I wrote this for music hum after attending a concert of the International Contemporary Ensemble at St. Paul’s Chapel—and also after attending a lecture by Julia Kristeva. (This last will become important.)
It seems reasonable to claim that the variety of sonic expression offered by a harp—or indeed by any instrument—is difficult to appreciate without having witnessed, in person, at least one performance of the instrument by a master of the practice. Certainly it has been said that the only feasible and trustworthy method of defining the possibility space is to explore it, and in considering the experiential understanding of music this seems to be a compelling argument.
Why, however, this ought to be the case is a question worthy of some investigation. What is it exactly that distinguishes the experience of musical performance from the experience of recorded music? In an age of accelerating and ramifying technological development, deployment, and refinement—and indeed in a society whose interpersonal interactions are increasingly moderated and transformed by the structure of the ever-changing technology that mediates those interactions—what incentives remain that continue to lure otherwise entirely innocent, sedate, and upstanding citizens into the process of transformation that is the creation of the so-called “concert-goer”? What occurs during the process of the concert? In what ways is the concert-goer changed? The performer? What relationships are constructed in the process of the concert’s unfolding (for certainly if the concert itself is anything as an object of study it is to be understood as a process, rather than as an object)? What determines the nature and structure of these relationships? Are they dissolved with the concert’s termination? Can they be reconstituted? What function do they serve in the life of the individual? The society at large?
These are not particularly trivial questions. We will make an attempt—an essai, as Montaigne says—to begin unraveling them. Bridget Kibbey and the International Contemporary Ensemble will assist us, although one can hardly at this stage censure a reader who suspects that the engagement will lead only to more (and perhaps less tractable) questions rather than particular, concise, and satisfying answers. Perhaps that’s all in the game, though; and in any case have a harpist to hear—
2 Bridget Kibbey and the International Contemporary Ensemble
St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University makes for a fairly spectacular venue for almost any manner of performance. The soaring ceilings construct a space above the concert-goer in which, in the pregnant silence between the arrival of the performer and the beginning of the performance, all manner of potential seems to hang, held frozen in a sort of immense and threatening state of suspension. The performer, too, appears frozen, immobile before her instrument: the tension among the concert-goers mounts; the silence is increasingly intolerable; the concert-goers feel the terrible weight of silence, of the future-unknown. What is to become of the performance?—
It begins all at once, jerkily. Pale and slender arms rise to meet the device. The fingers engage the strings, and all at once they begin to speak. The space is filled with an agora of voices: the strings seem to speak independently, of their own volition, indeed occasionally at variance, but all speak at the behest of a hidden hand. Walras lurks everywhere in the shadows. Carter’s Bariolage is true to its name at least in spirit: it unfolds unevenly, first in a great rush, then slowly, cautiously, then rushing again; now forward, now back; never in any moment quite the same as it was before. The unfolding appears on the face of the young harpist as a process of overwhelming jouissance: the music is a construct of the active intellect, but its primary effect is physical-emotional: it is visceral, erotic. The concert-goers are entrapped, made ineluctably complicit by the unspeakable intimacy of the performer’s orgasmic expressions. As the music unfolds, resistance breaks down: through Kibbey, Bariolage urges us to actively and studiously avoid asking that most fruitless of questions, “What is she saying?” —not by saying, “Thou shalt not ask…” but rather by reaching without hesitation, with almost unbearable and ineluctable puissance, into us. The gesture silences all dissent; its prolonged articulation quashes the urge to it.
It overpowers the intellect; it seduces it and defeats it.
3 The catelexis of language
Generally speaking, the exercise of writing about a particular piece of music (or a particular performance) falls into at least one of a handful of reasonably well-explored categories. Enumerating all of these comprehensively is beyond the scope of our essai, but we will discuss three such which are of particular interest.
It can be an exercise in discussing, with others who may or may not have heard the piece or experienced the performance, the characteristics (some appealing, some less so) of the work; that is, it can be an analysis—technical or casual—of the work. It may seek, in order to understand the meaning and impact of the work, to situate it within broader technical (musical) or social-political-economic trends; it may seek to dissect it in order to facilitate the appropriation or reuse of ideas or techniques deployed by the work itself. In any case, this path seeks to understand the work: to explore what it is and is not, what it achieves, where it stands in relation to other works, into which predefined, well-understood categories it falls, and which categories and preconceptions it necessarily or ostensibly breaks. It may additionally, as in the case of a review, urge readers to see the performance, or to avoid it.
It can use precise, technical language to describe the work partially or comprehensively; to attempt, in some way, to reproduce it without sound. In this path, the greater the precision of the language, the greater the accuracy with which a reader with technical training will be able to reproduce the work. The extreme case in this category eschews the grammatical structure of spoken language in favor of a syntax that more naturally reflects the structure of the music being reproduced. The words that comprise the language most convenient for this enterprise map directly onto the set of components that define the musical score.
It can use the language and techniques of poetic or metaphorical writing to attempt to evoke in the reader the same reactions and emotions as were evoked by the work itself.
To understand what it is that makes the experience of performance music distinct both from the experience of recorded music and from other flavors of performance art, let us ask: in what way does recorded music, as well as each of these written forms, fail to have the same effect on the listener or the reader as the performance itself has on the concert-goer?
The first written form fails in the canonical and obvious way: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat” . Analysis, illumination, interpretation, situation, and extension of the work offer new insights and perspectives on its relevance and impact, and place it within the artistic and social-cultural-political-economic conversation of its time and place. It forges for the work an identity and purpose; it transforms it from a process into an object readily recognized, understood, and categorized. The “pleasures of finding things out” appear necessarily to be an extension of plaisir at the expense of jouissance.
But why (again let us ask) should this be the case? Why must the illumination and (and let us here invent a word, because it is fun) ‘accessibilization’ of the mysterious correspond necessarily to a diminution of its phyical-emotive power? The answer is not immediately obvious, and indeed it is not immediately clear that this must always and uniformly be the way of things. But to the extent that the two are in fact commensurate, their connection may be illuminated via exploration of the human desire of the sacred. One might reasonably imagine that the sacred is associated almost universally among human cultures with the perpetually and intrinsically mysterious, the ineffable, indeed the unapproachable and unquestionable: it is after all associated by construction with the sphere of the divine, this last of which was constructed, among other things, to explain those things which could be not explained by observation or mere reasoning—those things that simply were. One might then propose, as Kristeva has done, that the human desire for the sacred is the desire to ‘think’ not in a calculated, rigorous fashion, but simply, emotively, reactively—even viscerally (as it were)—about fundamental questions; questions whose answers, determined severally and separately by each time and society in its own way, form the boundary conditions and set the parameters that define what, exactly, it means to be alive, and human, and a part of a particular society in a particular time . To explain the mysteriously beautiful, then, is to render it mechanized, mortal, timebound: it is to destroy the connection to the divine, the immortal .
The spoken and written language, then—including necessarily all of the forms of writing about music mentioned above—must fail to reproduce the exact impact of the performance on the concert-goer because inherent in the performance is the temporary construction of a sacred space for the shared experience of the mysteriously (and divinely) beautiful. The ages-old taboos apply; control of the space and the function is given over to the performers, who operate as shamanic interpreters, mediums, or sybils seized with fits of divine echolalia, bestowing upon the gathered a taste, forever too fleeting, of something beyond ourselves.
Thus can some reactions against technology, in occasionally useful ways, be understood as reactions against the disruption, mediation, and dilution of the sacred; perhaps, then, the listener of recorded music who closes her eyes while she listens journeys alone on a fruitless quest to regain that which has already been irretrievably lost.
 Sontag, S., 1964: Against interpretation.
 Adams, D. N., as quoted in his eulogy by R. Dawkins, 09/17/2001.
 Kristeva, J., 6 March 2006: Thinking liberty in dark times. Public lecture, Low Rotunda, Columbia University.
 Plato, Symposium.
Of related interest
Attali, J., 1985: Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 3-20.