Transcendence III: Exegesis

While the previous discussion of transcendence provided a fairly sweeping abstract basis for both apprehension & self-assessment, it did little to address concrete epistemological questions. What we want to know here is: How do we know music, especially music of the past? How can we have confidence in what we deduce from the available information? Although such questions may seem fully formed on their own, they beg the prior question: How do we know anything at all? That is precisely the question that monistic self-recognition seeks to answer, and does so by fundamental equation of perceiver & perceived. We ultimately know something because it is ourselves. Such an argument may seem ridiculous & irrelevant to many people versed in Western philosophy — or perhaps even more so to those who are unversed, living instead by what philosophers call naïve ideas on epistemology. However, the question has occupied philosophers for centuries, and demonstrating that what one knows is true in a broader sense is no straightforward logical matter. The contrasting phenomenal view takes each perception separately, essentially denying memory & the ability to relate one's thoughts to others. The relative position of one's mind & thoughts to those of others is the central issue of contention, and one which has practical repercussions even in ordinary life.

The phenomenal or Buddhist idea that we can only know what is before us has obvious & drastic consequences for our ability to reconstruct old music. It essentially denies any possibility that what we imagine the music to be is related to what it was. Such a difficulty is not new, and it is certainly the case that much has changed, making a recreation inherently different. However, we do generally cling to the idea that some communication across time is possible. The music's context may be radically altered, but we believe it is transplanted with some important similarity to itself. If we reject this view, and insist we know nothing of the past, we do not necessarily claim that our activities in this direction are worthless. Rather, our contemplation of the past & its artifacts is inspiring us today. We could be similarly inspired whether we look at musical notation or a pyramid. Regardless of the way we view this issue, we can perceive that the surviving notation was intended to communicate, by its nature. It is basically Sankaracharya's view that we do its creators a great disservice if we do not take seriously the possibility that they could be successful, i.e. that they do communicate. Of course, his views are also bound to deification of those very creators, and so not necessarily applicable to the musings of ordinary people. Yet, do we not — in effect — deify our historical composers?

Such an analogy is too pregnant to ignore. I have essentially railed against this habit, and those who practice it most aggressively, but in the sense of composer-as-hero, as someone better than anyone today. In the broader monistic sense, the ubiquity of the divine, my objections cease. As with Abhinavagupta's self-recognition, grounding apprehension in the mind of God is a time-honored philosophical position. It is one that, at least on the basic level, even scientifically-minded people can embrace, merely by substituting "the Universe" for God. If one believes in the general applicability & communicability of perception, then one can define God as whatever one takes to ground that general unity. While one cannot take such an identification too far, it provides a basis for communication. Indeed, it is a particular semiotic substitution which invites comparison to the semiology of musical symbols and theories. Broadly, we might say that the names of notes are not as important as their relations. We believe that we can look at a set of signs and deduce their relationships, if not their hermeneutical character. Note that I am not even attempting to touch the subject of deeper meaning in music, but rather the basic question: Here is a piece of music notation; what is a valid sonic representation? The question is charged in many ways.

We must grant that old notation is not somehow "privileged" for communication, i.e. there is no philosophical imperative that what we believe about it must be true. That is far from the case, but as a system, at least a system with "enough" examples & commentary to demonstrate its own internal character, we can & do undertake exegesis with the attitude that once the system makes sense to us, we understand it. We claim, moreover, that certain sonic relationships are simply true. Stepping back from old music, what of non-old music, even music where we know the composer personally? In that case, we believe that we know a great deal about the sonic representation(s) implied by the written representation. Note that in terms of the opening paragraph, the two situations are not entirely different in kind. We would still be bridging a gap, somehow, between one mind and another. We would, however, be able to avail ourselves of a different sort of feedback for living music, namely its writer saying "Not that!" in response to our performance. The past requires more, a real exegetical position, and a basis for feedback in semiology. Again we look at self-reference, but of a different sort, of a body of work referring to itself. We develop confidence by ascertaining that our interpretations make sense in this way, that they explain or recognize themselves.

What of the process of "making sense?" When and why during an exegetical process do we suddenly think "Yes! That's it!" I know I do it. I can work & ponder over something for an extended period, feeling certain that I must somehow be getting closer to knowing, but if I am lucky, at some point there is a flash, and I am confident I know. This is what I have been calling resonance, as an aspect of transcendence. Not everyone reacts to study this way, but those who do tend to feel very strongly about it, almost by definition. Whether the entire process is delusional or not leads back to the opening juxtaposition of differing epistemological constructs. I claim that the apprehension of certainty is the result of vanishing of the appearance of duality between perceiver & perceived. There are many avenues to this sort of apprehension, none of which can be prescribed with certainty. In the case of music, it may not involve only the study of scores & sounds; it may be some extra-musical element, such as dance or architecture, which suddenly makes a particular connection vivid. That "vividness" or extra intensity is something described by many writers, and the viability of this intellectual position is ultimately tied to the utility it provides, expressed exactly in such transcendental enjoyment of artistic variety.

These statements should not suggest that we have the capacity to know everything. In fact, what we will never know can have a glory of its own. When it comes to creating a sonic representation of early notation, there is far more detail in the former than in the latter, a gap which provides us with ample opportunity for interpretation. What the idea of "transcendence" offers, beyond the very substance of the experience itself, the value of which is incalculable, is the belief that what we are doing is indeed connected to the past in some important way. It tells us further that we are connected to other people in some important way, a basic function of ritual, and a crucial role for art in today's world.

Administrivia: It is time for an extended vacation. The next column will be in seven weeks.

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Todd M. McComb