Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music

Erik Wallrup. Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music. Abingdon, Oxon & New York: Routledge 2016. (Ashgate 2015.) ISBN 9781472429902 (hardcover), ISBN 9871315568980 (ebook).

The life of the word Stimmung in the history of the aesthetics of music is long and turbulent. The word was – and still is, as this book testifies - involved in the struggle between those who prefer to regard musical comprehension as a process that depends on the activity of the listener, and those who emphasize the agency of a musical work, which ‘tunes’ or ‘attunes’ the listeners prior to any interpretative activity from their side.

But always, through all the struggles, the word has retained its attraction, probably because it seems to promise a mediation between the materiality and the emotionality of music. ‘Die Musik spielt in uns ein Clavichord, das unsre eigne innigste Natur ist’, Herder wrote in 1800 in his famous reply to the thin air of Emmanuel Kant’s aesthetics.

The first main chapter of Erik Wallrup’s Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music accounts for the history of Stimmung – which the author after due considerations chooses to translate with the English term ‘attunement’ – in German writings on music and the aesthetics of music from the late 18th to the early 20th century. This particular focus enables him to re-read and to add valuable new aspects to the interpretation of a great number of the canonical texts in the history of the aesthetics of music: Kant, Schiller, Körner, Herder, Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and many others. It also allows him to present less acknowledged early 20th-century discourses, where the concept is in play.

But the book is more than the history of a concept. The study of the concept of Stimmung in the aesthetics of music is only ‘[o]ne of the aims of the present work …’ (p. 3). The other objective– I would say the central one – is far more philosophically ambitious. Already the book’s subtitle, The Act of Listening to Music, signals that this is more than a historiography and that we will be offered some kind of systematic and philosophically binding account.

The author is convinced that through the philosophy of Heidegger Stimmung was transformed into a genuine philosophical concept with the potential of elucidating ‘the act of listening’, and in the preface he explains that he intends ‘to investigate the possibilities of transferring Heidegger’s concept of Stimmung, in all its complexity, to a musical context’ (p. 5). It is his conviction that ‘[t]hrough Martin Heidegger’s thinking … [we] can relate to music in a new way, or, rather, better understand one of the most common ways of listening to music’ (p. 69). But he is also well aware that this is not an obvious option since Stimmung in Heidegger is neither an aesthetical category nor linked to music. Stimmung is a fundamental category in Heidegger’s philosophy of being, and in him we see no move in the direction of an application on the music or listening. The author acknowledges this but recognizes no ‘formal obstacles for transposing Heidegger’s hidden system of attunement to music, even if Heidegger himself is totally uninterested in, or even hostile to, such a manoeuvre’ (p. 93). The elucidation of this ‘hidden system’ through a wide-ranging reading in Heidegger and secondary sources is presented in the central second chapter of the book.

The absence of an obvious and elaborated connection between Stimmung, music, and musical experiencein Heidegger necessitates a number of thoughtful intellectual steps to realize the desired ‘transposition’.

These are the issue of the book’s third chapter. Here the author investigates how literary scholars have brought the concept in play in their field of study. Focus is on the elusive character of Stimmung observed also by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, who stated that the ‘uniqueness’ and ‘non-semantic substance’ of Stimmungen made him skeptical to theoretical explanations of the phenomenon. The best option, according to Gumbrecht, is ‘to try to describe what we get wrapped into when we read a specific literary text’ (p. 114). The author follows the same path; Musical Stimmung cannot be subjected to theoretical explication stricto sensu,and traditional, structural analysis does not add to our understanding of the phenomenon. What we can do is to allow the music to attune us and to give verbal testimony to the experience. The author, however, is not as reluctant as Gumbrecht when it comes to possible guidelines for this testimony.

The elaboration of these guidelines draws heavily on Heidegger’s Ursprung des Kunstwerkes and particularly on the concept ‘Welt’ [world] as it is known in this work’s discussion of the twin concepts ‘Welt’ and ‘Erde’ [Soil]. The attunemental listening, of which testimony can be given, is ‘not directly focused on the attunement because, had it thus been, the attunement would have disappeared. Instead, the act of listening will give a testimony of how the world is worlding, that is, it will not describe the world but testify to its worlding’ (p. 121). The characteristic idiolectical term ‘worlding’ used here is taken from Ursprung des Kunstwerkes: ‘Welt weltet und ist seiender als das Greifbare und Vernehmbare worin wir uns heimisch glauben’. And also the author’s characteristic way of connecting the category of the art work with the concept of ‘Welt’ is taken from Heidegger: ‘Zum Werksein gehört die Aufstellung einer Welt’.

The attunemental listening is thus participating in the genesis of a musical world, and referring back to his analysis of Heidegger’s Welt und Erde the author proposes a kind of systematics for this listening and/or for giving testimony of it. The worlds of the musical works are – like in the aesthetics of German romanticism – ‘musical worlds’ each of their own kind. But they share four basic dimensions – mutually and with the world that we live in. To belonging to each there is a certain kind of temporality, a certain kind of spatiality, a certain kind of mobility and a certain kind of materiality, and the attunemental listening follow the unfolding of these dimensions as the work unfolds.

The elaboration of these four dimensions follows through the author’s explication of his experiences with the first movement of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, and this attempt to utilize and elaborate a concept of Stimmung in the encounter with particular compositions is continued through a series of works, most of them from the core of the Western canon of classical and contemporary music. A few examples are enough to give an idea of what segment of the repertoire we are talking: Beethoven’s late string quartet op. 132, Bach’s Golberg Variationen, Nono’s string quartet Fragmente Stille – an Diotima, Webern’s Bagatellen op. 9.

This book is distinguished by its attempt to develop its central idea not only through philosophical meditation but also in the encounter with musical works. The high quality of the results of this encounter is beyond doubt. The comments on music in this book are exceptionally well-informed, sensitive and inspiring. But what kind of writing is it? Or more specifically, to what extent is the phenomenological part of the author’s declared approach actually mirrored in his writing on music? Contextual knowledge of many kinds is brought into play, so obviously it is more than testimonies of processes of listening.

Following Heidegger the author situates his work within the field of hermeneutic phenomenology. It is phenomenological ‘since it endeavors to let the phenomenon show itself from itself’ (p. 8). And it is hermeneutical in the philosophical sense given to this term by Heidegger and Gadamer since ‘the hermeneutical perspective is important for the interpretative strategy concerning both texts … and music’ (p. 8). In his elaboration of a strategy for attunemental listening mentioned above, however, he seems to stress the phenomenological dimension. Auscultating musical work as it unfolds is close to observing the phenomenon as it ‘shows itself from itself’.

Here the phenomenological leaning brings the work in line with the ‘anti-hermeneutic’ orientation in some of Gumbrecht’s writings and a strong desire – shared by me – to develop styles of academic writing that escape the academic custom of attributing meaning to cultural artifacts that only to a lesser degree make its effects through meaning. This issue, however, looks a little different in the view of the author. Gumbrecht’s attempt to focus on lyrical aspects of poetry ‘seems to be a release from questions of interpretation and meaning in literature’ (p. 136), but in music the move seems to be in the opposite direction. This ‘paradox was also to be found in the understanding of what ‘lyrical’ is: lyrical poetry is attracted to the state of music, and lyrical pieces in music are attracted to a poetic state. So when Gumbrecht says that that Stimmungen in literature have a non-semantic substance, out of reach of hermeneutic excesses, the old paradox comes back in new guises, because in the musicological understanding of Stimmung that phenomenon is thought to come close to some kind of meaning’ (p. 137). It is thus possible for the author to argue ‘that being attuned is not opposed to understanding: instead it also means beginning to understand’ (p.137).

Still I read the exposition of the concept of Stimmung as a promise of the ‘release from questions of interpretation and meaning’ and of an approach that avoids the ‘distancing inclination’ of traditional musical analysis as well as of ‘methods of interpreting music through hermeneutics, semiotics and critical theory…’ (p. 112). But honestly, I am in doubt if this promise is actually fulfilled. Actually, I am in doubt if it is within the reach of academic writing to fulfill it.

But I am not the least in doubt about the high scholarly quality of what actually is offered. This book is learned in the best sense of the word. An impressive amount of multifarious sources have been studied, sensitively and responsively read, and ingeniously combined. It is also a kind of wild book with changing tempi and constantly new perspectives opening. It is well written, indeed, but also demanding and, I admit, not easy to review. Now and then it is irritating, provoking, and when reading it I grumbled occasionally: if this is an account of the act of listening, then it might be that I am not a listener at all!

 The book sets off with  strong claims of universality. For instance, the headline of the introduction announces the ‘Rediscovery of an Omnipresent Phenomenon’ (p. 1). And the and the body of the text starts like this: ‘Music captivates the listener. And when the listener is captured by music, there seems to be nothings else in the world – the music is world’ (p. 1). I am not sure that I had such un-contradicted ‘other-worldly’ experiences even if I have listened to a lot of music throughout my long life, including music from that Western canon of art music that is celebrated[5]  in this book. From the very start we understand that this book is more than a modest attempt to shed light on some aspects of some listener’s approach to some kinds of music. It is about musical listening as such, and only fairly late in the book it takes issue with its own claim of universality and with its basic orientation toward a mode of musical appreciation with the musical artwork as the dominating agency. I must admit that until this late moment I had the uneasy feeling that I might not be part of the party. I know about musical enchantment, seduction, and surrender. But I am not sure that I have ever been captivated by music – and if so I would probably have done my best to escape the captivity.

Indeed the issue of limitation calls for a lengthy discussion. This is offered only late in the book. The very last chapter takes issue with the cultural limitation through a discussion of Hindustani music and its Western reception. And before this we are confronted with the issue of limitation vis-à-vis theories or ideals of active listening. This happens through the investigation of Luigi Nono’s late string quartet Fragmente Stille: An Diotima. According to the author this work ‘challenges the boundaries of attunement in so many ways that the issue of delimitation will be highlighted’ and invites us to ‘[d]eal with the seemingly irreconcilable opposition between the passivity of the attunemental mode of listening and the activity of the mode of listening that was developed by Nono (in dialogue with the philosopher Massino Cacciari)’ (p.162).

The fragmentary character of Nono’s quartet prevents the attunemental listening, we learn, and it calls for the alternative that Nono and Cacciari baptized ‘listening for the possible’, that is ‘both reflective and productive’, and that ‘depends on a highly active subject, choosing its way through the archipelago of Nono’s late music’ (p. 179). So far so good, but the author doesn’t stop at the ‘seemingly irreconcilable opposition’ but convincingly argues that processes of attunement are in play also here, but now rather on the level of the ‘preconditions’ than in the actual listening, and he concludes slightly enigmatically, ‘This listening for the possible is made possible through attunement. Here, we find a boundary for the concept of attunement, since it does not account for the act of listening demanded and described by Nono and Cacciari, but at the same time it shows that which conditions the mode of possibilities. It is the primordial disposition of that mode which, however, seems to call for an emancipated subject that still has not been seen. Perhaps it has been heard of’ (p. 179).

It is a wise choice to leave open the question of the reality of the imagery of a self-contained subject that partakes critically and dialectically in the construction of musical structure and meaning while listening. Personally I am inclined to the same un-decidedness as far as the imagery of the attuned and captivated listener is concerned. But at the same time I ask myself if an inspiring and committed book like this could have been written without the quest for stronger position-taking and more definite answers.

Bibliografiska data: 

Erik Wallrup. Being Musically Attuned: The Act of Listening to Music. Abingdon, Oxon & New York: Routledge 2016. (Ashgate 2015.) ISBN 9781472429902 (hardcover), ISBN 9871315568980 (ebook).