Words About Words About Music: A Historical Orientation


How do we talk about music, and can it be talked about? Doing violence to the “text” and the language of music as anti-language. 


A Historical Orientation


“Logocentrism” is a favorite word of mine, because it sums up the main thing that the projects of modernity and post-modernity are ultimately up against. Logocentrism means the positive evaluation and centering of the logos. The logos is a Greek word for which we have no English translation and yet it is a concept that is unparalleled in historical significance.  The Logos is basically a mixture of language (as in spoken and written language) and rationality, especially as a kind of ground for culture or being as a whole.  The decline of logocentrism is the beginning of modernity as well as the beginning of music in the way we understand it today.  Before the end of the logos (around the beginning of the 20th century) music is basically a bourgeois luxury, a certain activity associated with leisure, and conditioned by the logos. These two aspects – bourgeois luxury and being related to the logos – are not unrelated.  It is often said in modernism that the logos is “anti-life,” in other words, that the logos categorizes, cuts things up, and tries to organize things into their separate spheres.  This means that the way music was understood was conditioned by relegating it to a certain sphere of life: what the bourgeois understood as “purely aesthetic.” All that means is that music becomes separate from the active and practical modes of life, such as work. It is in this sense that it becomes “anti-life” in that life itself is primarily work, suffering, and struggle.


Not only did the logos relegate music socially but it was conditioned the way it was understood. Classical pieces of music are all about order. Like the visual art of pre-modernity, the goal of music is to imitate a peacefully and rationally structured universe.  The foundation of this universe and the ordering principle happens to be “The Word” (‘in the beginning there was the Word” John:1:1) which is an English translation of the logos. So, in both music’s social role and its ontological structure there is a hidden concession to the logos. In other words, a faith in language and its primacy conditions music.


Modernism wants to invert this relationship between language and music, and this relationship is what this column wants to explore. With modernity comes the realization that reality cannot be reduced to what is thought or said and that “life” or “existence” comes first.  Music is taken as something that taps into existence itself rather than talking, speaking, and writing, which merely gloss over the surface of things.  This is the reason why rock n’ roll and blues music (and thus most of the music of the 20th century) comes to have the character that they have. Both genres were about the man who faces the world, who struggles with the world, and what this man thinks or says is largely irrelevant (although obviously not what he sings).  This is the power of music in the 20th century and why it becomes such a major and important art form. Music in the 20th century understands the truth of existence itself over and above thought and it glories in this roll.


I feel as though musical culture in our digital age has in some sense forgotten this role.  The mass proliferation of music blogs and music reviews means that music once again is up against language. The fact that “knowing obscure bands” or “having hip music taste” has become a sign of sophistication indicates that the bourgeois understanding of music is threatening to come back.  Music threatens to be something we engage with merely for the sake of demonstrating our leisure and our ability to talk.  In the internet age, where text (and image) is everything, music needs to maintain its role as that which speaks to truth of existence itself. What we cannot do, however, is stop talking about music, because we talk about things we love. What we do need to do is rethink how we talk about music, and with that how we think of music.  We need a way to spread “the word” of music’s ineffability (a paradox that has to be surmounted) such that we can avoid the pitfalls of a bourgeois “hipster culture” and a marginalization of music’s power for truth.


Adam Klein