Tag Archives: Jean-Paul Sartre

Goal-Directed Movement

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music listening is an unfolding experience. Without prompting, the listener naturally follows the direction of a piece, traveling through its curves and contours in a linear progression toward completion. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato comments on the ability of this temporal movement to “charm” the inner life of the listener. Roger Scruton contends that the mind moves sympathetically with motion perceived in music, such that they are felt as physical motion. These and other observations address the goal-directed movement of music. The whole piece is not revealed at once or in an order or manner that the listener chooses. Musical developments, whether simple or complex, lead auditors from beginning to end.

In contrast to print communication, which can be read and reread at any pace the reader wishes, music imposes its own duration and agenda. In pre-recording days, this necessitated formalized repetitions and recapitulations to get certain messages across, hence the use of sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), the doubling schema of keyboard partitas (AA/BB), the verse/chorus form of folksongs (and later commercial songs), and so on. Michel Chion notes: “This enormous redundancy—which means if we buy a recording of Bach’s English Suites that lasts an hour, we only get thirty minutes of ‘pure’ musical information—clearly has no equivalent in the visual arts of the period.” Audio recordings afford greater freedom in terms of playback and repeated listening, but each listening remains a temporal experience.

The situation is not sidestepped with printed notation. Although a score can be read and studied, similar to a book or article, the notes on a page are essentially illusory. The paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in L’Imaginaire, a treatise on imagination and the nature of human consciousness, that music is never located in the silent symbols of a musical score, however detailed. Using Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as an example, Sartre explains that the inability of written notes to capture music is rooted in the nature of sound itself. Unlike something that is empirically real—defined by Sartre as having a past, present, and future—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Each performance is basically a new creation, and, we might add, each exposure to a recording is a new experience, due to changes in the listener and her surroundings from one hearing to the next.

Time, not paper, is the fundamental surface upon which music is made. Music involves a linear succession of impulses converging toward an end. Whereas a painting or sculpture conveys completeness in space, music’s totality is gradually divulged, sweeping up the listener—and the listener’s inner life—in the process.

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

Music Is As Music Does

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Part of the difficulty of defining “music” is the implicit notion that music is a thing. Music is erroneously conceived as a sort of organism that can be taxonomically defined by a set of fixed morphological properties. Not only is there a multiplicity of divergent elements that can constitute music, especially when viewed cross-culturally, but those elements also need to be in motion in order for music to exist. Unlike static objects, like a statue, painting, or table, music becomes music through active relationships.

This dynamic quality is encoded in the term “composition,” perhaps music’s closest equivalent to a concrete thing. Composition means “putting together.” It is a noun that is really a verb. The composer (“one who puts together”) combines notes, beats, rests, articulations, and other audible components. The musicians (“ones who make music”) put these components into active relationship.

This process is most obvious in improvisation—spontaneous composition—where the acts of composing and music-making occur in the same moment. But it is also evident in the most meticulously written scores. As Sarte and others have observed, the printed page cannot be called music until and unless it is translated into sound. Thus, even music publishing, the best attempt at musical reification (“thing-making”), cannot force music into noun status.

The foregoing discussion is not limited to music. Other actions are often misconstrued as things, thereby obscuring their active essence. This is true of such lofty concepts as love, hate, good, and evil. Such terms are as convenient as they are misleading. They are, fundamentally, abstract nouns applied to a dynamic amalgam of sentiments expressed through action: loving, hating, doing good, and doing evil. Love is not a tangible or definite thing; evil does not exist as a concrete entity. Like the elements of music, they are multi-layered chains of events that unfold in real-time and in the context of relationships.

These observations could be expanded to include all of life, which itself is a deceptive term for the active process of living. From a certain point of view, everything is verb. But philosophical maneuverings are not needed to appreciate music in this way. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Music is as music does.”

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

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.

Economy of Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Jean-Paul Sartre posed the following scenario: Imagine listening to a raw recording of everyday conversations transpiring in a foreign time and place. They begin mid-sentence, jump organically from topic to topic and come with no guidelines or commentary. Even if we could understand the language, much of the substance of the dialogue would be lost. The words would be laden with subtleties, references and turns of phrase natural to the speakers’ environment and experiences, but alien to our own. Context would be a matter of conjecture, as people generally avoid dwelling on the details of their surroundings or the larger conditions in which their discussions are taking place. Extraneous and unnecessary information is left out without conscious consideration. The actors simply know who they are, where they are and what they’re talking about. They intuitively favor an economy of language.

Sartre saw a parallel between such conversations and literature written in and about a given culture. Native readers do not require lengthy descriptions, meticulous word-pictures or fleshed-out narratives. As Sartre wrote: “[P]eople of a same period and collectivity, who have lived through the same events, who have raised or avoided the same questions, have the same taste in their mouth; they have the same complicity, and there are the same corpses among them. That is why it is not necessary to write so much; there are key-words.” But when their stories and ideas are told to an outside audience, many pages are needed to introduce history, outline customs, explain prejudices, chronicle social tensions, describe economic conditions and so on.

Something similar occurs in music. Like the direct language of everyday speech and the concision of certain time- and space-specific writings, music is able to communicate an abundance of information with minimal material. A brief melodic sequence, stylistic signature or pithy phrase can capture the ethos of the group or subgroup from which the music sprang and to which it is addressed. Its sound—and, in the case of song, its subject matter—encapsulates collective experiences, consolidates common concerns, addresses ubiquitous feelings, accentuates shared fondnesses and enfolds many layers of cultural expression.

Group-defining music is like a time capsule, gathering together tastes, struggles, longings, tendencies, aspirations and other particulars. Take the American baby boomer who nods knowingly to a Bob Dylan record, or the Yoruba of West Africa who understand the messages and milieu of their talking drums. Each time the music is played, its contents are spilled out. The insider knows precisely what it means; she is overtaken by a flood of familiar associations. For that person and others of her background and heritage, the music is an instant and unmistakable identity marker. It is history, memory, emotion, spirit, essence and conviction rolled into a sonic container.

This is partly why we are attracted to the music that attracts us: it is our music in a deep sense of the term. But it also accounts for why outsiders often have difficulty relating to or fully appreciating the music of others. For those who lived the stories and know the references, the music is a constant source of meaning and identification. Yet those unfamiliar with the music and its context can find it dated, irrelevant, uninteresting, unimportant, unapproachable or worse. And when an outsider desires to learn what the music recalls and represents, he needs the sort of informational and analytical framework insiders happily do without.

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

Self-Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I think therefore I am.” This phrase has been repeated in countless writings, courses, discourses and ruminations since they first appeared in René Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637). Much of Western philosophy sides with this Cartesian principle, which argues that the act of thinking is the only certain proof that a thinker exists. While specific thoughts can (and should) be doubted if there is reason to do so, the fact that someone is thinking those thoughts cannot be challenged. It is the only thing one can be certain of.

Whether or not one agrees completely with this reductionist approach or accepts the mind-body dualism it rests upon, it does give due consideration to the connection between thought and identity. Ideas about the external world are born from the internal processes of perception, pondering and projection, which are necessarily subjective and usually malleable. One’s notions about the world create the world for that person. The same goes for how one perceives oneself in the world, both in terms of self-image and the role that one plays. Thus, we might extend the aphorism “I think therefore I am” to include “What I think is who I am” (acknowledging that the first statement is objective and the second is subjective).

It is possible, then, to understand all works of the mind as autobiographical. Essays, equations, illustrations, engravings, enquiries and inscriptions need not tell an oral history or communicate a narrative to divulge details of the author’s experience. The particular thoughts one thinks and the way those thoughts are expressed are, in a basic sense, who that person is. The creation defines the creator.

To be sure, each person who encounters the final product will interpret (or recreate) it all over again. Even the maker him or herself will appreciate it differently with each exposure. But regardless if the work is artistic, utilitarian or somewhere in between, it reveals the person’s mind, and is thus the most that can be known of who that person is.

Music provides an illustration. Traces of influence, flashes of inspiration, flights of ingenuity, records of experience, translations of feelings, indications of aptitudes, attestations of predilections are all stored in the sounds and silences, rhythms and phrasings, harmonies and dynamics, articulations and voicings of a piece. It is the activity of the mind made audible. It is the self made audible.

Music is also autobiographical in that it captures a moment in time. It is a snapshot of a creative and reflective instance in one’s always-changing existence. The sounds capture the nuances of the moment. They stem from a mind in constant shift. Music written at any other time would be different. Each piece is like a page in a diary.

Granted, the language of music can be abstract. It may contain the essence of the composer, but that essence is not always clear or universally understood (or understood the same way each time it is heard). This, too, is representative of the mind-located identity. Like all thoughts, musical thoughts are elusive and temporary. Yet they do not have to be definite or straightforward to be evidence of the thinker’s realness or constitutive of the thinker’s identity. To think up music is to exist; the music that is thought up is who the composer is.

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.