Music, Aesthetics & Making Sense: A Conversation with Andrew Bowie

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This post originally appeared on four by three magazine.

What is music? Can music make sense of the world or even transcend it? Philosopher and jazz musician Andrew Bowie talks to four by three about the connection between music, aesthetics, language, and time, with reference to Adorno and Heidegger, as well as about the relationship between philosophy, the arts and sciences, asking: why does art matter?


‘Art is supposed to engage your whole being and not just your conceptual capacity’
— Andrew Bowie

four by three: The philosophy and philosophical significance of music has been a major preoccupation of much of your writing. What is it that motivates you to write philosophically about music?

Andrew Bowie: When I started doing philosophy, I used to regard my playing as completely separate from my philosophy, because I wasn’t very good at playing in any case [I still am not great, but I have got better]. Reading Adorno, even though I didn’t believe him on jazz, made me think that jazz is just something I do for fun, to meet nice women, and so on. But slowly, over the years, it became apparent – which I think should happen to far more philosophers – that if you don’t join up what you do with what you think, then something is going wrong. Then I had to start thinking about how the fact that I have got more and more interested in playing for its own sake – and clearly this is never going to go away – connects with what I think philosophically and what interests me philosophically. At that point, I had started looking at the history of German Idealism and Romanticism.

The other way music had played an intellectual role was when I wrote a chapter in my PhD thesis on Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, which brought me back to classical music after school had put me off it. Jazz was actually still considered as a kind of oppositional music in the English public school I went to [on a state scholarship, I should add], which gave one considerable motivation to play it. It was reading Dr. Faustus during my first year as an undergraduate that made me listen to late Beethoven, particularly the Missa Solemnis, the late quartets and piano sonatas, which play a role in the novel, and which have been very important to me ever since: this is music you can’t get bored with. When I wrote about literature, I was happy to talk about music and why it mattered. However, when I actually wrote [and write] about music, I was rather ashamed of what I wrote, because I didn’t feel I could do justice to music. But when I started thinking about why I am still playing jazz, why this is something that might be self-justifying and at the same time socially meaningful, I realized how I might join it up with philosophy. What followed this was a realization about philosophy, which I would never have had just through studying the history of philosophy, namely that at the same time as you get the philosophical turning point around the time of Kant you have also the rise of what Carl Dahlhaus calls the ‘idea of absolute music’, which involves the sense that music has a special aesthetic and philosophical status that puts it above the other arts. These two changes are so striking that it seemed that there had to be a connection. Now what the connection is, I have written various books about, arguing that there is not a connection, but that there is a plethora of connections. What my next project is about is the significance of how the changes in philosophy and music in modernity coincide with the rise of aesthetics as a notionally separate discipline. The connection to jazz here has to do with its ever-present need for new forms of expression and new connections, and this relates to what happens in philosophy and music in the second half of the eighteenth century.

How do you relate your musical and your philosophical understanding? Has playing music given you a different understanding of philosophy and how is it that by playing music you can get a different and deeper insight into writing about aesthetics and music? Or do you think that these are separate from your personal experiences as a musician?

AB: The crucial element in playing and practicing music is that you become absorbed by it. Hence, it is a particular mode of being. The nearest equivalent is probably meditation. However, playing music also differs from meditation, as you are physically active and you are trying to make sense in what you do, by seeking to create a kind of space for yourself and other people. I also find the aspect of just practicing the instrument on my own amazingly helpful, because it absorbs you and you cannot be thinking of anything else. The other manner in which playing music relates to meditation is that involves a focus on breathing, which is a hugely significant element in playing the saxophone. It involves your whole body, and is a form of contact with yourself and the objective world through a symbiotic relationship with your instrument – an experience really unlike any other. My obsession with saxophone tone, that was set off in particular by hearing Johnny Hodges playing live with the Duke Ellington band when I was still at school, has something to do with the fact that the sound you make is literally touching other people, and that this is a neglected aspect of interpersonal relations. It’s an expensive one, though: I spend a fortune on saxophone mouthpieces. The relation to philosophy here has to do with the realization that it is only through participation in a specific kind of practice that you come to new kinds of understanding. That dimension is missing from too many ways of thinking philosophically, which can tend to see understanding primarily as understanding of objects or states.

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Does this imply that the space of a philosopher is different in nature to the space of a musician? When are they congruent and when at odds with one another?

AB: My extreme view, which many people find ludicrous, is that if philosophy is supposed to be about making sense, most philosophy in fact does not do that. It just produces dissent and conflict. Now that can be fine, because you know if you are doing science, that is how you eventually get positive results that work. However, this is not fine within philosophy, because philosophy does not often produce anything that works: it often just produces more philosophy. Philosophy is therefore often seen as an endless commentary on the text of Western philosophy, but I don’t think that is enough either. I am in some respects Nietzschean about the history of philosophy, believing that much of it is now Platonic junk. We are living in a time where many things are changing very rapidly, and I think we need to go somewhere else philosophically. That is the reason, for example, why I am into Heidegger. And I think music can suggest new directions more than some other cultural forms. Philosophy should not be about trying to get to ‘what kind of things there really are’: the line I always quote from Timothy Williamson, who at present probably best represents the kind of philosophy I want to get away from. I do not really care what kind of things there really are, because the idea makes no difference to me, at least in the form the task is conceived of in traditional metaphysics. I am interested in Quantum Physics as a way of understanding the physical make-up of the universe, but this should not be confused with philosophy, because philosophy, it seems to me, if it is about anything at all, is about sense making. That is my extreme view, though I do also enjoy philosophical arguments at times. But there comes the point when I want to know what exactly we are doing by doing philosophy. And this is not a question you are ever likely to be asked when you are playing music. Hence, if you are looking for something that is in some sense absolute – that is not relative to something else – then involvement in music may give you more of a sense of the absolute than philosophy does. It does seem to me that the history of philosophy, deeply interesting as it is, has to reflect on the failure of most forms of traditional metaphysics in a different way. You can, for example, either become Hegelian and argue for progress towards truth via the overcoming of the deficiencies of previous metaphysics, or you follow the other temptation and become Nietzschean, claiming that metaphysics is a random series of power moves. But again, you might think that you can tell another story, and this is why I think music becomes so important at the beginning of the modern realization in the eighteenth century that Platonism is over, that is, that God is dead. At this point what interests me about broadly conceived aesthetic issues becomes vital.

Do you believe that there is a certain liberation of the self, maybe even a political liberation that arises from the directness of improvisation? Is this also one of the dimensions that make jazz more attractive to you than most other genres?

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