Category Archives: existentialism

The Short Life of Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is concentrated in the present tense. Its lifespan is the length of its performance. It emerges out of nowhere and disappears into nothingness. It manifests and expires in the same instant. Its two ingredients—sound and silence—evaporate into the hazy ether and the fuzzy recesses of the mind. It leaves no physical traces behind. To the extent that the music existed at all, it occupied the invisible spaces of time and consciousness. It was more energy than mass—more essence than substance.

The preceding eulogy applies to all music. Nothing of the thing lives beyond the act of its creation. Even when meticulously composed and faithfully played, note for note, it is not the same music that was heard before. Its relationship with prior performances is that of a facsimile or reenactment, not a resurrection. Similarly, audio recordings, while capturing data in a replayable format, should not be confused with permanence. What is heard is an impression of performance—however exacting—but not the performance itself. Like light reaching us from a long-extinct star, what enters our ears has already passed away.

The same can be said for musical notation. Though the printed page has material form, the paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre made this point in his book, L’Imaginaire (1940). According to Sartre, true existence cannot be claimed for any musical work. Music is not located in the silent symbolism of bar lines, notes, key signatures, dynamics or articulations. Nor is it found in any one performance, since all renditions are fundamentally new and ephemeral creations. In contrast to something empirically real—defined by Sartre as existing in the past, future and present—music disappears as soon as it is heard. Whatever lingering impact it may have in terms of thoughts, images, feelings or earworms, occurs solely in the mind.

This is not always seen as a positive attribute. Indeed, on some level, the desire to record music—both on paper and in audio files—reflects discomfort with the art form’s evanescence. As a rule, human beings are averse to impermanence and all the insecurity, unease and futility it implies. But the reality is that nothing lasts forever. From the moment a thing comes into being, it is in a state of decay. So we invent afterlife scenarios and gods that live forever. We think of truth and wisdom as eternal forces. We publish ideas, film events, build monuments, and make musical time capsules (notation and recordings). We fabricate fixity for fleeting forms.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art Made and Unmade

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Basic to existentialist philosophy is the idea that people are what they make themselves to be. We are born as empty slates and spend a lifetime creating our personas. Who we are is the result of an ongoing series of undertakings and the various thoughts, actions and relationships that comprise those undertakings. We constantly define and redefine ourselves through our dealings in the world. Our nature is not fixed. Critics charge that this view is too harsh, uncertain or arbitrary to be of any positive use. But its proponents see it as the most optimistic of doctrines. It entails that our destinies are within ourselves. Everything we do matters.

The flip side is that unrealized thoughts and unfulfilled potentials are of little or no consequence. Actualizations are what counts. Jean-Paul Sartre put it thus: “A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.” This principle goes for all areas of engagement: there is no love but the love that is felt; there is no skill but the skill that is used; there is no conviction but the conviction that becomes deed.

Sartre gave the example of art. An artist’s genius is the sum of his or her work. There is no other way to assess it. We cannot discuss the merits of a sculpture that was never sculpted or a concerto that was never composed. “Nobody can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be,” wrote Sartre. “Painting can be judged only after it has a chance to be made.” There are no a priori aesthetic values: creation precedes evaluation.

This perspective exposes the pointlessness of asking speculative artistic questions. What if Shakespeare had written another play? What if Michelangelo had painted another chapel? What if Plath had not died so young? What if Schubert had finished his eighth symphony? Track records and intentions are not the same as results, and there is no practical use in imagining things that will never be.

Of course, none of this precludes the fact that the artist must begin with a plan. Creations need a conscious creator, and nothing exists prior to the vision or inspiration. Yet if the plan is confined to the vagaries of conception and does not progress beyond them, it will not become art and thus have no impact on the artist’s genius.

Existentialists consider this a liberating and motivating concept. Whether the activity is art or something else, it is our efforts that ultimately constitute our identities. We are born without essence and become ourselves through action. Life is what we make of it, and what we make in life is who we are.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Musical Worlds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The supreme value of human life in Jewish thought is encapsulated in the oft-repeated phrase: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). A slogan for the sanctity of human existence, this well-worn saying is practically manifested in the commandment of pikuach nefesh—saving a soul. Jewish legal consensus holds that religious regulations—including and especially prohibitions associated with restrictive days like Shabbat—are to be abandoned for the sake of preserving the life of someone in peril. The Talmud gives representative scenarios in which Sabbath rules can be broken, such as rescuing an infant from the sea and extinguishing a threatening blaze of fire (BT Yoma 84b). The rabbinic phrase is also regularly invoked in discussions of healthcare, human rights and other ethical concerns.

Though it is not customary to do so, one could evaluate the saying through an existentialist lens. The notion that a person constitutes a unique world is a profound comment on the relativity of human experience. We can be equated to entire worlds because we each fashion and exist within the world as we understand it. How we process information and the amalgamated situations and activities that comprise our biographies cannot be duplicated.

The world is actualized through our perceptions and interpretations; reality is in the mind of the beholder. Each one of us understands the objective universe through a combination of sensory intake, emotional cues, mental associations, personality traits, educational exposure, instinctive proclivities, personal relationships, social conditioning, genetic predispositions and so on. As a result, no two individuals share identical experiences. The world, as processed through our senses and critical faculties, belongs to us and us alone.

This can be illustrated using music. Musical sound was once touted as a universal language understood by everyone in more or less the same way. Whereas language fails to communicate beyond a fluency group, musical dialogue was imagined to be immediately discerned. This view—popular in the nineteenth century and marked by ethnocentrism, false assumptions and genuine naiveté—was eventually discarded. Not only do varying cultures and sub-cultures have distinct sound preferences, stylistic conventions and aesthetic barometers, but they also consist of individuals conditioned to react to musical stimuli in certain ways. For instance, the major and minor of the Western diatonic system induce generalized responses for people in that cultural sphere, which may or may not be present in outside groups. Moreover, even where there is musical homogeneity, like in a church or folkloric society, individual members hear music in individualized ways. An ingroup’s most popular song still passes through many ears and evokes thoughts, sentiments, images and memories specific to each participant.

It is through these shades of apprehension—musical and otherwise—that our existence takes shape. When we expire, a complex network of cognitive, emotional and functional reality perishes with us. It is tantamount to losing an entire world.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.