Through some recent conversations, some interesting aesthetic ideas have come up. I was continuing a conversation with my friend Chris today and remembered that I have written on the subject using Buber's dialogical hermeneutic as a basis for interpretation. It's dense reading, so I'm mostly posting it so that Chris and I can continue our conversation. If you want to trudge through it, I think the ideas are worthwhile.
MARTIN BUBER’S DIALOGICAL HERMENEUTIC
implications of the “linguistic turn”
in philosophy have been one of the chief problems confronting twentieth century
It has resulted in what some
scholars have begun to refer to as a “crisis in the human sciences.”
Textual interpretation (be it literary or
musical) is one of the primary victims of this seismic shift in the academic Weltanschuang.
In his translator’s preface to Derrida’s Grammatology
, Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak, outlines some of the chief areas that have been problematized by
no longer stable because “two readings of the ‘same’ book show an identity that
can only be defined as a difference.”
Indeed, Derrida goes so far as to suggest
that this implies that “the text has no stable identity, no stable origin, no
Despite the non-linguistic nature of the
medium, the musical arts have been affected by these philosophic trends as
The issue manifests itself
significantly in the area of performance practice.
When a performer approaches a musical text,
interpretation of the text includes answering some of the following questions:
the exact tempo, whether alterations of the written
rhythms are allowed or expected, which sonorities are best suited to the piece
being played, how each not should be articulated, whether or not melodic
embellishments are permitted or forbidden within the convention in question,
whether the players are expected to improvise…sections of the composition, and
The first step calls for treating the text as a Thou
and with the passive attitude of receptive waiting.
This quickly moves the reader to a more
active give-and-take dialogue.
interpreter moves into the second stage of interpretation when the otherness of
the text brings to consciousness the interpreter’s own individual and cultural
presuppositions and the interpreter wins a distance on these presuppositions
which allows him or her to see the world of the text more clearly.
The third stage of interpretation begins when
the interpreter exercises critical distance and employs methods of explanation
to analyze the structure and rhetoric of the text.
The fourth stage is gained as the interpreter
reflects on the author, who serves as a reminder to reconnect the text to
The application of the message to
the text to the interpreter’s life entails sharing the interpretation of the
message with a community of inquiry which will challenge and refine the
interpretation through a common dialogue.
Before parsing out what this might
look like for a performer confronting a next text of music, it is helpful to
consider two final points.
relationship with a musical text will not help a performer uncover a hidden
principal (i.e. a Schenkerian Urline
or a semiotic topic).
concerning his Biblical hermeneutics that “Nowhere here can one pursue a given
which has clothed itself
in this how
and which, at the same
time, can assume another how”
For Buber, this means that the unique
otherness of a text, cannot be discovered by separating “content from form.”
Every Beethoven Sonata is an absolutely
unique geistige Wesenheit.
We cannot appropriate it by separating a
content (again e.g. Schenkerian Urline
or semotic topic) from the absolutely unique form that it takes.
It is a Thou confronting us.
Finally, our description of the I-Thou
relationship will not be able to be expressed in systematic discreet
Buber himself seldom writes about
what this might look like in relation to music.
However, the one passage he does write is instructive.
What had the strongest effect on me there was
undoubtedly hearing Bach’s music, and in truth Bach’s music so sung and played
– of that I was certain at that time and have remained certain – as Bach
himself wished that it be sung and played.
But it would be fruitless for me to undertake to say, indeed, I cannot
even make clear to myself – in what way Bach had influenced my thinking.
The ground-tone of my life was obviously
modified in some manner and through that my thinking as well.
Buber spoke of how “slowly, waveringly” there grew
in him “the insight into the problematic reality of human existence and into
the fragile possibility of doing justice to it.”
This momentous statement is followed by the
simple but poignant phrase, “Bach helped me.”
goal of the I-Thou relationship to a musical text (and any other I-Thou
relationship for that matter) is the relationship itself.
It is not to have a mystical experience that
can necessarily be communicated.
fact, Kepnes argues
To be true to the hemeneutic
philosophy of I and Thou
, the most
authentic form of interpretation of a work of art would have to be something
like what Buber produced in his early performative retellings of the Hasidic
it would have to be another geistige Wesenheit,
another work of art!
restate something that I mentioned in the introduction, I do not believe that
the application of Buber’s hermeneutic to a musical text will seem particularly
earth shattering to most performers.
believe that the process most performers go through when confronting a new work
looks very much like Kepnes’ outline of the four steps of Buber’s
Describing the process will
at least allow us to frame it in a vocabulary that is articulable to the wider
Kepnes says that the “first
step calls for treating the text as a Thou and with the passive attitude of
For a musician confronting a new work, this
would simply mean coming to the score with as few pre-conceptions as
While learning notes and
rhythms, the performer as interpreter simply listens to what the score has to
This receptive waiting
period does not include analytic information like theoretical or historical
Here is one of the areas
where I think performing musicians have an advantage.
Performers are accustomed to dealing with
meaning in terms of ineffable knowledge.
For a musician, dynamics, tempo changes, and harmonic and rhythmic
structures all contain a meaning for them that is both profound and
Kepnes’ second stage is when
“the otherness of the text brings to consciousness the interpreter’s own
individual and cultural presuppositions and the interpreter wins a distance on
these presuppositions which allows him or her to see the world of the text more
A performers presumptions
about a musical text would include things like the assumption that the score
itself is faithful to the composer’s intentions, that an open fifth means the
same thing to me as it did to the composer and the cultural context for which
he/she wrote, that the use of Italian terms maintained a stable definition over
the course of many years, that the modern instrument that I am playing can
communicate the ideas written for a period instrument, etc.
When confronting a new text Buber opposed
“being tied down by any dogma”.
One of the things that the Thou of the score
forces us to confront is our own preconceptions about how something should be
As these preconceptions come
into view, we enter the third stage “when the interpreter exercises critical
distance and employs methods of explanation to analyze the structure and
rhetoric of the text.”
It is at this point (and not before!) that a
performer should allow him/herself to be informed by the latest theoretical and
musicological research about a particular piece and the many aspects of its
knowledge will eventually be “included and inseparably fused” to our
relationship with the piece of music.
The fourth stage is when “the interpreter reflects on the author, who
serves as a reminder to reconnect the text to life.”
It is important to note that Buber is not
reverting to mysticism here or trying a slight of hand by which to get behind
the intentional fallacy.
The point is
not to discover what the author may or may not have intended.
The point is to remember that the text was
created by a unique human being responding to his/her world.
I as a unique human being am entering into a
relationship with the art object (geistige Wesenheit) that emerged from that
This is no “object” in the
true sense, but the other, the Thou in all his/her uniqueness.
Finally, the interpreter’s conclusions about
the work must be manifested.
between interpreter and text has to be included in the larger I-Thou of the
The “application of the
message to the text to the interpreter’s life entails sharing the
interpretation of the message with a community of inquiry which will challenge and
refine the interpretation through a common dialogue.”
For performers, this means that each
interpretation is forming part of a larger dialogue about interpretation.
A performer can never get to the place where
he/she cannot hear criticism or praise from the community of interpreters.
If they do, they can rest assured that it is
no longer an I-Thou relationship with the text, but an I-I relationship which
has failed to respect the uniqueness and otherness of the text’s “bodily
renewed scholarly interest in Martin Buber’s philosophy has occurred across the
Buber does give us a
starting point from which to confront the assertions of meaninglessness
proposed by Derrida and the post-structuralist thinkers.
That the interest is occurring across the
disciplines (and not just in philosophy and literary theory) shows that the
breadth and depth of what the I-Thou relationship communicates far exceeds some
petty academic philosophical problem.
addition to post-structuralism, Buber steers us clear of some of the dangers of
mysticism in which the “I” part of the relationship is so consumed in religious
ecstasy that the Thou of the community is forgotten.
When Buber’s hermeneutic is applied to a work
of art, we are given not only a practical method for the possibility of a work
of art “blazing up into presentness”, but a vocabulary with which to discuss
that phenomenon even if we cannot fully articulate it.
In fact, the aesthetic implications of the
I-Thou relationship may be as unique as an I-Thou relationship itself.
His [Buber’s] stand is exceptional
because he sees communion (I-Thou) as the most fundamental phenomenon, which
cannot be subsumed under the category of subjectivity or feeling or
Communion precedes feelings.
It is not the feeling which conjures up the
aesthetic present but the other way around:
communion in simultaneity with the presence conjures up the
Aesthetic experience without
this relation is inconceivable.
the “relation’s own being” which becomes manifest as the being of art.
And the being of art can be conceived
concretely in relation (i.e., the experience in
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Romantic, and Modern
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du. Köln: J. Hegner, 1996.
Buber, Martin. I and
Thou. A new translation with a prologue
“I and You” and notes by Walter
Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Scribner, 1970.
Dallmayr, Fred R. and Thomas
A. McCarthy, eds. Understanding and
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Friedman, Maurice S. Martin
Buber’s life and work: the early years, 1878-1923
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University of New York Press, 1996.
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Ohio University Press, 1988.
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hermeneutics and narrative
Indiana University Press, 1992.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R.
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