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Commentary: Thoughts on Polymath’s Exploration of Music and Philosophy

By Leonard Bopp, Contributing Writer, August 17, 2017

This past Sunday there was a summer lab project performance at National Sawdust involving the combined forces of Found Sound Nation and Polymath Club. In order to appreciate the work of Polymath Club, a research/creation collective that explores the relationships between music and philosophy, it will help to first identify the fundamental argument driving their work: that any performance or piece of music is inherently laying forth a philosophical argument of sorts. This is, indeed, a claim that is not new, and one that need not be seen as controversial. To say that an artistic creation is making a philosophical argument is, in a way, built into the very idea of creation, for in developing a composition or artwork that utilizes particularly forms, techniques, or that follows particular traditions, the artwork or composition—perhaps even unconsciously to the composer or artist—presenting its own aesthetic theory, an argument about what good art can, or should, be, and what good art should, or should not, do. This is the method by which we commonly analyze art in its many forms: visual, auditory, or literary. Indeed, philosophy in many ways permeates the artistic world, whether or not we call attention to it.

This is not to say, of course, that we need always call attention to philosophy in art. There is nothing inherently wrong with experiencing or talking about art for the simple act of enjoying it, feeling its visceral or emotional impact. Still, investigating philosophy and its intersections with artistic practice is important in that it pushes us to explore the future directions of the field. After all, there is a long history of artistic and musical practices working hand-in-hand with philosophy, and, furthermore, of artists and composers explicitly stating the philosophical grounding of their work. Pre-modern composers, for instance, conceptualized their work as appealing to external concepts of beauty and the divine, which aligned with the long-standing philosophical practice of searching for objective truths of goodness and justice. The practice of “absolute music”—music that does not attempt to represent something external to itself, but exists only as a formal and technical construction, an autonomous medium—was born from the philosophical movement of German Idealism, which focuses on human freedom rather than external objectivity. In this sense, as Anna Katsman writes in a program note for the performance, modernism in the arts becomes “the reverberation of freedom in the aesthetic domain.” And, in the music landscape twentieth-century, debates between, and about, composers of different traditions—notably, for instance, Stravinsky against Schoenberg—were concerned with the philosophical and, increasingly, political nature of aesthetics, particularly in an era defined by war, fascism, and unparalleled destruction.

Now, particularly in a time of rapid social change, headlong globalism, and political upheaval, there are a good many questions to be asked about the intersections of philosophy and music; indeed, a good many philosophical questions to be asked about the role of music in our current society. Can music benefit from a philosophical grounding? Should composers and other artists think of themselves as philosopher-practitioners? Are there limits to what philosophy and music can achieve on their own? Do the arts have any social or political value, beyond their emotional capacities, and could we, through philosophy, determine just how music should respond to a changing social landscape?

These are important questions, and, thankfully, ones that the Polymath collective is ready to tackle. The group presented their work, a collection of philosophical discussions, articles, installations, and compositions, at National Sawdust, as part of the Summer Lab series. The point of the event was to explore a number of potential intersections of music and philosophy in order to encourage discussion and debate among attendees, as well as the artists and thinkers themselves. Rather than come forth with a cohesive group philosophy—a statement that music should do X, justified by philosophical grounding—the group delivered a number of potential options, thus beginning an important conversation.

Found Sound Nation / Polymath Club lab performance at National Sawdust; photo: Alexia Webster.

One option, to begin, is to develop new ways of reading, interpreting, and responding to music itself. This was done quite effectively with a graphic score composition by Devin Greenwood, for which the composer divided three graphic scores—drawings, essentially— into 864 individual pieces, each appearing for less than a second on different screens. Three different musicians, on different instruments, each read one of the three screens. The idea, inspired by philosopher and collective member Vered Engelhard, is to highlight the moment of interpretation as people encounter objects; in this case, the musicians responding to structural images, with the underlying philosophical project being to highlight and reconcile the conflict between person (the performer) and an object they encounter.

Another proposed option was to view music as a means of developing a relationship with nature. Based on Christina Katopodis’ writing on Thoreau’s ruminations on bird songs, David Rothenberg’s “The Univocity of Being” was a thoroughly experiential work that explored how a number of different mediums—sounds of nature, sounds of the city, and language itself—can be forms of music. Another interesting project was a composition by Kevin Kirschner of short sound segments, to be performed in any order by the composer, with an indefinite amount of silence between each segment. Each segment, preceded and followed by indeterminate silence, functioned as an island. In terms of its form, it was disconnected its own history, that being the through-composed music that existed before it. Both of these projects, it seemed, were rooted in a belief in pure aestheticism, though they both offered new forms for music as a medium itself.

Two interactive exhibits highlighted the intersection of performance with interpersonal relationships. In one, participants sang and played instruments within a spherical structure, allowing music to emerge organically within the group; and in another, the pitches of four singers, each with a microphone, were averaged together to produce a common tone different from the pitch each singer was singing; attempts to match the common tone proved difficult, as the average pitch would then always change. These interactive and experiential exhibitions seemed to highlight the ways that our own behaviors and experiences are inherently shaped by those around us. Thus, the philosophy here is one of music as a social practice.

The final option, however, was one that aimed to treat sound as a politically active medium. Inspired by G. Douglas Barrett’s “Towards a Critical Music After Sound,” critical music would be, in a sense, the musical analog to conceptual art. Barrett suggests that new music has, on the whole, turned away from engaging with political, economic, and social crises; his concept of critical music is one that aims to intervene in these categories. Such an example was presented by Barrett himself—a piece with the title “What is the Sound of One Flag Burning?,” a recording of a public flag burning in response to rising nationalism.

Aerial view of geodome for Found Sound Nation / Polymath Club lab performance at National Sawdust; photo: Alexia Webster.

There is, indeed, much to be offered here through these explorations of the intersections of music and philosophy. And there is no reason that many different paths shouldn’t be pursued, each having its own purpose and goals. This project demonstrates that music can, and should, do many of these things. It can represent an ethical relationship to nature, engage critically in political dialogue, flourish in its own formalist aesthetic freedom and the philosophical underpinnings of that historical project, and be a social and cultural practice. In many cases, it can indeed do many of these things.

But then there is one further question to answer: just how can music make the solutions it proposes real in the world? That is to say, how can listening to music stop a company from polluting our environment, put an end to cultural conflicts, or help those who face oppression as a result of nationalist politics? Indeed, perhaps this is a question to be posed both of music and philosophy, both of which have always had a tricky gap between theory and practice. Furthermore, music’s existence, in large part, as a commodity, a good which audiences pay to consume, provides an extra hurdle for such practices. It creates a marketplace for music, which may not foster critically engaging music over music for entertaining purposes, and a philosophical debate can then ensue about whether or not it is possible to have music be both critical and entertaining. Moreover, however, music remains not an entity-in-itself, but an exclusive good, one only available to those who can afford it, which, by necessity, may put limitations on its ability to impact people’s lives. After all, if an audience for a performance of critical music is only full of people who have a vested interest in it, know what to expect and hold the political convictions that music itself presents, then what is its ultimate effect on the world other than to confirm the beliefs of its audience?

But this, of course, was exactly the point of Polymath’s work: to intervene and incite conversation within the field of music itself. In our current global political and cultural landscape, this necessary philosophical interrogation gives us a way forward for harnessing music’s ability to lead the way in a cultural dialogue. If music can engage with its political, cultural, and social contexts, in any of the many forms proposed, our best hope, and the hope we must hold onto, is that it can inspire its listeners to engage in the broader fight for the pursuit of love and justice in the world.


Cover: Found Sound Nation / Polymath Club lab performance at National Sawdust; photo: Alexia Webster.


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