Philosophical ideas on dualism have a particular relevance to music, and although they cannot be treated too technically here, they provide some connecting thoughts for other issues. Dualism can be described as regarding the mind to be distinct from the body, or as regarding the self to be distinct from the other. It has a long history in Western thought, and is fundamental to German Romanticism. By contrast, in various schools of Hindu thought, dualism is regarded as an illusion. This is true of Advaita on to Sri Vidya, and has its roots in various schools elaborated in medieval times. The latter is integral to Carnatic aesthetics, through the compositions of Mutthuswamy Dikshitar and others. The perceptive reader might have noticed a thread of what is called non-dual aesthetics running through my writing. It is significant to my thoughts on musical purpose, as well as my resistance to the changes originating with both the nineteenth century and the sixteenth century Humanist movement.
Following non-dualism certainly does not mean that one cannot use the word "dual" and in fact I have done so previously to describe the relationship between tradition & innovation. It is a normal word, and a useful one, but one which necessarily describes only a surface feature. More precisely, I use it to indicate a direction of transcendence, so that "dual" actually points at the non-dual in a way which an ordinary juxtaposition does not. Well, that is merely a statement of how I use words, but I do want to reiterate my basic stance that it is better to let words have a meaning than to insist that they have none. This works so long as one notes the hierarchy. Likewise when the medieval Advaita writer Sankaracharya states quite pointedly, and in detail, that one must undertake exegesis from the position that the original means something and something worthwhile, the seemingly simplistic remark takes on deep ramifications. This is my approach to exegesis, and by extension to semiology and its manifestation in musical notation, and the origin of my caution not to decide that a score prohibits something which it could not notate. Returning to the term "dual," while it does have a useful meaning, it must be emphasized that when I remark on the old in the new, it is not just a cute turn of phrase, but something more literal.
So what is a dualist idea in music? One easy example is concertante virtuosity, with its me-against-the-world attitude. What would make for non-dual music? One example might be silence, except that silence exists in time which is already a part of the illusory world. So it is an "ideal" thing, and one which any urge to individual expression violates. Yet non-dual writers such as the later tenth century's Abhinavagupta discuss aesthetics extensively. This is precisely because music provides one of the most basic ways of transforming one's consciousness of reality, becoming irrelevant only if a complete mystical state is reached. As the heart of the world projects itself of its own will, it becomes multitudinous in its manifestations, including us. Early in this primordial vibration, whose ripples and wavelets collide to form the foam which is objective reality, is the idea of Nada-Brahma, of reality-as-sound. So music in its greatest glory reaches to the level of becoming, which is two levels below the surface of illusion. It is thus a form of unity in consciousness, explaining the communion one can feel in performance. This basic unity is the source of faith that something past can be made to live again, and that indeed one knows at a primordial level when one has it right. This is the idea of Sankaracharya, that if something is not yet making sense, one is doing it wrong. Perhaps it sounds easy, and of course insight is known to come in a flash orthogonal to the groping of the mind. But how is one prepared for that? For most people, it can only be through hard work, something I mention yet again. This is why lazy listening to "relaxing" music cannot provide these insights, because they must be grasped in the smallest spaces, the very spaces which are awash in the buffeting blur of lazy or willful performance.
I have digressed. What must be affirmed is the communal relationship between tradition & real innovation, between the performer & the composer, and between the performer & the audience. To this we add a non-dual interaction between the composer & musical expression and in turn to nascent reality. By this I assert that the musician is a vehicle which must melt away in the highest endeavor, making the complete opposite of the Romantic artist. But is "nascent reality" the only subject matter worthy of musical expression? No, it is not, and I will turn to the Renaissance courtly song as an example for discussion. For someone at a spiritual level incompatible with physical love (not necessarily in the carnal sense), these songs are certainly irrelevant. However, the point is that for many people they are not, and they can still be done well. It is the abstract associations and personal sublimation to a formal scheme which serve to conflate dualist tendencies in the subject matter. Even the sexual difference, one of the most basic dualities in the human world, is blurred by shifting perspectives. As such, the ideas are related to tantric techniques through an emphasis on loss of self. Well, we have fancy talk such as this going back to Abhinavagupta, but the issue is the direction toward which the audience is moved, and so the feelings described here are tangible.
What this discussion ultimately means is that one must still communicate, and that involves making a specific statement and indeed laying out a piece in time. This necessarily limits an expression with respect to its indeterminate form, and the consequent transformation is related to the reason that the expression in music cannot be described precisely. These limits cannot be avoided or even circumscribed, so one proceeds on account of them, since the variety of context actually solicits modified statements. It is important to understand this point, and indeed it gives music the strength of greater suppleness. Since the grotesque is an example of this transformation, one cannot condemn it out of hand, especially as it is part of illusory reality. However, one can be suspicious of its prevalence, and certainly one can keep an eye toward expressions less warped by personal will. It is tension between context and higher expression itself which serves to sustain most creative endeavors, and so ideas such as dualism necessarily arise as these processes are unraveled.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb