[Smt-talk] Classical Form and Recursion

Brian Kane brian.kane at yale.edu
Mon Mar 30 07:55:05 PDT 2009

Hi Everyone,

Four points come to mind, all related to issues of phenomenology:

1. Ildar Khannanov wrote in his last email:

> One can listen to music with eyes closed, in complete darkness. This  
> will shut down the visual metaphorization process, together with  
> spatial determination. It will be dark there  like in the  
> Mutterleib. It will be the real Lebenswelt of harmony, using the  
> terms of Edmund Husserl. Tension, tone. Audible space has been  
> nicely described by Husserl in his Ideen. Maurice Merleau-Ponty went  
> a step further in Le visible et l'invisible. Music can present the  
> world without the Other.

Typically, the "acousmatic" realm opened up by listening in darkened  
settings or with eyes closed has been used to differentiate precisely  
the two kinds of spaces (real physical space and, for lack of better  
phrase, tonal space) that Ildar mentioned. The idea has a long  
pedigree in Wagner, Zuckerkandl, Hans Jonas, Schaeffer, Lippman, and  
most recently in Roger Scruton's work (I'll cite some evidence in a  
moment). Thus, I don't think Ildar's claim can be supported. The  
acousmatic setting may shut down (or lead us to believe that we are  
shutting down) the "spatial determination," which I take to mean the  
real spatial location of the sounds; but it is too strong to say that  
it shuts down the "visual metaphorization process."

Here's an example from Scruton, for those who care (I've got other  
examples in case you feel a strong antipathy for Scruton). You'll see  
the distinction being drawn between the experienced (or phenomenal)  
order of tones qua intentional objects vs. the perception of real  
spatial situatedness, which gets slowly devalued as musically  

The person who listens to sounds, and hears them as music, is not  
seeking in them for information about their cause, of for clues as to  
what is happening. On the contrary, he is hearing the sounds apart  
from the material world. They are detached in his perception, and  
understood in terms of their experienced order: this is…the acousmatic  
character of musical experience…What we understand, in understanding  
music, is not the material world, but the intentional object: the  
organization that can be heard in the experience (Scruton, The  
Aesthetics of Music, 221)

A real locus classicus of this kind of thinking is in Wagner's  
Beethoven essay, where the unsightly mechanism of the performer is  
detached from the musical experience in the concert hall, and a "sound  
world" (disclosed by the ear alone) is placed next to the "light  
world"--which we assume to contain the sphere of physical-material  
causality, or real spatiality a la Schopenhauer.

2. It's odd to invoke Husserl in this context as well. It is  
especially odd to invoke the Lebenswelt next to the claim that "Music  
can present the world without the Other." Husserl's concept of the  
Lebenswelt, which is developed in the period around the Krisis, is a  
constituted as an intersubjective structure. (A good example of how  
this works is to take a look at the notion of "tradition" in Husserl's  
essay on The Origin of Geometry.) The path that Husserl takes in the  
later work always moves via intersubjectivity towards reduction, as  
opposed to the Cartesian approach of the Ideas I, which was often  
accused of being solipsistic. Iso Kern has a nice essay on this...

Now, just so you don't think I don't have a sense of humor, I assume  
that Ildar is being ironic when he calls the intra-uterine experience  
as the "real Lebenswelt," and thus getting Husserl where it counts-- 
namely, on the inadequate way in which he assumes the question of  
intersubjectivity.  But this irony gets undermined when Ildar invokes  
Merleau-Ponty, whose entire philosophy is predicated on the notion  
that our perceptual world is fundamentally an intersubjective world.  
This is an aspect of what being-in-the-world means for Merleau-Ponty.  
There's lots of evidence for this and I'm happy to provide it if  

3. As for the question of auditory space, the only extended analysis  
of Husserl's that I am aware of is §37 from Ideen II--a section  
entitled "Differences between the visual and tactual realm." The  
argument is that while visual and auditory sensations localize sounds  
in exterior space, tactile sensations are localizable on the body  
itself. This is important for Husserl, because this section of Ideen  
is trying to pose questions about how we know our bodies, how do we  
know that they are in space while being different from other simply  
spatial objects? Touch (and the reversibility of touching and being- 
touched) is valorized as the sense that allows our bodies to be not  
simply Körper but Leid--or, to as it is often put, not simply bodies  
but flesh.

The problem with Husserl's account of audition here is that it treats  
sounds only as the sound of things situated in a spatially extended  
world. There is no account, say, of the virtual spatiality of a  
phenomenal world of tones. Music is not being considered here. So, in  
fact, Husserl's account of auditory perception cannot be used as  
evidence to support Ildar's position about the elimination of real  
spatial properties and virtual spatiality in audition.

4. Finally, on the question of recursion and phenomenology, I'm  
surprised that nobody has mentioned Lewin's treatment of recursion as  
presented "Music Theory, Phenomenology, and Modes of Perception."  
Perhaps this is due the the fact that the thread was initiated around  
the question of classical form and recursion. I think that Lewin's  
attempt to show the recursive nature of musical perceptions at a  
moment-to moment level is pretty extraordinary. In fact, culminating  
in Part IV of the essay--i.e., the whole X-is-the-dominant-of-Y, Y-is- 
the-dominant-of-X business on p. 88 ff. in Studies in Music with Text-- 
it seems that it is the recursive aspect of musical perceptions, and  
the possible logical problems that they introduce, is used as a wedge  
to force the point that these percepts exist in different  
phenomenological space-times. And that point is supposed to lead us to  
reflect on the music theoretic systems we use to account, model,  
repress or Zurückdrängen such problems.

It also strikes me that Lewin's use of recursion focuses on a level of  
operation that is typically undervalued by the syntactic models that  
also initiated the discussion. In other words, perhaps the question  
about language c/w music which initiated the thread has led us to  
overlook Lewin's approach here. However, I'm curious how others feel  
about Lewin's treatment of recursion.


Brian Kane
Assistant Professor, Music Theory
Department of Music
Yale University

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