BSA Report

The below report, written by Tomas McAuley (event organiser), originally appeared in the July 2010 edition of the Newsletter of the British Society of Aesthetics.

Music and Philosophy: A Royal Musical Association Study Day in association with the British Society of Aesthetics

King’s College London, 20th Feb 2010

This study day, held at King’s College London on Saturday 20th February 2010, brought together about a hundred musicologists and philosophers to share and discuss work, in the hope of fostering a dialogue between the two disciplines. The day also aimed to cross the divide between analytic and continental philosophy concerning music. No organiser wants to pre-empt or to pre-script the outcome of an event, but, within the confines of ‘music and philosophy’, the focus of this day was left especially open in order to avoid any one discipline leaving its stamp too heavily. Rather than a single sharp focus, therefore, several constellations of shared interest emerged over the course of the day.

One such area was that of authenticity in performance practice. This was the topic of Julian Dodd’s opening keynote address, in which he argued in favour of a nuanced conception of authenticity that stressed its difference from historical authenticity on the one hand and sonic accuracy on the other. Dodd’s talk provoked two particularly rich areas of discussion: how his conception might interact with musicology and musical practice (John Irving’s responses were exemplary in this regard), and whether his views on authenticity could remain independent of his well-known Platonist views concerning musical works.

Another area of shared interest concerned the relationship between music and language. Julian Johnson’s paper on ‘Music as Self-Critique’ explored the ways in which music is mimetic both of the discursive structures of languages and of the gestural movements of the body. Music, it was claimed, is ‘like a language, but not a language.’ It was a particular pleasure to see Johnson drawing fruitfully on the published work of Andrew Bowie, especially his 2007 book Music, Philosophy, and Modernity, whilst making practical examples central to his exposition. Andrew Bowie’s keynote address, in turn, reflected on the preconceptual aspects of our engagement with the world, the inarticulable underpinnings of conceptual thought, such as certain bodily and social aspects of our being. Music, Bowie argued, can draw our attention to these aspects of our being, and thus alert us to the limits of conceptual philosophical investigation.

Such questions of the method and scope of philosophy formed another of the day’s focuses. Two papers from musicologists, for example, explored the boundary between philosophy and criticism. According to a collaborative paper from Erkki Huovinen and Tobias Pontara, the necessary types of philosophical intuitions required to construct the thought experiments often used to test philosophical theories are not available in the case of music, leading to a reliance on subjective impressions. As such, they claimed, it is not possible to distinguish between the person conducting the experiment and the person imagined in the experiment. Much analytic philosophy of music is, therefore, less rational than it claims to be, they argued, and might better fall under the heading of criticism. Nanette Nielsen’s paper ‘Towards an Ethical Criticism of Music’, on the other hand, drew a sharp divide between analytic philosophy and criticism, arguing that criticism is the better placed to engage with music’s ethical potential. Her method of contrasting reviews by Richard Taruskin and Susan McClary of each other’s work was highly engaging, conveying as it did the human dimension of all criticism.

This emphasis on the human dimension of thinking about music segued neatly into a broad interest in the history of musical-philosophical thought. The work presented here exposed the ongoing importance of Nineteenth-Century German thought in the area of music and philosophy (although an exaggeration, John Deathridge’s suggestion that research on music and philosophy is still ‘entombed’ in this tradition was not without merit). Kathy Fry’s paper on ‘Music and Language in the Early Nietzsche’ and Elisabete de Sousa’s paper on ‘What Kierkegaard Did after Reading Wagner’ both provoked lively discussion. The final keynote address from Mark Evan Bonds tackled not only the history of musical-philosophical thought but also the mutual interdependence of many histories of music and philosophies of music. Bonds focused on the surprising similarity between Hanslick and Wagner, as early as 1854. Both figures agreed on what absolute music was, and both wove narratives of music history centred around a Classical Era of pure form (absolute music). The motivations for these narratives were almost diametrically opposed—Wagner needed a staging post en-route to the Gesamtkunstwerk; Hanslick needed an ideal from which to trace music’s decline—but both motivations (qua motivations) are foreign to the present day, whereas the ensuing narratives remain strikingly familiar.

There is not space to discuss every contribution here, but high quality and thought-provoking papers were also given by Louise Gibbs (‘Improvisation and Composition: The ‘Perfect’ Storm’), Philip Letts (‘Nihilism and Descriptivism: A Reply to Andrew Kania’), Elisa Negretto (‘Expectation, Anticipation, and Meaning in Music’), Julia Peters (‘Is There Progress in Music?’), Víctor García Priego (‘Music and the Human Condition’), Stefan Lorenz Sogner (‘Music and Two Types of Empfindungen’), and Suzie Wilkins (‘Empirical Methods and the Aesthetic Theories of Hans Robert Jauss’).

Coming back to our original goal of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue, there is only so much that can be said or discussed in a day. As such, the greatest pleasures of the day were, for me, twofold: firstly, to discover some of the deeply imaginative interdisciplinary work that was already taking place; and secondly, to see new bridges being built that will (we hope) last into the future. In order to encourage the growth of such dialogue, a BSA-supported Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group has been set up, and will be running a variety of music and philosophy events. Watch this space!

The organisers are grateful to the British Society of Aesthetics, the Royal Musical Association, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and King’s College London, for their generous support of this event. I am particularly indebted to Víctor Durà-Vilà (co-organiser: philosophy), to Michael Fend, and to Susan Bagust.

Tomas McAuley, Department of Music, King’s College London (event organiser)