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Wittgenstein, Music, and the Aroma of Coffee
EXPRESSION IS DESCRIPTION.
WHAT DOES MUSIC EXPRESS? The question is an old chestnut, and I raise it here not because I propose to answer it in some dramatic new way, but precisely because I don't. When asked concretely what a particular piece of music expresses here or there, we usually mumble out some vague, relatively stereotyped statement, from which we customarily conclude that we really can't say what music expresses. We often follow up by saying that this inexpressible expressiveness is one of the things we like best about music. In what follows, I will be defending the first half of this scenario and dismissing the second. The vague statements are all right, in much the same way that Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that ordinary language is all right. Wittgenstein, in fact, will be my chief interlocutor here and throughout this book, a kind of duet partner, alternately playing primo and secundo.
But as for music's ineffability, for that is the issue at stake when we mumble, this notion represents an error very much like the notion that we cannot know other minds (something else that exercised Wittgenstein, who could never quite make up his own mind about the minds of others). As J. L. Austin showed in a classic essay, the possibility of knowing other minds all depends on what you mean by "know." Can I form a reasonable estimate of what someone else is thinking? Of course I can. Can I think exactly the same thought amid the same sensations, as if I were myself the other person? Of course I can't. If I blurt out the comment that a certain musical passage is thoughtful, say, or poignant, my comment is obviously inadequate only if I am trying to reproduce in words the exact experience of listening to the music. But of course I'm not—unless, perhaps, I'm Proust, who had the advantage of writing at length about music that doesn't exist.
The question of musical expression may nowadays seem less urgent than it once did. Recent thinking on what music is "about" has concentrated more on its social than on its expressive force. This tendency connects with the desire for a historically grounded understanding of musical meaning and it breaks with the tradition of treating feelings, the presumed substance of expression, as universals unaffected by history. My own work promotes this tendency, which I do not propose to curb or divert. Yet the question of musical expression deserves revival, because, as I hope to show before I'm through, the stakes underlying it have significant broader implications both for and beyond the way we understand music. Only if we have an adequate understanding of musical expression can we begin to understand the wider role of music in acoustic experience and auditory culture.
But let's raise the stakes: Only if we have an adequate understanding of musical expression can we begin to understand expression in general and the complex ties between the two forms of experience that give this book its title: expression and truth.
The first performance of Brahms's Clarinet Quintet was held in the grand Viennese home in which Wittgenstein grew up. Brahms was a frequent visitor at the Palais Wittgenstein, as were Gustav Mahler, Clara Schumann, and Bruno Walter. Ludwig's early years were drenched in the music prized by the Viennese classical tradition. This music was second nature to him; his love of it went without saying, perhaps too much without saying, for he rarely wrote about it. He probably kept mute because the music spoke too eloquently. The music meant too much to be talked about. Wittgenstein's attitude toward music was ascetic, almost renunciatory, in keeping with the monastic discipline that ruled his personal life. Words and pictures, his constant preoccupations, did not pose the dangers, the temptations of music: the sensuous and emotional immediacy, the power over memory, the cognitive pliability. Yet Wittgenstein could not remain altogether silent about music, either. His later writings contain a scattered handful of remarks that can help light up new aspects of music as a phenomenon. This wording, it will soon appear, is not casual. The remarks are, though; they are "about" music only indirectly. What they offer is a chance, not to rethink Wittgenstein's thoughts on the topic, but to think about music from the angle of reflection that he discovered and came to embody. It's the angle, not necessarily the thoughts issued from it, that I find most valuable.
The Wittgenstein I have in mind is not a philosopher who makes hypotheses but an aphorist who disturbs our conventional habits of thought, an observer who exposes the prismatic strangeness underlying ordinary life and takes the results at face value. This is the Wittgenstein who asks in all seriousness why his right hand can't give his left hand money (Philosophical Investigations 1958, 94; hereafter, ITLΠITL) and ponders whether a stone in pain could be said to have a soul (BLDΠBLD, 97). He is a thinker who affirms the authority of experience by refusing to submit experience to higher authority. He is a writer who sharpens description where others call for explanation. And he is in some ways not entirely himself—not, at any rate, the therapeutic figure who dispels false problems by appealing to the grammar of our language games but an incurably fascinated figure who yields to the countervailing enchantments of life in all its perplexity to voice a grammar of intimate estrangement, the grammar of no grammar. He disenchants metaphysics, yes, but he does it to re-enchant the world.
I don't know whether I have read or invented this Wittgenstein, whose original is such an iconic and much-appropriated figure that the question is moot: Despite the fact that Wittgenstein really existed, we have to invent him. But invention is also a musical form, and one that is not a bad metaphor for Wittgenstein's practice, which typically picks up a theme and subjects it to a series of variations, embellishments, inversions, and counterpoints. At times, it even seems that music is Wittgenstein's intuitive model of intelligible utterance. He treats it as an irreducible combination of mystery and clarity to which language should learn to lay claim: "Speech without thought and not without thought should be compared to playing a piece of music without thought and not without thought" (ITLΠITL, 109).
Which is not to say, all too hastily, that we should prefer the route of thought. The two routes are alternatives, not contraries; each leads to places we might want to go. Speaking without thought may become the discovery of what has not yet been thought, what is hidden from thought or forbidden it; playing a piece of music without thought (as he often does, Wittgenstein is thinking of the piano, the center of musical life in the culture of his youth) may be the best way to tap a fine-tuned expressive instinct, to enter into the spirit of a mood, attitude, or feeling that thought might retard or subvert. We can always do our thinking afterward.
As now: for questions come crowding in here. Let's say that when we play or speak with thought, we articulate our thought; when we play or speak without thought, we express ourselves. This distinction is provisional: a first move. The opposition of articulation and expression begins to collapse almost as soon as it's made, but the timing and manner of its collapse are revealing. Ask about this in the manner of Wittgenstein: When you're playing a piece of music, say a Chopin prelude (Wittgenstein will speak of "a reflective Chopin"), how do you know you're not thinking? Don't you have to think about that? Isn't the way you play a form of thinking? And if you exclaim afterward, "I don't know how I did that!" or something of the sort, is that speaking with thought or without? Doesn't the that! presuppose a certain conception, the very thing about your playing that satisfied you, that seemed true to you or to the piece?
Questions like these can be multiplied endlessly. It's a matter of fact, of common experience, that we take some communicative actions as articulations and some as expressions, but there's always an element of decision in doing so, and perhaps an element of pretense or fantasy. Articulation is always also performative; it has an expressive dimension. Just so, expression is always also articulate; it entails substantive claims. Austin said of speech acts that they are all both constative and performative. It's easy to say that nowadays; saying so has become a common speech act in its own right. The hard thing is to keep the idea in mind and let it affect one's practice.
As with this: There is a habitual asymmetry between articulation and expression that we should both think about and play on. This asymmetry is important, not just because of what it says (articulates? expresses?) about language and music but because it deeply affects the way we experience the world.
We usually grant authority to what we think independently of what we feel about our thought, at least insofar as we try to honor the truth. Ideally, when we say what we think, we say what we think is true. But we don't grant the same authority to what we feel (intuit, imagine, fantasize), which we regard as unlinked from the truth precisely insofar as we merely express our feeling. We require that the truth come at the feeling from the outside, or else we accept that it can't and we value or devalue the feeling on its own terms, which are inevitably the lesser terms.
This is a mistake. Our expressive acts are as much (and as little) capable of describing the world truthfully as our articulations. Like articulations, expressions also contribute to what they describe. Not that expressive acts fabricate: If they succeed, what they do is make something apparent. In making something apparent, they also make its interpretation possible. To say so is to grant these acts a power of descriptive realism denied to them by the blind elevation of articulation over expression. Unlike the initial, merely provisional opposition of articulation and expression, this either/or is for real. To grant or deny the power of descriptive realism is to enrich or impoverish our experience.
Experience is the key: the locale where both concepts and feelings are lived out, lived by, lived through. The asymmetry—articulation over expression—has a further dimension that comes closer to the metaphysical bias that continually devalues experience. (By this I want also to say: continually devalues reason, in the most ideal post-Enlightenment sense. But this cannot be said quite yet, except indirectly, via expression.) Both speaking and playing a piece of music are acoustic events. Their relationship to the truth is mediated by the ear, not the eye; they work by matching a fluctuating contour of pitches and rhythms, the substrate of voice and bodily activity, with ideas or feelings. Good matches make for strong meanings. Good matches convey power and authority from the speaker or performer to the listener. But some go further.
What is said can also be written. Articulation both demands and provides the possibility of transmission; in principle, the articulate is articulate permanently as long as it can find a storage medium. What is expressed cannot be written. Expression consumes itself in the moment. It can be documented and recorded but not repeated; information storage is a record of its loss.
Like the original distinction between articulation and expression, this distinction between storage and loss begins to collapse as soon as it is made. But the exact character of its collapse is a source of great significance. Rearticulation demands reexpression. To say something over is to play it a new way, apply it to new circumstances, activate the performative element always latent in it. Anything that can be revisited yields to this dynamic, which is as active as it is inexorable. Articulations happen neither once nor many times but something in between. Revisiting is revising. And although expressive acts do, and can, happen only once, recorded expressions can be reanimated by grasping their connection to what has been articulated through them. Even acts of unrecorded expression may linger and perhaps intensify in the storage medium of cultural or personal memory. The "only once" of expression has no fixed duration.
It is experience that tells, in every sense of the phrase. Experience thrives on neither the visual nor the acoustic, the articulate nor the expressive, the permanent nor the temporary, but only on the constant spillage or collapse of each into the other. The traditional subordination of the fluid to the more rigid terms only leaves us high and dry. Thought holds the heights in imperial solitude and demands conformity to the letter of its law; experience becomes arid and solaces itself with what it takes for mirages and oases.
This sundering is the condition that Wittgenstein memorably described as being held captive by a picture (ITLΠITL, 48). As his own practice shows (he never quite said it), the choice to step out of the frame leads to a rearticulation of the world. The choice makes expression and truth stranger, stronger, and richer in possibility than they could be otherwise. When we make this choice we resolve on that. Yet the choice really resolves nothing: In choosing we merely set ourselves a task that has to be renewed constantly because it is so easy to forget in practice the basic principle that Wittgenstein expressed in the saying "Words are deeds," together with its corollary, which he left out, that doing speaks.
So, in the spirit of the Wittgenstein I have conjured here, and what I think of as the descriptive realism that impels his incessant thought experiments and makes itself known in quasi-musical clusters of short paragraphs with the tight weave of prose poetry, I want to consider the experience of musical expression, an experience that is both musical and, just because it is musical, more than musical. In the spirit of descriptive realism, any understanding won from this effort should be expressly regarded, not as a thesis offered in the transparency of thought, but as a venture made amid the opacities of language. We are already caught in the meshes of the word, tangled in musical metaphors just as Wittgenstein's "speech without thought" (gedankenloses Sprechen), is caught between meaning careless and unreflective speech, and there is, happily, no way out.
"Soulful expression in music," says Wittgenstein, "—it can't be recognized by rules." How can it be recognized, then? How do we know soulfulness when we hear it? Wittgenstein says we don't have to know how we know: "If a theme, a phrase, suddenly says something to you, you don't need to be able to explain. It's suddenly just this gesture that's accessible to you." You just suddenly get it.
This is not to say that such getting is not also a giving; to recognize a meaning is always in part to endow with meaning. But all this, as Wittgenstein might say, is implied in the grammar of "getting it." The metaphor of music suddenly speaking in a way that sparks this eureka! experience helps explain the lack of any need for explanation. "The speech of music. Don't forget that a poem, although constructed in the language of communication, is not used in the language-game of communication" (Z, 28). Like the words of a poem, a musical phrase can "go through and through us" (uns durch und durch gehen), a sensation framed in part by the way we "let our thoughts roam this way and that in the familiar surroundings of the words" (Z, 28). The enhanced understanding does not correspond to the familiarity, but to the roaming. The familiarity relieves us of the need to explain (I don't have to explain how I understand this sentence), while the roaming takes the familiar outside itself, expands into the not yet known.
Of course, to have this experience at all I must know how to listen or play, just as I must know the language of the poem. If, need aside, an explanation of soulful expression were still required, its basis would be acculturation: "Someone who is brought up in a certain culture—then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, to him you can teach the use of the words 'expressive playing.'" Such a person would know how to imagine an expressive performance of the music, or be able to describe the expressivity of a particular performance, or have the capacity to reflect on the expressive content in an informed way. For such a person—and any listener must be such a person—the music has no identity, hardly has an existence, apart from the possibility of its being played or heard expressively. Expression, which is to some degree coextensive with the "language game" of music, requires extension, otherness, going beyond (what we construe as) the notes.
Excerpted from Expression and Truth by Lawrence Kramer. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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