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Without music, life would be a mistake.” Friedrich Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols)

The hard problem of Music

Despite the post-Darwinian naturalistic world view storm that has all but swept away even the acceptability of an academic debate on the purpose of man and the universe, let alone the meaning, purpose or even ontological reality of esthetics and the arts, at least one bastion of esthetic mystery has survived rather unscathed. And if properly understood, this particular enigma happens to be uniquely suited to the task of rehabilitating the much ridiculed, yet fully human and indeed utterly common sensical questions of metaphysical teleology. The phenomenon of music oddly enough, seems to address this embarrassing ‘Why question’ and demands much more serious attention than previously received, if modern scientific inquiry is to do justice to its actual nature. Embedded into nature’s very fabric music has the uncanny ability to translate mathematical relationships into the universally experienced emotions of transcendent meaning, joy and comfort, as witnessed by intellectuals throughout the ages. Strongly related to the mind-body problem (another enigma to weather the naturalistic storm) music seems to add an entire new layer of difficulty to this hard problem of science by demanding a strong, interrelated-reality view of subjectivity in order to accommodate music’s clearly objective emotional semiotics.

This already creates a hard problem of music which is only rarely discussed in any depth in the obvious naturalistic context of Darwinian evolution, which seems all but irrelevant to a more than service level understanding of music. Furthermore, music seems to be immune to the naturalistic meta-escape from meta-purpose known as the anthropic principal which is commonly hurled at the fine-tuning argument in defense of naturalism. This conspicuous immunity is mainly due to music’s apparent superfluousness regarding the existence or survival of sentient beings, who are the recipients of both life and musicality. Therefore, besides strengthening the generally recognized naturalistic challenge of the meticulous fine-tuning of the law’s of physics, music defends it against its sole enemy. Subsequently resurrecting the trampled notion of meta-design. The subject of music however seems to relate most directly to life’s silly questions (those of existential teleology) when considering the both mysterious and familiar realm of tonality itself. Via two independent routes, one being the mathematical route (of Pythagoras) and the other the peculiar behavior and interaction of resonating objects themselves (as described by the physics of sound), we arrive at this familiar yet wondrous tonal plane inhibited by both Bach and the Beatles, characterized by a seven note scale over a twelve note total. Amidst this tonal world a tonal trinity reigns supreme drawing all other notes towards itself, a longing recognized by virtually all humans, infants and adults alike, making possible the tonal meaning wondered at by almost as many. A strange but tangible world of numerical symbolism, a perfect marriage of abstractness and concreteness, re-confirming mind and body. Meaning and narrative generated by the tension of notes longing for rest in the tonal trinity; an eery echo of theistic times in timeless music that seems to give enough unwarranted joy to reconsider the quest for meta-purpose in academia.

Paul van der Feen

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