Soulful Aesthetics: 🎼 Music of the Spheres (Part I) 🎼
"There is geometry in the humming of the strings.
There is music in the spacing of the spheres." ― Pythagoras
We discussed the primal Word which permeates Nature in the previous essay installments, The Rebirth of Poetry (Part I and Part II). It is the divine Word which imbues all words with their original meaning. That includes the forms of Nature, which are words written in a language we have simply forgotten how to read. The Word ceaselessly renews that meaning as it fades from word-forms over time so that both Nature and human souls can remain in ongoing communication with each other. These things should be taken in the most literal sense - they are not mere metaphors for the "psychological" influence of speech. That ongoing communication through the shared meaning of words is also not something guaranteed in our age - each individual must now continuously work to incarnate the Word within her speech so that the only alternative to ongoing communication - perpetual war - is averted.
Just as there is the primal Word, there is also the primal Tone. All speech has some musical tone, holding a dynamic relationship of outer form to inner meaning, respectively. The primal Tone permeates the soul element of Nature which resides in the spiritual realm without any physical form. It deals only in the vowels of speech which express the formless inwardness and feelings of the human soul, as opposed to the consonants which express the formative forces of her will and her thought. We can get a sense for the intimate relationship between speech and tone when considering the seven musical notes of the diatonic scale, from C through B, and the inward 'soul-moods' dynamically associated with them. These connections of sound-tone and soul will remain at a low resolution until we practice often with them, remembering always to approach the realm of spirit and soul with good will, humility, and devotion.
RELATIONS OF MUSICAL NOTES TO VOWELS & SOUL-QUALITIES C to u (‘oo’ ) - REMEMBRANCE/SELF-ASSERTION/FREEDOM D to o (‘o’) ("hope") - ILLUMINATION/HARMONY E to a (‘ah’ ) - FEAR/REFLECTION/MATERIALITY F to ö (‘er’) ("her") - GENIUS/CHARISMA/PERSUASION G to e (‘a’) ("hay") - DISCUSSION/REASON/INTELLECT A to ü (‘eu’) ("hue") - PRESENCE/INSPIRATION/WISDOM B to i (‘ee’) - DREAMING/CREATIVITY/TRANSFORMATION
The most important thing to understand in this whole process of investigating the soul-aesthetic of music is that there are no rigid "rules" to follow. These associations between vowels, musical notes, and soul-qualities listed above are not fixed entities, but dynamic essences which form moving relationships with each other. For now, we can treat them as mere markers for us to consider conceptually when we begin our journey of freely exploring the realm of music and allowing our imaginative thinking to illuminate some of the path ahead of our journey. This caveat must be made by me and, more importantly, remembered by the readers, because modern humans are constantly tempted to take living essences of Nature and reduce them to simple quantitative correspondences between each other, which eventually decay into a state where they only serve to obscure that living essence.
It is no overstatement to say that this reductionism is the most dangerous temptation we face today and not a single person alive has "conquered" it or become completely immune to its influence. Everything written here should be taken as the most basic conceptual groundwork which will assist our understanding when we truly venture into the higher worlds of imagination, inspiration, and intuition. It is that latter quest which will provide us either the denial or the assurance of what we are now exploring mostly by way of abstract intellect. Keeping that always in mind, let us proceed to listen to a musical clip which showcases these seven tones and see if we can perceive some intimation of the differing soul-qualities listed above. Again, what is important now is not identifying any exact correspondences, but simply observing that there are, in fact, distinct qualities involved in the differing tones and their relations with each other (click on image below to play audio in new tab).
Another key to the soulful experience of music is Time (tempo). Most Western music is expressed in the "common time" of 4:4, which means 4 beats per measure where each note is a "quarter note". We can say that roughly corresponds to one beat per second to help us orient. In the modern age, we will often hear people say they are "running out of time" or "running low on time"; they "don't have the time" or "can't wait", and similar such phrases. We glance at our phones often to "check the time" and we always feel like time is moving "too fast" or, on the rare occasion we are engaged in important contemplation, "too slow". We are always "losing track of time" and this modern pathology of time prevents us from stepping up to "face the music". The measured tempo of music truly orients our soul to the essence of Time. Below is a sample of a modern song with common 4:4 tempo as well as 7:8 tempo mixed in - I recommend readers listen until they can at least spot the differences in tempo (click on image below to play audio in new tab).
Without note and tempo orientation, our spirit will struggle to penetrate into the essence of Nature's music. The words in which most people think all of their thoughts, especially in the modern age of abstract intellect, will be out of tune with the rhythms of the natural processes which encompass us from within and from without. Eventually, we end up paddling upstream against a torrent of perceptive-and-cognitive musical flows which constantly threaten to capsize our dingy vessels. Maintaining the proper inner tempo is therefore key for our soulful appreciation of music. One of the worst insults which can be leveled at a person in the modern age is to say we "don't care what she is thinking", because that disconnects her from the inner tempo of the only activity which she can truly identify as her own. When speaking about the art of reading literature, Henri Bergson, an extremely important and influential 20th century philosopher of time and intuition, describes this most critical relationship between tempo and thought.
To [understand the author, the pupil] must fall into step with him by adopting his gestures, his attitudes, his gait, by which I mean learning to read the text aloud with the proper intonation and inflection. The intelligence will later add shades of meaning. But shade and color are nothing without design. Before intellection properly so-called, there is the perception of structure and movement; there is, on the page one reads, punctuation and rhythm. Now it is in indicating this structure and rhythm, in taking into consideration the temporal relations between the various sentences of the paragraph and the various parts of each sentence, in following uninterruptedly the crescendo of thought and feeling to the point musically indicated as the culminating point that the art of diction consists. ... There is a certain analogy, be it said in passing, between the art of reading as I have just described it and the intuition I recommend to the philosopher. On the page it has chosen from the great book of the world, intuition seeks to recapture, to get back the movement and rhythm of the composition, to live again creative evolution by being one with it in sympathy. But I have embarked upon too long a digression; it is time to end it. - Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1946)
I have made it a point of conveying in previous installments of this essay on aesthetics that none of what we experience through poetry or music - art in general - can be regarded as personal to us. Rather, it is exactly what helps lift us out beyond the personal and into the spiritual realm of universal meaning. The merely personal is Maya and we are, in fact, always residing in the shared spiritual. Any artwork produced prior to the modern age, before that age laid its claws of dead intellectual abstractions into the living flesh of words, tones, and images, retains its predominantly universal character. There has, without a doubt, been a steep decline in the life of art since then, but its sheer spiritual and soulful power is also too strong to be contained forever. It has unleashed this universal power periodically from the Renaissance to the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, bursting forth from impressive artists of the 20th century as well. We will consider this power more deeply now.
What was it that nature would say? Was there no meaning in the live repose of the valley behind the mill, and which Homer or Shakespeare could not reform for me in words? The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background, and the stars of the dead calices of flowers, and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost, contribute something to the mute music. ... The new virtue which constitutes a thing beautiful is a certain cosmical quality, or, a power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality. Every natural feature—sea, sky, rainbow, flowers, musical tone—has in it somewhat which is not private, but universal, speaks of that central benefit which is the soul of Nature, and thereby is beautiful. And, in chosen men and women, I find somewhat in form, speech, and manners, which is not of their person and family, but of a humane, catholic, and spiritual character, and we love them as the sky. They have a largeness of suggestion, and their face and manners carry a certain grandeur, like time and justice. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
No human has ever looked upon Nature and failed to hear the "mute music". We may forget or mistake what we hear, but the music is always playing for us nonetheless. Nature's soulful-yet-silent symphony presents to us as a riddle and we respond eagerly as riddle-solvers. In that initial response, if we were slow down to the proper tempo and reflect, we would notice that what puzzles us has very little, if anything, to do with the "physical properties" of Nature - how small, how low, hot tall, how high - but rather the meaning of its processes and their relations to our senses. Why does it look the way it looks when we take a gander, feel the way it feels when we embrace it, taste the way it tastes when we consume its offerings, smell the way it smells when we inhale its scent, and sound the way it sounds when we listen to it intently?
Meaning is always layered and multi-dimensional. The process of the Sun rising and setting has a very important practical meaning for the person who needs daylight to engage in their standard activities, but it has deeper meaning for the person who contemplates how it relates to her own daily experience of awakening from deep slumber into clear cognition of the surrounding world. It has still deeper meaning for the person contemplating how her ancient ancestors also experienced such meanings but from an entirely different perspective, and how those ancient meanings are now encoded in mythological symbols which we can readily extract from a decentralized realm of knowledge called the "internet". These nested meanings allow Nature to seep into the depths of our soul's individuality and ethical existence.
Sensible objects conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience. All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature. Therefore is nature glorious with form, color, and motion, that every globe in the remotest heaven; every chemical change from the rudest crystal up to the laws of life; every change of vegetation from the first principle of growth in the eye of a leaf, to the tropical forest and antediluvian coal-mine; every animal function from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments. Therefore is nature ever the ally of Religion: lends all her pomp and riches to the religious sentiment.
Prophet and priest, David, Isaiah, Jesus, have drawn deeply from this source. This ethical character so penetrates the bone and marrow of nature, as to seem the end for which it was made. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
Emerson further observes that if you "go out of the house to see the moon", you will find "’t is mere tinsel" and "it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey." It is seldom considered in the modern era how every form in Nature we can perceive arises from imperceptible activity related to our practical aims in life; our missions and journeys. Those meaningful aims, in turn, also enrich the meaningful aesthetics of Nature. Much of what we call "objects" in the physical world are mere pixelated icons of this hidden depth of meaning residing in the World Soul. What we see in the world around us is nothing like what gives rise to what we see. In fact, every modern science has realized, in its own way, that the "boundaries" of these various "objects" in the world are completely arbitrary. They do not reflect any similar boundaries in the realm from which they travel to our sense organs.
For some, that underlying realm consists of inconceivable mindless fields of "energy", for lack of a better word, and for others that realm consists in psychic processes not unlike the inner processes we always experience. Everyone must admit, though, that everything flows - we are always dealing with ceaseless processes in Nature. Quantum mechanics, at the turn of the twentieth century, led to the dematerialization of physical matter, as atoms could no longer be construed as particle-like objects. This resulted in the demise of Newtonian physics, which had been one of the pillars of substance metaphysics since the scientific revolution. What had been considered "matter" then became "statistical patterns" of quantum activity. Similar metamorphoses in our conceptual space have since occurred in most other fields of 'hard' science, such as biology, and it would be very foolish to consider all of these changes occurring at the same time a mere coincidence.
Living beings are no longer thought of as isolated 'entities' but rather densely interconnected communities which, in theory, can provide all that is necessary for the existence of its "members". Science has been steadily progressing towards this processual, meaning-based outlook for many years now. A further step is taken towards the spiritual essence of Nature when we systematically investigate it and derive its "laws" - the underlying principles of natural processes which make sense of why they appear to us in the way specified ways that they do. "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" - this principle of Nature makes sense of why the billiard ball on the pool table moves in a certain direction and with a certain velocity when hit by another billiard ball. Yet what it means, in its essence, is more along the lines of, "each person's deeds which impress into another person's soul-life will likewise impress into their own soul-life at a later time" At very low resolution, that is what we spiritual types call "Karma".
Just as the modern age of nominalism leads people to consider the physical ball more "real" than the overall process it is involved in, it also leads them to consider the specific manifestation of a principle more "real" than the principle itself. We, however, should remember that, even more real than the principle is the meta-principle which encompasses it and other related principles, or what is frequently referred to by scientists and artists as "archetypes". We must do a 180-degree reversal from the modern fragmenting habit of mind if we are to begin penetrating into the essence of art we seek. We cannot stubbornly resist the progression of philosophy, science, and art, but rather we must flow with it wherever it leads. Bergson intuited this progression as well when remarking, "the more the sciences of life develop, the more they will feel the necessity for reintegrating thought into the heart of nature."
Now, in artistic creation, for example, it seems that the materials we have to work with, words and images for the poet, forms and colors for the painter, rhythms and harmonies for the musician, range themselves spontaneously under the idea they are to express, drawn, as it were, by the charm of a superior ideality. Is it not a similar movement, is it not also a state of fascination we should attribute to material elements when they are organized into living beings? But whence come the materials which have come under this spell? ... If the organization is, as it were, an awakening of matter, matter can only be a slumber of the mind. It is the last degree, it is the shadow of an existence which has diminished and, so to speak, emptied itself of all its contents. If matter is the “base of natural existence, a base on which, by this continuous progress that is the order of nature, from degree to degree, from kingdom to kingdom, everything comes back to the unity of mind,” then conversely we should imagine at the beginning a distention of mind, a diffusion into space and time, constituting materiality. - Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics (1946)
"Don't only practise your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine."
- Ludwig von Beethoven
There is a diffusion of mind in material nature which remains stubbornly invisible to modern humanity. That is our own inner Artist; our "I"; our true Self. That will sound counter-intuitive to most. Many associate the modern age with egoism and "self-obsession". That association is valid, but then we are dealing with the sort of egoism which results from ignoring the true Self within us who is yearning to be set free from its material chains, and who is yearning to set us free from them as well. We project a personalized and isolated caricature of that Self into the hole where our Soul used to be, and our true Soul then remains withered and malnourished. This glaring omission from our modern consciousness, contrary to public opinion, is what now plagues the World Soul. We "condemn and rage against ourselves", as Carl Jung remarked, "and refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves". In that state of Self-denial, however, is precisely when the power of soulful aesthetics proves its mettle.
Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue. Every natural action is graceful. Every heroic act is also decent, and causes the place and the bystanders to shine. We are taught by great actions that the universe is the property of every individual in it. Every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself. ... ...all men are capable of being raised by piety or by passion, into their region. And no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine. Like a new soul, they renew the body. We become physically nimble and lightsome; we tread on air; life is no longer irksome, and we think it will never be so. No man fears age or misfortune or death, in their serene company, for he is transported out of the district of change. Whilst we behold unveiled the nature of Justice and Truth, we learn the difference between the absolute and the conditional or relative. We apprehend the absolute. As it were, for the first time, we exist. - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)
This critical nexus between the developing human ego and the natural world, with the latter always considered complimentary to scripture as revelation of the Divine, had been the essential inquiry of Western philosophy from at least the time of the pre-Socratics continuing right through to the medieval Scholastics. That is a span of roughly 1,300 years devoted to contemplating almost nothing but that one question. Philosophy in the modern era, however, abstracted away from mind until its participatory role was no longer perceived, let alone considered. This turn could not have been any more pronounced than it was in music. Many people associate that turn with materialistic philosophy, but, ironically, it was just as evident in German idealism. The philosophy which held that, "all is mind", also began to hold by way of Descartes that, "I think, therefore I am... alone" and finally arrived at Kant declaring, "mind can tell us nothing whatsoever about the World Soul".
That fundamental mistake tainted all of their aesthetic philosophies as well. German idealists commented at length on aesthetics, but many failed to see that, without the human faculty of Thinking coming along for the ride, artwork cannot be perceived with any transpersonal meaning. On the purely technical level of philosophy, the reason for this obvious blunder is fairly simple - they assumed every subject beholding artwork is situated in a personal bubble of conscious experience which separates that experience from each other personal bubble. Therefore, what one person perceives as the meaning of an artwork and what someone else perceives as the meaning of that artwork could not possibly be the same meaning by way of shared mental activity. The only other alternative was to claim that the shared aesthetic meaning arises from a far-removed and amorphous 'entity' labeled as "transcendent God" or "universal Will", and our "personal" mental activity has nothing to do with any of it.
When Thinking is expelled from the equation in that manner, however, the aesthetic philosophy which remains is literally devoid of meaning. Or, rather, it is only imbued with the bare minimum of abstract intellectual meaning necessary to avoid dismissing Art as a valid human pursuit altogether. But the essence of artwork does not deal in that sort of abstract meaning - rather, it deals in the immanent meaning provided by our shared imaginations and intuitions of Nature's intentions. When a piece of art is viewed only by the intellect, it is no different in quality from any other rather curious perception we may happen upon in the world. Those are the sort of perceptions which appear to us with mere exterior form - points, lines, contours, shapes, and sizes - and very dim interior meaning. It is no wonder, then, that Sylvia Plath looked into space and, in her poem Years, felt compelled to write:
"O God, I am not like you In your vacuous black, Stars stuck all over, bright stupid confetti. Eternity bores me, I never wanted it. What I love is The piston in motion . . . My soul dies before it."
Artwork must possess living interiority to combat modernity's nihilism - desires, motivations, emotions, thoughts, and, above all, meaning. With respect to the art of music, specifically, the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer must be briefly addressed. Schopenhauer was notoriously stingy in what he allowed past Kant's impenetrable curtain hiding the puppeteer pulling the strings of the perceptible world. All perceptions of the noumenal world, according to Schopenhauer, were mental images created within the human being in response to the underlying Will which surges within her. These mental images were a sort of Fata Morgana - a mirage that is dreamed up within each person to represent the imperceptible Will. Only two experiences could bypass these mental mirages and deal with the Will directly - (1) deep meditative experience and (2) the experience of music. Why did Schopenhauer say only music could bypass the Kantian divide rather than other arts such as poetry, sculpting, or painting?
These other art forms work from the mental images - the Fata Morganas - that we find in the realm of immediate sense experience or memory and combine into ideal images for the artwork. When we are confronted by the finished product of these arts, we can clearly identify how they have translated such images into forms which distort, distill, diminish or deepen their meanings. Music, however, does not rely on the human mental images in the same way. Rather, music, with her rhythm, notes, melodies (Melos) and harmonies - are direct expressions of the universal Will which bypass the mental images needed for all other artwork. In this way, Schopenhauer came to intuitively understand the numinous 'superiority' of the musical aesthetic. Yet, as is all too common for philosophers of the modern age, he did not reflect on that intuitive knowing so as to deepen its own meaning.
In such reflection, he would have come to realize that it is precisely when intuitive thought permeates the universal Will that we are brought to the shores of the noumenal aesthetic. That is when we come to know that the musical relations do not refer to anything outside of their own relations. Without this simple realization, the deep connection between the music we hear in waking consciousness and the profound sense of curiosity, wonder, courage, and homecoming which it stirs up within our souls is left at the lowest possible resolution - the connection can be said to exist, but we are left with no clue as to why or how. That all changes when the intuitive ideal element is allowed to take its rightful place in our conscious awareness and enrich the marriage of the questioning Soul with the answering Spirit. That thoughtful process of enrichment was the primary focus of a later German idealist who had much to say about and contribute to the aesthetics of Spirit and Soul.
Musical creations, however, must be generated anew again and again. They flow onward in the surge and swell of their harmonies and melodies, a reflection of the soul, which in its incarnations must always experience itself anew in the onward-flowing stream of time. Just as the human soul is an evolving entity, so its reflection here on earth is a flowing one. The deep effect of music is due to this kinship. Just as the human soul flows downward from its home... so do its shadows; the tones, the harmonies. Hence the intimate effect of music on the soul. Out of music the most primordial kinship speaks to the soul; in the most inwardly deep sense, sounds of home rebound from it. From the soul's primeval home, the spiritual world, the sounds of music are borne across to us and speak comfortingly and encouragingly to us in surging melodies and harmonies. - Rudolf Steiner, The Inner Nature of Music and the Experience of Tone (1906)
Steiner also perceived what Emerson truly meant by the "mute music" and what Pythagoras also meant when he said much earlier, "there is music in the spacing of the spheres." The modern age has turned the world upside-down and cleaved it in two, so that every essential process is perceived in the opposite orientation of its spiritual meaning. We then assume the "musical element lies in the notes", when in reality, "the notes are not the music... just as the human body is not the soul". Instead, "the music lies between the notes... we only need the notes in order that something may lie between them". That is, the notes are only the outer expression of music's essential interior meaning, and the real music "is what [we] do not hear!". Musicians know this wisdom intuitively and they refer to it in terms of "intervals" and "tonality", which express the relations between different pitches of tones and, more essentially, what happens in-between those tone-pitches.
Tone-decay and irrational intervallic equidistance are problematic insofar as they bring a deadening element into physically sounding music. But one might well ask, “Who cares?” For art is not about external physical conditions; rather, it transforms matter into an appearance of archetypal beauty. A good pianist produces a beautiful semblance of legato, which satisfies the listener. And the benefits of equal temperament far outweigh the imperfections that listening, guided by musical intentionality, is perfectly able to adjust and correct. Artistry and actively qualitative listening erase the problems posed by the physical instrumental parameters. Indeed. But how does artistic transformation or transcendence actually happen? Transformation of the given is not effected through ‘blind faith’ in the power of music to transcend all external limitations, but through consciousness... The darkness is not absolute: upon waking we remember nothing of form, content or activity belonging to the unconscious periods of sleep; but we remember that intervals of (seeming) nothingness did transpire between the content-filled dreams. We remember that we were in Lethe, in a condition of forgetfulness; and because this memory is contentless, it is a negative memory. We remember having forgotten. - Danaë Killian-O’Callaghan, Unveiling the Melodic Interval: A phenomenology of the musical element in human consciousness
(discussion continued in Part II)