La musique du sens

The music of sense– and not, “the sense of music.”

We often talk about having a “sense of music,” even if we don’t use that exact phrase. We talk about folks being musically inclined, those who have an ear for music. Such statements head in the direction of a person’s capabilities, aptitudes, talents, and proficiencies. In our culture, we have massive recording industries and televised competitions to discover: who has the best sense of music? Who will be the next star? And not only do we talk about those who have gifts, but we talk about those who are a “waste of talent,” in this case meaning: those who had a sense of music but got into drugs, lacked dedication, couldn’t put any focus into their art. How many thousands of artists have perhaps gone unknown, undeveloped because of this, their failure to appropriate their own gift? Because of their failure to own up to what they were or potentially could have been. Indeed, what could be worse than having a “sense for something,” and then to not “do something with it”?

But if we come at this question a bit differently, we get the sense that thinking about music in this way– as necessarily leading to some “creation,” “product,” “career,” etc.– is not without its shallowness and cruelty. Anyone who has ever plunked mindlessly on a keyboard, learned a few guitar chords, or even sang in the shower knows that music is best enjoyed when it is left alone to quite simply be what it is. Nothing marketable, nothing you’d want to record, nothing you could sell on the street corner, of course, but enjoyable nonetheless. Even if it is “objectively” horrible, insufficient by any “reasonable standard,” it doesn’t matter: we, quite defiantly and quite within our rights, don’t give a damn what anyone else says because the pleasure is ours. It suits you perfectly, and that’s what matters.

Or consider an experience common to many youngsters: your parents sign you up for music lessons, they dog you daily to practice, you get anxious before your lessons because you don’t want to disappoint your teacher, waste your parent’s money, etc. Being forced to play music makes playing it, enjoying it, impossible. This happens in other school settings also. One learns for the test, and not for the love of learning. Worse, this comes to define what “learning” itself means for the learner. One becomes so overcome by the demands of mid-terms and finals, with the big paper or project, that the joy of studying in its own right gets totally lost. One is constantly forced to “make something out of it.” And so nothing really happens. After I graduated from the University of Iowa, it took me months to rid myself of these impulses. I would be reading things that I’d chosen to read, but my mind was still convulsively trying to decipher the text with an eye to what “thesis” I might argue. How can I use this text to develop my idea? How can I prove this author’s relevance? And how can I show other people how significant my research is? In other words: how can I legitimize in another’s eyes what I am doing? What does the Other want from me? Formula for psychosis, substance abuse, and depression…

Of course, one can successfully legitimize ones efforts in the eyes of others. One can write and research such that ones voice gets heard, recognized, and popularized. One can make music that responds to what the people want. The crowd will clap, the competition can be won. Obviously, there’s nothing at all wrong with this! But if done solely for these motives? What good is a masterclass in Haydn’s Arias if you can’t belt out the theme to Happy Days on the highway? What good is having a sense of music if you can’t “sing like no one’s listening”? Surely, the best performers know this perfectly. You have to let your own music, your own voice come through, “no matter what they say.” Otherwise, it just doesn’t much sense, and the love goes stale.

In sum: one can become so busy developing their “sense of music” that one loses the music of sense– indeed, one loses their sense for it, their love. And that, inevitably, affects ones whole life. I’ve chosen music for this short meditation because music, out of all the arts, is the most ephemeral, the most fleeting. And so it has much to teach us about all the others– philosophy included.

Music only lasts so long as one keeps one’s mouth to the reed, ones bow to the string, the breath on ones lips, or a foot on the piano’s sustain pedal. The enjoyment is then, and only then. It does not “get” you anywhere. For it to last, it must be repeated– which is not the repetition of the “identical,” but of the very differences internal to music itself: meters, intervals, scales, chords, tempos, volumes, etc. However much we package music, organize concerts, sell CD’s and Mp3’s, and so on, everyone knows that the “event” of music itself remains quite mysterious (and if you forget that, you’ve totally forgotten music). Of course musical experience can leave profound marks on us. Sometimes we even remember them for the rest of our lives.  But these echoes and memories don’t take away the fact that music is essentially an art of disappearance. It seduces us into a void where the world we thought we knew evaporates, and a more enigmatic one emerges. Performers “lose themselves,” the audience is mesmerized and “absorbed.” And you cannot look back on it like you can with a painting, a sculpture, or a book. Unless you’ve recorded it (and let’s not ever take this for granted), there simply is no keeping it. This gift of music, no matter how hard you try, cannot be appropriated. Properly speaking: music doesn’t make any sense outside the playing of it, outside of opening your ears again and hearing the music.

This fleeting, withdrawing, seductive quality of music is why it touches us so much. But this is true of all the arts, that is, of all the senses (and so of philosophy, which tries to make sense of sense as such). Music resists being appropriated, absolutely, but so does every sense. Every sensation is already withdrawing, escaping, rushing elsewhere. And touch (recall here that all the senses are, in a sense, senses of touch, senses that touch, just as they each touch each other and feel themselves touching), touch is always made of this contact and departure, this strike and fade so clearly perceived in music. To sense something, to touch, is to be graced by the inappropriable, by something (outside) us that, while profoundly affecting us (inside), can’t be kept. We cannot keep what is felt. “The law of touch is separation,” writes Jean-Luc. Distancing, distinguishing, discernment: is this not the law of life, of relation, of space and time itself? Connection and disconnection, “all at once.” Tenderness, hand in hand with the fragility of what is tended to, which also touches us. Its delicacy implies the possibility of being crushed, of being touched too much or inappropriately— of touch turning into rape and murder (cf. note 1). If care is the essence of being, it is because being must be carefully approached. All the arts excel in this precision, this exactitude of touch, right down to the subtlety of their instruments: bows, brushes, strings, chisels, pencil-points, reeds, picks, blades, hammers, not to mention the eyes, ears, fingers, and skin, the whole muscular, skeletal, and neuronal apparatus that supports this fine-motor intricacy, this infinity of attunements, articulations, and arts.

To discuss all this under the heading of the “music of sense” is perhaps a bit indulgent. After all, in English the phrase itself isn’t very musical. But what I am trying to develop here is the dimension proper to sense “itself,” and how it quite easily escapes every scheme, every concept, every logic, every sense we might try to give to it– just like music does. Plus, the arts seem suited to this commutability of metaphors, signs, and ideas (a loud color, a soft sound, etc.). Likewise, sense “itself” means: synesthesia of all senses, simultaneity of touches. Every finite sense refers to another one, infinitely– just as each of us refer to one another. So I feel like it’s not too much of a stretch to define the “music of sense” like this: It is simply to be alive, to be yourself, to enjoy what you enjoy, to feel what you feel– well outside any judgment about those feelings, even if we also feel such judgments. La musique du sens: the very rhythm of existence and experience, of our life in all its vibrating, trembling uniqueness. Bare evidence of life exceeding life, of your own life exceeding you, trumpeting you out. Nothing could be simpler (and really, it is nothing “itself”…)

What I’m trying to develop is how this “music of sense,” or “sense itself”– sensations, sensibilities, sensitivities, sensuality, sentimentality…– and might I say the whole material complex of a sense that transcends itself, incessantly, immanently (just like music)?– sense is par excellence an end in itself: it is not in any way a means to another end. It is not project, duty, career, hypothesis, critique, outcome, album. These constructions simply do not do justice to the music of sense. (We could call it a composition, but this calls for another analysis.) It is tonal, atonal, melodious, inharmonious, monotonous, unexpected, quiet, deafening. Moment to moment: staccato, fermata, coda. And noise, of course: it is life lived fully, without need of repair or reparation. The music of sense, of all these years: loves, hardships, inner turmoils, events fortunate and unfortunate, insights, regrets… everything that makes up the musico-sensical “score” of ones life (without being scored or counted up, of course…). How often do we grant ourselves this intimate knowledge and affirmation? How often do we let value reside there, with our world and within us, absolutely, in all its awkward, idiosyncratic rhythm and arrhythmia, without trying to impose some value, system, project, or meaning over our own raw being-there? How often do we listen to this simple music, this very thing that we, existing, are?

And so all I’ve said is very simple: sing your heart out. Do whatever makes you laugh, especially at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously, even your grandiose projects and ideas, because pretty soon every trace will dissipate into the ubiquitous splendor and sound of the universe, and your life will no longer be yours. Do not imagine that the seeming insignificance of this little music, your little rendition of eternity, is something to be overcome or made meaningful. Quite the contrary: what matters here is not what the music “means” or “should be,” but the very act of listening to it, of being exposed to all that is there to hear. And so no longer the “meaning of music,” but the music of the meaning we are— right there at its infinite roar, resonance, and retreat. Because what makes everything so valuable is the fact that it might very well be the final cadence. So don’t make too much out of it, or you just might lose the tune…


1. “Interpretation” always runs the risk of a similar violence– of mishandling, manipulating, or manhandling what it interprets. Whereas the work of art always resists, always withdraws. Interpretation must know this. What distinguishes interpretation from mere criticism is its tact: the way it makes its approach. The virtue of a good interpretation is to let the work of art be what it is. It does not appropriate it (or “Art” in general, since there is no such thing) or presume to add to it, but instead highlights the inappropriable from which the work itself issues. It amplifies the light that emanates from it without applying its own prism. It respects the work by refusing to collapse the distance between it and itself. (In truth, all reading, all engagement with work or text demands this tact: do not force me to signify, do not forge my signature, “do not put words in my mouth.” Let us never underestimate how difficult this is in practice.) But once we’ve denied interpretation its presumption to total access to the work or to the author, in essence we’ve rendered it useless and redundant. We’re forced to admit that the interpreter interprets his or her approach more than anything; and that what we read in the interpretation is most often just an account of that approach. But this means that interpretation must take leave of interpreting and become a work of art itself. Transmission demands mutation, metamorphosis. Anything less is just a bland, reductive analysis, incapable of seducing anyone, incapable of making anyone feel otherwise

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