Part V: Phenomenological Explorations of Music


[See part IV].  This is my concluding post on the “Phenomenological Explorations of Music” series.

Having examined the calculated aspects of jazz improvisation, as well as highlighting the some of the ways in which improvisation and places of indeterminacy emerge and exist in classical music, I now turn to discuss (by way of Benson’s insights), the idea that a sharp dichotomy exists between the work and its performance.  In chapter four (“The Ergon within the Energeia“) of his book, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Benson discusses the ways in which a musical ergon or product both emerges from musical energeia or activity, and yet this ergon “still remains within the play of musical energeia” and cannot be separated from it.  In other words, Benson believes that given the fuzzy boundaries between composition and improvisation, coupled with the unavoidable presence of interpretation involved in performances and the on-going nature of musical traditions, perhaps musical works are more properly described in dynamic rather than static terms.  Benson even goes so far as to say that

the telos of music making cannot be defined simply in terms of the creation of musical works, or even primarily so.  Instead the work becomes a means to the end of making music, not an end in itself.  [Likewise], if the work exists within the play of musical energeia, then it cannot be seen as autonomous or detached.  Like a living organism, it is ever in motion and constantly in need of care and infusions of new life to keep it alive.[1]

One of Benson’s goals in this chapter is to attempt to explain “this elusive thing that exists within musical energeia,” and in order to do so he dialogues with Roman Ingarden’s position.  Ingarden’s fundamental assumption is that “there is not merely an accidental but an essential separation between the work and its written and aural expressions.”[2] Ingarden takes this route because he is concerned to preserve a kind of superhistorical ergon that remains untouched by the energia of actual music performance through the course of time.  However, as Benson points out, Ingarden himself, being a good phenomenologist, is aware of tensions within his own position, which makes his contribution highly instructive.[3]  First, Ingarden begins by asking, what is relation between the work and the score?  According to Ingarden, the score preserves the work and helps to maintain its identity.[4] Yet, Ingarden (as was the case with Cone) admits that the score does not exhaust the work and merely relates aspects of the work-the score functions as a kind of “schema.”  If we acknowledge both that the score maintains the identity of the work in some sense, and yet the score does fully circumscribe the work, then we are pressed to ask, what then is the “something more” that the score fails to capture?  To this question, Benson adds, “[i]s there something that guarantees the identity of this surplus that goes beyond the score?  Moreover, what connection is there-if any-between this more and musical energeia?”[5]

In order to try to deal with the differences that surface between various performances of the same piece, Ingarden takes the position that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” and is “in a sense inherently complete.”[6] Consequently, according to Ingarden, over time the various performers of a work are not creating anything new, rather there are simply discovering the latent possibilities already “embedded” in the work which simply need to be actualized.  Thus, the work does not really change over time but merely appears to change.  However, as Benson observes, “the problem with this view is that-practically-these possibilities seem not to come merely from within but also from without:  for they arise-at least partly-by way of performance traditions, which are themselves developing.”[7]  But again, being a good phenomenologist, Ingarden does not totally ignore the fact that the work in practice does in fact go beyond the intentions of the composer due to, what we have referred to previously as “places of indeterminacy” (Unbestimmtheitsstellen), which are as it were “born” with every work, and some of which are made only determinate through a live performance.  Thus, Ingarden at least implies that these untouchable works are in fact in process and dynamic.

Against what Benson labels as a kind of Platonist understanding of a musical work, Benson argues for a mediating way which acknowledges that a work possesses a “stock of possibilities” that constitute it, but that those possibilities are supplemented by additional possibilities that come into being over the course of time via the performances themselves and as a result of evolving musical traditions.  Elaborating his view, Benson explains,

a composer may indeed have a complex conception of the work (and so potentially a relatively complex conception of the work (and so potentially a relatively complex set of “intentions”), but those intentions are supplemented by the actual performances and the development of performance traditions.  Thus, we could say that Bach had intentions for the St. Matthew Passion that were complex and specific.  But the [later] performance by Mendelssohn did not merely bring out those possibilities (even though it did that too).  Rather, it also created certain possibilities-possibilities that truly did not exist before.[8]

If instead we opt for Ingarden’s position, we find ourselves in the following rather paradoxical situation.  That is, if we claim that musical works somehow transcend and are not touched by musical activity (energeia), then we must conclude that “no one every really experiences a musical work.”  Ingarden himself denies that we experience “a given musical work as an ideal aesthetic object.”[9]  As Benson puts it, “[o]n Ingarden’s account, then, the work itself turns out to be something that no one ever hears.”[10]  A second rather serious tension in Ingarden’s account again springs from his strict dichotomy between musical work (ergon) and musical activity (energeia).  Understandably, Ingarden is concerned to secure the identity of a musical work, and this is why he argues for a “superhistorical” work.  This allows Ingarden to say that the work is not simply identical to the score but possesses some degree of autonomy from both the score and the various performances.[11] Yet, Ingarden also admits both that musical works have an historical origin, and that “the properties of a work are constituted intersubjectively-and over time.”[12] Ingarden then leaves us somewhere between the historical and the superhistorical.  For Benson, this inbetween-ness highlights the failure of a position which advocates a sharp dichotomy between a work’s existence and identity on the one hand, and its “aural embodiments” on the other.[13]  Consequently, as mentioned above, Benson opts for an “interconnectedness of work and performance,” and suggests that instead of the denomination, “work,” which connotes a finished product, we should return to the idea of “piece.”  Piece implies both that which is “connected to a contextual whole” from which it cannot be completely severed, and it communicates a more fragmentary and on-going character-something “inherently incomplete, for the musical context in which it exists is in flux.”[14]

Although my essay probably raises more questions than it answers and only scratches the surface of what might be accomplished by bringing music into conversation with the insights of phenomenology, hopefully some the themes that we have considered-identity and difference, musical places of indeterminacy, and the various ways that music presents itself to us, from its origin (Ursprung) to the “final manuscript” (Fassung letzter Hand)-has provoked us to stretch our thinking about both disciplines in new ways. 


[1] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126. [2] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 126. [3] Benson adds, “Ingarden is well aware that the real question of the work’s identity is not merely static ontologically but also (and essentially) historical in nature” (p. 127).  As older musical works are kept alive and interpreted anew in subsequent eras and by diverse musical traditions, something of the old is retained.  The question is, what exactly is this something that is kept alive?[4] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 127. [5] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 127. 

[6] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 128.

[7] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 128.

[8] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 129.

[9] Roman Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art:  The Musical Work-The Picture-The Architectural Work-The Film, trans. Raymond Meyer with John T. Goldthwait (Athens:  Ohio University Press, 1989), p. 108, as quoted in Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 130.

[10] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131.

[11] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131. 

[12] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 131.  Cf. Ingarden, Ontology of the Work of Art, p. 110, 115, and 119-20. 

[13] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, p. 132.

[14] Benson, The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, pp. 132-33.

6 thoughts on “Part V: Phenomenological Explorations of Music”

  1. I think this is really right (meaning Benson’s critique of Ingarden). I made a similar argument in a paper against David Bentley Hart’s rendering of Bach, charging him with ahistoricizing the artist (in his case Bach). This is of course an irony in Hart’s own book, since he is trying to argue that the beauty of the infinite — made known to us in the “interval” that is the ontological difference between Creator and created — is mirrored analogically in the particularities of history (over against an Enlightenment rationalized grand narrative), and this he sees in the infinite counterpoint of Bach’s music (but note how he sets this against Wagner, atonal serialism, etc — and I think his protests against Loughlin, e.g., that he really likes Wagner doesn’t take away from the seeming disgust he depicts in his book). While it wouldn’t be quite correct to say that Bach is a proto-atonal serialist, it is certainly correct to say that because Bach is situated within an historical tradition of not only composition but performance (especially as a composer, he “releases,” so to speak, his composition to performance) that is first taken up by the performer and shifts, taking on these new possibilities in each new performance of, say, the fifth Lute Suite in g minor; but, there is equally a kind of “performance” whereby Bach’s compositions are taken up by Berg, Webern, Schoenberg, and others — I mean honestly taken up — in a composition-as-performance….much more has to be granted than an exceeding of the intentionality of the ego.

    Again, thanks so much for these engaging and thoughtful posts…I’ll have to purchase and read through at least one more book because of them! Peace

  2. Also, I think it is really a significant critique that Ingarden’s “superhistorical” view makes it such that “no one every really experiences a musical work.” My first comment didn’t register enough Ingarden’s admission of the “inter-subjective” and even “historical” nature of a work even as it is “superhistorical” in its “completeness” or whatever. Maybe another way of reframing what I said is that the “historical interpretation” and “inter-subjective” penetration (in e.g., Schoenberg, et. al) re-opens “the origin” of the composition — supposedly complete in Ingarden — by performance, such that, as Benson argues, the piece remains incomplete, constantly being reshaped and even re-written in the performance. Perhaps if a “work” is understood in Ingarden’s terms as super-historically complete (though historically working out the possibilities already latent there — sort of like Hegel’s unfolding system!) and thus retains this strict division (is it paradoxical or aporetic? Benson seems to be saying the latter, right?) between a piece’s identity and its “aural embodiments,” music is still never being heard, because it can only ever be known (or, even heard) in retrospect? (again, like Hegel’s unfolding system) Don’t know about this last one, but it seems like the “latent possibilities” within the super-historically complete work are in fact actualized “historically,” in performance/interpretation, etc., but how then does the piece retain any “integrity,” so to speak unless it is a complete system only from its finis? Am I making this too difficult?

  3. Hi Dave,

    The more I read Gadamer, the more I think that Benson’s analysis of the phenomenology of music is inspired by or deeply indebted to Gadamer. For Gadamer, identity is not threatened by a multitude of interpretations (of a text or work of art) because he sees the various interpretations as part of the “being” of the text/work of art and this one in many-ness is reflective of the nature of reality itself. One of Gadamer’s commentators, Brice Watcherhauser, calls this Gadamer’s “ontological perspectivism” wherein being presents itself differently to different historical epochs and yet mantains a sense of identity (–Gadamer’s project in Truth and Method is to work out the relationship of identity-in-difference as it applies to hermeneutics). Gadamer doesn’t buy Heidegger’s critique of the history of Western philosophy as a forgetfullness of being, as Gadamer thinks that Heidegger’s critique is based on a univocal understanding of metaphysics. Rather, for Gadamer, we need to go back to the later Plato’s work on the “transcendentals” (as they are called by subsequent thinkers) and transpose this into a new key such that it speaks to the philosophical issues of our day. So Gadamer in contrast to other postmoderns is not averse to metaphysics and thinks that ancient metaphysics holds a wealth of resources for contemporary philosophy. Of course this is not merely a repetition of ancient metaphysics, as Gadamer builds on the work of Heidegger (truth as unconealment), Husserl, and other contemporary thinkers.

    Best wishes,

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