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Tag Archives: Music

Spinoza Opera, Spinoza Sung

I have had the extraordinary pleasure today of listening to what can only be called a Spinoza Opera, recordings of music written for the 2002 VeenFabriek performance of Spinoza: I am not where I think myself to be  [performance website]. It is an thought-provoking rendition of both Spinoza’s defintions of the affects, taken from the end of part three of the Ethics, read in Latin and put to a harpsichord’s punctuating notes and aura effects; and then, it is the acoustical reading of Spinoza’s letter to G. H. Schaller [62 (58)], wherein he determinatively explains the illusion of Freewill by evoking the “thoughts” of a stone that flies through the air (how we are all resolutely to be). The baroque instrumentation, the haunt of precise Latin passing through the affectation of a feminent throat (concievably repressed to some degree in Spinoza, how we see the figure of the Courtesan rise up again, gathering up in her tresses the whole of the scholia which drag like a great train to her/his thought). One wonders how a 17th century Amsterdam marano who loved the theatre and Terence would respond to hearing his sculpted propositions on the affects, so themselves affecti-fied, doubling back upon their employ.

The title of the recording is The Thing Like Us, in reference to one of the most powerful analytical condensations of all of Spinoza’s thought. Rem nobis similem… (3p27). As the composer envisioned it, the music was to engage the very affective and imaginary foundations of our sociability, the way that we interpret the world inescabably through a projection of seeing others as “things like us”. Part of this ratio-imaginary capacity is extended to the affective way that we “see ourselves” in music, expressed there, amid the arrangement of the notes. (One should keep in mind that traditionally in Latin Res is not only “thing” as in “object”, but situation, condition, matter.) In very real senses, the reason why we can even read music is because it is a “thing like us”, echoing to the core of our body’s affective and rational capacities. But part of the piece’s reflexivity is not only in comment upon how music operates by being in similitude to us, but also, as the composer Yannis Kyriakides confesses, in acknowledgement of the very musical, self-referential, recursive structure of the Ethics itself. In this way The Thing Like Us shows us how music itself is a Thing Like Us, but also it does so through a remarkable involution, by being a Thing Like the Ethics. Instead of merely a copy of a copy in any Platonic sense of diminishment, it is a productive similitude, an enabling affective entrance into the priorities and claims of the Ethics. As we hear the note and tonal cartographies of the Latin, is it not so like how we encounter a proposition. So engaged, the entire Ethics  almost stands up with a kind of articulative force, its many propsitions like so many operative, inter-connected legs, ambulate, its proofs newly so like organs of internal exchange. There is something of the animation of the Golem in this piece, a Golem that is internal to Us.

After the clear and distinctly voiced musical manifestations of the affects, in the second half as Spinoza’s letter to Schaller is read/performed, it should not be missed that through the introduction of the worker’s “everyman” voice, how human and connected historical Spinoza was. Not only was it through the glimmering and glass edifice of the Ethics  that Spinoza performed his truth, but in epistolary bridgings. His thought extended out in handwriting across plague and sea-lanes, in greeting. At a unique hour of Western becoming, as a man of science and the politic of words, Spinoza attempted thought sub specie aeternitatis, and the lived consternation of a historical homo faber, a balancing act in which friendship and communication played a vital part. Epistolary Spinoza was an artisan, a worker, and ultimately his great systematic assemblage was one that he imagined would physically”work”, much like the lathe he applied himself to daily. The Ethics was a smithed tool, not only metaphorically, fashioned out of our own body of God, and designed to affect our bodies as much as our minds. Without actors and stage much of the interpretive power of this opera’s original performance is lost in the second half — wherein it seems a working class Haguean encounters something of a Lady Philosophia on stage (if I read the description right – the singing character of Carla being inspired by Van den Enden’s daughter), entering with the audience a theatrical space meant to affectively be the interior of Spinoza’s architectural mind — yet the two voices in dialogue still bring forth a historicism which cannot not be lost in Spinoza, (what is Spinoza in dialogue?), the flesh and body of finite action.

I think that this is what at most this musical rendition allows, the shining forth of the flesh of Spinoza’s contemplations (and life lived), the affection of the affectio. In the end any diadactic interpretation of Spinoza that might have inspired and structured these pieces in the minds of the composer, director, and actors, falls to the essential and unitary trans-lation of a Latin text meant to be invisibly read, without moving one’s lips, translation into a stringed-vibration (instrument and throat). The materiality of his invention is recaptured it if was ever lost in the great Rationalist appropriation/interpretation of his thought.

So what does Spinoza sound like?

I found most powerful here the expression of the affects, in the first half. The vibrato way in which the Latin words, each sonically isolated in their short sentences, are made to resonant higher, even higher than the text alone could take them. In this way they here scale  the body.

Take for instance one of my favorite defintions of the affects…love

The Affect of Love : “Love is Joy/Pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause”.

Read with the voice, “Amor/est…lae-ti-ti-ah…concomitante idea CAUsae externae”

See, feel, how Amor rises out of the atmospherics of a potentiality of the Body, and the verb to-be seals it off. How Joy floats momentarily, suspended ontologically until it is brought up with the mechanics of causal interpretation, the sour-rise of cause, pushing the affect forward, as a passion, the closure of causal understanding itself caught in a aural crespification. The potentiality of human love is segmented out in a bit by bit anatomy of thought within tremendous historical consequence. (At least this is my reading and experience.)

Or the whispering, precise feather in the Affect of Desire that causes us to linger, to contemplate not only the thought itself, but also the conditions of the Latin within which Spinoza wrote, the citizen-of-the-world lingua, fostered by Catholic and Protestant imaginations that were tearing. Like a long tenebrous string Kyriakides’ and Harpaz’s “Desire” plays under, sub, to the immanence of our organizations, like a subtle thought.

And then Laetitia itself, Joy/Pleasure, the increase of  perfection, “Laetitia est hominis transitio a minore ad maiorem perfectionem” . The harmonics are haunting in the contemplation of the definition Spinoza provides. The way that the tone of “perfectionem” carries out, incompariably, does more than indicate the nature of Laetitia, it affectively qualifies it within our meditation on the definition. The ultimate coherence of the defintion, and their whole, plays out. This not so much an inter-pretation, as a consub-statiation, in mind and body, a renewal.

These are just a few thoughts.

Here is where you can explore each of the tracks devoted to Spinoza in extended clips, and purchase the CD (or Amazon). You will find the text that comes with the music, as expressed by the composer, the director Paul Koek, and the actor/singer Carola Arons, a commentary which serve to bring to life not only the philosophy behind the composition and performance, but also summon up the full physicality that emerged from this engagment between rational construction and the affecture of the body in theatre and music.

The material of the Ethics, Spinoza’s letters and life comes alive in very much the sense that Spinoza defined alive, that which opens into and as a degree of freedom. If Spinoza imagined the propositions of the Ethics to be the eyes of the Mind, then singing propositions can perhaps be imagined as something like the skin of the Mind, as they allows us to be envoloped and oriented to what the eyes can see — perhaps more tenebrated, communicated, in-speed. Part of understanding the fidelity of Kyriakides’ opera is appreciating that its aesthetic power, the authenticity of its form, may lie in its pedagogic power, much as with the method more geometico of Spinoza’s own Ethics. It is contemplation of Spinoza’s propositions (and letter), a meditation via musicality, that something of its rationality is grasped, in process.

The extended tonal lyricism of this “opera”, as it negotiates tipping between peaks of cacophony, and clustered hues of sweeter clarity, should be fruitfully compared to “Breathing in Reverse”, Joseph Semah’s performance reading of Spinoza Theological-Political Treatise in three antique languages. The tonal justapositions in the former compliment the historical juxapositions in the latter.

[Also of interest, here, a rich personal response and review to Kyriakides’ Spinoza, and Stan Verdult’s weblog comment on the production in 2005]


The Half-Tune of Political Speech: Palin’s Song

Found over at Infinite Thought, who asks under the title aaargh! dissonance! modernity! politics!,“What would Adorno make of this?” Adorno tells us, in his Kantian flavor, “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness”. So what are we to make of this Palin Aesthetic Object. Let is bring to bear Adorno’s description of the utopian urge, the image of a child sitting at a piano:

“searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself”

Is this not how Palin’s piano searching sounds? We want to be unkind to her (her apparent horrific incompetence, clearly she is glancing down at notes), and equally unkind to those that are so charmed by her (so simple minded they must be, or so blindly forgiving we want to say), but one really has to engage the richness of the phenomena, in order to grasp its full power and potentiality. Leaving aside Adorno’s direct objectives, what if we aesthetically take her admittedly nervous leaps between cliches as a utopian search for the new, the sense that amid the fractured half-tunes of ideological buttressing, buried beside the “dissonance” of trite, chord to chord hops is the fumbling for the new, the chord that has not been played.

I ask this not because I wish to be kind to Palin, but to address the “music” that this piece brings out, to exact its moral force. As much as one might cringe repeatedly over this interview, it was also a kind of music to some. As she fumbled, or strained, others felt the same, an affinity.

One can take an interpretive tact at the level of content. One can say that Palin here was rummaging through bankrupt ideas, dealing only with the broken shells of eggs and no yolks. If she only she had IDEAS, a comprehension of what she was saying and not just slogans she would be saying something meaningful. But I contend, given that she is not saying something “meaningful” this does not mean that her tuneful act itself was not meaningful. It forms an aesthetic object. There is no doubt, I feel, that Palin’s candidacy, in mirror to Obama’s, was utopian, and in some sense sub-ideological. Tina Fey’s portrayal did much to break the ideological spell, but in so doing obscured something of the power of the aesthetic form of the Palin performance, the way that it enacted the dissonance that comes as we strain for new sense within the old keyboard.

I suggest a non-oppositional reading of her “song”.

Rorty’s Daimon


Rorty, in view of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, wrote “The Fire of Life” a Socratic-like, just-before-death turn to the power of the music of words.

I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation… “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.”

Rorty’s father was a poet. Here he puts forth, in summing up his recent essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”, that what comes from rationality must first come from imagination:

At the heart of Romanticism, I said, was the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken. No words, no reasoning. No imagination, no new words. No such words, no moral or intellectual progress.

This bears some connection to my thoughts on Davidson and Vico, and the nature of metaphor, for which Rorty was a partial guide. And we recall here Decartes’ comments about hammers having to be smithed at some point once without the aid of hammers (and Spinoza’s appropriation of the image).

What one is left with though is a sense that imagination itself is rational, that is, it both explains and constitutes our relationship to the world, and to others, and that what we call “imagination” is a production of reasons.


We thank with brief thanksgiving
  Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
     Winds somewhere safe to sea.