Tao of music

After giving some thoughts on Hindu non-dualism as it relates to my views on music, it seems worthwhile to turn to some philosophical ideas from the Far East. I will center on Taoism because its ideas are reflected easily in music, but some ideas could be extracted from related philosophies such as Zen. The Tao also has a historical prestige, especially within the context of classical Chinese philosophy. Those unfamiliar with the term "tao" can substitute "way" as a very crude translation. These remarks will also set the stage for a discussion of Chinese guqin music, to appear. However the impetus here is still the illumination of music as a performing art in general.

One consequence of both the extreme language barrier (it must be noted that Sanskrit is still an Indo-European language) and the succinctness of the poetic descriptions involved is that Western acquaintance with Taoist aphorism is usually not accompanied by a thorough discussion, and so there is a tendency to regard it as nothing more than cute nonsense. For a real introduction and context, Angus Graham's Disputers of the Tao is an indispensable English source. The opening line of Lao-Tzu is well-known: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." And the application to music should be apparent, in that music is fundamentally a performance art which cannot be made immutable without losing something of consequence. It remains to the art of score writing not to specify too much, or indeed that which is not amenable to music. The same might be said of musicological "answers" which can be expressed in a few sentences and are purported to apply broadly. The point is that writing music in stone, or rather CD, for all time, is not a desirable end. There needs to be a continued flexibility. What the Tao of Lao-Tzu expresses most eloquently is the idea of complementarity and the strength of lateral thinking. Little rules are only a substitute for thought, so the opening aphorism must deflect attention away from itself in order to make the remaining poems anything but counterproductive.

A White Horse

One classical Chinese school of thought which is not known as well by name is the Mohist. The most famous Mohist aphorism is: "A white horse is not a horse." It sounds quite nonsensical to Western analytical thinkers, but the basic idea goes as follows. Think of a horse. Now think of a white horse. Are they the same? No, so a white horse is not a horse. But I know some of you did think of the white horse when I asked for a horse... partly because I talked about the white horse before asking. By Mohist logic, it is still wrong, however, and this is where the connection to music begins. If your generic horse has a color, then you are over-specifying, and indeed missing out on other sorts of horses! Just as I remark on the strength of emotional subtlety in performance without making too much of a show, the white horse aphorism provides a convenient means by which to focus on what is lost in a rendition inflected too strongly. The listeners' imagination is consequently prevented from injecting shades of meaning and depth of feeling, because there is no room remaining after the performer has filled it. In recorded performance, this type of restraint can be a very important challenge, especially since filling any available space with fluff is so easy. Due to vanity, it is difficult to create a space yet leave it for the listener. In Chinese criticism these aspects are specifically mentioned, and it is important not to strive too strongly to inject one's own personal touches in areas where these do not flow naturally.

Finding interpretation

So one should not approach a performance with an excess of ideas. In some cases an experimental mentality is appropriate, but even there it is possible to have too many degrees of freedom in the experiment, making it impossible to interpret the results. One clear danger for "historically informed performance" is letting a specific and particular scholastic idea overwhelm the rendition as a whole. This happens all too often, and presents the additional danger of being easy to describe and pass on, whether in thesis or critique. So crutches can be contagious, and discarding them can leave one feeling naked. A similar sentiment can be applied to issues of vibrato. For instance, I claim that a heavy & indifferent vibrato is one of the surest ways by which to insulate oneself from the actual interpretation. It is making a big show about feeling something, rather than feeling it. That is not to say that the present fad of vibrato-less singing magically creates a sincere and appropriate vocal timbre, as it can become similarly emitted by rote. An individual, sensitive vocal timbre continues to an easy way to judge the maturity of an interpretation, as those looking for "a sound" will get exactly that and nothing more. Melding the received musical signals with one's own being in a non-self-conscious way, in order to release the flow of a real interpretation, is a daunting task, but sonority can be quite indicative of approach.

What the Tao suggests as much as anything is that one should not attempt to say something in music when there is nothing to say. A completely bland "interpretation" can be preferable. How does one reconcile this notion with the "hard work" I frequently mention as desirable? There is certainly a school of thought which says that once one must work at something, it is already lost. It should flow naturally. But the same people will go on to state that one must study the background diligently so as to open the flow of ideas. This is what I mean, but more fundamentally we know that medieval music is lost, so how does one find the scent again? That is not an easy question, and certainly suggests that one cannot let go of work, even though at some point one must discontinue it and discover what arrives of its own accord. Lao Tzu suggests that we should be content with nothing, but we are busybodies, so how can we pass the day in silence? I am clearly unable, although John Cage does show us something about what can be appreciated as music. This would be the Tao of music only if we did not naturally make "musical" sounds, but we do. Well, I think that is enough philosophy for a while.

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Todd M. McComb