Part II: Benson on The Voice of the Other

Wanting to avoid a “logic of reciprocity” [echoing Levinas] in which a dialogue turns into a monologue, as when one party sets the terms of reciprocity, Benson turns to Gadamer in order to begin mapping out what a healthy dialogue might look like. According to Gadamer, “good will” toward the other, as opposed to “proving that you are right,” is crucial. Likewise, reciprocity begins “at home,” and involves vulnerability. “True reciprocity is only possible if I make the first move—without knowing that the other will reciprocate” (The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 168). Once this “move” is made, then what? Here Gadamer introduces the metaphor of a “fusion of horizons” (Horizontverschmelzung) to help explicate this relationship with the other. In terms of successful musical dialogue, we might say that “communication takes place when the ‘horizon’ (or perspective) of the listener ‘fuses’ (or, perhaps better, ‘connects’) with that of the performer, composer, and tradition. The score and/or composer has one sort of horizon (temporally, culturally, musically, and perhaps otherwise) and performers and listeners have yet other horizons. The goal, then, is a ‘fusion’ of these horizons to enable a genuine dialogue” (p. 168). However, the downside of this metaphor is that perhaps in the fusing of these horizons, “the ‘otherness’ of the other is lost,” and we are back to one voice (p. 169). Though it is the case, e.g., that in an orchestra the many voices must blend into one voice, we still desire a situation in which the individual voices or instruments retain their individuality. As Benson noted in a previous chapter, “it is all too easy to impose our own horizon and then proclaim it as the ‘authentic’ horizon of the past. To be honest, performers always face this reality. The goal of the composer, performer, and listener seeking a genuine dialogue, then, is both to be aware of this danger and to be creative in allowing each party to have a real voice” (p. 169). Yet, we might also point out that perhaps our situation is not as bad as it seems. After all “since my horizon is never truly ‘mine’ (given that I am part of a culture—both musically and in general—that I do not possess and cannot control), then ‘my’ horizon is always a shared horizon and is always affected by otherness” (p. 169).

If a true fusing of horizons takes place between the composer, the work, and the performer (as well as the audience), then in what sense is composer’s voice still heard? As Benson astutely observes, “music has no existence apart from the voices of the conversation” (p. 170). Though it has been common in the classical music tradition following the Werktrue model to attempt to let the music “speak for itself,” this is in reality impossible. The composer must allow the performer to be his/her representative, thus interpretation of the work by the performer (who is also part of a musical tradition) is inevitable. “A text can only mean by way of the act of interpretation and a score can only sound through a performance. […] But that in no way means that the interpreter simply (as Gadamer puts it in a later text) ‘disappears—and the text speaks.’ For, in speaking on behalf of the composer (and the musical tradition), the performer does not simply disappear” (p. 170). Here Benson introduces an interesting analogy to help us think through how we should understand the relationship between composer, work, and performer. Just as stringed instruments are tuned on the basis of tension, “so the relationship of musical partners depends on tension to be maintained. On the one hand, as composer or performer or listener I open myself to the other when I feel the pull of the other that demands my respect. On the other hand, my openness to the other cannot be simply a complete giving in to the other, for then I am no longer myself and am instead simply absorbed by the other. Thus, a dialogue can only be maintained if there is a pull exerted by both sides. The danger for genuine dialogue, then, is not the presence of tension but its loss or imbalance. A dialogue is only possible when each partner both holds the others in tension—that is, holds the other accountable—and feels the tension of accountability exerted by the other. As strange as that may sound, these ‘tensions’ actually make the ‘freedom’ of dialogue possible. Why that sounds strange is because we usually think of freedom as ‘negative freedom’—freedom from constraints. But what I have in mind here is ‘positive freedom’—freedom for genuine dialogue. Of course, in order to ‘feel that pull,’ one needs to be able to listen to the other” (pp. 170-171).