Conference 2011: RMA Report

The below report, written by Prasanthi Matharu, originally appeared in the October 2011 edition of the Newsletter of the Royal Musical Association.

Opera and Philosophy: The inaugural conference of the RMA’s Music and Philosophy Study Group

King’s College London, 1–2 July 2011

Music and Philosophy Study Group: The inaugural conference of the RMA’s Music and Philosophy Study Group took place on 1 and 2 July 2011 at the Department of Music, King’s College London. The optional theme was Opera and Philosophy. The event opened

with an introductory greeting from Nanette Nielsen, followed by a lively panel discussion which identified challenges presented by the meeting of disciplines. When discussing common topics of interest, such as musical value, meaning, emotional content, ontology, language, aesthetic experience, morality and ethics, musicologists and philosophers find that disagreements often arise from methodological discrepancies. With reference to this, Tomas McAuley’s address quoted Garry Hagberg’s assertion of the importance of listening to each other. The conference continued with a series of parallel sessions over the two days, interspersed with keynote speeches from Gary Tomlinson, Kendall Walton and Lydia Goehr.

Wagner’s operas proved to be a popular topic. Golan Gur’s paper explored Franz Brendel’s historicist theories of art, which drew on Hegelian ideas of evolving self-awareness, in order to suggest that Wagner initiated a new model for composers by merging philosophy with artistic creation. By bringing together art and philosophy, Gur argued, in line with Brendel, that Wagner’s operas signify a pivotal development in the history of music: they mark the beginning of a new era.

Gary Tomlinson, in his keynote speech ‘Unthinking Wagnerism’, also picked up on the idea of Wagner as an innovator, extending his conception of music as a means of accessing other realms of thinking. With frequent reference to biological explanations, Tomlinson argued that the totalizing effect of Wagner’s music did not induce a passive audience. Rather, the ‘narcotic’ upon ‘interpretants’ is in fact a symptom of their increased participation with the musical stimulus. Wagner’s operas created a new scale of semiotic activity and listening experience.

Richard Bell’s paper and the collaborative presentation from David Levy and Julian Young focused more on philosophical and religious issues raised in Wagner’s work. Bell suggested that the composer’s arguments in paragraphs 2–4 of Religion and Art could shed light on Kundry’s conversion in Parsifal. Levy and Young, on the other hand, set out to defend Wagner against the criticisms made by Nietzsche and Adorno with regard to his operas being ‘decadent’, ‘tyrannical’, flawed on formal grounds and ‘nurturing life denial’. Their paper generated a lively discussion from the audience concerning the question of whether Wagner’s Tristan advocates a ‘will to death’ or redemption through love.

The themes of musical expression, emotion and meaning also received due attention over the course of the conference. The ability of music to express that which is beyond the grasp of language was emphasized in Barry Stocker’s paper, which discussed Kierkegaard’s reception of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Roger Scruton pointed out that it is through the immediacy of the music from within Mozart that we feel a sense of the Don’s seductive power. Mark Berry further stressed this expressive capacity. In his analysis of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berry argued that music is able to give artistic representation to an unknowable divinity through virtue of its abstract nature.

In other sessions, delegates explored the potential of utilizing various linguistic methods of analysis in order to elucidate meaning in music. Robert Samuels proposed the idea of mapping a musical flow to a narrative model, while Karen Simecek insightfully suggested that the way we experience meaning in music may be similar to how we engage with, and respond to, lyrical poetry.

Kathryn Whitney’s lecture-performance towards the end of the conference featured a mini-concert and provided a refreshing reminder of the experience of live music. Her engaging presentation investigated the ontology of ‘liveness’ from the perspective of performers, as opposed to that of listeners. Whitney’s clear presentation incorporated animated diagrams and an ‘equation’ in order to explain, and capture, all of the elements that constitute the unfolding of a song in performance.

In the final keynote speech, Lydia Goehr sought to investigate the symbolism of an anecdote about a painting of the Red Sea by uncovering its associative history. This trope, which occurs as Marcel works on a painting of the Red Sea in Puccini’s La bohème, appears to highlight a persistent tension between art and commerce.

In the closing plenary session, Kendall Walton noted the impressive size and diversity of the group attending this inaugural conference. Throughout there was a high level of involvement in the discussions of papers, with many pertinent points made and questions raised.

There was a general consensus that the way forward would be to recognize and investigate the discrepancies between approaches. Other suggestions included greater engagement of musicians with philosophy; that analytical philosophy deal with contemporary music; and that the divide between analytical and continental schools of thought be addressed.

Overall, the event successfully achieved its aim to open up discussion, demonstrating that while cross-disciplinary relations could be challenging, the relationship between music and philosophy is not dull! Many thanks go to the organizers and participants, and to King’s College London, which will also host next year’s conference.

Prasanthi Matharu (Goldsmiths, University of London)