Absolute music

The idea of musical abstraction recurs frequently here, whether discussing textless music, melodic construction, or larger forms. Abstract music is music without a concrete reference, such as illustrating a specific text or scene. Even in the case of music with a text, especially that prior to the Renaissance, various abstract elements can be included or even emphasized. Medieval music is known for its willingness to respond to texts in non-concrete ways, perhaps with harmonies which cannot sensibly be connected to textual progressions, and certainly with melismatic lines which do not aid diction. With the rise of instrumental music in the Classical Period, in the work of Beethoven and others, abstract mediums such as the string quartet became prominent. Indeed, it was the Romantics of the nineteenth century who articulated the idea of "absolute music" as a goal, music referring only to itself. In some sense, this is a natural step in the chain of abstraction, an idea which finds an outlet in various facets of contemporary creation, but also a trap of self-contradiction & misdirection.

The most innocent, impulse for "absolute music" is that it can be a sort of "1+1=2" illustration of musical facts as internally consistent, patterns of sound which demonstrate themselves. At its most innocuous absolute music is simply irrelevant, or of didactic value. The solution to a math equation can certainly be educational, it can even be interesting, but it can rarely be profound. Indeed, it can be profound only to the extent that it reflects some underlying human question or need. Demonstrating facts about sound can also be interesting, especially for the first time, but just how many facts about sound are there which are amenable to musical expression? I welcome new musical "facts" and support sonic experimentation, but not as the highest form of musical expression, and definitely not as the only one. Moreover, "1+1=2" is only an interesting or worthwhile fact because it has human relevance. Striving for music which refers only to itself (i.e. without reference to humanity) is a basic absurdity, a fanciful goal from which any possible relevance has been removed by definition.

The idea of absolutes outside humanity to which one might aspire is not a new one, and not one linked more strongly to music than to other arenas of thought. In the West, it is an idea strongly associated with Platonism, and the theory of Forms. Leaving aside my view that Plato did not believe the ideas credited to him, that indeed he was satirizing them and invoking what is essentially a reductio ad absurdum, his articulation of ephemeral perfection was decisive for Romantic philosophy. I submit that the idea of "Platonic Forms" is pure misdirection, that it was the sophists who held such ideas, and that such notions have severe interpretive consequences. Moreover, if music is written with an "ideal" performance in mind, it is necessarily impractical. Sophistry, however, is more popular than ever, as a basic fast-talking deception with an eye toward power. What such chatter does is distract one from discerning any relevance at hand, and "absolute music" is one such distraction. Abstract sonic forms are one thing, and abstract musical development can be exquisite, but they can be good only by virtue of human worth, by illuminating something of meaning, no matter how abstract. Abstraction is essentially a process, which although cumulative, loses its significance only in the infinite — in complete detachment from reference.

Some detachment allows one to illustrate more fundamental concepts, perhaps make connections (or undo others) which might not be easily apprehensible. When can a math equation be profound? Half of that answer lies in forming the equation as a question in the first place, just as it may in a musical process, but the rest lies in illustrating a fundamental idea about the world, an idea which can become significant only by having an eventual reference. To a pseudo-Platonist (if you will forgive the language), Forms are an escape from strict humanism, a reclamation of the absolute per se. The absolute is, however, inherently divorced from expression. The act of expression or apprehension itself is, by nature, the root of epistemological dualism. So how is a pseudo-Platonic ideal misdirected, whereas deeper layers of reality are not? The ideal lies outside reality, as a reference point. It is not inherent to the chain of consciousness, whereas the changing surface of reality is an expression of its unchangeable core and already aligned with consciousness itself. These are the same thing. There can be no distinction between human acts as more or less "absolute" and no use for "Forms" which instantiate human actions or conceptions. Once one embraces divisions, one is far from any absolute. The absolute is part of everything, it is everything, but not in segmented form.

That said, music can indicate an awareness of the absolute, and perhaps communicate something of it. It does so not by being absolute itself, an absurdity, but by communicating, by engaging the conscious mind in a human way. I am not one to render language useless when it can still be used. I claim the modernist ideal of "absolute music" is ridiculous, and so reclaim the term for music which indicates something about the absolute. One cannot possibly prescribe how such a thing can be done, and although one might naturally expect abstract conceptions to be more amenable, especially in today's age of noise, musique concrète might provide one's breakthrough experience. Religion is essentially the cultivation of habit, through which one's thoughts might become amenable to the absolute. It has its greater and lesser practices and views of divinity, and it is in the inability of the lesser to rise to the greater that religion can produce its own misdirection. Music is no different, even confined to human experience of a single piece. Anything it might be able to reflect can also be lost amidst the foam of physical experience itself.

We can speak of human mental wiring as physical, but it is also abstract. A connected graph has no inherent relation to a particular object. Music is perhaps most able to engage this topology of connections at its own level, using sonic relationships of a similar density. The value of abstraction is not then in a closeness to super-abstraction, or removal of reference as per the absolute fantasy, but rather in simply being abstract enough. Absolute music, as I will use the term, can have words. It can stir the emotions; it can indicate a geometric conception; it can do any of these things which might eventually mean more than themselves to those who apprehend them. A melody can be abstract if it does not evoke a specific sort of utterance, or perhaps if it conflates or exemplifies some long-embodied theory. However, one cannot prescribe how it can be absolute, how it can point outside (or inside) its own physical & perceptual boundaries. It is the ubiquitousness of absolute per se which allows resonance to occur (often in unpredictable ways, since the descent of reality cannot be undone by method alone, much less by proscribing the relevance of reference). If it is to transcend, perception must be aligned with itself, resonate with itself, and not be distracted by conceptions of absolute further removed from absolute itself.

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Todd M. McComb