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Performing Philosophy: Interview with Professor Lydia Goehr

Profesorka Lydia Goehr vyučuje historii estetické teorie, současnou filosofii umění a filosofii dějin na Columbia University v New Yorku. Kromě řady článků věnovaných filosofii hudby, dílu T. W. Adorna, M. Merlaeu-Pontyho a A. Danta je autorkou knih The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992), The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy (1998) a Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory (2008) a spolueditorkou sborníku The Don Giovanni Moment. Essays on the legacy of an Opera (2006).
Before entering your field, philosophy of music, I would like to ask you one introductory question. You come from a family of musicians and, if I am not wrong, you also first studied music. What brought you then to philosophy?

I began as a violinist. I was very serious about violin playing and wanted to play the violin. But I wasn´t good enough to pursue it as a career and, more, I was completely unable to perform in front of anyone. I had stage fright all of the time. It´s incredible to think of it, because when I turned to philosophy, this was rarely my problem. When lecturing you always have the power to correct mistakes; when performing, you do not. I actually ended up writing about this theme: what it means to perform correctly when you perform musical works. In improvisations, there are different standards of correctness; when performing musical works, you have to do what the score says. Anyway, I came to philosophy because I was always very serious about my scholarship. After one class in philosophy, I knew what I would do in my life. Someone told me once to read an article in the philosophy of music. I laughed so much reading it, with all its abstractions from anything I knew then about music, that I decided to enter that field.

You are among a few philosophers who wrote about the problem of examples in philosophical theories. You argued that there is something wrong with the very idea of giving examples and counter-examples. Can you explain this?

In my first project, which resulted in The Imaginary Museum, one of my arguments was against the way that examples are used to confirm and refute theories. If you take something, as I did, like the concept of musical work and you try according to an Anglo-American methodology or an essentialist approach to describe the essential characteristics of musical works, or their necessary and sufficient conditions, then you will choose examples that best fit the definition. Other theorists will then come along and choose examples that don´t fit. But I argued that much is at stake in choosing our examples. I tried to give a different kind of account to show that the examples we choose already says a lot about how the concept is used in a given practice. I was more interested in how concepts emerge historically and how items come to be subsumed by thenthem. When counterexamples are produced, they do not as much refute the definition of a concept as rather expand or potentially change its use. I wanted to show that the counter-example method is an unrevealing method if what we want to understand is how some items and not others come to fit our concepts.

How many sneezes are allowed during a classical concert for the performance to remain a performance of the work?

Well. You can have any number of sneezes if the performance is a strictly circumscribed event which excludes the sounds in the auditorium. You could say that as long as everybody´s playing every note of the score in perfect compliance with a score, then, according to Nelson Goodman´s criteria, there is a performance of the work. But if all these extra sounds, for example if I play on my E string and accidently twang my A string, are included in the identity of the performance, then we might say that a performance had taken place but not of the work that was meant to be performed. Or maybe simply intending to perform the work is enough to secure the identity of the performance. There are different notions of performance. One is strict; others are more lax and allow for “extra” disturbing, accidental, or unintended features. There was once a case in Berlin where they played a very modern piece of very strange noises, but there was a Bach piece being rehearsed in the next room, so that, along the strange sounds, you could hear the strains of Bach. The audience thought that the Bach was part of the performance. At the end of the performance, the performers apologized and said that they would have to repeat it -- since the Bach had ruined it; the audience thought the opposite!

So the extra sounds may disturb the performance, but they also “expose” the concept of work. Is that right?

I am not quite sure what you mean by it exposes something… What you might mean is that the question about sneezes exposes what is at stake in a musical practice regulated by the work-concept. At the beginning of my Imaginary Museum, I list all the instructions: do not chew gum, do not tap your feet, do not fall asleep and so on:  these are institutional instructions that tell you what the work concept demands of you. The work-concept demands more than that ontological conditions be met; it determines a whole range of behaviors and expectations, economic conditions, and so on. You are right: the sneeze does expose something.

According to your book, rather than asking whether this or that are examples or counter-examples, we´d better talk about original and derivative uses of concepts. Could you explain what is gained by this change of perspective?

I can give you a very good example. Somebody in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism has just produced an article that says that there is no work-concept – he doesn´t quite put it in these terms, but effectively in these terms – no work-concept in the field of jazz – that what we expect in jazz, say, improvisation precludes the necessity that there be a work. My argument in The Imaginary Museum is very similar. I say that jazz emerged as a practice and, like many other musical practices in the world, doesn’t need a work-concept. You can do perfectly well in music without a work-concept; you could do perfectly well in the eighteenth century without a work-concept; you can do perfectly well now without a work concept – more or less. But what I also argued in my book was that once the work-concept emerged in a high practice and started to regulate the practice of classical music, there was a motivation and a desire on the part of other kinds of musicians, jazz musicians and so on, to make it look as if what they were doing was more or less the same as what classical musicians were doing. So they borrowed the work-concept and took it into their own practice, even though there wasn´t always a natural fit with their other conditions. So I say that though there might not be a natural or original work-concept in the field of jazz, there might be a concept that nevertheless is made to suit what they want to achieve; and in some cases, the adoption of the concept might actually change their practice and perhaps produce interesting tensions within it. In my book, I said that a case like this would be a case of borrowing a concept that at first seems not to fit the practice. But there are all kinds of conditions why you might want to borrow the concept: more status for the “composer”, more money, copyright protection, ownership of your products etc. I called the borrowed concept a derivative concept. I said that it might actually then turn round to bring changes to the original or original uses of the concept. This produces interesting tensions between different musical practices using the “same” concept. On the other hand, nowadays the work concept is used pretty much everywhere so that we think that its particularized substance has been lost. It’s become generic or neutralized of its specific meaning. Certainly its use nowadays is deflated and no longer quite as honorific. And some might think that´s an improvement of its use.

In terms of “regulative” and “open” concepts you formulated a thesis, which has since been much discussed, that the concept of the musical work emerged around 1800. One of the implications was that Bach created works but wasn´t creating them as works. Could you clarify this?

You´ve put it very nicely:  that Bach created works but didn´t create them as works. I put the point in terms of intention, that Bach did not intend to create works because the concept wasn´t yet fully available to him. It was nearly fully available, but not quite. It would need another 50 years or so. This means that Bach could do what he did with different concepts and ideals regulating the practice. But once the work concept fully crystallized around 1800, it was possible to look back and repackage his music as works – in terms of opus numbers and the like. Some would say that, before 1800, there were implicit works that had not yet been made explicit, but that claim only makes sense from a retroactive historical standpoint.

So this is one, but there is yet another, kind of derivative use and that is when the work-concept is applied self-referentially by an artist who at the same time aspires to oppose it. You talk about this figure for example when analyzing the claims, practice and reception of the Darmstadt school. Could you explain the conceptual trap which is in play here?

I focused in my first book on the figure of John Cage. In the period of the 1940´s, 50´s and 60´s there was a very strong reaction to the dominant work-concept and how it was over-dominating classical practice. People treated the concept as coming from Europe – and at worst from Germany – to America and America wanted to free itself from Old Europe and that meant from the authority of its concepts. Europe wanted to free itself, too, of course – especially in Darmstadt! Cage wanted to produce anti-works and to open up performances to allow more radical experimentalism, to allow for improvisation. Everyone spoke then about being “anti” art. But the only way you could be anti-art was to be already accepted as an artist in the artworld. Duchamp had to prove himself an artist before his anti-art could be taken seriously. Cage too. But this led to a certain sort of paradox. Cage wanted to change all the conditions associated with work production, but claim nevertheless to own his works, thereby getting the protection of copyright. How can you own 4’ 33”? In my book, I distinguished between material, formal, and institutional challenges to the work-concept. But whatever the challenge, the question is: does the concept remain in place?  I thought about concepts as very thick, as being bound up with all kinds of conditions. I see them now as involving constellations or configurations of conditions, as Walter Benjamin would put it. This means that you might give up one condition, but this won’t always or ever be enough to undermine the authority of the concept. It’s hard to get rid of concepts that have so strongly or authoritatively structured our practices.

I guess you heard about 4’ 33” before actually “hearing” it?


Do you remember ever encountering a “conceptual” work without having any prior knowledge of it?

I once went down to Times Square with Arthur Danto. We were standing in the middle of the street and he said “Can you hear it?” I said “What? I can hear everything but what am I meant to be hearing?” And he told me that there was a piece of installation art by Max Neuhaus called Times Square and that it was a deep hum under the ground. We stood in the middle of Times square, but he had to give me description – this is very important – he had to describe to me what was going on in order for me to be able to select it out as a sound from all the other sounds of the square. I suppose the point of Neuhaus’ work was that people would somehow come across the sound without the description, but I doubt anyone ever has. That might be part of the paradox of this sound installation. You only hear it if you are told to listen for it. In 4’ 33” similarly, if you did not know what was going to happen, you might think that there had been an accident and that the piano wasn’t working or something. How long would you wait before you got the point? That you were meant to be listening to the “silence” around you, everything else going on in the concert hall? You have to come to conceptual art with an educated ear. The innocent ear won’t help you.

Your analyses are in many points influenced by Adorno´s dialectic. But there is one important “and yet” in your writings. You write that you have found a “challenge” to Adorno´s pessimism about contemporary art in what Danto calls “post-historical pluralism”. Can you clarify what this phrase means for you?

When I worked on The Imaginary Museum I knew almost nothing of Adorno’s work.  In my later work, Elective Affinities, I compared Adorno with Danto to try to show how both of them had theses about the end or death of art that nevertheless obliged them to seek the terms of what came after the end or death. If you don´t seek the terms of continuation, what then is the point of continuing to do philosophy? Adorno was much more skeptical than Danto about what came next but that was because Danto was responding to new movements in democratic America and wanted to celebrate the pluralism he saw in these movements and Adorno was responding to the catastrophe of the second Second world World warWar. And yet, Adorno also saw what Danto saw, and Danto saw what Adorno saw which made their pessimisms and optimisms more complicated. In fact, I juxtaposed these two philosophers to produce a dialectical manner mirroring the dialectic of enlightenment. It suited my nature but strained my intellect since I have every optimistic and pessimistic bone in my body. I guess that is why I am always moving between countries and staying on the road – my name “Goehr” means stranger – a stranger always in her home.

Anyway, for Danto, the end of art coincides with the beginning of a period of democracy for art, and it happens in America. Art is now free to look anyway it wants to look, to assume any kind of appearance because it is no longer burdened or disenfranchised by a European teleology of styles that were developed in the bid to find the essence of art. Danto marks art’s end when philosophers – especially himself – came to know art’s essence. His knowledge was based on the idea that art did not have to appear in any specific way to be art, because art was art even when it did not look like art but only like ordinary or commonplace objects. Looking-like did not, Warhol’s art made him realize, constitute art’s essential character. After the end of art, art could now look or embody its meaning any way it wanted to and that is what Danto means by post-historical pluralism. I think the phrase post-historicist pluralism better suits his argument.

In the Preface to your Elective Affinities you wrote that Danto told you one day that your “gaze is too directed toward Europe” and that he challenged you “to think about America”. I find it interesting that he defines the difference by the object of thinking. Have you really changed your gaze since he challenged you to do so?

I really do not know. I think I look in both directions. In Elective Affinities I tried to trace the deutsche-amerikanische Wahlverwandschaften, the German-American affinities, from the early nineteenth century to the present, from Hegel through Tocqueville to the present. I used two different ideas as to what America meant. First there was the European ideal of Amerika with a K – after Kafka; the America of the ever present and new. Then there was the empirical construction of America called the United States. The two ideas have always been in conflict. How can a country that has been around for 250 years, or longer if we take it back to Columbus, be regarded as the future, the new, even as the not-yet existing? I explored the conflict through the work of Adorno and Danto – and through all kinds of pessimisms, optimisms, ideals and humors.

One of the implications of your 1800 thesis is that the concept of extemporization in music was developed in compliance with the work-concept. It is based on the acceptance of precisely defined borders in which “free” interpretation is temporarily allowed. It led you recently to distinguish, in moreProfesorka Lydia Goehr vyučuje historii estetické teorie, současnou filosofii umění a filosofii dějin na Columbia University v New Yorku. Kromě řady článků věnovaných filosofii hudby, dílu T. W. Adorna, M. Merlaeu-Pontyho a A. Danta je autorkou knih The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992), The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy (1998) a Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory (2008) a spolueditorkou sborníku The Don Giovanni Moment. Essays on the legacy of an Opera (2006). general terms, between two different kinds of improvisation, which you called improvisation ex tempore and improvisation impromptu. Could you explain the difference between the two?

I will, but only if I can correct your question.

Of course.

I actually argued Profesorka Lydia Goehr vyučuje historii estetické teorie, současnou filosofii umění a filosofii dějin na Columbia University v New Yorku. Kromě řady článků věnovaných filosofii hudby, dílu T. W. Adorna, M. Merlaeu-Pontyho a A. Danta je autorkou knih The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992), The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy (1998) a Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory (2008) a spolueditorkou sborníku The Don Giovanni Moment. Essays on the legacy of an Opera (2006).in my Imaginary Museum that the concept of improvisation had once been coincident and continuous with musical composition, so that when Mozart composed, he also improvised. When the work-concept emerged and demanded a certain kind of compositional activity, then the concept of improvisation emerged as an antagonistic counter-concept. In this way, improvisation is part of the institution that includes the work concept but I would not say exactly that it complies with it. In much more recent work, however, I have thought more carefully about improvisation. I have just finished an article on the subject. I distinguish two concepts; one from the musical literature that I call improvisation ex tempore, playing from this moment forth; and another from a more general literature of oratory and wit, that I call  improvisation  impromptu. This is the idea of doing something on the spot, especially when one is confronted with an obstacle. We say that when suddenly confronted, one has to improvise a solution and that one has to do it quickly, without thought. One has to have a lot of talent to improvise solutions.  Normally we screw up. This distinction of concepts is connected to my current work, which is exploring the idea of agon or contest. My article on improvisation is about what one needs to do to be a winner in competitive situations. I am involved in a Nietzschean project: on why artists have always competed with each other over their arts and why they have always competed with philosophers of the arts. In improvisational circumstances, there can be a lot of violence; in jazz we call them cutting contests.

I said at the beginning that your field is the philosophy of music. But you are not very content with that name, which seems to imply a kind of one-sided relation between the two terms. You suggest, rather, that between philosophy and music there has long been an "elective affinity," but what do you mean when you refer to doing philosophy as "performing"?

That´s what French philosophers say nowadays! But I would say that I do not perform as such. I rather speak about philosophical thought as a performance or an event in which concepts are unfolded. I’m involved in an Hegelian project to show how concepts unfold abstractly and concretely through socially-mediated conditions. I really do conceptual analysis but as history, genealogy, or archeology. I always said that what Foucault did to sex, I wanted to do to music. But then I became more interested in Adorno, and in his critical approach to dismantling concepts by exposing the authority they have over us. The movement of concepts is for Adorno, as for me, a musical movement dialectically intertwined with the philosophical movement of concepts. Music and philosophy come together in his work, and in mine in this dynamic and critical way.

But Adorno didn´t “perform”…?

Yes, he did and so do I. He also tried to compose music that was in accord with his philosophy but it sounded like a second hand Alban Berg. It´s better than I could do, but it wasn´t first rate. On the other hand, it wasn’t that bad. I wish I could have been such a good musician. But, as I said, I could not play the violin in front of anyone. As a classical violinist, you don’t have the ability to correct as you play. When you speak, you do.

Fortunately for us, no violin is necessary for performing the work-concept. I thank you very much, Lydia, that you found time for this interview.

Rozhovor připravil Robert Roreitner

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