Part I: Benson on The Voice of the Other

In chapter 5 of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Benson engages in a discussion of the “other” in a section called, “The Voice of the Other.” He begins by briefly introducing Emmanuel Levinas who sees philosophy as “suppressing or transmuting the alterity of all that is Other.” In addition, Levinas claims that a desire for autonomy fuels the desire to suppress otherness. If we consider Kant’s view of the free and highly individualistic artistic genius along with his views of morality which center on autonomy, Levinas’ claim is strengthened. In other words, for the artistic genius to manifest her genius, she must be completely free—“unfettered.” As Benson explains, Kant sees this kind of free, autonomous space as something positive, as it establishes the conditions necessary for artistic creativity. Levinas, however, views this autonomy as dangerous because one person’s freedom comes at the expense of the other’s freedom. From another perspective, we might say that for Kant freedom is construed negatively, i.e., freedom is not being constrained by another, whereas, for Levinas, a certain constraint by the other is a positive thing (p. 165).

Relating this back to our musical dialogue, we recall that on the Werktreue paradigm, the composer is privileged and the emphasis is on re-creating “authorial intention.” With the Werktreue model, it is clear that the performer (as well as listener) is the suppressed other. So what might serve as an answer to the “autonomous monologue” of the Werktreue ideal? As Benson notes, some might suggest an existentialist antidote of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit). Here Benson makes a helpful connection between a practice of the romantic (musical) performance tradition with Heidegger’s notion of Eigentlichkeit. In the romantic tradition, performers are told to “make the piece your own.” For Heidegger, to be eigentlich means to “be yourself” which is of course tied in with authenticity. In one sense, this is of course good advice for a musician to follow, however, “the problem is that the structure of Eigentlichkeit is all too close to that of Kant’s autonomy. When Heidegger says that ‘understanding is either authentic, arising out of one’s own Self as such, or inauthentic,’ it is hard to distinguish this sense of authenticity from Kant’s account of autonomy. For, in both cases, the self is not merely supposed to be the principle but the sole determining factor” (p. 166). Thus, going with the strict Eigentlichkeit model, the performer is privileged and the alterity of the composer and listener is denied (think of Paganini and the virtuoso tradition). Instead of privileging any one of these three, Benson suggests we listen to Levinas, who says “to approach the Other is to put into question my freedom, my spontaneity,” as well as Gadamer, whose (in our context) ideal composer, performer and listener is open to the other who “breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand” (pp. 166-67). Benson then adds, “to treat the other as other requires that I recognize the other as having a kind of claim on me. Naturally, the kind of claim and the force of that claim depend upon the specific dialogue, for dialogues can be of different sorts and even musical dialogues differ. Yet, to take the other seriously means that I am not simply ‘free’ to do ‘whatever I please’” (p. 167).

More to come…