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The Music of the Spheres, or the Metaphysics of Music
ISI.ORG ^ | Fall 2001 | Robert R. Reilly

Posted on 06/03/2002 8:57:40 PM PDT by cornelis


. . . According to tradition, the harmonic structure of music was discovered by Pythagoras about the fifth century B.C. Pythagoras experimented with a stretched piece of cord. When plucked, the cord sounded a certain note. When halved in length and plucked again, the cord sounded a higher note completely consonant with the first. In fact, it was the same note at a higher pitch. Pythagoras had discovered the ration 2:1, of the octave. Further experiments, plucking the strings two-thirds of its original length produced a perfect fifth in the ratio of 3:2. When a three-quarters length of cord was plucked, a perfect fourth was sounded in the ratio of 4:3, and so forth. These sounds were all consonant and extremely pleasing to the ear. The significance that Pythagoras attributed to this discovery cannot be overestimated. Pythagoras thought that number was the key to the universe . . . As Aristotle explained in the Metaphysics, the Pythagoreans "supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number." This was meant literally. The heavenly spheres and their rotations through the sky produced tones at various levels, and in concert, these tones made a harmonious sound that man's music, at its best, could approximate. Music was number made audible. Music was man's participation in the harmony of the universe.

This discovery was fraught with ethical significance. By participating in heavenly harmony, music could induce spiritual harmony in the soul . . .

The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order . . .

If there is no pre-existing intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it--which is the Creator--what then is music supposed to express? If external order does not exist, then music turns inward. It collapses on itself and becomes an obsession with technique. Any ordering of things, musical or otherwise, becomes simply the whim of man's will . . .

What was needed, according to John Cage (1912-1992), was to have absolutely no organization . . . He presented concerts of kitchen sounds and the sounds of the human body amplified through loudspeakers. Perhaps Cage's most notorious work was his 4'33'' during which the performer silently sits with his instrument for that exact period of time, then rises and leaves the stage. The "music" is whatever extraneous noises the audience hears in the silence the performer has created. In his book Silence, Cage announced, "here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos."

What was the purpose of all this? Precisely to make the point that there is no purpose, or to express what Cage called a "purposeful purposelessness," the aim of which was to emancipate people from the tyranny of meaning.

With his noise, Cage worked out musically the full implications of Rousseau's non-teleological view of nature in his Second Discourse. Cage did for music what Rousseau did for political philosophy. Perhaps the most profoundly anti-Aristotelian philosopher of the eighteenth century, Rousseau turned Aristotle's notion of nature on its head. Aristotle said that nature defined not only what man is, but what he should be. Rousseau countered that nature is not an end--a telos--but a beginning: man's end is his beginning. There is nothing he "ought" to become, no moral imperative. There is no purpose in man or nature; existence is therefore bereft of any rational principle. Rousseau asserted that man by nature was not a social or political animal endowed with reason. What man has become is the result, not of nature, but of accident. And the society resulting from that accident has corrupted man.

According to Rousseau, man was originally isolated in the state of nature, where the pure "sentiment of his own existence" was such that "one suffices to oneself, like god." Yet this self-satisfied god was asocial and pre-rational. Only by accident did man come into association with others. Somehow, this accident ignited his reason. Through his association with others, man lost his self-sufficient "sentiment of his own existence." He became alienated. He began to live in the esteem of others instead of in his own self-esteem.

Rousseau knew that the pre-rational asocial state of nature was lost forever, but thought that an all-powerful state could ameliorate the situation of alienated man. The state could restore a simulacrum of that original well-being by removing all man's subsidiary social relationships. By destroying man's familial, social, and political ties, the state could make each individual totally dependent on the state, and independent of each other. The state is the vehicle for bringing people together so that they can be apart: a sort of radical individualism under state sponsorship.

It is necessary to pay this much attention to Rousseau because Cage shares his denigration of reason, the same notion of alienation, and a similar solution to it. In both men, the primacy of the accidental eliminates nature as a normative guide and becomes the foundation for man's total freedom. Like Rousseau's man in the state of nature, Cage said, "I strive toward the non-mental." The quest is to "provide a music free from one's memory and imagination." If man is the product of accident, his music should likewise be accidental. Life itself is very fine "once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord."

link to pdf

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: boethius; cicero; holmboe; johncage; plato; pythagoras; rousseau; schoenberg; sibelius; stclement
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Interesting and readable, although it says nothing about the popularity of music which incites negatively. Of course, music is most influential when it is not entirely bad; it would hardly be popular in an absolute style for very long. Cage is not played on the radio.
1 posted on 06/03/2002 8:57:40 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: cornelis
Oh I don't know. Every time I hear 4'33" it gives me goosebumps--radio or not.
2 posted on 06/03/2002 9:08:49 PM PDT by Savage Beast
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To: cornelis
The understanding of higher musical structures is not easily achievable. It takes a lot of sophisticated training to understand the modern art musical universe. That's why modern music is not easily accepted by wide audiences. Cage was sound experimenting more than composing, he was an important historical figure, but not even composers listen to his music often.
3 posted on 06/03/2002 9:11:45 PM PDT by aristotleman
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To: Savage Beast

Our choir sang a Biebl piece and there is a certain individual who inevitably had to "break the silence" with a silly question after the last chord rings out.

4 posted on 06/03/2002 9:13:09 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: aristotleman
We can say that art, musical or pictoral, has two kinds of expression: the hieratic and the demotic. One is characterized by increasing complexity of order, the other a decreasing complexity. If we stretch the poles further, beyond the demotic there is the avant-garde and beyond the demotic there is propaganda. It probably is true that all great art is neither of these extremes, but mixture of the demotic and hieratic.
5 posted on 06/03/2002 9:20:18 PM PDT by cornelis
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sorry, beyond the hieratic
6 posted on 06/03/2002 9:21:37 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: cornelis
Like Rousseau's man in the state of nature, Cage said, "I strive toward the non-mental."

Mission accomplished.

7 posted on 06/03/2002 9:29:43 PM PDT by Risky Schemer
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To: cornelis
Interesting, but this essay is wanting.

Pythagorean tuning is woefully lacking. Bach's 24 Well Tempered Clavier pieces laid the groundwork for transposing a melody in a single composition.

The "twelfth root of two" is the best you'll get - and it's a sad metaphor for our Nation...

8 posted on 06/03/2002 9:30:59 PM PDT by Senator Pardek
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To: aristotleman
It takes a lot of sophisticated training to understand the modern art musical universe.

There is a nice piece by Ortega Y Gasset on this subject in The Dehumanization of Art:

Every work of art awakens different responses: some people like it, others do not; some like it less, others more. No principle is involved: the accident of our individual disposition will decide where we stand. But in the case of modern art the separation occurs on a deeper plane than the mere difference sin individual taste. It is not a matter of the majority of the public not liking the new work and the minority liking it. What happens is that the majority, the mass of the people, does not understand it.

In my opinion, the characteristic of contemporary art 'from the soiological point of view' is that it divides the public into these two classes of men: those who undertand it and those who do not. . .

Modern art, evidently, is not for everybody, as was Romantic art, but from the outset is aimed at a special, gifted minority. Hence the irritation it arouses in the majority. When someone does not like a work of art, but has understood it, he feels superior to it and has no room for irritation. But when distate arises from the fact of its not having been understood, then the spectator feels humiliated, with an obscure awareness of his inferiority for which he must compensate by an indignant assertion of himself.

9 posted on 06/03/2002 9:32:24 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: cornelis
I find it extremely difficult to combine the two in our era. The abundance of musical styles and opinions make it hard to find the mean. Personally I compose music that is not avant-garde, but is harsh and complex. Hard to make popular. No need to.
10 posted on 06/03/2002 9:32:39 PM PDT by aristotleman
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To: Senator Pardek
He essayed discord etc.

Even Joe Montana listens to Bach

11 posted on 06/03/2002 9:38:22 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: aristotleman
No need to

Well, there's always the stoic's ephemeral hope for immortality.

12 posted on 06/03/2002 9:39:29 PM PDT by cornelis
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To: cornelis
LOL - have you ever heard Western Music that does not change keys played in tunings where 4ths and 5ths match? Like Butta.

There's a number of chamber groups out there that specialize in that.

13 posted on 06/03/2002 9:44:08 PM PDT by Senator Pardek
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To: cornelis
Here's my mystery (was actually thinking about this tonight, before I read the article.)

Why does Asian music, well, SUCK?

I mean, here you have a grouping of sophisticated cultures, whose food, art, and philosophy have been beloved and sought after all over the world by other cultures.

But even ASIANS don't like Asian music...only thing that seems remotely tolerable are the Japanese guys with the big-assed drums. But that cymbally Chinese stuff is horrible, etc.

But many Asians have demonstrated tremendous music Western classical music, etc.

NOBODY outside of Asia seeks out and listens to Asian music though...but African music, Carribean music, Western Classical, American rock, sought after and enjoyed around the world.

What went terribly wrong? Is it like the English and food?

14 posted on 06/03/2002 10:28:31 PM PDT by John H K
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To: Savage Beast
There's nothing like the Lone Ranger Overture to get the adrenaline going!

Hi-yo Silver!

15 posted on 06/03/2002 11:04:30 PM PDT by Ken H
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To: aristotleman
Cage was a charlatan who proved once again that some things are so stupid only intellectuals believe them. My belief is that Cage knew early on that he lacked any musical aptitude but like legions before wished to be famous. How then to gain fame? Why by concocting his "music" system and gaining the praise of all sorts of screwball avant-garde music critics who also wished to be famous. Cage, Schoenberg, and others like them are musical frauds and dead-ends like (c)rap "music".
16 posted on 06/04/2002 4:26:15 AM PDT by driftless
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To: driftless
I can see why you would say that about Cage, I think similarly, often. He didn't think of himself as much of a musician though. He was experimenting with the boundaries of sound, music and perception and never claimed he was trying to create beauty or ugliness. All of that experimenting is gone now, few composers are still interested in "pushing the envelope". Now there are those who try to blend styles in order to be fashionable, there's the purists clinging to ideas that used to be creative, most are charlatans IMO.
17 posted on 06/04/2002 6:45:16 AM PDT by aristotleman
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To: John H K
That's actually not true. My husband hired a Chinese professor to teach in his department last year and his wife has become a close friend. I sometimes accompany them as they explore the area. They LOVE Asian music and play it all the time in the car!
18 posted on 06/04/2002 6:53:43 AM PDT by twigs
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To: Ken H
:) William Tell sends his regards.
19 posted on 06/04/2002 7:02:18 AM PDT by xp38
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To: cornelis
Many things of great quality are not understood, not just art. Some never are ("full many a flower" etc. etc.). Moby Dick was unappreciated for years. Much of Bach's greatest music was used for fish-wrap and lost forever. Van Gogh sold a room full of paintings for about 25 bucks.

I couldn't see what was so great about Huck Finn until I read Tom Abshur's very good book, Men and the Goddess, and he explained it to me. Huck immediately surpassed d'Artagnan as my favorite fictional character.

I read The Sound and the Fury four times, and I still didn't know what the hell was going on. When I read Falkner's explanation, I was more confused than ever. Then one night at a party at my sister's house, I met a woman, a friend of hers, who taught Falkner in college. I said to her, "You're not leaving here tonight until you tell me what that damn thing is about." For the next hour and a half we sat on the sofa, and she explained it in great detail and answered my questions. Then when I reread it, it was as clear as crystal. (But I was so depressed I wished I'd never found out.) (I am in love with Caddie Compson though. So was Falkner.)

I've got James Joyce's Ulysses in the book case next to me right now. Who knows? Maybe some day I'll tackle that.

It's a good thing The Renaissance didn't depend on me, isn't it?

It's comforting to know that one's coming and departure will be noted no more than the sea's self shall note a pebble into the waters cast. It's a lot more fun being a lazy slob than being responsible for--say--The Renaissance.

20 posted on 06/04/2002 7:07:14 AM PDT by Savage Beast
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