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Thoughts on a Non-Cartesian Approach to Visual-Music Composition

Andrew D. Lyons.
Composition Unit
The Sydney Conservatorium of Music
The University of Sydney
Sydney NSW 2000 Australia
Email: tstex at(nospam) tstex.com

I find it to be a useful heuristic premise when approaching visual music composition to conceptualise the creative material to be given form as a kind of unified ether of raw perceptual information, manifesting itself as both sound and vision. This heuristic premise is similar to the monist philosophy that all existence is part of one all inclusive substance. This idea was originally espoused by Benedictus De Spinoza in his 17th century critique of the philosophy of Rene Descartes - itself an antecedent of modern positivist philosophy.[1] Whilst there are also numerous differences, Spinoza's Monism may be seen to have more to do with various forms of Phenomenology, [2] which are often seen to be more useful in forming art theories than the positivist philosophy of the natural sciences.[3]The perception of art after all, is highly subjective and science and its philosophy postulate no explanation of the subject. From this it follows that it is a logical impossibility that a purely scientific process might one day create an accurate emulation of the human visual interpretation of music.

"The rational mind functions by seperating subject from object, that is, the knower from the known... It works by analysis, a systematic processing technique that is based on the laws of logic." [4] We tend in the western world, to favour an analytical approach to understanding which tends towards reduction rather than synthesis. This approach to understanding has been especially and increasingly common in Western Europe since the seventeenth century, that is, since the beginnings of modern science.

Reduction/Induction modelling has yielded humanity incredible means to control (and to destroy), our environment. For example, the knowledge of sound, which physics and physiology have yielded us has allowed us to employ tools such as computers to create sound and aural percepts of a broad and powerful variety. This approach to knowing may however be seen to have shortcomings. The inherent shortcomings of the logical, rational mind include its complete inability to regard duration as anything other than a sequence of discrete, moments in time. Our intuition tells us otherwise, as does Physics, in which time is regarded as a continuum, closely connected to space. In the words of Albert Einstein: "I didnt arrive at my understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe through my rational mind." [5]

Motion through space is something, which like time, is beyond the grasp of the rational mind. This is well exemplified by what is known as Zeno's paradox: "Take the phenomenon of a flying arrow. It is easy to show," says Zeno, "that it does not really move. For at each instant of its flight it occupies one and only one point of space. This means that at each instant the arrow must be at rest, since otherwise it would not occupy a given point at that instant. But its whole course is composed of such points. Therefore the arrow does not actually move at all." Henri Bergson believes that the moral of Zeno's story, is, "not that motion is impossible, but rather that it is impossible for the intellect to comprehend motion." {6] It is also interesting to note that the rational mind can in no way comprehend paradoxical information, ie. that the points at either end of a continuum can be the same point, such as the intersection of the infinite past and infinite future as they exist on the Schwarzchild radius (or event horizon) of a black hole.

Whilst it may not be possible for the rational mind to comprehend time and space as anything other than a sequence of static entities, it solves this shortcoming by developing something which may be called a relationship. It has long been known that any type of analysis uses a serial logical process to create factual, static relata which are organised into structures described as relationships - often in the form of differential equations. With this approach to music it has been suggested that, "all music is algorithmic - whether the author is consciously aware of it or not." It may be argued that that any analysis can only result in information which can be descibed in such terms, and so this idea is entirely tautological.

The tendency of western man to favour the application of materialist philosophy and reductive, analytic approaches to all existence is exemplified by the importance placed on static relata at the expense of the structural relationships from which they were extracted. It is also this tendency that blinds us in regards to relationships between music and image - we tend to fail to acknowledge the existence of anything that cannot be grasped or reduced by a rational process to discrete packets of information. According to Existential Phenomenology, we are experientially connected to both the Relata and the Relationships in their original unreduced form, and in the arts, this allows us to operate with them in an infinite number of ways.

Intuition and the ancient Greek word "nous" from which our word knowledge and its variations are derived, describe a means of knowing requiring a "direct participation in the immeadiacy of experience. This can be accomplished only by making an effort to detach oneself from the demands of action, by inverting the normal attitude of consciousness and immersing oneself in the current of direct awareness. The result will be a cognition of reality such as intellectual concepts can never yield. In so far as this reality is communicable, it must be expressed in metaphors or "fluid concepts" quite different from the static abstractions of logic."

Intuition is compared by Henri Bergson to an act of empathy such as that which occurs whilst attending a performance which involves a character with whom one can identify. With an object such as a sound, or a concept such as time, it would be necessary for one to attribute it with not only an interior, but states of mind with which to empathise. This requires some imagination, but once achieved it is possible to empathetically place ones self inside that object or concept and apprehend directly and in an absolute sense, its condition, first hand. [7]

Once this has been achieved, it is possible to find resemblances between phenomena previously thought to be unrelated. In viewing the world and all that is in it as an unbounded web of similitudes, and by approaching all understanding through, "ceaselessly drawing things together and holding them apart, in an interplay of sympathy and antipathy",[8] one returns to what was the essential approach to knowledge during the sixteenth century, before the rise of science and its exclusively reductive and inductive approaches to the acquisition of knowledge. Also, because intuition is a massively parallel process that deals mainly with mental images as opposed to sequences of rules, it is in many situations a much faster process than the serial approach taken by logical processes.

Using intuition, one is able to approach the understanding of an object or concept, such as music, from the point of view so to speak, of another party, such as an abstract 3 dimensional shape or space, and begin to form an understanding via an appreciation of similitudes, of how a sound might appear if able to manifest itself as sense datum resulting from such an object.

This is of course, a highly simplistic description of a process which by its very nature defies reduction into symbols such as words. It is interesting to note that to some, the difficulty involved in representing such ideas as words or mathematical languages might be given as proof of their non-validity. However it should be understood that "although language constitutes a most important symbolic mode for maintaining the technologically developed civilisations of industrial societies, it does not follow that reality, as comprehended through language is more real than that articulated through other modes of communication, nor concomitantly does it follow that language is potentially an exclusive mode in the sense of all other non-verbally coded experience being reducible to verbal terms."[9]

Music and abstract animation are two non-verbal languages with unique communicative abilities, and while the metalanguages of art theory and musicology have developed some ability to describe these arts, they can never substitute for the art itself. Similarly, while the languages of logic and its technological extensions have provided us with numerous tools and intruments with which to understand and develop these artforms, it also cannot substitute for the art itself. In the arts, logic makes a good servant, but does not necessarily make a good master.


[1] Spinoza, Benedictus de, 1632-1677. Earlier philosophical writings : the Cartesian principles and Thoughts on metaphysics / Translated by Frank A. Hayes. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.

[2] Macann, Christopher E. Four phenomenological philosophers : Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty. London ; New York : Routledge, 1993.

[3] Arnheim, Rudolf. To the rescue of art : twenty-six essays. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1992.

[4] Alpert, Dr Richard. Be Here Now. Lama Foundation: New Mexico, 1971. (p.85)

[5] Einstein, Albert. Ether and the Theory of Relativity. an address delivered on May 5th, 1920, in the University of Leyden. In Ray Tomes' Cycles in the Universe: http://www.kcbbs.gen.nz/users/af/alt-faq.htm

[6] Bergson, Henri. An introduction to Metaphysics. The Bobbs-Merril company, Indeanapolis. 1980.

[7] ibid.

[8] Foucault, Michel. The order of things: An archaeology of the human sciences. Random House-Pantheon, NY. 1970.

[9] John Shepherd. Music as Social Text. Cambridge MA: Polity Press, (pp 78-79), 1991.

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