Philosopher and Musician Annelies Monseré interviewed by Alex King
Annelies Monseré is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Belgium) and a musician. Her philosophical work focuses on definitions of art. Her PhD thesis investigated the metaphilosophical assumptions underlying the project of defining art. Currently, she is working on the implementation of a normative approach to defining art, an approach she defended in her thesis. Annelies has been a recording and performing artist since 2000. Her music has often been described as minimal, dark and experimental. She has put out two LP’s and many EP’s. A third record is to be released soon. Moreover, she has collaborated with other musicians, most notably Jessica Bailiff, and she is currently playing her music with a band. For more, visit Annelies’ Bandcamp Page.
Did your love of music or your love of philosophy (of art) come first?
My love of music, definitely. I have been playing piano since I was nine and have never quit playing music. Although I always have been interested in philosophy and have always been inclined to take a philosophical perspective on issues in general, only during my PhD-years have I been studying and doing philosophy. I have a master’s degree in Painting and in History, but not in Philosophy. When studying History, especially, it became clear that I was more interested in the (philosophical) assumptions underlying historians’ inquiries into the past, than in the past itself. Ironically, maybe, this obsession with people’s (explicit or implicit) assumptions has persisted: my PhD largely consisted of a metaphilosophical investigation into the practice of philosophers of art, more specifically, the metaphilosophical assumptions underlying the project of defining art.
Your philosophical work is on very broad questions in aesthetics rather than on a specific area, like philosophy of film or philosophy of food. Has recording and performing music made you more or less interested in philosophy of music?
I guess recording and performing music hasn’t influenced my philosophical interests that much. Also, I recorded and performed music before I was doing philosophy. When I delve into philosophical literature on food, music or film, I find myself asking the same broad ‘metaphilosophical’ questions I ask in my other work: what is the status of philosophical findings regarding these topics? What motivates these inquiries? Etc.
The topic of ‘covers’, however, is of interest to me, both as a philosopher and as a musician. I have been covering a diverse set of songs: Cranes (which is a kind of ‘new wave’ band), Nirvana, and, most often, traditional folk ballads (mostly inspired by the work of Shirley Collins). As a musician, it is often interesting, but also hard, to determine why it is worthwhile to cover songs. Wanting to ‘improve’ a song seems rather silly and arrogant. And if you just want to project your own artistic ideas onto a song, you might as well write your own songs, etc. I do not believe these are good reasons not to cover a song, yet I think they are challenging. It is also an interesting matter how far one can go in changing a song. When is a cover still a cover? I often skip parts of the lyrics, for example.
More so than recording and performing music, it has been philosophically rewarding to debate issues regarding art status and artistic value with other musicians. It is interesting, but also baffling, to determine that philosophers’ findings regarding artistic value, for example, are so far removed from musicians’ beliefs.
Your music is fairly experimental, and you work on the metaphysics, definitions, and boundaries of art. There would seem to be an obvious connection here. Has your music informed or expanded how you think about these questions?
I think my music is not experimental to a degree that it challenges the boundaries of the domain of music. Arguably, my music satisfies most of the criteria put forward in recent (classificatory) definitions of music. It’s not the experimental component of my music that has informed my philosophical thinking the most. My music is also heavily influenced by traditional folk ballads. I think such folk music is interesting for the philosophy of art in many ways. It does not only invite questions about authorship, but also about art status. It touches on issues such as cultural exclusion and appropriation. These are issues that initially informed my metaphilosophical investigation into definitions of art.
Studies are showing us that gourmet chefs rarely eat gourmet food at home (they often prefer instant noodles, take-out, and so on). Your music strikes me as a kind of gourmet taste: It demands a certain kind of attention and effort on the part of the listener. Do you default to listening to similarly experimental, interesting, demanding music? Or do you default to easy, accessible pop music? Or somewhere in between?
That’s a tricky one. Firstly, I would like to stress that I do not often listen to music that I myself judge to be bad (so I do not have many ‘guilty pleasures’, or – at least – I do not often listen to them). In general, I don’t think I listen to the musical equivalent of ‘instant noodles’. I barely listen to the radio, so I do not know much popular music. (I have no idea what Miley Syrus sounds like, for example. I only know the name from the gossip pages.) When I do hear popular music, I am mostly annoyed by it. But I’m sure I’m missing out on music I would enjoy as well. Anyway, I do not think that music needs to be ultra-demanding to be good. I do listen to quite a lot of ‘indie’ (pop/rock) music, like the Breeders or Folk Implosion. The songs/lyrics/sounds are often quite straightforward. There is also ‘experimental music’ that I do not feel is very demanding, like certain types of drone music, like Labradford or Windy and Carl. So, I definitely do not always listen to extremely demanding or experimental music – although I sometimes do of course. To be honest, when I listen to my own music, I’m often surprised that it is so harsh and demanding – I always imagine it to be smoother than it is. So maybe I am completely out of touch with what is and what is not accepted as easy and accessible music.
Your music is very contemporary and avant-garde, but the melodies and minimal harmonies bear a lot of resemblance to Gregorian chant and medieval church music more generally. Is this intentional? Do you see this as an important element of your music?
I understand what you mean, but there is no intentional reference to Gregorian chants or medieval church music. I think the resemblance stems from the fact that my music is influenced by traditional folk ballads and Nico (well-known as a singer with the Velvet Underground). Moreover, as a musician I do not have concrete aims before I start playing music or writing a song. What I mean by ‘concrete aims’ is, for example, intending to write a song about a specific topic, in a specific genre, and so on. And if I have adopted those aims, I miserably fail at achieving them. For example, I am completely unable to write pop-songs, although I would love to write songs like – say – Kim Deal. Song-writing is a very slow and more unreflective process for me. This all to say that I could not intend for my music to combine experimental sounds with minimal melodies and succeed. I just continually try out different things and choose which ideas to keep and which to throw out. (This working method sharply differs from the way in which I write a philosophy paper. I am very clear about my aims beforehand.) Yet, I do see this combination of experimental sounds and minimal melodies as an important element of my music (as a listener of my own music).
Music, meaning, and language have an interesting relationship that I think your singing brings out in a certain way. Though you sing lyrics, those seem secondary to the use of your voice as an instrument. But without lyrics, it’s hard to see how we get cognitive or propositional content (how we learn anything) from music. Do you think that this is the only way to get propositional content from music? Do you think that music is, in some sense, aimed at helping its listeners learn something new?
In my older band, we played instrumental music, and I still often write instrumental songs. And I think it’s fair to say I started to sing to bring in an extra instrument. So, yes, I feel like I use my voice primarily as another instrument. Yet it does not function in the same way as other musical instruments, even if I want it to. The human voice simply is not a musical instrument (an instrument you can simply pass over to another human being) and words inescapably carry meaning in some way. I personally do not aim to help listeners learn something new. I think I use words to arouse a certain kind of experience, a certain type of pleasure. You can create interesting tensions in combining music and words: I wrote a song about murder, yet I’m quite sure the music does not suggest this theme. But, maybe, this is almost only interesting to me, since, most likely, listeners do not know this (my lyrics tend to be rather ‘vague’ and open).
You’ve argued against reductionist theories of art, i.e., theories that want to reduce a global theory of art to theories of individual arts. Music and the reductionist approach seem like good bedfellows, though, since many plausible theories of art have a tough time accommodating music, and theories of art constructed with music in mind have serious problems accommodating the other arts. Do you think music is deeply different from the other arts in any way? And do you dislike all reductionist views, or just when it comes to wholesale theories of art?
I do not question the significance or relevance of theories of the individual arts per se. I think an adequate theory of music could be very rewarding for musicians, musicologists and so on. I object to the idea that theories of the individual arts is all we need, i.e., we do not need a theory of art. Succinctly put, I argue that the concept of art plays a crucial role in our appreciation, preservation and exhibition of artefacts (cf. Sally Haslanger’s ‘framework concept’). Therefore, I think it is important to focus our philosophical attention on it. I do not necessarily object to this type of reductionism in other fields. I have been reading a bit on ‘trafficking’ and its definition and I found that there were good reasons to focus on smaller, more comprehensible and less confused units, such as prostitution and forced labour. I guess my reasons for rejecting art reductionism are pragmatic or normative. For me, the question is not whether or not art is essentially reducible to smaller units, but whether it is more rewarding or fruitful to focus solely on the smaller units.
Honestly, I do not think that music and painting differ more from each other than, say, architecture and literature. I have not examined this, but, on first sight, I can find no strong arguments in favour of this exceptional status of music within the arts.
Since your music draws on folk and cover bands, would you care to share some recommendations with us?
I’ve uploaded a playlist on YouTube [ed.: linked below] that is, I think, representative of what I listen to and what has inspired me. A few examples of ‘folk’ musicians or interpreters of traditional music are: Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Sybille Baier, Alasdair Roberts, Midwinter. A few examples of minimal music (as in minimal melodies etc., not as in the genre ‘minimalism’) that inspired me are: Movietone, Crescent, Flying Saucer Attack (the so-called ‘Bristol-scene’), Jessica Bailiff, Morton Feldman, Richard Youngs, Nico. As will be quite obvious from the playlist – I still listen to a lot of ‘nineties’ indie music.