The Musical Universe

Peter Kalkavage makes an important observation about “the musical universe”:

We love music because of how it makes us feel. We listen to some works more than others because we want to experience the feelings they stir in us. But feeling is not primary in music, nor is it always the reason why we listen. Most of the time we listen to a piece of music because, well, we want to hear it. We take pleasure in the hearing. But the pleasure is not in the pleasure, as though music were a drug used only to produce a “rush.” The pleasure is in what we are hearing, in the distinctive aisthêton or object of perception. Sometimes we listen to a musical work because we wish to hear a quality or perfection that is present in it. We listen for the sake of an active, even strenuous, contemplation in which we participate in, are one with, the life and shape of the musical object. To be sure, feelings are aroused, but these are grounded in, and prompted by, what we perceive in the tones, in what is there in the phenomenon we call music. We might say that in responding to music we perceive feelingly and feel perceptively. But in saying this, we must bear in mind that perception is primary. We do not, except incidentally, hear musical sounds and associate them with various feelings, images, or experiences. On the contrary, we perceive what is there and take on the condition that rhythms and tones communicate to us. [See Victor Zuckerkandl, “Words and Tones in Song,” Chapter 3 of Man, the Musician, Bollingen Series, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 31-43.]

Kalkavage then quotes Paul Valery, from whose lecture (“Poetry and Abstract Thought”) he took the phrase:

The musician is … in possession of a perfect system of well-defined means which exactly match sensations with acts. From this it results that music has formed a domain absolutely its own. The world of the art of music, a world of sounds, is distinct from the world of noises. Whereas a noise merely rouses in us some isolated event—a dog, a door, a motor car—a sound evokes, of itself, the musical universe. If, in this hall, where I am speaking to you and where you hear the noise of my voice, a tuning fork or a well-tempered instrument began to vibrate, you would at once, as soon as you were affected by this pure and exceptional noise that cannot be confused with others, have the sensation of a beginning, the beginning of a world; a quite different atmosphere would immediately be created, a new order would arise, and you yourselves would unconsciously organize yourselves to receive it. [The lecture can be found in Paul Valéry, An Anthology, Bollingen Series, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 136-165.]

I find this highly interesting because of the uncanny way that the musical universe of Rush is evoked for me at many points whenever I listen to the new Dream Theater album.

When I hear the interplay between guitar and drums on “The Looking Glass,” for example, the world of “Limelight” is evoked for me; or when I hear “Surrender to Reason,” the world of “Natural Science” is evoked for me. Either way, I enter into a Rush-like universe.

Kalkavage describes the experience well when he says that what gives me please is “the distinctive aisthêton or object of perception”, because what is happening is that I am not feeling certain things created by Rush-like noises. Instead, I perceive a Rush-like “musical universe” that is only indirectly evoked by some musical activity that takes my perception there—which then brings about certain magical feelings.

There are no direct quotations of Rush; there is only a display of a highly refined musical sensibility (all hail the gentlemen of Dream Theater!) that is able to perceive a certain musical universe of meaning, and then to take me there—me, along for the ride.

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