Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan

It is testimony to the strong hold of the Augustinian picture in our life that we even say of music that it necessarily ‘points to something beyond itself’. Of course, one is not preoccupied with this thought as one listens to music, much less when ones dances to it or with it; nonetheless, we do seek to explain the meaning of music, and this by means of philosophy terms and concepts, and so it is natural to want to say this. For there is similarity between music and language. Superficially, it does not strain the mind to conceive of music notes as words, melodies as phrases, or symphonies as sentences. Nor, therefore, to take the next step, to conceive of the ‘meaning’ of music as something extra-musical. The model is already familiar to us by now: Here is the money, there is the cow I buy with it. Name and object. But if we choose to assimilate music and the Augustinian picture we should be inclined to ask: what object?

What could this extra-musical something possibly be in a particular case? That no material object is immediately forthcoming doesn’t deter us in the least. For we simply add that music points beyond itself, and swirl our hands upward. We may even develop this thought and claim that music is ‘transcendent’ or ‘spiritual’. Yet, are we aware here of our unconscious adherence to the Augustinian picture? Where music suggests an object and there is none, we are strongly inclined to say: there is a spirit. Compare this with Investigations, remark 36: ‘…because we cannot specify any one bodily action which we call pointing to the shape (as opposed, for example, to the colour), we say that a spiritual activity corresponds to these words…Where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit‘. It is mistaken to suppose that a spirit is present when language suggests a body and there is none. Why? Pointing is a bodily act, although it is not as a bodily act that pointing to the colour is distinguished. Much less pointing by a sort of abstract substance, like a spirit. In the case of music, it seems we have music and referential failure. But we press on undeterred and say that music points to something abstract, immaterial.

The purpose of music, if it makes sense to speak thus, is not to ‘point’ to anything. Compare music to dance. What is the purpose of dance, broadly understood? Well, one dances to occupy a particular place on the floor. I make this step and move here, make another step and move further there, and so on for the duration of the routine (or, until the music lasts). And if I have a partner, we move in tandem, together thus-and-so through action and reaction. The purpose of dance is to represent itself in space, as it were. The meaning is the position in space it refers to. This seems quite wrong. When you dance, your purpose is not to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way. Similarly, when we listen to or play music, our purpose is not to arrive at a certain place (e.g., the final cadence). It is to enjoy the way itself. We are the way and the wayfarers.

The meaning of music can be as little severed from the music itself as expressive playing can be severed from the passage that carries it. And when one listens to music, it is the same: one becomes as expression as one who lives in a solilquoy or a conversation. One lives as the music.