Report by Dominik Ralph Mitterer (Durham University)
The RMA Music & Philosophy Study Group can look back with great confidence to their smoothly run and meticulously planned annual conference, which took place at King’s College London from 7th-8th July 2022. The conference benefited not only from the inclusion of a diverse range of topics,
spanning from Aesthetics, Ontology, and Epistemology, via Performance Studies and Philosophy,
Theorie(s) of Music, History of Ideas, Eco-Musicology and -Philosophy, towards sessions that zoomed in on the works of chosen philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, or on philosophical schools such as Poststructuralism. The conference was also able to welcome international presenters from various academic backgrounds, in order to build a discursive bridge between the disciplinary shores of Music History, Analysis, and Performance and those of Analytical Philosophy, Aesthetics, and History of Ideas.
The international scope of the contributions disclosed the vast scholarly interest and relevance of bringing Music-related disciplines and Analytical as well as Continental Philosophy into a productive dialogue with each other, aiming to bridge the sometimes uncompromising juxtaposition of Music, History and Philosophy: (Music-)Historical disciplines often show reluctance to entertain Philosophy’s alleged tendency towards conceptual universalism, and dismiss its disciplinary programme, which aims to clearly analyse and define the use of language and concepts, as impractical. While on the other hand, some philosophers accuse historical disciplines of particularism, given that their claims are significantly determined by the narrow choice of a specific time and place. Thus, one of the main successes of the conference was an overall constructive atmosphere in which disciplinary and scholarly variety informed each other productively.
This joint venture between Music and Philosophy departments was pointedly described by the organising committee in their opening remarks: Philosophy can help to clearly define and lay
out theoretical terminology; the epistemic framework through which musical works and their historical manifestations can be (re-)interpreted and (re-)investigated, and the ways in which past claims can be critically rethought, which leads to new questions and fresh perspectives in historical or systematic Musicology, Music Analysis or Performance Studies.
The cross-disciplinary atmosphere of the conference can be exemplified by the panel “Theories of Music in History”, which touched upon the contradictions of St Augustine’s reciprocal relationship between the human soul and the divine in musical experience (Migle Miliunaite); the Arabic philosopher Al-Fārābī’s Neo-Aristotelian reflections on music as a science and ethical as well as political dimensions of composition (Daniel Regnier); via Francesco Antonio Calegari’s and Giuseppe Tartini’s specific type of reasoning as ‘musical inference’ exemplified by the rule of the octave (Roberta Vidic); towards Rafael Echevarria’s contribution, in which he attempted to overcome the contemporary dichotomy between an historical comparative approach in musical form, which explains developments in formal practice in relationship to their historical heritage, and contextual approaches, which explain formal particularities against the background of reconstructed musical practice at a given time and place. The diverse range of theoretical writings contributed either to the re-encounter with historical treatises or to critical engagement with current music theories regarding the reshaping of the theoretical terminology with which current scholarship engages with music as a critical object of discourse.
However, the time limit of two days and the broad thematic variety of sessions led to a significant overlap, with up to five sessions held in parallel. Because of this unfortunate accumulation of parallel sessions, most attendees did not have the opportunity to hear the majority of the papers, and one can only hope that the organisers find further financial capacity for future conferences, in order to stretch the sessions out over a longer period of time.
The conference was framed by three keynote lectures, which contributed equally, but in different ways, to the interdisciplinary atmosphere. Professor Andy Hamilton’s keynote “Jazz as Classical Music” addressed the question of how Jazz can be defined as a non-popular and therefore
serious ‘art music’ independently from improvisation as its essential generic characteristic. Hamilton’s suggestion served a two-fold aim: Firstly, defending the genre from prejudiced assumptions that deny the genre’s status as a true art form due to improvisation being its essential characteristic, and to Adornian reservations that Jazz lacks the status of an autonomous art form because of its commercial conditioning. Secondly, Hamilton defended the concept of “classical art music” from post-modern critiques as being an inherently elitist category, while marshalling his view that it represents a standard of taste independent of underlying hegemonic power structures. However, it remained questionable whether it is or why it should be necessary and valuable to construe an objective or rather neutral understanding of “classical art music” in order to aesthetically value Jazz as an art form in its own right, and, even if such a neutral understanding could be defined, why it would be still a useful category to hold on to, despite its problematic reception and cultural-political connotations.
The second keynote speaker, Professor Ana Maria Ochoa, who spoke on “Extractivism and Sound Technologies in Ethnographic Media”, contributed with her ethnographic and archival study of Latin American media to pressing issues of the decolonial project against the background of climate change and globalisation. Ochoa’s keynote therefore extended the growing interest in Eco-Musicology, as well as the environmental study group’s session on “Music, Philosophy and Environment”, which investigated the urgent subject of how the climate crisis affects human practices such as art and music within its changing social, economic and political frameworks, and how the humanities can find answers to the socio-political uncertainties arising from this. The conference was well rounded off with Professor Cécile Malaspina’s keynote “The Contemporary Resonance of Hecuba”, which aimed towards a positive understanding of the category and the phenomenon of noise and its epistemic underpinnings. In order to overcome the dialectics between resonance and noise, harmony and disharmony, order and chaos, universality and particularity, Malaspina argued that these opposites determine each other as two sides of the same coin: Even if an explosion is perceived by a spectator or listener as an unpleasant disruption, which causes disorder, instability, and even shapes a traumatic experience, the phenomenon in itself and its fundamental physical laws are constituted by resonant frequencies. Thereby, the final keynote does not merely point towards Kant’s transcendental subject and the gap between noumenon and phenomenon; being and experience, or ontology and aesthesis, but rather to the reciprocal conditioning of resonance and noise: without the former, the latter could not be constituted, and without the latter, the former could not sensually or intellectually grasped and reinterpreted
anew. Kant’s recourse to Ovid’s Hecuba serves thereby as a metaphor which stands for the tension caused by the subject’s aim to grasp the universal, subject-independent and therefore unconditioned thing-in-itself. The unconditioned cannot be thought of without noise, or rather contradiction, if it is transferred into experience by the recipient. Queen Hecuba stands metaphorically for an extreme case of traumatic disruption, which reshapes the aesthetic and epistemic categorial framework through which the perceiving subject is experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the world. Malaspina concludes that the universal might not appear as an object of experience, but rather as a problem of thought; a problem which re-shapes our categories and (intellectual) engagement with the world and its phenomena.
The final keynote lecture summarises pointedly the above-mentioned relevance of the conference: Universality and Particularity, Philosophy and (Music-)Historical subjects, must engage, interact, and inform each other productively: a joint venture that leads to the discovery of new problems which continuously reshape the categories through which music, as an object of discourse and academic engagement, is understood anew. The annual conference of the RMA M&P Study group thereby represented a uniquely open space for such a fruitful exchange.