Music and Philosophy Panel at the AMS 2018


A panel on Intoxication at the annual AMS conference organised by the AMS Music and Philosophy Study Group.

Find out more about the conference here

AMS 2018


Andrew Hicks (Cornell University), Chair

For many philosophers, music and intoxication are powerfully intertwined. The “music theorists of Dionysus,” Plutarch reports, drink wine and water in accord with the harmony of the lyre; the best cocktail (producing the ideal inebriation) is three parts wine to two parts water, the musical intoxication of the fifth. For Adorno and Horkheimer, musical intoxication is akin to a phantasmagoric delusion concealing reality and suspending one’s sense of self. In Sufism, musical intoxication dissolves barriers between what is seen and unseen; in such cases, self-annihilation is self-preservation. Even far outside the annals of “official” philosophy, vernacular speculations recur at the nexus of music and intoxication: in social and military battlegrounds, around gateway drugs, behind and across police lines, in alliances with occult forms and mysticisms, as triggers of social and metaphysical bonds, and as blinding illusions or portals to the real. With remarkable regularity, musical intoxicants seem to transfigure foundational concepts of the self, of logic, reason, society, and being. In this special evening session, five scholars tackle the question of intoxication and music from a philosophical point of view. Their studies range from subversive intoxications of seventeenth-century England to the hypermodern ecstasy of electronic dance music.

Edward Spencer (University of Oxford), “Beyond Intoxication: On Sobering Experiences of Electronic Dance Music”

Since the early 1990s, philosophical approaches to electronic dance music (EDM) have privileged intoxication. Appearing in various theoretical guises, intoxication has drugged our thinking and contributed to an orthodox, quasi-monist philosophy of EDM. In this vein, ravers surrender themselves to ‘Dionysian pleasure’ (Melechi 1993: 32) and experience ‘forgetfulness, selflessness, and oblivion’ (Gauthier 2004: 69). Lost within the socio-chemical-musical assemblage of the rave, dancers assume an undifferentiated oneness akin to a Deleuze-Guattarian Body-without-Organs (Jordan 1995). All semiotic structures are digested and Baudrillard’s hyperreal singularity reigns supreme at acid-fuelled psytrance parties (Vitos 2010; 2017). Ekstasis dances freely (e.g. Gilbert & Pearson 1999) as a black-boxed buzzword. In music theoretical work, EDM’s temporal infinity produces intoxicating process pleasure (Garcia 2005) and flow (Butler 2014).

This paper provides an antidote to the above by considering North American dubstep post-2010 in the company of Adorno. Drawing upon fieldwork at Spring Awakening Music Festival (Chicago, IL, June 9th–11th 2017) and Lost Lands Music Festival (Thornville, OH, September 29th–October 1st 2017), I demonstrate that many festival-goers are addicted to the sobering experience of the dubstep drop (a musical fetish defined by explicitness). I problematize abstraction, oneness and forgetfulness by arguing that the drop choreographs a grave awareness of self and an intense interrogation of others. I then focus on the online reception of dubstep tracks such Drowning by Excision with reference to Adorno’s emotional listener. In the final part of the paper I consider dubstep’s preoccupation with ‘hype’ alongside Adorno’s conception of self-conscious hysteria.


Tomas McAuley (University of Cambridge), “Orgasmic Rapture and Devotional Bliss: Schopenhauer on Music and Sex”

At the close of his discussion of music in Volume II of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1848), Arthur Schopenhauer equates music with ānanda, a Sanskrit term traditionally translated as “blissfulness,” but which refers specifically to devotional bliss, to orgasmic rapture, and to the connection between these experiences. Taking this puzzling passage as its starting point, the first part of this paper attempts to reread Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music from the perspective of his philosophy of sex. So doing illuminates the philosopher’s concept of “will”—a blind, destructive striving that remains opaque when reading Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music outside of its wider context. This, in turn, leads me to argue that Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music is not primarily metaphysical, as it is almost universally painted in the literature, but rather metaethical.

In the second part of the paper, I argue that just as Schopenhauer’s remarks on sex can cast light on his philosophy of music, so too can music suggest a new reading of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of sex – and, by extension, of the will itself. Schopenhauer’s general view of sex is darkly pessimistic: sexual desire, on his view, causes nothing but suffering, and the only reasonable response is chastity. Yet Schopenhauer cannot escape his intoxication with music, which, by showing the pleasures of satisfaction, shows the pleasures of willing, and leads him, in his discussion of music, to describe ānanda as the highest Ātman: the truest self. In so doing, Schopenhauer offers a uniquely positive – for him – assessment of human sexuality.

Beth Abbate (Boston Conservatory at Berklee), “Ritual and Ecstasy in Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage”

The third act of Tippett’s 1952 opera The Midsummer Marriage contains clearly Dionysian elements, reflecting the composer’s interest in both Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian and Jung’s discussion of it. In this act’s climactic scene, the Dionysian effect of musical intoxication acts as a component of ritual, designed to include the audience in the work of both becoming whole as individuals and restoring fertility to the damaged society of contemporary England. In a representation of Jung’s psychologically interpreted “Great Work” of alchemy (intended for “the rescue of the human soul and the salvation of the cosmos”), Tippett’s Act 3 contains a stylized sex rite enacted by the central characters embodied as Shiva and Shakti. In addition to suggesting the merging of anima and animus into a unified whole, the scene was also intended to evoke the fertility rite from Naomi Mitchison’s 1931 novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen (itself drawn from Frazer’s famous Golden Bough), in which both music and intoxicating beverages play an important role. Musical elements creating a sense of magic and intoxication are multiple, including long vocal melismas in canon, juxtaposed rhythmic patterns in threes and fours that reflect Jungian and alchemical references in the text, and orchestration that verges at times on chaos. The several esoteric texts (all written by Tippett) are sung simultaneously, while dancers present a “Fire Dance” for St. John’s/Midsummer’s Eve. In its magical aspect, Tippett’s scene recalls the eruption of intoxicated music at the visit of the gods in C.S. Lewis’s 1945 That Hideous Strength.

Victor Szabo (Hampden-Sydney College), “Highs for Highbrows? Rhetorics of Contemplative Intoxication from Atmospheric Minimalism to Ambient Music, 1960–80”

This paper investigates the aesthetic, experiential, and rhetorical links between atmospheric minimalism, psychedelic drug use, and hip highbrow lifestyle consumerism from 1960–80. During this time period, composers, critics, and advertisers represented the minimal music listening experience as one of contemplative intoxication—akin to the psychedelic trip, but involving more awareness, concentration, and control on the part of the user. From the sleeve notes for Columbia’s 1968 premiere recording of Terry Riley’s In C (“The nature of your trip is determined by you”) to Atlantic’s Environments series of “psychological” ambient sound LPs (“A decongestant for the mind…. Better than booze and safer than pot”) to Charlemagne Palestine’s droning multi-hour “meditative sound environments” to the inclusion of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “continuous light and sound environments” in Edward Rosenfeld’s 1973 The Book of Highs (“250 methods for altering your consciousness without drugs”) to Brian Eno’s 1978 coinage of ambient music (a “surrounding influence” made to “induce calm”) and Peter Michael Hamel’s theorization of minimal music as kontemplative Musik (music to “aid self-absorption and contemplation, thus making drugs superfluous”), many of minimal music’s earliest purveyors fashioned electrified drones and loops as contemplative intoxicants: not hedonistic escapes from reality (see psychedelic rock, Muzak), but rather meditative vehicles for attaining inward focus and awareness. The retrospective labelling of minimalism and ambient music as coherent styles, I will argue, was inherently informed by the classed and gendered rhetoric of intoxication and self-control that validated these practices.

JoAnn Taricani (University of Washington), “The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and its Intoxicating Musical Antidote (1661)”

When Robert Burton pondered the physical and philosophical aspects of melancholy in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), he could not have imagined that this temperament would emerge as a pervasive national melancholia that would afflict British monarchists throughout the eleven-year Interregnum following the execution of Charles I in 1649.  Drinking became a political emblem of Royalism as well as solace during this era of melancholy, with taverns and clubs the environment where improvised poetry and music blended with whiskey and tobacco to create a subversive opposition culture to the reigning Republic.  When the monarchy was restored with Charles II as King in 1660, the unshackled print culture memorialized this vast repertory of underground drinking songs through published broadsides and anthologies.  One particular anthology provided a musical riposte the nation’s former malaise: An Antidote against Melancholy (1661), which ostensibly was a collection of drinking songs, but in fact was the core repertory of the Royalists, an intoxicating distillation of resistance.  Even though it was issued to commemorate the 1661 coronation procession of Charles II, it still bore the mask of Interregnum intrigue, replete with covert symbolism. Even its editor (John Playford) slyly winked at the repression of the Interregnum by publishing it under a pseudonym.  The musical component has been elusive, yet once this Antidote is musically interpreted within the extensive culture of political drinking songs, its remedy of songs about politics and liquor distinctly expresses the relief of the Restoration while still ruminating on the persistent melancholy of 1650s Britain.

By admin

Sign up for periodic announcements via our Newsletter!