When composing and performing, sounds are encountered. Upon meditation of their origins, you can allow your senses
1 to access an
“intimate immensity.”2 The locality of the sound, your encounter, the resonance within your soul, and all memories and future possibilities exist in the immense impossibility that you address. So, you remind yourself of this: you hum, whistle, write, and recite, to remind yourself that you tread a field you cannot claim and know completely. The activity of sharing what you discover in this field then manifests as the shared experience, the shared intimacy of encountering an unknown sound.
Sauntering through this field, you encounter as many things possible within the day, from your respective position. The larger image of resonance, the larger beauty—in my soul, in yours, and theirs—is never completely known or seen in one lifetime. Therefore, at any point, we cannot determine the absolute truth or quality of the sound-thing. The activity of sharing is then allowed to move away from the naming or valuation of sounds, and towards the sensuous experience. This movement is a shift toward something like the original imagination in which we encounter the quotidian and mundane with an inborn resourcefulness and finally we play!—Again, to remind ourselves that we have been graced with (divine) imagination.
When speaking about a musical work, we can’t always know an audience. It remains an unknown. When it is possible to know, our discussion here does not properly apply—the performance and the audience will have their own socio-political relations and knowledge base. To borrow a case illustrated by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the imperfect skills of a poor tennis player could very well be defended by her stating, “I know, I’m playing pretty badly, but I don’t want to play any better.” To which Wittgenstein assumes the other could simply brush it off, with an acceptance.3 This isn’t entirely similar to music—for in many practices of music, still, there exist pre-determined standards that enable us to gauge the value and quality of a work. This, in turn, enables us to believe that we can determine the other’s character and value to the greater practice (One might say, “You should play better”).
In other situations, in which the music is simply there to be listened to, what do we have there? To whom does the musician address her music? Is it to the selfless Idea, activity, and history of Music? Sorry, not defined quite well enough for the world. Is it to some demiurge, some personal deity? For composers such as Bach, certainly. Is it to our loved ones? Sure, many, many, many times over. The point is that the “whom” to which the music is being addressed cannot be completely known, and thus, in such a case, a large part of the musician’s intentions is also beyond “common” consideration.
Perhaps what this then comes down to is how then we are to share the field with our inherited and accidental differences. Our musical activities accompany the ethical dimensions of the world and its unknowable plurality. To quote Chrétien, “Their stammerings, their clumsiness, their inadequacy, their contradictions are no longer an obstacle, they are no longer privations or deficiencies from the point of view of some masterful speech: they mean something.”4 Therefore, it’s not always our place to answer for many of the imperfections in what we say or how we listen. As much as I would wish to speak about how we should address one another’s music with ethical considerations, it is something that must be done, something that develops from our individual experiences and circumstances. When touching upon these matters, I consistently return to the words of Wittgenstein:
My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What is says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.5
So, if our relationship with the entity/the vast field/the unheard-of, remains as an acceptance of the reality of error and imperfection, then we could keep in mind at all times: what is our music and what becomes of our words on music? What is offered?