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Music, wandering and the limit of any method: on music's sense: second movement.

1. The Issue where We Left It

In the previous article (Vestrucci, 2015) I aimed to demonstrate the a-conceptual nature of the extra-musical "sense" of music (that is, a sense not identical with the components and the elements of music). In general, the determination of this extra-musical "sense" is the fruit of a subjective attribution (in specific sentiments); yet this sentimental, subjective determination is questionable because it cannot claim a universal validity of its results: in other words it is impossible for any result to be legitimately considered as referring to the music (and not to subjective, empirical or historical elements). Nevertheless, the formalist exclusion of the extra-musical "sense" from the field of theoretical possibles is unsatisfactory, for it risks to reduce music to sound, and hence to lose the aesthetic specificity of music. Therefore both modes of determination of the music "sense" (whether extra-musical or not) contain a positive element: the subjective one aims to find what makes aesthetically relevant (that is, beautiful) this specific sound; the formalist one has the worth of warning against the illegitimate universalization of a subjective position. In light of this, the position I assumed in my previous article was a sort of mediation between the two approaches: a not-merely-formalist "sense" of music should be there because music is not just sound, and yet this "sense" should not be conceptualized directly but only analogically, that is, only indirectly via its artistic representations (that is, by a literary or cinematographic use of this music). For this reason if it is true that a not-merely-formalist sense of music is there, then this sense must always be in inverted commas, as conceptually inexpressible "sense."

In order to prove this thesis the best method was a reductio ad absurdum through the suspension of formalism's pars denstruens in order to conceptually determine a "sense" for the form of musical writing called Welle (2) in its artistic use as the soundtrack of some films. The Welle being the form of all compositions characterized by the repetition of the same musical atom of notes and rhythm in small harmonic modifications and the lack of any explicit melodic line, (3) its "sense" has been determined as aesthetic enchantment of pale and vacuous (that is, otherwise aesthetically void) everydayness.

The question now is to suspend the suspension of the formalism's pars denstruens, that is, to take back the formalist point of view and investigate the limits and the fallacies of this conceptual determination of the "sense" of a form of music. This operation would not only conclude the former reductio ad absurdum, but it would also present an important deepening of the formalist methodology itself. In fact, the previous determination of the "sense" of the Welle satisfied in a meaningful way the need for an extra-musical "sense" of (a form of) music; hence, by negating the theoretical cogency of this result, it should also be evaluated whether the gain of cogency and scientificity is worthier than the exclusion of the quest for a universal not-merely-formalistic "sense".

Given that the "sense" of the Welle form presupposed the logical and musicological consistency of this form of musical writing (in light of a synthesis between some baroque and some minimalist compositions), the first step is to further deepen this (supposed) formal commonality, by focusing on the harmonic structure of its examples (in Bach's and Glass' compositions). In doing so, it will be possible to appreciate the limits of their formal parallelism.

2. Bach and Glass in Comparison

As previously (4) I shall start with the Prelude in C major. The first four bars constitute a sort of prelude within the Prelude, a symbol of the subjacent principle of the whole structure as it will be fully developed: the structure of an itinerary starting with the tonic, proceeding away from the tonic, and then back to tonic. In the first four bars the C major leads to a minor seventh chord on the 2nd degree, then to the dominant seventh chord, and back to tonic. From bar 4 (the tonic) this harmonic journey extends the number and the distance of reached foreign lands from the tonic: it moves per seventh chords, by focusing on the dominant and then, through other sevenths, it reaches back to the tonic. In this journey the freedom of the harmonic modulation is not arbitrary, but rather organized in a rigorous structure. This structure does not refer merely to the fact that tonic is reached at the end, but rather more significantly that the harmonic itinerary follows a sort of symmetry, not perfect but alluded to and hence present: it is not a mere harmonic modulation, it is a harmonic variation of and on a formal organization. This imperfect symmetry concerns the first half of the Prelude, from bar 4 to bar 19 (from tonic to tonic), and it proceeds more or less on a gap of eight bars: in order to understand it is easier to start from the end of the two imperfectly symmetrical sections. Bars 7-11 and bars 15-19 are perfectly specular: both sequences of bars start with a perfect triad, the first in dominant the other in tonic. Then it follows two seventh chords on the 4th degree (respectively C for G and F for C). At this point the symmetry is truly significant, due to the semi-tonal dissonance on the pedal and because both chords function as almost multiple appoggiaturas in order to reach another kind of seventh chord, this time on the second degree (respectively A for G and D for C). We are at bars 9/17. Then another seventh chord follows, this time a dominant seventh chord (bars 10/18), which naturally leads to the tonic, respectively G and C. But how did Bach switch the harmonic gravity from tonic to dominant (bars 4-7), and how did he restore the correct locus naturalis of the piece, that is, C (bars 11-15)? This time the two sequences of bars (and chords) are determined by an imperfect symmetry. On one hand (bars 4-7) the tonic leads to a chord on the 6th degree (A), then a true novelty is introduced, the F sharp: this D major diminished seventh chord plays the function of a dominant seventh chord for G--and in fact the perfect triad on G follows (bar 7). On the other hand (bar 11-15) the new "tonic" determined in bar 7 (G) leads not to a chord on the 6th degree (which would be E) but rather to a new harmony: B flat and C sharp are introduced, on which a minor diminished seventh chord on G is built, which can be read as diminished seventh on the 2nd degree of D, hence naturally leading to D minor (bar 13). Then the alteration from A to A flat determines another diminished seventh (this time on C), which again can be read as the diminished seventh on the 2nd degree of C, hence naturally leading back to the tonic (bar 15). As evident in these two sequences the symmetry is not perfect as in the previous case, but nevertheless is always subjacent: for instance the perfect symmetry would require that the D minor (bar 13) were introduced by a F major, and in fact the F major is a hidden presence in the diminished seventh of bar 12; moreover a perfect symmetry would require that the C major (bar 15) were introduced by its dominant seventh chord (G major), which is in fact a hidden presence in the diminished seventh of bar 14. (5) After the new reaching of the tonic (almost half of the Prelude) the piece could start all over again, infinitely but it does not, for it must reach the end. Therefore the next section is a modulating sequence in order to reach once again the dominant (bar 24), and the G of the bass is obstinately repeated for eight bars, as a sort of drone, changing once again the harmonic gravity from C, until the return to C in the form of the dominant seventh chord of F (bar 32), and then the coda subdominant (that is, the tonic of the previous seventh chord)-dominant-tonic.

This shall be enough in order to give an idea of the Prelude's rigorous freedom or free rigor--a rigor and a richness constituting a free unity of repetitions and variation, a true voyage from tonic to tonic through a sequence of never arbitrary, all entangled and yet very distant (from Heimat) chords. No matter how perilous, ambiguous (cf. the sequences of seventh chords) or even illusive (cf the constant haunting presence of the dominant) the voyage's stations are: the tonic is reached nevertheless, home is found once again.

The harmonic modulations in minimalist compositions are quite different: the harmonic progressions are often made per semitones, and the variations concern often one note (often the element to be varied is the lower note or the upper one of the right hand); alternatively, the modulation does not follow anymore a semitone variation but rather a whole harmonic change. Once again (6) I shall assume as examples some of the compositions of Glass, 2002. In Dead things the harmonic variation from bar 90-91 and 92-93 concerns only the lower note of the right hand (and the correspondent note in the left hand chords), and it goes only per semitones; the halt of permutation coincides with an abrupt change of the whole harmony to D major. The same in Choosing life: from bar 49 to 50 the lower left hand's E becomes an F (with the addition of a third voice of the bass), then from bar 50 to 51 the lower note of the right hand changes from E to E sharp (the left hand follows this change) and so on in a mutual semi-tonal descending chase between left and right hand, until the abrupt change of harmony from G minor diminished 5th to F major, then from D major 7th to B sharp minor and from B sharp major to F major. Starting from bar 59 the same variations are almost repeated in the new ascending pattern of notes. As a further example, some passages of the closing piece The hours follows this same criterion--for instance the period from bars 25 to 48. Here the harmonic variation does not proceed per semitones (except bars 36 and 39), but mostly on the continuous change of chords.

The same structure of semi-tonal variation and/or abrupt change of harmony also informs other examples. Koyaanisqatsi displays more than one scene where musical accompaniment does not belong to the Welle form, or rather it can be indirectly connected to this form. This is the case not only for SloMo People, but also for the Pruit Igloe track, constituted by three parts in a A-BA' sequence: the themes of the first part are two, one very simple and obstinate prelude-like, the second melodic. The second part is construed on the same thematic model of the first, but in fortissimo, with acceleration of the agogic, and the incremental performance of the instruments (including choir); then the A part returns, with slight modifications: the choir in pianissimo following the main harmonic, the cancellation of the melodic section, and the obstinate repetition of the prelude-like section. In this track the prelude-like section in A and A' can be considered examples of the Welle form, and here the harmonic variation follows the same structure of semitones and abrupt changes.

3. Wandering and Meandering

At this point the element of profound difference between Bach's Welle writing and Glass' Welle writing is evident: this refers to the form of harmonic variation.

On Bach's side we listen to a journey that, venturing out from the safe realm of the tonic, proceeds through distant tonal lands, through the widest possible spectrum of harmonics; but none of these lands are wild and unknown: although certainly not the tonic, yet they are somehow related to the tonic "land," so that the wanderer is always able, with little or greater effort, to find an allusion, a disguise, an Augenblick of home. This implicit certitude that the route is never totally lost, this hidden and hinted feeling of familiarity and proximity, constantly informs the movement of harmonic variations, it invites us to enter the next land and explore it with gusto and curiosity, it constantly comforts the wanderer so that his wandering does not have the claustrophobic oppression of a labyrinth, but rather the formative enthusiasm and the adventurous nostalgia of a destination--a sort of necessary teleology. For this reason the tonic is not only the starting and ending point of this travel, but foremost it is Heimat, the logical and cosmological centre around which all other lands, all other harmonies have sense--they are distances from home, and therefore references to home. Heimat is always there, in every Heimweh. The fact that sense depends on home is the condition according to which all foreigner lands can be found, experienced, and then farewelled for another land. Hence the harmonic wanderer is never lost, no matter how far they goes, for they feel (and each near or far land confirms this feeling) that they will come back home--and will appreciate even more this home thanks to the experience of the whole harmonic richness and variety.

On Glass' side the element that informs the harmonic movement is different from this process of exiting from home, exploring far and exotic lands, and then satisfying the desire of returning home, because there is no home at all--that is, out of the metaphor, there is no arc, no exit from Heimat and thus no return. Without home, the wandering is aimless: there is no journey but rather a circular meandering. Nevertheless there is no sense of being lost, for there is no Heimat that has been lost or missed--and there is thus no nostalgia either, for there is not a familiar place waiting for our return and for which we are longing. But if there is no foreign land, then everything and everywhere is home: the harmonic wanderer never exits out of the door, for there is no door as principle of distinction of two spaces--there is only one, inner space. This space is neither the alien outer space of the sequence of twelve tones nor the Familienahnlichkeit of the omnipresent feeling of returning, neither an infinitum of possibilities nor a route out of a point and back to this point: on one hand there is the narrowly circumscribed space of slight modifications per tones and semitones; on the other hand, and connected to this circumscribed "familiarity," the arc of movement out of home and then back home is completely missing. This space is the point, a single huge home: who follows the harmonic structure neither is completely lost, nor do they risk the relative unsafe nature of the harmonic wandering--they simply stay home, framed by four walls. If, with Bach, we leave home in order to see outside and to understand how beautiful the whole harmonic world is and also how much home is truly worth, with Glass we constantly stay at home: surely we meander in its rooms, we linger now here, now there, but we constantly drown in a oneiric atmosphere, in a familiar-(too-familiar) closeted air.

Consequently, two different forms of the unity between repetitions and variations can be distinguished. In both cases the principle of atomic, periodic repetition is the condition according to which the harmonic variations have unity and coherency--but this unity and coherency are not the same in both cases. On one hand the formal principle of variation of the atomic repetition outlines a rigorous, organized and structured freedom, or vice-versa a free rigor based on the sequence of the harmonic modulations: we find the unity and the coherence of a line from tonic back to tonic, a line entirely travelled in order to find home once again, but this time in the full richness of its harmonics. On the other hand, the formal principle of variation of the atomic repetition is a series of different rooms, each one with its own shape and atmosphere--and yet each one so near to the next one that speaking of wandering would truly be an exaggeration, in light of the constant tonal/ semi-tonal proximity (which excludes automatically any harmonic sequence). Each chord contributes in the determination not of a continent divided in lands, each one with its own sense because each one is related to home, but rather of a home divided into rooms with each one juxtaposed to the other. (7) It is the unity and the coherency of a sequence of rooms in the same, vast home: this home, these walls represent the entire space of movement and, constituting "home," they cradle the harmonic meanderer (no more wanderer) in the constant familiarity of these walls, which is so obstinate, perpetual and continuous (8) that it reaches an almost nirvana-like state of trance, a sort of hypnotic atmosphere of an opium den. (9)

Therefore there are two specifications of the Welle form of music: a wandering and a meandering, an itinerary from home back home and a passage through different rooms of a home. In light of the connection between the "sense" of the Welle and Welle's unity for all its exemplifications, we should now question the consistency of this "sense:" given that the result on the "sense" is deeply linked to the determination of the Welle, is this "sense" also doubled in two aspects? And given that the "sense" of Welle was the "music" of the aesthetic sense of everyday life, the enchantment of everydayness, what would it mean to double the everyday life, what would it mean to distinguish between two kinds of aesthetic enchantment?

A possible answer would refer to the anthropological context in which the two kinds of Welle were composed. Then the wandering of Bachian harmonic construction would be connected to the Lutheran anthropological conception: given that final salvation does not depend on any human action or volition, for it is promised in and as the divine revelation, in and as Christ. The Prelude would appear as a fresco on the religious condition of Christian man; no matter which mundane temptations and dispersions that Christian man is obliged to endure, no matter how long he has to endure the vicissitudes of life, no matter which are the determinations of man's will, desire, thought, Sensucht--human (faithful) life is nevertheless an itinerary of salvation in coram Deo. (10) There is only one end of the journey starting with the abandonment to God's voluntas and amor: the return to God. On the other hand the meandering from one room to the other, the trance-like equivalency of places in their difference, would be connected to the technological reification of the individual, the sacred and preeminent mundane nature of the world where God is dead, where the godhead, that is, the possibility to conceive an eternal principle of salvation, has been revealed as false and apparent, and ready to be substituted by mundane "salvations," means of satisfaction in a constantly dissatisfied society. (11) The harmonic meandering would be the analogon of the contemporary walking from one subway station to the other, from one object to the other, (12) in their supreme and banausic equivalency. This would be the rhythm, the pulse of a world of disenchantment, a world of the prosaicness of quotidian existence, where all is consummated (the contemporary understanding of Es ist vollbracht!) within the illusive eternity of the constant repetition of gestures and within the illusive feeling of the safety of familiar objects. According to this answer the "senses" of the two forms of Welle would be the children of their times: on one hand music has "sense" as a voyage from the pristine condition of love to the confirmation of this love in its true form (as revealed in, with and as Jesus Christ); on the other hand music has "sense" as the accompaniment of everyday life's emptiness as the equivalency of "satisfaction" with "beauty." There is no movement but only a passage from one station to the other, from one pattern and sequence to the other, from one divertissement to the other, all with the "same" (repetitious) sense, and hence with no importance (distinction) whatsoever; this is motion as perpetuation of the same labor and hackneyed entertainment, the eternal return of the same non-events.

4. Zeitgeist

Although fascinating, the connection between the music and the spirit of an epoch is highly problematic, for the assumptions necessary to make the connection are too wild, especially in Bach's case. Bach was not a theologian (13) and even if faith played an important role in his life and work (14) it would be too much to infer an analogical presence of a theological reflection within his music. (15) On the other hand, concerning contemporary emptiness, the connection of music-to-epoch is dangerously dependent on the too-vulgar position of "cultural criticism." Nevertheless these two connections, although too arbitrary, have the virtue of introducing the issue of historical determination.

Assume that Welle conveys musically the aesthetic sense of everydayness in general and that the aesthetic neutrality and banality of everyday life is a general, constant element of the human condition. Then the quest for the "sense" of a form (Welle) of music could stop rightly in the light of the generality and constancy of the element to which it is connected (the emptiness of everydayness)--in other words it could stop because its result is universal that is, it is present in every time for everyone, it is a potentiality of humankind as such, beyond all empirical and historical determinations. Yet given the distinction between two forms of Welle, and especially given the distinction between two unions of repetitions and variations and two different modalities of enchantment, then the constancy and generality of the everyday senselessness starts to appear doubtful.

In fact, if it is true that contemporary everydayness is disenchanted, then the enchantment of everydayness in the analogical, aesthetic representation of its "sense" is valid only for today's Zeitgeist--rightly because this enchantment is needed and consequently expected in compliance with today's Zeitgeist. This need and this expectation concern the aesthetic sense of everydayness: if everyday life is aesthetically neutral and banal, this very senselessness shall be imbued with sense. This sense appears analogically in aesthetic creations. But could this senselessness be legitimately considered as a general element of the human condition and not limited to the contemporary human condition? Might this appreciation for an aesthetic "sense" of everydayness be a constant of human taste, and not just the consequence of a contemporary-too-contemporary need? And moreover: does the form of a music engender and at the same time imply a kind of function for this music (deducible from its artistic uses) without the risk that these uses today, in this world and in this situation over-write a function (as if a satisfaction of a need) to this music? Will the Welle form of musical writing enchant also the everydayness of the next generations, and so on eternally into the future of humankind?

It is possible to answer positively to all these questions--yet this answer, although fascinating, is problematic because it implies that the result of a contingent speculation (16) could have universal validity, that a mood, a condition of a Zeitgeist could overcome its temporal horizon. The problematic nature of this answer refers to the illegitimate extension of a circumstantial validity into a general validity: on one hand from few artistic uses a general function is deduced; on the other hand from the aesthetic expectations of an epoch a general expectation is deduced (17) (from the everyday condition of an epoch the general aesthetic "vacuity" of "everydayness" is deduced). On one hand it is impossible to jump outside the real, empirical functions of the music; on the other hand it is impossible to jump outside the present, empirical expectations of reception and appreciation.

Of the two forms of illicit extension of validity, the second one, the one concerning the present time, has the priority. Given that the "sense" of the Welle form as the enchantment of the everyday void has sense because it has sense today, that is, in the light of the contemporary condition, it is no more relevant whether the function of the music informed its actual cinematographic use, or that conversely the actual cinematographic use founded the function. For in both cases the same problem is there: the fact that this function, no matter how valid (a priori or a posteriori), is valid only within and for a present--this present, which is not only the time of the creation of the movies, but even more significantly the actual aesthetic Zeitgeist determining, informing and resulting in the creation of artistic objects. Therefore no matter how fascinating a positive answer to the previous questions could be: only the epoche of all answers is the more serious answer.

The determination of a musical form's not-merely-formalistic "sense" is necessarily affected by the fallacy of an illicit extension of validity--given that such validity is intimately linked to, dependent on, and hence limited to a specific Zeitgeist (18) There is no necessity for the "sense" of a form of music to be, but only the historical reality of a "sense" being valid for this time.

5. From the "Sense" of Music to the "Music" of the Sense

The attempt to deduce a not-merely-formalistic, extra-musical "sense" of music ended by limiting the validity of any results, even within the boundaries of formalism's pars destruens (19) In fact, as much as the subjective psychological determination of the "sense," also the historical determination cannot claim for the universalism of whatever result--for no matter which result is valid only within a Zeitgeist. In both psychological and historical limitations, whatever result is effected by the "uncertainty principle" consisting in the impossibility of distinguishing a true general conclusion from a conclusion only has sense within an empirical frame. It follows that it is impossible to find any proof whatsoever of universal validity for the results of both subjective-psychological and historical-temporal procedures for the determination of musical "sense." This, rightly because no matter which result it is incontrovertible: from the standpoint of the subjective or of the historical it is impossible to find any counter-argument to the "sense;" in other words, it is impossible to invalidate any universal extension of empirical data (either subjective or historical) from within, from the standpoint of the method that produced this extension. We face the lack of any formal methodology aiming to define the universal conditions of validity of all results: whatever the subject feels and then conceptualizes from this feeling is true (and hence false universally speaking); whatever is deduced from the Zeitgeist is true (and hence false if extended to the level of the necessity).

Therefore the only possible cogent and rigorous methodology for the extra-musical "sense" of music implies the negation of the subjacent (incorrect) methodology, and the exclusion of any kind of extension of empirical data to a universal level. But this would imply the exclusion of any not-merely-formalistic positions whatsoever: no matter which determination of a not-merely-formalistic "sense" for a form of music cannot be considered universal, or if it is claimed as universal, this claim is inconsistent. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Nevertheless the theoretical journey shall not stop yet. Until now the universality of any determination of an extra-musical, not-merely-formalistic sense has been negated a posteriori, by an analysis of a specific argumentation (the "sense" of the Welle form of music). Now, in the light of this result, it is time to see whether this non-universality is valid also a priori: in other words it is necessary to explain if, why and how the mere conceptualization of the "sense," the simple attempt to express this "sense" in concepts (regardless of the content and the specificity of this conceptualization or expression) implies its own inconsistency. In other words, it is time to widen the spectrum of analysis, from the fallacy of considering universally valid some empirical (psychological/historical) positions to the far-more-general fallacy of conceptualization in itself whenever the "sense" of music is concerned. According to this position, not only both fallacies of the universal validity of a subjective position or a Zeitgeist are cases, specifications, particularizations of the general fallacy concerning any possible attempt of conceptualization; still more radically, even the formalist attempt to determine the strict musicological "sense" of a music is somehow unsatisfactory. The result would be a limitation of no matter what methodology aims to determine the extra-musical, not-merely-formalistic "sense" of music (whether this determination means inclusion or exclusion of this "sense" from the field of theoretical possibilities).

The conception of a "sense" conveyed by music assumes that the access to this "sense" is determined only in the light of and thanks to the music--so that music is an open door, a privileged access, to the allusive, analogical presentiment of this "sense." But this assumption implies that the "privileged access" to this "sense" is and can be only aesthetic, that is, it can only depend on the immediacy of the aesthetic reception of a music. And if it is so, then all ruptures of this immediacy by the mediation of language are the exact conditions for this access to be lost. In other words, whenever we want to explain and analyze the aesthetic reception of a supposed "sense" conveyed by music, whenever we aim to put between music and its reception the mediation of the concept, this same reception ends and the access to this "sense" is broken. For this reason the consequences of this access to the "sense" can be translated in words (in the subjective, psychological analysis of the reception), but the principle of aesthetic value of music, the "sense" conveyed by its language, in one word its beauty, cannot be translated--it is untranslatable for it already speaks its own true language: music.

Therefore the "sense" is indeed present, but it is present only as presence --and in this case as aesthetic presence, in a word as beauty. If, on one hand, the "sense" were not present, seeking (and questioning) this sense would be absurd. And if, on the other hand, the "sense" were not the mere presence of this sense (without inverted commas), and did not only exist in the purity and immediacy of its aesthetic presence, then the question could be answered. The question cannot be answered rightly because all possible answers have reference to the mediation of language, and hence imply the destruction of the aesthetic immediacy--the evaporation, the sublimation of the aesthetic presence of sense, the veiling and masking and (at the same time) the laceration and abuse of the sense as presence. This is the reason for the intrinsic limits of conceptualization: if the sense is only the presence of this sense, then it is unspeakable and it cannot be the object of any conceptual synthesis (no matter how subjective or objective, rigorous or arbitrary). All conceptual synthesis, that is all linguistic expressions of music's sense, are already in themselves a falsification--for they are the conditions of the destruction of its possibility (and reality) as presence, the only mode in which it can exist. No concepts (the universal-formal ones, the subjective-psychological ones, or the historical ones) are able to signify the "sense" of a music.

But if it is so, then why do we continuously struggle to conceptualize and express this "sense" of music, to explain the laws of beauty of a music, to cover music by clothes of words? Why are we continuously asking the same question, '"what is the 'sense,'?" if it cannot be answered?

This question could be answered by a further question: does a question for which an answer cannot be formulated play a necessary negative function? Is it a sort of obligatory waste of our theoretical time? Or rather, by the fact that the question exists and still exists, are some important consequences still to be determined?

Concepts are nothing but the elements according to which the sense in general exists--or rather (and the importance of this modification of the previous statement will be shortly clear) they are the elements according to which a sense is universally conveyed. Therefore the "sense" of music, being beyond concepts, is senseless. And yet this is a very peculiar kind of senselessness, for it is a senselessness that is not ignored and which cannot be ignored, but which questions us rightly for the sake of its being senseless. In other words, it is a senselessness gravid of sense. This sense is not merely mysterious: it is the aporia, the Mystery, the paradox of a sense which is there but which cannot be grasped directly in a linguistic sense (that is, in a concept). Hence this sense-filled senselessness is not just the lack of any sense: it is the sense itself in itself, before its expressions and incarnations in one of the possible senses (in one of the possible concepts): it is the sense that logically (not temporally) precedes all senses. It is the Sense (with capital s) as origin, justification, cause and union of all possible senses. But what is this Sense (again, with capital s) if not the so abused and so rhetorical "who are we, from where do we come, where do we go," the infinite movement of "gnothi seauton," (20) for the determination of which the language, and the concepts, and the senses, exist? (21) This is the Sense for which all senses are children, that is, specifications, stammerings, partial attempts to say and make Sense. Hence this Sense cannot be conceptualized nor is it conceptualizable: it is presence as "immediate" revelation. This presence is present where the concepts fail--as in music. Here finally it is explained, what is the sense (without inverted commas) of a music: it is being music of the Sense, that is, presence of the Sense. And if it is so, then the music's sense is neither conceptualized nor conceptualizable, for it is the aesthetic presence of the Sense, the Sense as beauty (and not as God (22)). It is finally confirmed that the sense of music is beyond language, it is only "sense" in inverted commas coherently with its only-aesthetic nature, for, as already stated, music is already the only "language" of music: it is already the expression and the non-conceptual "conceptualization" of this pure presence of and as Sense, pure presence as aesthetic (and not religious) presence.

The fact that the question of the "sense" of music is unanswerable implies that no matter which methodology of this "sense" is profoundly unsatisfactory. This is the only possible positive outcome of the negative methodology of my whole argumentation--this is the absurdum of the whole reductio ad absurdum: the determination of the limit of any possible methodology concerning the "sense" of music. On one hand we can deduce "sense" from empirical conditions (either psychological or historical) and attribute to this deduction a universal validity; on the other hand we can exclude an extramusical, not-merely-formalistic "sense" from the field of possibilities. Both ways, both methods are limited, because they are both subjected to the ineffability of the Sense as presence. For this reason they are both limited: the limitation of the first methodology (the empirical-historical one) concerns, as seen already, fallacious universalization; the limitation of the latter (the formalist one) concerns its irrelevancy. Given that the fallacy of the former has been analyzed, we should examine now the irrelevancy of the latter.

6. The Limits of Formalist Methodology

Formalistic methodology, by limiting the object of investigation to music's components alone, not only excludes (correctly) what cannot be universally stated, but uno tempore it implies the constant recognition and tacit admission of a merely accessory value of this operation. In fact the effort at analyzing the sequence of harmonic variation, the modulation of rhythm, the life of the agogic ... in order to determine the beauty (the aesthetic "sense") of a music implicitly presupposes the aesthetic value of the object of investigation. It presupposes that this music is a work of art before any analysis. This analysis considers the work of art in the multitude of its components and objectively analyzes each of one--yet beauty lies in their synthesis, not in their analysis. Analysis is unable to rebuild this synthesis, to recreate the wholeness of this music as work of art, its "state of nature" before any analytic approach--or rather before any kind of mediated logico-linguistic approach. Hence the formalist analysis presupposes the beauty of a music and yet uno tempore, according to its method, it annuls and negates this presupposition by dissecting it in a multitude of accessory, but not aesthetically essential, aspects.

Yet the problem is even more acute in formalism's pars construens: the analysis aims to present the determinations of beauty in its musical specificity. In order to do so, it connects music to general principles of objective determination (such as harmony, rhythm, timbre, intensity, frequency), to universal laws of description; but these principles and laws are the conditions of the knowledge of a music as sound, they have nothing to do with the conditions (laws) of its beauty of a sound as music: it would be the same as saying that the beauty of a color or a set of colors (as in a painting) depends on the frequency of its electromagnetic field. Hence the analytic operation coincides with the process of knowing music as an object, not with the process of defining its beauty or determining the laws of its beauty.

Aesthetic laws exist only in the object-music as a work of art, (23) that is, only in the immediacy of the creation or reception of the work. Whether such "laws" are determined, they are known only under the disguise of norms and rules of canon and style--as conditions not of the beauty, but of the explanation of a work of art. Just as moral norms and rules are historical definitions of the Good and not absolute definitions of it (except for fundamentalisms), so also aesthetic canons and styles have nothing to do with the definition of beauty. It is not necessary to be involved in a philosophical query in order to recognize the negative equation between law and beauty; hence for instance Thomas Mann's irony:
   Offengestanden sprechen wir nicht gern von Schonheit. Geht nicht
   Langeweile von dem Wort und Begriffe aus? Ist Schonheit nicht ein
   Gedanke erhabener Blasse, ein Schulmeistertraum? Man sagt, sie
   beruhe auf Gesetzen; aber das Gesetz redet zum Verstande, nicht zum
   Gefuhl, das sich von jenem nicht gangeln lasst. Daher die Odigkeit
   vollkommener Schonheit, bei der es nichts zu verzeihen gibt.
   Wirklich will das Gefuhl etwas zu verzeihen haben, sonst wendet
   sich's gahnend ab. Das bloss Vollkommene mit Begeisterung zu
   wurdigen, bedarf es einer Ergebenheit fur das Gedachte und
   Vorbilde, die Schulmeistersache ist. Es ist schwer, dieser
   gedachten Begeisterung Tiefe zuzuschreiben. Das Gesetz bindet auf
   ausserlich lehrhafte Weise; innere Bindung bewirkt nur der Zauber.

What Mann calls "inner binds," the unconceptualizable "laws" thanks to which an object is firstly recognized as beautiful (and only in the second instance as a work of art) are neither the laws of canon and style (according to which something is firstly a work of art and hence, only in second instance, "beautiful") nor are they the physical laws and properties according to which a work of art is known as object. Yet formalism risks confounding this latter kind of law (25) with the conditions of immediacy according to which an object is recognized as beautiful--by reducing beauty to the constituents of a music and therefore dangerously making beauty dependent on these constituents. (26) The formalist analysis does explain the elements by which this music is constituted and how the objective and general variables of sound are quantified and organized in this music; yet it does not (for it cannot) explain why this music is a source of aesthetic pleasure. And the analysis cannot (for is not able to) explain or even refer to the beauty of a music because the analytic process is conducted according to the general categories of knowledge, which are arranged by division. (27)

On one hand beauty is the always presupposed and yet always negated causa efficiens of all dispositions to analysis. It is always presupposed because always negated: the exclusion of spontaneous and pre-analytic (or pre-"adamitic") beauty already contains what is excluded. And always negated because always presupposed: the analysis could not exist but in the overcoming and the mediation of the immediate data of aesthetic beauty's presence. On the other hand beauty is the always sought and always missed causa finalis of all efforts to formalistically operate on a music. It is always missed because always sought: the analytic quest is the condition of its perpetual missing. And always sought because always missed: given that beauty cannot be reached with this method, the "scientific" explication and conceptualization of beauty is always renewed. (28)

Hence not only the problem of beauty--which is nothing but the problem of the "sense" of music as a-conceptual "language"--is left unsolved but it rather gains acuity and urgency from all formalist attempts at objective reduction. Facing a hieroglyph the formalist approach factorizes it into its figures and images; but by doing so it mediates what is and should remain immediate, it reduces the hidden, mysterious and yet present "sense" expressed by the hieroglyph (as immediate presence of the hieroglyph itself) to its various (and sundry) factors and constituents. (29) For this reason the formalist approach has only an accessory value: it surely is a dignified and rigorous activity of human intelligence but, for the sake of objectivity, it glides only on the surface of the hieroglyph-music. Yet this surface is the only thing we could objectively claim for (given that "nomina nuda tenemus" (30)): hence the irrelevancy of formalism in the matter of beauty is less serious than the fallacy of universalizing empirical positions.

In compliance with formalism's meta-methodological nature, this superiority of formalism lies exactly in its being the principle of self-limitation in the need for objectivity--from the unfathomable depths of beauty to the surface of only accessory elements of music. This self-acknowledged irrelevance regarding beauty is formalism's own value, as condition for this method to be objective and for beauty to be maintained independent on scientific reductions. All problems with formalism occur whether the objective determination is assumed as a determination of musical beauty, that is, whether the hieroglyphic images are assumed to be the "sense" of the "hieroglyph"--in one word whether formalism's own utter aesthetic irrelevance is not acknowledged. In this case the limits of aesthetic discourse, determined by formalism, are once again overcome, but this time by formalism itself in its pretension to the scientific exhaustion of beauty--yet beauty does not cease to be irreducible to scientific elements irrespective of the effort of its identification with what is only its "vehicle." Either formalism complies with its meta-methodological (self-posed) limit by attributing objectivity only to analysis which are irrelevant concerning beauty, or it overcomes its own boundaries by reducing beauty to objective variables and hence once again producing aesthetically irrelevant conclusions. In both cases formalism is irrelevant to the matter of beauty--but in the former case this irrelevancy (or aesthetic accessory value) is formalism's force; in the latter case it declares its incoherency. (31)

To sum up: both formalist and empirical methodologies are hence subject to the "uncertainty principle," for either the aesthetic "sense" (that is, beauty) is linguistically translated in arbitrary terms, or it is left aside but always implicitly present within (and as) this rejection. On one hand the formalist method of speculation's self-limitation is necessary (that is, legitimate, because it halts before expressing what cannot be expressed) but frustrating (for it is not able either to assume what is presupposed in the analysis of a work of art nor synthesize what gives value to all analytical efforts, that is, beauty). On the other hand the empirical attribution of "sense" is satisfying (because it conceptualizes the "sense") but arbitrary (because the conceptualization is valid only for this particular subject, or this particular Zeitgeist).

Therefore there is no methodology able to provide and universally find an answer on the question of the "sense"/Sense of music. Yet this impossibility is the positive principle of perpetuation of the constant urgency of this question, and of the attempts to answer it. The Sense as present (in the aesthetic forms of the) sense of music, the music as present (in the a-conceptual forms of the) music of the Sense: both are a mystery--and being so this mystery constantly questions us, it raises our pleasure and our enthusiasm, our curiosity and our humility towards music as the senseless beauty of sense. For this reason the answers proposed in this article are far less important than the questions raised: the answer of the Welle musical form of repetition as enchantment of everyday life, the answer of the distinction between two forms of repetitions and two forms of enchantments, and finally the confirmation of the a-conceptuality of the pre-sensed and hence a-sensed nature of the Sense (and of beauty), are nothing but imitations and representations of the (this time truly general) labyrinthine struggling for an answer, where music and sense (and beauty) are concerned.

After all of this it is only possible to admit, to face and to confess the oscillation, the undulating movement between the (literal) ineffability of music (and the recognition of this ineffability), the perpetuation of the question (or, better, of the being questioned by this ineffability), and the always renewed (and always capitulating) attempt to answer this being questioned. What remains is only the hope to fail better (32) at each attempt--being aware that, in any case, at any rate, each failure is the perpetuation of the question and hence of the admiration towards the unspeakable pleasure of the presence of Sense. (33)


Institute Eric Weil, University of Lille 3; University of Geneva

Andrea Vestrucci is Doctor of Philosophy at the Universities of Lille and Milan. He has been Professor of Ethics at the Federal University of Ceara (Brazil) and Endeavour Fellow at Monash University, Melbourne. He is author of The Movement of Morals (Milan 2012), editor of Ethique et esthetique. La responsabilite de l'artiste (Paris 2011). Amongst his most recent papers, "Scheme and Reprise, Transcendental and Historical" (Lisbon, 2013) and "The Unity of Moral Being. Elements for a relationship Weil-Schiller" (Fortaleza, 2014). He is currently conducting research on the conditions and elements of a Logic of Freedom with the chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Geneva.


(1.) I deeply thank pianist, composer and author Luca Ciammarughi for all inspiring conversations we exchanged which helped to improve this contribution. I am responsible for all errors and incoherencies.

(2.) The Welle is the general form of a "varying periodic function" characterized by the union of constant variation within the period's repetition and the constant presence of the period within all its different expressions. It is an eternal pulsation positioned within a constant alteration, a sort of undulating movement never identical in shapes and sounds and always identical in pulse and breath. It is like the successions and alternations of sea waves. The exhaustive analysis of this form of music, with examples, is presented Vestrucci, 2015: [section] 4.

(3.) The melodic line, where appearing, is merely hinted by the harmonic modulation of one of the voices.

(4.) Cf. Vestrucci, 2015: [section] 5.

(5.) The proximity (and hence also the distance) of this chord with G major seventh chord is once again implicit: it would be enough for the left hand to play G instead of A flat, to recreate the perfect parallelism with bar 6--and yet how significant is the modification of mood and atmosphere resulting from the change of one single semitone!

(6.) Cf. Vestrucci, 2015: [section] 4.

(7.) Moreover, given that the Welle does not inform the entire composition but just a part of it, the image of the structure is of writing in panels, each one having its own fundamental tonality or pattern or rhythm.

(8.) Glass's Mad Rush is almost mesmerizing with the symmetrical undulating movement of right and left hand; it is not necessary to hear the music in order to have the clear idea of the obstinacy of the rhythm and pattern effect.

(9.) Both kinds of musical construction convey a sort of relief, a consolation for the listener--but this consolation has two different shapes. On one hand it is the comforting feeling that home will be found, no matter how far the journey takes us, or rather because this journey is far away; on the other hand it is the comforting lullaby that incessantly, repeatedly sings that home is here there and everywhere, that nothing is going to change the world, that the whole universe is in the hand's palm. Moreover, in the light of their union of repetitions and variations, both kinds of music invite a sort of contemplative attitude--but this contemplation is again of two different kinds. On one hand it is the contemplation of eyes that see the whole of time in history, in the individual as incarnation; on the other hand it is the contemplation of the status of trance, of eyes that see the whole in the fixity of the eternal present, in the circular immobility, in the annulation of the movement. I admit that these reflections are the fruit of the resemblance I perceive between the oneiric effect of minimalism and some forms of Indian traditional music, such as the trance-inducing Raga. The connection between minimalism and Indian music is indeed a fact (as in some works by Terry Riley).

(10.) Cf Luther, 1908: 751,24.

(11.) Cf. Heller, 1985, and Heller-Feher, 1988.

(12.) Cf. Fink, 2005.

(13.) Cf. Irwin, 1993: 141-145, 149-154.

(14.) For instance, this is evident in the parallelism between chorales and sections of Luther's two Catechisms: cf. Schweitzer, 1905: 181-182, 347; 1948: 266-267, 454. Particularly fascinating--although questionable--is Schweitzer's individuation, regarding the Mass in B minor, of the protestant symbolistic "tendency" within the limits of a highly dogmatic aim, as an expression of an incomplete (and not computable) synthesis between protestant subjective spirit and catholic objective spirit (cf. 1905: 285; 1948: 685).

(15.) In this way, his music would be merely descriptive (of a theological idea), with conclusions that are hard to confute--and hence hard to prove. This is the case of some of the "symbolistic" analysis of Schweitzer's first edition on Bach: here and there (especially in reference to the two Passions) music is connected with theological ideas and religious images in such a way that the connections are hard to be clear about. Certainly some musical passages reflect theological elements of the text (and for this they could be considered symbolic), but attributing to each instrument a different theological image (like in the case of both Passions' introductory choruses) could be considered a too arbitrary application of the symbolic paradigm. Cf. Schweitzer, 1905: 256 (where in the opening chorus of Johannes-Passion "les doubles croches des violons [...] symbolisent l'esprit divin qui se contemple lui-meme"), 272-273 (on Matthaus-Passion), 285-286 (on the Mass in B minor). In the German edition the analysis is only slightly less fantastic: the opening chorus of Johannes-Passion is this time interpreted in the light of the co-presence of divinity and sufferance (566-567); yet the first double chorus of Matthaus-Passion is read in reference to Jesus seeing and hearing the mass of people around him while carrying the Cross (590-591); concerning the Mass in B minor, Schweitzer maintains both his idea of a musical representation of the mystery of consubstantiality and his vision that in the Et incarnatus est "schwebt der himmlische Geist suchend uber der Welt und sehnt sich nach einem Wesen, in das er eingehen" (690).

(16.) This speculation, that is, the whole argumentation of the previous article, is contingent not only (banally) as the argumentation of a man in a time of history, but also methodologically, because it aimed to deduce a universal conceptualization of the "sense" of a form of music from mere statistical research on some movies and some musics.

(17.) This is evident in a filmic use of Bach's Prelude in C major that has not been analysed in my previous article: Baghdad Cafe (Percy Adlon, 1987). In this movie the Prelude is played by the young enthusiast of Bach's music under the request of the Bavarian lady. He starts to play normally, maybe a little too dry, but after a few bars he stops, and starts again, this time slower and with the sustaining pedal--as if it were the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata in C sharp minor Op. 27 n. 2. Only after this change, thanks to this change and in this change, the aesthetic enchantment can happen. Almost no actions are displayed: the kid is sat playing, the lady sits motionless, the old man enters the bar and then stops--as he realizes that a "magic" is on stage--and slowly, cautiously, approaches the source of the beauty, which is not the motionless fat lady, but rather the motionless lady in the music. Time seems to freeze, earth seems to stop its rotation, and yet it is only an aesthetic enchantment, very delicate, and ready to be broken by the cry of a baby. This scene is significant for the use of Bach's music, which is subjected to a radical change of interpretation in order to reach the effect of enchantment: it is the case of an interpretation of a music according to the artistic needs and aesthetic expectations of the movie, and consequently according to the needs and expectations of an epoch that will receive the artistic product (an epoch which is different from the epoch of composition of the music). The specificity of the example of Baghdad Cafe is in the diegetic nature of the music: here the enchantment is experienced not only by the spectators, but also by the characters, or rather by the spectators via the characters.

(18.) If the Welle writing had the general sense as music of everyday life, hence Bach's type of Welle would have enchanted not only our everydayness today but also the everydayness of Bach's time. Yet this deduction has been falsified rightly by the distinction between two kinds of Welle harmonic structure.

(19.) It would be more correct if the "even" were removed, for formalist position and extra-musical "sense" presuppose each other, and the statement of an extramusical moment implies already and justify (although negatively) the formalist point of view. Cf. Dahlhaus, 1979: 15. Dahlhaus interestingly remarks the parallelism between Wagner's (contradictory) aesthetics and (anti-Wagner) Hanslick's position, concerning the irreducibility of musical language to natural language: cf. ivi, 24-25.

(20.) Cf. Heraclitus, 1959: B 45.

(21.) Cf. Weil, 1985: 418-424.

(22.) If we want to be Hegelian all the way, we could say that only art and religion could express this supreme sense through analogies, in/as the beauty and in/as God, and philosophy has the task to express not only this limit of language (which is also the limit of its own language, and the limit of the logical--not temporal--starting point of its reflection) but also this belonging of sense to religion and to art as their true and final object.

(23.) Cf. Cohen, 1982a and b. Cf. also Vestrucci, 2014: [section] 2.

(24.) Mann, 1955: 391-392. "To be sincere, we do not speak willingly about beauty. Does not boredom rise out of this word and concept? Isn't beauty a thought of sublime paleness, a dream of pedant? They say beauty is based on canons; but the canon speaks to the intellect, not to the sentiment, and sentiment does not let itself easily be subjected to intellect. From this it comes the monotony and the void of perfect beauty, to which there is nothing to forgive. In reality the sentiment wants to have something to forgive, otherwise it turns away yawning. In order to honor the mere perfection it is required a devotion for the mental elaboration, for the exemplary form, and this is a matter of pedant. It is hard to ascribe profundity to this merely intellectualistic enthusiasm. The canon established a connection in an externally didactic manner; only the enchantment creates an internal bond" (my translation).

(25.) The other kind of laws (of canon and styles) is automatically excluded already by a strict formalist position. Cf. Vestrucci, 2014: [section] 4.

(26.) This dependence would imply the possibility to state an objective and universally acknowledged beauty, and hence to formulate the universal laws of both beauty and aesthetic judgment. Yet in this way the aesthetic judgment would be determinant and no more reflective, the work of art would be object amongst other objects, and the pleasure of beauty identical with the pleasure of knowledge. The simple empirical facts of the discordance of aesthetic judgments and (at the same time) the formal identity within this discordance are the best possible falsifications of these outcomes.

(27.) Half ironically, the true analytical mediated synthesis is the condition of suspension and annulation of the immediate synthesis of beauty in the work of art (and hence of the stultification of all attempts at defining what is the Musikalisch-Schon).

(28.) It happens that an analysis of the formal elements of a music could determine a change (read as an "awakening", an "improvement") in the criteria of aesthetic judgment of one person: the clarification or "unveiling" of the harmonic complexity and symmetry, or of the more or less hidden quotations from authors of the composer's past (such as Mozart's Don Giovanni in the first movement of Beethoven's Op. 27 n. 2), or of the rhythmic extravagancies ... could determine a change in the aesthetic judgment of a piece from the previous unaware, spontaneous, naif listenings. And nevertheless once again no correlation between knowledge and beauty is necessary: beauty shall be there already, half-hidden, half or totally implicit, in order for the taste to be educated--and educated to what is already beautiful malgre lui, that is, before all absences or presences of knowledge. Beauty is the necessary condition, it is the lying and immobile (and yet too mobile!) hypokeimenon on which all present and future judgments are made: no elements, no arguments, no discoveries, no theoretical novelties, could possible change this substratum, which is resistant, irreducible and irresistible to any expressible universal legality.

(29.) I refer here to Schweitzer's criticism of Hanslick. Commenting on Hanslick's statement that only the pure musical matter alone lies and should lie in front of us, Schweitzer writes (1948: 416): "Gewifi liegt nur die reine Musik vor. Aber diese ist nur die Bilderschrift, in welcher Visionen der konkreten Phantasie dem Gefuhlsinhalt nach aufgezeichnet sind. Diese Schrift appelliert unaufhorlich an die Phantasie des Horers und mutet ihr zu, das Drama der Gefuhle wieder in konkretes Geschehen zuruckzuubersetzen und einen Pfad zu finden, von dem aus der Weg, den die schaffende Phantasie des Tondichters damals ging, einigermafien ubersehen werden kann." Clearly I can endorse this criticism only in part. I agree with the fact that the aesthetic (not physical) experience of the listener plays an essential role in the determination of the "sense" of the "hieroglyph," but I do not agree with the clear reference to sentiments. In my view the aesthetic experience is already the "sense" as presence of the Sense.

(30.) This is the second part of the dactyl Stat rosa pristina nomine /Nomina nuda tenemus, the last sentence of Eco, 1983.

(31.) For this reason Hanslick's position might appear contradictory: if music is a language untranslatable by any conceptual languages (cf. Vestrucci, 2015: footnotes 2 and 11) then conceptualized elements of music (such as "Schall, Ton, Rhythmus, Starke, Schwache") have nothing to do with the understanding of this "language". In the first edition of Vom Musikalisch-Schonen (1991: 104) the "sound, tone, rhythm, strength, delicacy" (the last two reducible to intensity) are considered elements of the Universe, and hence conditions for the listener to grasp (I would add, analogically) the Universe within and as this music. After a criticism by R. Zimmermann (to whom Vom Musikalisch-Schonen is dedicated) Hanslick omitted this and other similar statements (cf. Dalhaus, 1979: 33). These modifications are significant for their lack of utility, for the same "universalistic" aura is still present in the following editions: this universalistic aim towards beauty, associated with (and even confounded with) the requirement of "scientificity" in aesthetic matters, represents the main frailty of the formalist position.

(32.) Cf Beckett, 1990: 6: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

(33.) Wittgenstein's adage "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen" is turned upside-down: the falsification of all speeches and linguistic expressions of Sense is in itself the condition for language to exist. In other words (whether words are the best means to express the sense of this statement) all attempts of expressing Sense are, if compared to Sense, false, and yet (or rather hence) the best possible failure, given that all attempts are equally true and valid in their being equally failures. According to this conception, language itself is nothing but a constant falsification of its objects--and yet the only possibility to have those objects. In sum, to fail the Sense is to gain in senses.


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