In the words of Hugo von Hofmannsthal via Jean-Louis Chrétien, “each new encounter breaks us and recomposes us.”1 This can’t really be denied, but in any case, my interests lie simply in the often-overlooked possible activities that follow the musical and the social encounter. Indeed, it is a pleasurable sort of activity to hear very new sounds and listen for the ways we can name them with a sense of “togetherness,” within common vocabulary; and then share with one another our interpretations of those new sounds—I can’t help but then recall again the words of Chrétien, “Interpretation has its violence too, and perhaps it is always a certain violence that founds and gives rise to interpretation.”2 Nevertheless, we hope to learn a bit more about the other in treating the musical encounter as such—generally for selfless reasons, for enrichment of the soul and mutual identity building. Or for the purpose of an ice-breaking spar, it toughens the skin in the most tactful way possible. But after all, one could ask, what else is there to do? Is it not inexorably the case that we are always testing each other’s identities and beliefs; is this not the primary activity between the self and the other?
(To give a fragment of a personal answer to that question: first, offer to sit, or any other receptive activity from which to proceed together. And as we have sat down already and continue to do so at many events and concerts, we are already one step on our way toward some other possibility. Chrétien, a philosopher of theological history, resolutely affirms the possibility in addressing not only oneself in listening to or producing sounds and not even one other upon the encounter, but instead to listen and speak towards an impossibility, the unheard-of 3—that is, toward all that we honestly do not know and that which we can try to unlearn. Chrétien questions whether the “ultimate and essential aim” of all speech is to be listened to—for speech that aims only to be listened to can only inveigle and “excerpts itself and withdraws from the dialogue of truth or in truth.”4 By addressing the unheard-of, we do not deny ourselves the positive invitation and construction of ideas and truths, but rather we silence “within us the noise of what has already been said so that we can, in Heidegger’s apt words, let ourselves be said."5
Some find the unheard-of, the impossible and uncertain to be intolerable; some slump jaded beyond all recovery; some find peace. Let us take a look into a particular case of addressing the unknown: Christians pray to God, an entity that can be said to exist beyond human understanding.6 From this relationship with the unknown, the speech of prayer then becomes a fascinating and profound subject, upon which Chrétien goes on to state: “the function of speech is not in this case to communicate a piece of information or to transmit something we know to our invisible interlocutor."7 In St. Augustine’s De magistro, he and his son, Adeodatus, discuss this very subject. The former supposes two functions of speech: teaching and learning (docere and discere). Adeodatus gives his counter-example: song—which can be done in private, without the presence of the other.8 It is then argued that apart from the pleasure of hearing the music, the words then are addressed to the self (commemoratio), “in which we remind ourselves of something."9
Further conclusions state that in prayer, one reminds oneself that such matters require divine assistance; upon request, one acknowledges “that we are not the origin of every good and every gift…"10 It is at once an acknowledgment that humbles and empowers the speaker. This entire reference, also via Chrétien, should stop here, as his discussion then elaborates even further upon the act versus the linguistic dimension of religious prayer. Though from this point, I have attempted to parse through this argument and rather imperfectly translate its salience into the domain of musical activity.
1 Jean-Louis Chrétien, The Ark of Speech, (London: Routledge, 2004) 24.
2 Ibid., 12.
3 Speech takes risks because it is always the unheard-of that it wants to say, when it really wants to say something. The silence within events is what we want to bring to speech…If speech is born from the unheard-of, listening, too, can live from it alone. And if we indeed speak only to the impossible, we also indeed listen only to and towards the impossible (Chrétien 13).
4 Ibid., 11.
6 In Book X of The Confessions of St. Augustine, there sits a passage in which St. Augustine meditates on the presence of God. Upon asking every object and creature he could possibly encounter of what they knew about God, he only received the response, “He made us.” He then receives his truth: “Neither heaven, nor earth, nor any other body is thy God.” And that all things “are a mass; a mass is less in a part thereof than in the whole.” Hence, he begins a series of conjectures upon what then one is to do with “the frame of the world about my God…” (“What then do I love…?”). What one can draw from these thoughts is that the addressee is not the entity as is completely known, but rather the vast field of related things never quite understood as a whole; we cannot know this field, per se. Most interestingly, St. Augustine follows with a prescription of focusing one’s senses to the world before him, “commanding the eye not to hear, and the ear not to see; but the eye, that through it I should see, and the ear, that through it I should hear…” (St. Augustine, 97-98).
7 J.-L. Chrétien, op. cit., 21.
8 Indeed, a wondrous counter-argument that will not be discussed here.