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Some thoughts on Deleuze, Cage, and the relation between philosophy and music

In setting about exploring the relationship between philosophy and music, the work of Deleuze could seem like an odd place to start. Not only is there a notable paucity of musical references and engagement in Deleuze’s writings relative to that afforded to the other arts, but music theory has, since at least the 17th century, perhaps tended towards forms of transcendence, dissociating its form from its materials, and had perhaps even been an exemplary case of structuralist thinking avant la lettre. This seems to put it at odds with the Deleuze we think of as a post-structuralist thinker and a thinker of immanence. Jacques Rancière makes the claim that in Deleuze’s thought there appears to be an almost Schopenhauerian privileging of music with regards to the fundamental nature of the world, but for Rancière this analogy serves only the development of a critique of Deleuze, echoing those offered by Alain Badiou and Peter Hallward – Deleuze’s musical reality is in marked contrast to the ‘masquerade’ of the world of appearances, and in privileging music Deleuze reduces that world of appearances, and all that comes with it (including, most significantly for all three, political activity), to a mere inconvenient side effect of the Dionysiac flux of reality.

If a Deleuzian sense of musical reality can indeed be more-or-less equated with that of Schopenhauer, then this line of criticism seems difficult to deny. But what if we are to think music differently? Not as Schopenhauer did, through the Romantic notion of absolute music, but as offered to us by the changes witnessed across the 20th century? Could we perhaps, even, by looking at music and music theory’s self-engagement in the 20th century, begin to outline the kind of activity that takes place in any philosophy we could call post-structural?

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze & Guattari suggest that it is John Cage who, through his concept of silence, “first and most perfectly” deploys the plane of immanence, the figure perhaps central to their collective project, in a musical context (267). What silence means for Cage emerges from his famous anecdote of a visit to an anechoic chamber. Describing his visit to the chamber, an environment designed to have as little acoustic resonance as possible and as such to be as silent as possible, Cage recounts hearing two sounds, one low and one high. Asking the engineer what these sounds were, Cage was told that the former was the sound of his nervous system in operation, the latter his blood in circulation. What Cage takes from this is, first and most obviously, that there can be no genuine silence, that “until I die there will be sounds” (‘Experimental Music’, 8), but second, and more fundamentally, that this entails a conception of sound wherein it necessarily exceeds the intentionality of both composer and of listener.

In this notion lies what becomes the core principle of Cage’s entire project, that of what we can call, in Deleuzian terms, the production of an aesthetics of immanence. Cage’s concern becomes not sound as subject to transcendent organisation, or the regulation of sound through the rule of harmony, but the sounds in themselves, an approach to music centred on inclusive listening rather than an exclusive drawing of attention to structure. Structure becomes secondary, something that emerges from a more fundamental sonic material rather than something exercising control over that material, restraining it. It appears that when we look closely at the respective theoretical projects of Deleuze and Cage, we find a shared starting point, a founding principle of bringing into question the limits of structure and emphasising instead a plane on which organisation is eschewed in favour of becoming, disarticulation, and mutation.

Presented in this manner, the parallel between Deleuze and Cage, a shared story between post-structuralism and the 20th century musical avant-garde, offers itself to us quite neatly. Philosophy perhaps has not settled on its narrative of the 20th century, but the centrality of Cage’s theoretical innovations to how we have come to understand sound and music in the modern day is unquestioned. This ‘we’, indeed, is not ‘we philosophers’ or ‘we avant-garde musicians’, but a much wider ‘we’, a ‘we’ that can be situated in a history of the last sixty years of music in which a direct lineage can be traced between Cage’s work and all global strands of music today. The avant-garde goes without saying, but equally house – perhaps the melting pot that was the post-minimalist, post-disco ’80s New York downtown scene ties these threads together best – or hip-hop – Cage-Stockhausen-Kraftwerk-Afrika Bambaataa – have histories that would help us construct a unified Cageian century running hand in hand with Foucault’s Deleuzian century. But is this neatness really what we want? A single narrative uniting philosophical and musical discourses across the 20th century? What can be said of the relationship between philosophy and music when it seems that the dominant story has already played itself out?

Perhaps, if we wish to take the fundamental projects of Deleuze and Cage seriously – if we wish to embrace becoming, disarticulation, and mutation – another approach is required. One such approach would be through music’s relation to technology. It was technological innovations, particularly that of magnetic tape, that gave Cage the material – the literal material of sound rather than the written representation of the composition – to realize his nascent thought. Perhaps with rapid technological innovation the kind of equally rapid theoretical developments which we attribute to Cage have in some sense acted themselves out in multiple streams of music, in multiple heterogeneous modes, in what we could consider to be relative disconnection from Cage and his own musical milieu. What is fundamental to the course of music in the 20th century may be better read as a series of disparate technological and theoretical transformations from which emerged a previously inconceivable pluralism. Not reducible to the relativism of commercial variety, this pluralism would rather be one that takes advantage of serious engagements with the material real of music and sound, within which is staged a thorough investigation of the forms of musical systems that can emerge from these engagements. Just as the claim of a Deleuzian century can be no more than a joke, neither can we reasonably make claim for a Cageian century. What Deleuze and Cage leave behind is the imperative to always engage with immanence as they attempted to do, engaging anew every time, engaging in as many directions as we can. In so doing we may find no neat narrative tying together stretches of history, but rather the cacophony of these many and varied engagements sounding at once – heterogeneous practices and heterogeneous disciplines in conflictual but reciprocal tension, entered into dynamic and transformational relations, their voices acting together, taking us from the present into the future.

By Iain


One comment on “Some thoughts on Deleuze, Cage, and the relation between philosophy and music

  1. Alice
    November 21, 2012

    Readers of this might be interested in this book launch happening tomorrow at X Marks

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This entry was posted on November 2, 2012 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , .
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