“Singing the World:” Bridging Disparities via the Phenomenon of Music

I am fascinated with music. It intrigues me intellectually and engages me physically. It resonates across many different areas of my life, and I am extremely interested in experiencing life to the fullest, which is why I also chose to go into a graduate-level Interdisciplinary Arts program rather than concentrating on a single discipline such as music. The interdisciplinary approach parallels the intersensuality of music in that it keeps the channels of communication open between disparate phenomena, media, sensoria, and disciplines. Therefore, I feel that an exploration of my various thoughts regarding music should help illuminate the significance of my academic studies. This paper, then, will expound my philosophy of music by answering the following three questions:

• What is music?
• Why am I a musician?
• What should be known about my music?

My definition of music is relatively simple: music is structured, meaningful sound. It must be readily apparent that music is sound, but, as Diana Raffman says, we experience music as structure, and the structures makes us expect [more] meaning. (49) In order for sound to become music, a listener must establish a personal relationship with it. There must be something of the listener in it, something that permeates several layers of being. Music must be experienced synaesthetically, and must be understood, according to Thomas Clifton, as “a bodily engagement with sound.” (Rao, 55) Clifton credits Maurice Merleau-Ponty with saying that the body is “a general instrument of comprehension,” the setting for the phenomenal world of a person’s experience: a constant flux of images, sounds, environmental conditions, body gestures, aromas, ideas, and flashbacks. (65) Feelings come and go. Sounds come and go. Music comes and goes. And we, chameleon-like, change identity with each passing moment. As Clifton says, “music is what I am when I am experiencing it.” (297) This is a very compelling statement, because it links the existence of music with the existence of the listener. Thus, there is no difference between music and musical experience for Merleau-Ponty, Clifton and me, because there is no such thing as music outside of one’s experience of it.

Now, to answer the second question, I am a musician because of both music’s sensuality and its expressive potential, which more-or-less correspond to the roles of listener and producer. I use the word producer here instead of musician because, according to the definition of music above, my definition of a musician would read: a musician is one who makes structured, meaningful sound. And since the existence of music depends on someone hearing it, the listener must be considered also to create music, in the very act of listening. Thus, the distinction between listener and producer is that the producer generates structures of ordered atmospheric vibrations, which are then translated and re-created in the phenomenal experience of the listener. The producer must obviously also be a listener, but the producer feels the need to communicate, whereas the listener is content with listening.

What motivates this distinction between producer and listener is intent, and can be determined by answering the question, “what needs to be done?” What needs to be done by the listener is to personally, bodily engage in the music. As a listener, I am attracted by music’s sensuality, and I need to be physically, intellectually, and/or emotionally moved. I revel in the sensuality of music; how music sounds is its very power, its very identity. On the other hand, as a producer, again, I feel the need to elaborate my inherently communicative body gestures by using sounds. This need to “sing the world,” as Merleau-Ponty so poetically puts it, is the same urge to order, to express, to create, that motivates language and the other arts.

Which brings us to the third question, what should be known about my music? I must say here that my music, like all music, must be experienced firsthand in order for it to be known at all. With this condition stated, I have loosely designated three areas of my music for exploration: my creative process, physicality, and intellectuality.

I relate my music-making process to what Wallace Stevens said of modern poetry: that it is “the act of finding what will suffice.” (298) I have found that my musical creative process is marked greatly by trial and error in that I am always attempting to express myself musically, with success to varying degrees. These attempts fall into two categories: improvisation and recordings, which are themselves distinguished by intended audience.

At a live improvisation, literally anything can happen, as the musicians are “making it up as they go along,” acting and reacting with each other and the pervasive feelings of the moment. This organic “aliveness” is what attracts audiences to such performances, and is improvisation’s primary attraction for me as well. In contrast, listeners of recorded music get to experience music that is impossible for them to hear performed live. For instance, I rarely perform my solo music (yugenro) for live audience, and when I do, it’s usually with prerecorded accompaniment. I have been recording my own music since 1983 (whereas my first regularly performing ensemble, Makak, has only been together since 1994), so I am used to being able to edit my music to near perfection in post-production. I enjoy having the control over every aspect of the music, and I work hard at giving my recorded pieces vitality and a unique identity.

Obviously, then, my recorded music could thus be considered as intellectual, since it is the product of countless hours of manipulation. But before we delve too far into the intellectuality of my music, it may prove helpful to look at both the intellectual and physical aspects of my music concurrently, in order to highlight their contrasting qualities. It may also help to relate them to Bennett Reimer‘s dual aspects of musical experience, musical perception and musical reaction. According to Reimer, any musical experience must consist of the “perception, to some degree, of the constituent elements of music— melody, harmony, rhythm, etc…, and their interrelations, and their use in the context of a particular style” (which corresponds to physicality), and a “feelingful… reaction to the expressiveness of the perceived musical… material” (which corresponds to intellectuality). (98, 114)

My music can be considered physical in that its specific feelings instantiate intellectual generalizations; likewise, it can be considered intellectual in that it is possible to abstract from specific sensual/physical experiences broader generalizations and principles that may apply to other fields of experience. Reimer is quick to point out, however, that musical perception and reaction arise mutually: “the perception and reaction are simultaneous and interdependent. The perception is not a separate process which later produces a reaction, but is inherently ‘reactive’ in nature.” (79)
I shall point out a couple examples of physicality in my music: playing drums and singing. Playing drums is physical in that it engages my body with the immediacy of touch. Hand drumming consists of touching a stretched membrane in such a way that the membrane will vibrate, thus causing sound. This connection of skin-to-skin establishes a social relationship (in the manner of Martin Buber‘s “I-thou” relationship) which, along with the hypnotizing power of the drum’s fixed timbre– a drone– and the repetitive motion of playing a rhythm, joins the drummer-as-subject and the drum-and-its-sound-as-object.

Likewise, singing consists in objectifying, in manifesting in sound, the singer’s subjective, phenomenal world. This is, again, Merleau-Ponty’s “singing the world:” it bridges the gap between intellect and physicality, between mind and body. Singing is intellectual in that it gives voice to the intellect, and it is sensual in that it is powered by the physical apparatus of the diaphragm, lungs, vocal chords, and mouth.

Thus, music transcends the dualities of subject and object, of musician and music. This bridging of the various disparate elements of my phenomenal world is precisely where lies the inherent value in music. In its expression, I know not “from whence it cometh,” and in its evocative prowess, I know not how it moves me so. As such, I have no alternative but to acknowledge its significance.

Works Cited:

Clifton, Thomas, Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology, New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1983. (Out of print, and difficult to find, but here is a good reflection on this text: http://percaritatem.com/2007/01/03/thomas-clifton-and-music-as-given-and-experienced/)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, (further citation upon request).
Raffman, Diana, Language, Music and Mind, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993.
Rao, Doreen B., “Thomas Clifton”, On the Nature of Musical Experience, Bennett Reimer & Jeffrey Wright, eds., University Press of Colorado, Niwot, Colorado, 1992.
Reimer, Bennett, A Philosophy of Music Education, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1970.
Stevens, Wallace, “On Modern Poetry,” The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair, eds., W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1988.


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