Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

JAAC X AFB: Hollow Sounds



What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Daryl Jamieson, “Hollow Sounds: Toward a Zen‐Derived Aesthetics of Contemporary Music” which you can find in the current issue of JAAC.

Losing yourself in the experience of listening to – or playing – is an experience that many (most?) people will have had at some point in their lives. It can be life-changing. For a child just dabbling in music, having a transcendent experience like that can turn her on to a career. Or it could turn someone into a lifelong fan of the musician or genre of music that they were listening to when it occurred.

I can recall several such experiences: the first time I heard an orchestra live in my school auditorium (playing Akasha (Sky) by Glenn Buhr, if I recall correctly), dancing all night at London clubs with particularly good DJs, the full-frontal assault of analogue Japanese noise music, both times I have been present at live performances of Feldman’s more-than-six-hour-long String Quartet N°2, the weirdly-erotic ritualism of Wagner’s Parsifal, and the shock of encountering the 15th-century Matteo da Perugia’s sublimely complex Le greygnour bein. I could go on…

I’ve been composing since before I knew what a composer was, and naturally, having had many of these transcendent experiences with music myself, my own goal as a composer is to write music that has this effect on listeners (and performers). I came to aesthetics as a discipline late in this quest, having stumbled my way (basically self-taught) through political philosophy and queer theory in university, and getting into Buddhist philosophy as a way to understanding Nō theater. From learning about Dōgen and medieval Buddhist thinkers, I naturally got into the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic philosophy of more modern Japanese philosophers. I was especially intrigued by the Kyoto School, a loose association of thinkers based around Kyoto University whose founding figurehead was Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945). In their writings on art, flowers, and especially poetry, these philosophers greatly influenced my own musical craft. They were writing about art’s transcendental power as an aid to religious experience and sometimes as a substitute path to enlightenment.

But I began to notice something odd: none of these philosophers – or any other major Japanese philosopher – had written anything substantial about music.

* * * * *

The paper that I’ve just published in the Journal for Aesthetics and Art Criticism is my preliminary attempt to sketch some ideas about how to fill this gap in the literature. Obviously, I’m not Japanese, nor a philosopher, but my aim is to use Japanese aesthetic tools developed for other art forms to talk about music. I base my theory on the third-generation Kyoto School philosopher Ueda Shizuteru (1926-) whose aesthetics revolves around poetry and his philosophy of language.

To begin with, his theory of being largely jibes with Mahāyāna Buddhist thought stretching back all the way to the 2nd-century Indian philosopher Nāgārjuna. On this view, nothing exists independently of other things. Being is exclusively relational (usually referred to in English as dependent origination), and ultimate reality is empty. In other words, there is no permanent, independent existence of anything. (This is well and concisely explained on Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri’s History of Philosophy in India podcast.) Via evolution, humans have adapted to deal with the absolute emptiness of all things by superimposing our own fabricated version of reality onto the world. (Interestingly, evolutionary psychology may even back this insight up – see, for example, evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True for a non-academic look at the correspondences between Buddhist and contemporary scientific conceptions of self.)

Ueda terms this layering of our perceived reality atop the true reality a ‘hollow expanse’, referring to it as a twofold-being-in-the-world. (There’s a Heidegger pun there; the Kyoto school as a whole is highly indebted to German philosophy and Heidegger in particular.) To be clear, then, Ueda – and basically all Mahāyāna Buddhism – believes that emptiness is the ground of all things, and that human (animal) brains perceive a limited, false, conventional reality which allows us to get by in the everyday world and interact with the other beings in it.

Back to language. Ueda says that language is the tool by which we create our conventional (false) world and our conventional (false) narratives that allow us to make it through the day. When we perceive something, we name it, and that thing is manifested in our mind’s eye. Every perception we have passes through this filter of language, and likewise when we read something or hear a story told, we also manifest those words as perceptions. You might think of what we call ‘vivid narratives’ – a phrase that captures how a good storyteller gives you all the details to manifest a mental image that seems as real as reality. Or, more precisely, as real as the false narrative that is conventional reality.

Ueda divides language into three registers: sign, symbol, and hollow. Signs manifest exactly what they say: you read the word ‘moonlight’, and your mind’s eye pictures the pale white light cast by the moon. Symbols manifest larger narratives beyond simple word–to–image correspondence. For example, the phrase ‘empty boat’ surely conjures up an empty boat (thus functioning as a sign), but might also (functioning now as a symbol) set off a series of questions and explorations: Why is the boat empty? What was it filled with, or what was it expected to be filled with? Whose boat is it? How do they feel about the emptiness? Why should I care about either the boat or its lack of cargo?

Signs and symbols manifest things that exist in conventional reality, but hollow words manifest things that are not generally agreed to exist in conventional reality. These are absurd things, supernatural things, paradoxical things, religious things. An old Zen saying goes: ‘I loaded my empty boat full of moonlight / and came home’. This relies on a double meaning for the word load: you can load a word with meaning, and load a boat with goods, but these two loads do not have the same meaning, and you cannot load a boat with moonlight in the normal course of conventional reality. This is the hollow register: it’s useful for questioning the limits evolution has imposed on our sense organs and brains, and it’s also useful for jokes and art.

* * * * *

So, finally, to music, ostensibly the subject of this post and the article. (Readers be forewarned: for better or for worse, the article has a similar ratio of philosophical background to musical discussion as this post.) Leaving aside the still-contentious question of whether music is a form of language or not, in the paper I make the claim that Ueda’s three-register categorization of language can be usefully appropriated for discussions of music. In music, signs are the basic timbral elements of sound. For example, the sound of a string quartet is recognizable as such and manifests the image of a string quartet in your in your mind when you hear one. Sounds in field recordings, too, or musique concrète manifest what was recorded, so long as they are familiar to the listener and not extensively manipulated. Symbols in music manifest ideas or larger accepted social conventions: minor = sad, for instance, and we could look at any other generic conventions. Some symbolic associations have to be learned (Wagnerian leitmotifs, or that a rising minor second indicates an approaching great white shark), but in this, musical symbols are no different than linguistic ones.

Hollow sounds, mirroring Ueda’s hollow words, are those sounds which break with conventional reality, either by being radically new in timbre, or in breaking the conventions of the genre the music has established itself to be in. Learned genre expectations are not a reality of course; they are subtly different depending on every listener’s personal listening experiences. But this is part of the point, since each person’s version of conventional reality itself is also contingent on their life experiences. Furthermore, by breaking those conventions, hollow sounds in music (much like hollow words) open up the listener’s mind, allowing them to glimpse the possibility of something beyond the conventional definitions of ‘reality’.

One way for composers to more reliably achieve this effect on listeners is through length. If a piece is at least 30 (or so) minutes long, the listener has enough time to become used to the piece’s soundworld, and thus be more reliably taken into the hollow world when a significant change occurs. The history of music is littered with examples of this technique. One is the 2015 Duet for Cello and Orchestra by Cassandra Miller, which features a stunning example of textural change in the final minutes (though you’ll have to buy the disc to hear it since only the opening is online). Most of middle- and late-period Morton Feldman is like this, too (for one example, check out Patterns in a Chromatic Field). And so is a lot of Wagner, when the leitmotifs are combined in unexpected ways. I’d even say the Baroque convention of writing an entire piece in minor mode but ending with a major cadence could qualify (depending in part how much one is expecting the shift). One very famous example of the latter would be Allegri’s Miserere mei, which also achieves a hollowness with the sublime treble high-C, which seems to defy the expected choral range, coming out of nowhere and just hanging in ethereal emptiness.

In the paper I spend some time comparing Ueda’s three levels to topic theory (a certain approach to music classification) and to 19th-century Idealism. Despite some overlap, there are, I believe, significant differences between Ueda’s own view and those Western ways of listening to and interpreting music. In addition, though I focus on contemporary classical music, my theory of hollow sounds is useful for talking about a wide variety of musics in a way that addresses the spiritual dimension of music without recourse to religion, and with both millennia of Asian philosophical insight and decades of Western psychology backing up its foundational empty ground.

The last main part of the paper before the coda is an analysis of one of my favorite Feldman pieces: not the mammoth second string quartet, but his beautifully intimate 1970 septet Viola in my life (2). It’s a great piece for illustrating the interplay between conventional and hollow sounds, and how to effectively mix them in a single work. You’ll have to read the paper to see exactly what I mean by that, but you can enjoy listening to the piece itself right now.


Notes on the Contributor
Daryl Jamieson (b. 1980) is based in Kamakura, Japan. After studying in Canada and the UK, he spent a post-doctoral year in Tokyo, studying with Jo Kondo. In 2018, he received the Toshi Ichiyanagi Contemporary Prize for the third of his Vanitas trilogy of music-theatre pieces. Whether composing for Japanese or western instruments, Jamieson’s music is heavily influenced by his study of Nō theatre. His music has been widely performed, and is published by Da Vinci Edition. In addition to composing, he also co-founded the intercultural music theatre company ‘atelier jaku’, and is active as a researcher. He writes on the aesthetics of the Kyoto School of 20th-century Japanese philosophers, as well as contemporary music and spirituality.

Image credit: “empty” by Victor Bezrukov
Edited by Alex King

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