Potrait Hans Zender
© Breitkopf&Haertel

Musik zwischen Logos und Pathos — Hans Zender

“The senses leap up into the thoughts.”
Master Eckhart

In the tradition of Chinese language and writing, the character for “music” has a second meaning, which is “joy”. Indeed, there is little in our life which offers us such an abundance of exhilarating energies as music – and on several completely different levels. First of all, there is the immediate sensual pleasure in sound and colour. Music as a sound-phenomenon surprises us with its sudden appearance and, as a result of this surprise, generates in us a certain distance to ourselves. In the moment of artistic fascination our focus is no longer on our personal ego consciousness, but on life as a whole, in which our little ego occupies but a lateral space.

In listening, we experience sound as one of the primordial phenomena of sensual awareness; and through listening we experience how sound is embedded in the flux of time – just as we perceive space and the way in which it is structured by objects and forms through the visual sense of the eyes.

Obviously, we are thinking when we listen to music. When I say this, I do so in the hope that certain misunderstandings might be avoided right from the start. Generally speaking the notion prevails that listening to, or indeed evaluating, music is a matter of the emotions which, in their turn, are entirely subject to the individual sensibility. Emotions, however, are not yet a form of communication – for this we need signs. Music is a language consisting of sound-signs. We can talk of music only when sound-signs of a diverse quality correlate with each other and connect to create a new whole. Sound-signs, which in the course of the duration of a musical work rearrange themselves into a net of ever-changing affinities, are perceived with pleasure by the listener, who decodes their patterns in a playful, initially half subconscious but increasingly attentive and intelligent process.

When we listen, we move in time; we combine the sounds, forming longer or shorter sequences which we experience as units; but we also perceive the heterogeneity of such units, our auditory consciousness is aroused and informed by this diversity. To put it in a nutshell: when I say “music is thinking with the senses”, I don’t use the word “to think” in a Kantian sense, that’s to say as an imaginative thinking of subjects; but I’m talking of a more profound level of intelligent awareness, which does not want to cut off intelligence from a holistic, hence also affective sensibility.

This “thinking” in sound-language is not identical with thinking in the language of words. The latter we have acquired as a logical, objective way of thinking which is closely linked to our practical life; each of its signs – which are also “sound-signs” – has its specific meaning and we’ve gotten used to regarding the language of words as the instrument of our rational thought which puts reality before us by imagining it.

This quality of language is the result of a long development during which language was gradually transformed from a complex mode of expression into an instrument of the objectifying thought which accurately describes its environment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau literally speaks of a mathematisation of language in the sense of a gradual degeneration of language which thus loses its original capacity for poetry, rhetoric and in general its emotional power of expression.

Here Rousseau develops the idea that music might be capable of supporting language in this predicament, allowing its outward appearance, which has turned increasingly prosaic, pedestrian and technical, to regain its holistic properties; after all, sound – so he maintains – lies at the heart of music’s expressiveness and its manifestation in the form of the melody. According to his opinion, the Greeks, by melding language and music into an inseparable amalgam in their art-form of “musike techne”, had found the perfect form for language’s powers of representation which appear in the meaning of words and the structure of a sentence, by making use of music’s irrational powers of expression inherent in song.

What Rousseau fails to notice is the fact that the melody, too, is not just a spontaneous gesture of emotion, but also, like language, a construct: no melody outside the tonal system by which it defines itself; no tonal system – and in particular no Greek tonal system – without the computation of intervals, which would not have been possible without the attendant mathematics. Already at this level of development, music – just like language – must be regarded as an independent combination of constructed form and irrational affectivity; nor does Rousseau deny this in his thoughts on music. On the contrary, in the development of music from its strictly monadic beginning in Greek culture (which, quite correctly, he describes as a result of pure spectra) to his own time, he detects an analogous rational degeneracy and “fossilization” to the one which was responsible for the crisis in language. This includes the invention of quantified rhythms, of additional voices and an increasingly unfolding polyphony, and lastly an autonomous harmonics, which, however, according to Rousseau, lacks any kind of expressive power although it is in fact capable of modifying and increasing the musical meaning of the melody in various ways.

One aspect of his thought, which nonetheless seems to me to be noteworthy and which is perhaps understandable only from today’s perspective, is his categorical refusal to perceive the history of the arts as a process of continuous progress. Ever since the Notre Dame School and at least since Ars nova, succeeding musical epochs in Europe follow each other in the knowledge that they now add something new, completely unprecedented, to what has gone before, thus realising a kind of progress – whether in structural complexity or expressive intensity. Wagner’s motto “Children, create something new!” leads directly to the revolutionary attitude of the modern avant-garde.

Against this background, Rousseau’s idea of a classical perfection of the arts of the past, which is to be regarded as a constant guiding principle, appears reactionary and sterile. However, in the course of our reflections we will pursue the revolutionary concept of “modernity” all the way to post-modernism and beyond and we will find that despite his apparently backward theses, Rousseau seems to have anticipated something that we can recognise today as the suppressed shadow of a domineering consciousness of advancement: the past is not really past. Not only would it be impossible to have a concept of progress without a past lodged in our memories, but we witness today a return of seemingly past epochs – in the terrible relapses into a barbarism which we had believed, once and for all, to have overcome, as well as in the forgotten cultural signs of hope of earlier times which are inscribing themselves freshly into our consciousness.

This fundamentally includes the close link between language and music in the early creations of almost all advanced civilisations, as Rousseau emphasised when speaking about the Greek’s musike techne; but not his purely subjectivist interpretation of music as a language of the emotions. (In his “The Birth of Tragedy”, Nietzsche is about to expose this interpretation as a construct of terms which has long ago turned into a mere subjectivist “concept”.) Artistic thought which is based upon a thinking of the senses, does not conceive of its signs – in music: of its sounds – but lives directly in their midst, bathes, wades, swims in their substance and from it creates new forms of intellectual life. I call musical thought “liquid thinking”, since here the sound-signs are held independent of any kind of fixed, external meaning; they only mean themselves – in contrast to the “solidified thinking” of the language of words, which is fixated by its inherent concepts, that’s to say by meanings which are expressed by pictorial or conceptual means.

In contrast to the language of words, music is not involved in the act of naming and decoding of objects, in the so-called reality of our mundane controversies, conflicts and undertakings. It acts playfully; seen superficially it seems merely to mirror the world, not to shape it. Music doesn’t only move in our heads; every musical person can feel how it permeates the body and lets it vibrate. When we listen to music in the company of others, we feel instinctively connected; mind and body, the conscious and the un-conscious harmoniously chime together – hence music connotes “joy” with good reason. It touches in us what we call our emotions and thus freely links the decoding of musical patterns with our day-to-day living.

Already we have reached the second level of musical perception: here, we are attempting to “understand” music by entering the world of its forms with our reflections. These are based on a proportional way of thinking about vibrations of sound and rhythmic sequences whose construction can be very simple or fantastically complex. By describing them with words, another highly complex thought pattern comes into existence, even more sophisticated than mathematical thought, to which musical thinking is often compared. Because although musical form can be fully described by numerical proportions and offers itself as numerical construction to an analysis in minute detail, this doesn’t touch on anything which addresses the mysterious intensity of its impact on our psyche. Musical thinking seems to be unique in the way it links the rational and the irrational aspects of our mind.

Owing to the gradual coming into awareness of all of life’s processes, which is humanity’s assigned path, there ensues in music in the course of its historic development a gradual division of its outward forms of manifestation: A music which becomes increasingly self-conscious and as a result discerningly self-directed, for which we today use the term “art”, disengages from another which – absolutely in Rousseau’s sense – tries to retain instinctual immediacy and which we perceive as entertaining, popular and free of the weight of art forms handed down through history.

In today’s cultural situation the dissemination and cultivation of such entertaining music has gained a supremacy over so-called “art music” as never before; however it would be a great mistake to perceive this as the natural dominance of a music of undisguised pleasure which is capable of evading all kinds of burdens placed on it by the problematic nature of our socially constructed consciousness. Rather the state of today’s popular music for entertainment bears witness to the entanglements with which art, just like all other areas of culture, politics or jurisdiction is struggling.

Myth has already warned us against the effect of a music which lures consciousness back to the make-belief state of happiness of a nature devoted to passive enjoyment. Ulysses blocks his ears and lets himself be tied to the ship’s mast in order to avoid falling prey to its temptations. Ikarus falls from the skies because he has failed to master his father Daidalos’s wise skills which allow him to render the intoxication of flight, also of mental flights of fancy, serviceable for human progress by means of rigorous control of his consciousness. There is no “Back to Nature!” without regression of consciousness.

Let’s place ourselves for a moment in a happy natural state of music, as Rousseau would conceive it, but which is also similar to the one that we can find described in the marvellous texts of ancient China. A precondition for the consummate pleasure of working creatively is the consummate selflessness of devotion to the task: any kind of purpose, striving for monetary or personal gain, even any kind of adaptation to already existing cultural habits would diminish the pleasure or destroy it. In utter contrast we perceive in today’s pop-music industry a highly organised commercialisation which deals in enormous sums, placing all participants under an obligation to conform to market requirements. From the very beginning, everything is aimed at optimal saleability, exactly as is common practice in most other sectors of the economy.

The equally clever and commercially oriented business of opera and concert management seems modest by comparison; this, however, cannot not belie the fact that here, too, commercial safeguarding and not artistic vitality have increasingly tipped the scales almost everywhere. Left to their own devices and almost completely isolated, musicians who, for instance, work as members of one of the few ensembles for new music, find themselves on the outer margins of a possibility of existence – musicians who perceive themselves as producers or exclusively as arbiters of a music which is in the process of just being written and which has not yet established itself: the kind of music which even today emanates solely from mere inner necessity and joy in the process of creativity, setting aside all considerations of money or a so-called career. This is not a question of morals, but of the most important prerequisite for creativity. Artistic energies must needs be the single decisive factor motivating the actions of each individual artist – otherwise their mental energies will be incapable of agglomerating and achieving their attainable maximum. Any state or nation which considers public subsidy of the arts to be its responsibility and which takes this responsibility seriously, would have to regard the financial support of non-commercial groups working on the highest artistic level as its first and most important mandate, because it is here that new music gives complete expression to the innermost law of western culture, namely the insoluble link between memory and a new moulding of our history.

Music has something to impart which cannot be said other than through music; however it is exceedingly difficult to give it a name. In our society, based on the division of labour and with its tendency towards one-sidedness, it can happen all too swiftly that the absorption in the structural aspects of music on the one hand, and in its psychological and depth analysis on the other, lead to a certain alienation between the specialist disciplines of the academics and actual musical practice. Or, to put it more bluntly: the practitioner – and I know this all too well from my own beginnings – very quickly cloisters himself away in their personal self-consistent sphere and doesn’t give a hoot for what, from their point of view, appears as the superfluous, because simply reflecting fictional world of linguistic-scientific thought; the scientist on the other hand very often – and wrongfully – looks down on the practitioner’s endeavours as on a naive and rather mindless activity.

The problem becomes more intricate still if one expects music to be of immediate benefit to society or indeed to carry a political statement. This is something that can be achieved by the language of words and concepts, but not by music. The critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki once accused music of being a whore because it unhesitatingly panders to any random ideology. Unfortunately he failed to realise – which in the times of depth psychology and brain research might seem rather strange – that music is only capable of delivering non-verbal messages. To absorb music’s non-verbal messages, to take them seriously and to communicate them, however, is per se a political act which conceives of human beings as living creatures in the fullness of their abilities – not just as “rational animal”.

In our society, music, in a far more radical sense than any other of the arts, has the „function of being without function”, as Adorno put it so superbly. In its obvious social uselessness it embodies precisely the refusal to be used by our thoroughly organized society, thus preserving the power of its individual ethical resistance against totalitarian as well as against democratic principles which operate under an exclusively quantitative bias. This doesn’t mean that it is “political”, it mustn’t be in order not to diminish its power of spiritual independence. Were it to act only as the amplifying voice of progressive social energies, it would amount to nothing but an aestheticisation of politics, undermining the subversive utopian potential that art as a whole demands. “Art is the critique of practice as slavery; this is where its truth commences.” (Adorno)

To put it in concrete terms: music’s status in today’s education programmes is grotesquely underrated, so that neither the importance of traditional European music, which is peerless in word cultures, nor its modern form, which unfolds owing to the basic impulses of creative renewal, are responsibly mediated to future generations. Its incredible individual diversity is in danger of perishing in a cesspool of growing media dedifferentiation. If the music of Antiquity and the Middle Ages was on a par with the sciences of their time and, in the Baroque period, together with theology, formed the core element of education, it finds itself increasingly marginalised by the advance of the natural sciences, along with the Antique and Christian traditions. And this applies even more to a mass society in which it is appreciated solely as an entertaining commodity.


This is also responsible for the alarming growth in ignorance amongst our cultural region’s political caste concerning art and culture. Just like the general public of “music consumers”, politicians today also regard music in general as a somewhat outlandish cultural niche where work processes devoted to the creation of products of dubious importance are taking place. What music really is, is understood less and less. To a certain extent, this is also the fault of musicians who often refuse to reflect upon the social conditions of their art and are neither able to explain nor to vindicate it. They still inhabit a consciousness prevalent during the happier times of our classical artists when music, as all art, was considered to be a direct emanation of, or pathway to, an absolute spirit. This – and not so much its independence from language – is the deeper meaning of the term “absolute music”, which the avant-garde of the 20th century adopted from the Romantic period in an act of somewhat naïve self-delusion. It is unthinkable without Hegel’s tenet of the mind as an absolute. This, however, like all post-Hegelian metaphysics, has been liquidated by historical developments. Today’s technical and materialistic society has forgotten that the arts, religions and all humanities, are the topsoil which is indispensable for any kind of human flourishing, just as they are the basis for man’s creativity. It shows clearly that culture does not arise of its own accord. Culture is only available in the form of a personal contribution, forever newly emerging, planned at great cost and involving sacrifices.

To realise this has become of vital importance for artists today. The scientific and technical civilisation in which we live gives rise to a society which is based on producing and trading commodities. These products can be described as copies of models which are manufactured by machines. By contrast, the work of an artist is production in the sense of newly creating something unique. The artist works akin to nature which never delivers copies but only non-identical new creations. This means that in today’s world, he lives in an irreconcilable conflict with our civilisation merely as a result of his ordinary activity. He lives in it like a foreigner or like a residual from another time. Hundreds of times I have witnessed during discussions how politicians, media representatives and members of diverse committees, whose responsibility it is to decide on the existence of cultural institutions, are incapable of grasping this problem in its full depth. Our consciousness today is informed to its very core by the paradigm of technological thinking; it is difficult for us to realise that a work of art by its very nature is no object which is available for purchase, that working as an artist is no process which can be quantified at random and accordingly priced, but that a work of art grows like a plant and can only flourish under certain conditions. Art’s existence in our society is endangered to the same extent as the existence of what we call “nature”.

Nobody, not even Adorno, has described and substantiated this as accurately as Georg Picht, whose book “Art and Myth” should be compulsory reading for anyone carrying responsibility for the arts and artistic institutions. The ecological movement may have taught us to recognise as well as make every effort to control the conflict between the demands put on our natural resources and the dynamics inherent in an industry which is solely guided by the laws of a market economy, threatening our very existence; however the fact that the entire sphere of the arts and of culture as the natural field for the development of our emotions and thinking, and as such the basis of all humanity, is equally threatened as that which we call “nature”, for some strange reason seems to defeat the advocates of a forward-looking ecology, of all people. Culture is still predominantly mistaken for the domain of a so-called elitist bourgeois high culture. The conservatives, on the other hand, who have long ago become infected with the axioms of the market, believe themselves to be able to save culture by adapting it to the laws of this very market – they want to cast out devils by Beelzebub. In musical life it is in particular the over-bred and therefore often one-sided specialists and stars who are appreciated, whereas the solution to our problems in fact can only lie in the greatest possible versatility of each individual – in the connection between artistic practice and creative intelligence. The Greeks called this link “poiesis”, not “theoria” – that’s to say: the continuation of nature’s creative activity; not designing models for mechanical reproduction.

The inner stance which motivates one to fight for artistic innovation rather than perfectly to administrate a museum – how is it possible for a reproductive artist to attain this other than by active participation in what takes place in new music, with or without our consent? By personally engaging in the process of establishing it in society? This is the only way to save our music culture – it cannot be achieved by the extensive cultivation of tradition alone. Even though this may seem absurd for someone guided by outer appearances only: art’s right to exist in our society can only be vindicated by the art of our time, however unpopular and problematical it may be; failing that, our music culture will hasten towards a speedy end.

To justify the extreme means which new music at times employs, it is insufficient to point out its rebellious attitude towards technical civilization, as the Frankfurt School has practised at length. The new situation in which we find ourselves today, owing to a modernity which, for the first time in history, exposes us to the simultaneous and equal presence of all world cultures, religions, systems of jurisdiction and economies, presents us with a problem which is at least as difficult to solve. To characterise this new cultural predicament, Georg Picht uses André Malraux’s expression “Musée imaginaire”.

In a modern museum, a Gothic Madonna can be found next to a landscape painting by Cézanne; next to Cézanne we find Duchamp’s urinal. In doing so, the purported similarity of these works of art before a universal aesthetic constant establishes a completely new set of problems. To quote Picht: “This universality has constituted an aesthetic factuality which has an incalculable impact on any kind of artistic production today: the ubiquity of art-forms and styles of all times and all cultures. Never before in history were all aesthetic possibilities ever discovered simultaneously presented to the artistic consciousness. Today, they are made inescapably accessible through museums, exhibitions, reproductions, records and mass media as well as by an understanding of the arts which subtly penetrates heterogeneous styles and worlds.”

Here, Picht offers an accurate description of the new underlying actuality on which current artistic endeavour of any kind is based – long before postmodernism became a vogue expression in the art world. Bernd Alois Zimmermann called this new situation “the spherical shape of time”: By lifting all cultural positions of historic times newly into consciousness, we experience ourselves as historical beings and our culture as a continuum which has evolved through history. Whatever we do, we have to interpret this history, break away from, continue or consciously revolutionise it – the only thing we cannot do in the long run is to ignore it or place it under a taboo. We have arrived at a point in history where progress itself forces us to explicitly engage with our own past, that’s to say: with our history – and by this process we are again reminded of Rousseau, who even in the midst of the increasingly forward driven thought of his time clearly recognised the hidden reverse side of this dominant tendency.

The overall situation of the arts, as Picht describes it, would probably be more aptly characterised by the recent expression “meta-modernism” than by the term „post-modernism“, which has meanwhile become problematical in its turn. I quote from the little book by Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen “Comments on Meta-Modernism” which was published in 2015: “On an ontological level, meta-modernism oscillates between modernity and post-modernity. It vacillates between a modern enthusiasm and post-modern irony, between hope and melancholy... By swaying back and forth, hither and thither, meta-modernity mediates between modernity and post-modernity.” This kind of oscillation is described as a pendulum which swings between many poles and which never leads to a state of balance. A dynamics is outlined, which appears both as modern as well as post-modern, which is neither one nor the other, nor indeed both at the same time: “Meta-Modernity consists of the tension, no, of the quandary between the modern desire for meaning and the post-modern doubt in relation to meaning in general.”

If we view the situation of a composer today, we see him, on his own, exposed to his personal freedom and responsibility; no collective authority, no stylistic approach which has passed from master to student can help him orientate himself. If he follows the path of the stylistic trend as it evolved in the aftermath of Wagner, he will no doubt end up in the maelstrom of an extremely individualistic development. Because the first thing that the history of music after the Second World War has made obvious was the impossibility of developing an authoritative new musical language in the form of a unified style of its time as a direct continuation of Romanticism.

The post-World-War-II avant-garde, which, as a young student, I witnessed from the moment of its inception, still aspired to a transpersonal, generally acceptable methodology of composition as a continuation of the Schönberg-School. It searched and found its salvation in the structuralism of the serial technique – in its precise ordering of the material consisting of sounds and durations, realised by means of numerical proportions, which was bent on excluding any kind of individualistic arbitrariness. In reality, however – after some very fruitful years of serialism with Boulez and Stockhausen as its prime exponents – it developed into a brouhaha of the most diverse personal styles which continues to the present day; indeed, one might have to call them “private styles”. No wonder, considering the situation after the Second World War, where all world cultures and traditions suddenly started to communicate, to forge economic and cultural links and to intermingle.

Olivier Messiaen was the first to take appropriate action: He defined the unity of form through a great variety of styles, including some that were inspired by non-European influences; this was his reaction as a musician to the end of a Euro-centrism whose last phase – serialism – he had indeed influenced himself. Bernd Alois Zimmermann was also amongst the first to develop his idea of a musical pluralism as a mental ”front line” against the serial school, which, by the way, was unfamiliar with and hostile both towards him and Messiaen. And what an abundance of new styles can be found in the time that followed – none of them compatible with the others, on the contrary, avoiding such compatibility at all costs: Cage, Feldman, Earle Brown, Rihm, Scelsi, Xenakis, Berio, Donatoni, Nono, Ligeti, Kurtag, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough – I could continue endlessly with this listing of the most diverse aesthetics and compositional techniques, which agree in one point only: that they no longer want to tread the path of orthodox serialism.

This orthodoxy – what was or is it other than a reflection of the kind of predominant technical science which, after the war, irrevocably took possession of us all? And what was the insurrection of these individualistic heretics other than an attempt to free the genuine artistic potential of intuition from rationally defined uniformity?

This also included the potential recovery of the sounds, rhetorical gestures, formal systems of classification, up to and including collage and quotation that had been placed under a taboo by serialism.

It was Bernd Alois Zimmermann who – at the apogee of this serial phase – shocked the world and in particular the guild of composers by demonstrating with his provocative collages that this technique does not simply cite historic material, but can be developed into a productive approach to earlier levels of our consciousness. When in the midst of the chromatic texture of “Photoptosis”, first “veni creator spiritus”, followed by a movement of a Brandenburg Concert, the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” make their appearance, this does not represent a restorative perambulation across different historic landscapes, but the awe-inspiring, at times literally hair-raising evocation of diverse psychic sensibilities, generated by our past experience, which, invoked by the aura of the citation, unleash within us almost a battle of extremely heterogeneous powers. I have already mentioned Zimmermann’s dictum that time is a sphere in which the musical potentiality of all historic times and places co-exist. To juggle with such hefty weights represents a new cast in the arts, which – following the “end of art” as presaged by Hegel – opens up the possibility of revealing oneself as a “late form” of art history by integrating one’s own past into the developing music of the future.

Thus, closed form and logical unity in the use of its resources, which were hallmarks of the classical European musical forms, are now subject to negotiation. Every composer can decide whether to replace them with numerical constructs, aleatory techniques, or individual expressivity. The composer of today’s modern age has not only positioned himself contrary to the practice of our technical civilization, but also to its ideology, which promises “guaranteed security through increased rationality“ for the future. He points towards the open wound with which culture was struck. He provokes both a nostalgic aestheticism as well as a naïve-positivistic belief in progress.

Art cannot tell a lie. If we don’t understand that its truth does not reside in the discretion of the composing, painting, writing subject, but that a work of art is powerful only it if is an involuntary expression of its epoch, we cannot understand art at all.

At this point I refrain from introducing my new 72-tone-system and the harmonics and plural aesthetics which I’ve developed from it. After all – I would not want to dispel the joy in the creative that we all seek by means of grey theory.

Joy is an affect. What is an affect? In contrast to the firmly established conceptual language of words, I have described listening to music as “liquid thinking”. I take the liberty here of calling the word affect a liquid concept. It is absolutely impossible to secure its meaning by applying concepts; however the word “affect” does point towards an irreducible fact of our lives: that we are affected by our existence. When we listen to music we are also affected. But who is experiencing what? Do we experience ourselves, our existence, or the music? And when we experience something: is this about conscious awareness of a subject, or the inner movement of pre- or unconscious levels, of our bodies, of our innermost nature?

The word affect is the Latin translation of the Greek word pathos, which puts even more emphasis on suffering, on being impacted or overwhelmed by an experience; this experience is not generated by consciousness, but by a power outside the ego. An affect always remains an individual reaction of a particular being to their situation in life or in the world; therefore it stands to reason that it can never be conceived of as a pure concept. And affectivity can teach us something else: affects cannot be clearly separated; they are always ambivalent. They connect the interior of the affected person with the exterior of what is being perceived so that it is probably possible to speak of a general affectivity which can be represented by a symbol, but not of a single affect as an unequivocally determined structure. Jean Paul has spoken of the comic as the “inversion of the exalted” – the question arises whether one could apply this dictum also to the purely musical affectivity of music. One would have to make absolutely sure that discursive thought, which is derived from language, has no hand in the creation of musical comicality – that, for instance, quotations do not automatically incur a reification of the affect prompted by contextual influences – as is the case with quotations in operas: Richard Wagner’s technique of the leitmotif is quite consciously constructed from such word-sound-constellations.

If I unexpectedly hear a loud bang, my first reaction will be a mixture of surprise and fright: Why the bang? Am I threatened? In the next moment, however, the affect can be transformed into enjoyment of a rhythmic pattern of beats which emerges in time; via another function within an artificially generated context, this can be interpreted as frightening, funny, or brutal, etc. This “knowing” interpretation can glide across various contrasting perceptions, from agitation all the way to the grotesque; and it can suddenly change into the perception of real thunder in an electric storm or the noise of an exploding car tyre. All possible explanations, however, remain under the spell of the first surprising sensation of a “loud bang”.

Resistance against the fixed interpretation of affects, which obscures music’s own nature, has led to a certain freezing of affects in the musicians of the early avant-garde and encouraged the predominance of “cool” constructivist thought specific to the era, right up to a formalism which is wielded with positivist intent. Looking back it seems to me that this development was necessary in order to re-introduce the entire nature of affectivity to our awareness. In contrast to the concept of “emotion” prevalent at the end of the 19th century, which was almost diminished to a kind of trivialised privacy, today’s new, less subjective finding of affect allows us to make out an interface: The artist no longer orders his material with the aim of representing a certain affect in his or her subjective way for another subject – the listener – but they discover in their material the affective power of this very material, which they don’t suppress or destroy but preserve and develop further. Thus they find the point at which the flowing, still wordless language of music becomes subject to a transition; where human consciousness slowly moves from creatural-collective passivity towards an individual activity participating in the co-creation of the world. Is this not the transition from liquid to frozen thought, from affect to logos? Would it not suggest itself, then, that in non-verbal musical thought we can see logos at work on a pre-lingual level?

At an ethnological museum I once discovered drawings of a so-called musical scale of affects – if I remember correctly, it was of Indian origin. Ten or twelve affects were arranged in a circle – joy, sadness, hatred, love, jealousy, bravery, fear, indifference, humour, loathing… In the middle of the circle the word “tranquility” was written – apparently as a symbol of the whole (analogous to “joy” for the Chinese). The arrangement of the affects in a multitude of different perceptive modes grouped around a central main affect – was this supposed to demonstrate that individual affects all derive from a central superior unity? Or should it make us understand that in contrast to the diversity of affects, the symbol of its summary unity belongs to a higher order? We can make further assumptions. Ever since humanity has practiced the arts of the muses, it is surprised to find that the representation of grief and pain, suffering and death in the arts has not resulted in further grief and pain, in no “negative” affects, but, on the contrary, in undiluted joy in their portrayal. In such a case we say: well, this is the impact of art, of the aesthetic, the “beautiful form”.

In modern art, however, we have meanwhile entered a realm which by no means can be subsumed in its entirety under the term “beautiful”. Our idea of beauty derives from classical Greek culture; we must realise that we have departed from this tradition more than a century ago. The fact, however, that we can also experience modern works of art as inspiring and affirmative sources of power for our souls indicates that behind individual ideas of beauty lies something completely different. Perhaps one could call this something the undivided, not yet individuated pure life force; we’ve already had it in our sights when, at the very beginning of our deliberations, we attempted to describe joy as the as yet unreflecting encounter with music. Here, life experiencing itself seems to be at work in its direct creative activity. Its source can be found on the one hand in the subject, and in its direct reactions to what goes on in the outside world on the other. The affects are the first present that life bestows onto the living; from them, through our work, emerge consciousness, art, language and thought. Thus the affects appear as archetypal symbols for numinous powers which cannot be precisely located and therefore not captured by conceptual thought.

This is to say: when it comes down to it, logos, which by occidental-Greek tradition at least since Aristotle was always considered to be the realm of language, the power of logic and rationality and thus put into contrast with the affective energies, in truth emerges from the affective, “liquid” thinking which emanates directly from nature and which also characterises art – indeed, this immediate creative thinking is the basis for the whole proud construction of all rationality and science which was built by humankind. We could speak of a birth of language from the spirit of music, whereby this spirit would obtain as its vocabulary the sounds, signs and rhythmic gestures, as yet free of conceptualisation, from the pathic experience of the affects. The language of words and concepts – and here, too, our ruminations suddenly lead us back to Rousseau – thus presents itself as a solidified abstraction of the still life-warm body-language of the affects. Here we would free ourselves from the bias of the Aristotelian logos in order to approach a much more comprehensive idea of logos which might correspond to a Heraclitean version or, even more so, to one that can be found in the prologue to the Gospel according to John, where life is includes in realisation. Here, music appears to be the voice of our life – and yet it leads us on to the word as the bearer of enlightenment. From this point of view, the synergy of music and the art of language represent logos in its entirety in its sensual appearance.

However, the great poets or mystics such as Master Eckhart, at times, also succeed by means of the language of pure words in bridging the gap between affect and concept and to let us experience the unity of liquid and solidified thought. In his “In Search of Lost Time”, Marcel Proust describes his thoughts after attending a concert in the following way: “And I asked myself whether music is not the only example of that which – had language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas never been invented – the mystical community of souls could have become. It is like a possibility which was not further acceded to. Humanity has taken other paths – those of spoken and written language. But this return to what cannot be analysed was so intoxicating that, as I was leaving this paradise, the contact with more or less wise men seemed to me to be utterly trivial.”

Music and language seem to us today as two different systems of communication. However, upon looking more closely we have realised that their polar opposition is evidence of an original unity which, as an image of the unity of our soul, we have lost.  

It is not possible to find it again by returning to archaic primal states, but only by a new integration of opposing systems. Perhaps we have to invent a kind of “thinking in two voices” which might enable us to learn how to deal productively with the differences between these two systems. Music, the fine arts, the contemplative power of art – they have to be re-discovered as spiritual forces in our civilisation, which is so successful in the realms of rationality and technology but which, by the same token, has reached an impasse – so that they might guide us along the path towards a profound humanity. Then we would be able to use not only the Chinese character for “joy” in order to describe music, but also the sign which the “I Ging”, the oldest Chinese book, has assigned to this art-form: Yü, ”rapture”.

From: Hans Zender:
Denken hören – Hören denken.
Musik als Grunderfahrung des Lebens
(ISBN 978-3-495-48863-8)
Verlag Alber