mann wrote in his novel, through the voice of the "thing," that Mediaeval and Renaissance theologians had the most perverse idea of mobilising it to serve "God." Nevertheless, "perversion," in this sense, is best understood not as a form of deviation; rather, it is the site at which seemingly conflicting ideas are revealed to us as the core of the truth: What Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) calls the Paradox that makes up every philosophical question, or in fact, every possibility that makes definite the form of being. In the case of music, the very Paradox is, precisely, the meeting point between what we perceive as rationality and irrationality; the vacation of this very tension is possibly where the "God" of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) dwells.

About a month ago, I read a comment on my friend's article. In the comment, the reader rather hastily defines music as an organisation of time. For me, a composer does not organise time, she/he creates time, not the mundane and predictable chronos, but a time-image in which chronos is put into play, so that one may contemplate one's relationship with it. Put within the framework of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), in music, one becomes conscious of one's Profound Boredom, i.e. one's awareness of one's being in time. If we push it further with Giorgio Agamben's analysis in The Open (L'aperto, 2002), this moment of a human being's entering into consciousness of her/his relationship with time does not mark her/his difference from animal; rather, such moment opens up the paradoxical relationship between her/his state of boredom into which she/he is completely absorbed, and her/his consciousness of it that seems to stand "outside" this state of absorption, thus breaking down the distinction between human and animal.

Music, in the human imagination, is often associated with the end of time (the eskhaton). If music were to be an organisation of time, such association would certainly be inconsistent with the cessation of temporal perception (although in theory, such cessation is incapable of being sensed, thus we, by definition, will never know when time ceases). The only theological and philosophical explanation, in this light, is the idea that music creates a new "time," by which we no longer sense time the way we do. In this sense, we simply enjoy the pleasure of "being with" gods and animals as one.

In the end (or chronologically, in the "beginning"), perhaps Plato has not thought far enough, that music is, after all, about mimesis; it is an imitation of something that our eyes alone have yet learned to imitate.

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