Empiricism of Music

Part of my purpose in writing on The Visionary Commonwealth is to contribute to the revival of conscious listening. When I sit down with an album and write without prior motive, I participate with sound, I co-create with Time. I believe the writing of a poem is born of a convergence of time, space, and circumstance, just like the first hearing of an album; there is an unrepeatable effect as time takes on the countenance of sound, and weaves itself or is repelled by your awareness, and its mood. Writing with music is a way of expressing the experience of sound. 

The method is impure, of course. I freely associate; whatever influences are with me, whatever dormant impressions, are quickly unearthed and pour into the frame of writing, and before long I am down a particular stream of consciousness. That is fine. I would try to argue that writing in this way is a form of listening, but I understand that it is not 'pure' listening; I am filled with impressions, rather than clear of them. Another way of listening is from such a 'clearing' in Being; attentive, supple, on the verge of enchantment. This is far likelier to be wordless. 

We live in the age of the reproduction of Art, of which Music is no exception. We stream it in varying qualities from different sources. Sound moves through several different translations (i.e. the encoded file, the reader/sound system, the headphones) before it reverberates through our ear channels and crosses that last, liminal dimension and enters Mind, and unfolds. And we respond. There is of course a difference between living, present sound-waves and those reproduced. This I think we can intuitively understand. Context is the arena of engagement and determines to a profound extent what is experienced. 

But reproduction has one primary virtue. Through translating sound into new physical and digital languages we are enabled to engage, again and again, with captured sound. Human phrases of Time pour out from us and exist now as symbols of continuous re-engagement. This has its dangers: depriving symbols from the context of their creation and liberating the frame of engagement entirely can threaten the sacramental possibilities of the sound. Music has always been ceremonial, has been used to mark moments, elicit engagement and response, to induce new states of consciousness, to stage encounters with forces or histories which lie submerged. But we have greater opportunity to empirically participate with sound. 

I think of Goethe's method of empirical science. There is hearing a music, then forming an opinion or hypothesis which subsequently clouds future re-engagement, when you no longer hear the presentation of the music as-such, but the music intermingled with your representation of what it is. This level of understanding is prolific across all themes of cognition. The second level is coming to know the music for what it is: cognising it as a necessary existing thing, perhaps intuiting something of its source, purpose, reason, or ground for existing. It is sensed how it leads from and toward experience, and perhaps has elicited a quality of experience with you. The third level is gnosis, and it's hard to say what this entails. The music is revealed (revelation), or reveals its ultimate 'cause' (not a linear cause; but all creation points toward the ultimate creator), lays forth a shining bridge to the numinous. As Jan├ícek said: “There is no sound that is broken away from the tree of life.”² 

In the West, we have the tendency to treat all symbols, and all art, as ciphers – clever artifacts to be deciphered whereby the meaning is exposed. We see art as representative, and not participative. We do this even with sound; a yell is representative of anger, rather than the anger itself expressing.¹ I would like to say instead that meaning is in the art as presented, and in our subjective engagement with it, our experience, which holds far greater fascination than science, rationalism and positivism would have us believe. Music, particularly, stands for nothing but itself – it is a self-contained world, that nothing can express so well as itself. Music gives form to a profound depth of human feeling, and often, empathically, non-human experience, allowing us to expand our awareness into an infinite set of intimacies with the world through imagination and subjective participation. 

There is much to say about music, and I cannot pretend to be its adept representative. On the Visionary Commonwealth, and when I choose a music to take on the countenance of my present, I try to listen attentively, actively, to meet sound as myself and enter into participative engagement - or else to surrender, accept dissolution or be overpowered (which remains active; a disarmament) and so let sound flood me as substance. There are many empirical methods of engagement with phenomena, of which Music is one of the most fascinating phenomena in the world. 

We must confront the truth that our empiricism is colonised, warped and covered over with veils. I advocate for a reclamation of the vivid animism of an attentive life; a commitment to reclaim lost subjectivities, to re-tether ourselves to the vital life-pulse of the world. Music is a primary teacher in this re-education - a shapeshifting Merlin, who metamorphoses into diverse forms and barely vocalises his wisdom. Words are a weak transmitter, more often than not, and embody the numinous only barely - and far more obviously when spoken. Music remains a portal for the imagination, a stimulant for the senses. It is of course more than this, but as tonic for weak nervous systems, medicine for sick empiricisms, binder and bonder of worlds and values, music is unparalleled. I write these words as homage and celebration of all music is and shall be. 

¹ Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (2000), p24. 

² ibid.


to be continued...

Dark Side (Fire #1) by Guo Hongwie