Music and philosophy blend in concert and panel event

Last Thursday evening, the Colby Museum of Art hosted a performance and panel discussion on the music of contemporary avant-garde composer Morton Feldman. This event presented a unique alternative to the usual concert format by focusing on the implications of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s work for listening to Feldman’s music. Part of the Music in the Museum series co-hosted by the Colby Museum of Art and the Colby Department of Music, the panel brought together professors with a wide array of disciplines from both Colby and the University of Maine Farmington. It featured accomplished pianist and professor Steven Pane, who tackled Feldman’s four thought-provoking “Last Pieces,” in a stunning interpretation that remained true to the composer. The panelists included Colby’s Professor of Music Steven Nuss and Professor of French Christiane Guillois, and UMaine Farmington’s Professor of Philosophy Matthew Houston and Professor of Music Steven Pane. The concert also drew audiences from Colby, Waterville, and beyond, providing a multigenerational mélange of perspectives in the resulting audience discussion. The event brought an unusual dual focus on performance and philosophy, asking the audience not just to listen to the music, but to contemplate their experience in listening as a separate matter.

While it may seem arbitrary to apply the philosophy described in Jean-Luc Nancy’s 2007 book Listening to these pieces, the professors explained how Feldman’s work benefits from its application.  Feldman’s music is inherently different from most Western music in a way that requires a departure from the traditional ideals and processes of listening to music. Feldman, born in 1926, was a key figure in the mid-twentieth century musical avant-garde, becoming particularly influential in the New York School that included painter Jackson Pollock, composer John Cage, and choreographer Martha Graham.  Like most avant-garde composers, his work does not always follow the rules of common-practice music that are shared by Bach, Beethoven, and Beyoncé; instead, he breaks the rules of conventional harmony in favor of exploring new relationships between notes. Contemplative and spaced-out, the irregular but stirring stream of sounds invokes a strange reaction in the human mind. His work has been called minimalist for its length and repetitiveness, and the composition is either so arbitrary or so aleatory that the human ear will find it difficult to pick out any sort of pattern or meaning in it at first. It is also painfully soft at all points, especially so for the performer, who must pull polished notes out of a sonorous piano while barely touching the keys.  This exercise in restraint works as a test of anti-virtuosity for the performer, which Pane managed with both incredible expressiveness and delicacy.

The strange notes and restrained performance Feldman requires can make it a challenge to listen to for most audience members. Nancy’s philosophy explains why: our experiences with most other music—classical and popular alike—all train us to have expectations for what the music should do. So, when Feldman subverts these expectations of melody and harmony, we feel disappointed at the inherent foreignness of what he presents us. Furthermore, Nancy believes that there is greater intimacy in listening to music than in consuming other art forms, as we experience music inside our heads and without the ability to control our perception of it as we can glance away from a painting. Then, when we listen with expectations for interpreting music instead of just registering the sound, we the audience are losing an integral part of what Feldman was trying to convey—music outside of those boundaries of musical philosophy, music where you just listen.  Nancy seems to provide the answer to the question of how Feldman’s music should be interpreted, arguing for a kind of anti-philosophy of music that merely registers sound. “Hasn’t philosophy superimposed upon listening, beforehand and of necessity, or else substituted for listening, something else that might be more on the order of understanding?” Nancy asks, in the opening of Listening.

This interdisciplinary event offered the perspectives of professors, students, and community members from many academic disciplines, all of whom explored this philosophy and how it affected them personally during the performance. While Feldman may not have been very mainstream, the ideas his music explores can contribute significantly to the question of what is music. “It’s music we don’t cover in class…but it’s awfully interesting,” remarked Nuss, encouraging his classes to attend. “This is about as liberal arts as it gets.” From the transcendent performance by Pane to the eye-opening lectures and conversation it generated between Nuss, Guillois, Houston, Pane, and the audience, this event was fascinating and thoroughly unique.

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