sonorous beings in musical space

on absolute music'


This is the second of a series of texts that should be read in the following order:

Movement conjuring signs
Sonorous beings and absolute music
Auditory mimesis and music

Whoever is not familiar with the concept of 'mimesis' should first read Mimesis'


In the text 'Movement conjuring signs' we got acquainted with a special kind of auditory signs: auditory movement conjuring signs for singing, working and dancing, which, next to auditory expressions (like weeping and laughing) and verbal language, belong to the most important elements of the human auditory appearance. In the text below, we want to show how the auditory movement conjuring signs can be heard as auditory phenomena in their own right. The sounds of movement conjuring signs for work and dance music, as well as those for auditory expressions and speaking, are then heard as moving sound, which is experienced as a sonorous being in musical space. The shift of the attention to what we could call the sonorous body lies at the roots of the development of what is called 'absolute music'.

Let us describe this metamorphosis step by step.


The most important factor that draws the attention to the sonorous body as such, is the introduction of sounds with discrete and fixed pitch. Tones seem to escape the laws of the visual, three-dimensional world: we do not hear the tones of the harp where the fingers touch the strings. When our fingers glide back-and- forth over the strings, it is as if the tones go up and down. Apparently, the tones organise themselves on a vertical axis from high to low in a musical space of their own. After their ascent in musical space, they leave the sound source that produced them behind in the three-dimensional world. In musical space, they seem no longer to be produced with fingers on an instrument or through vibrations of the vocal chords: they are experienced as autonomous auditory appearances - as sounds floating in musical space. In the real world, the phenomenon does not occur, were it alone for the fact that most natural sounds are not pure tones, but also because, even when we are dealing with tones, we always try to locate the sound source visually - although that is not always obvious, as is demonstrated with ventriloquism. We only experience a comparable uncoupling when it is impossible to locate the sound source in the visual word, as with thunder or echo. The uncoupling unfolds to a full ascent of musical space when several discrete tones are heard together or one after another, especially when overtones become audible - think of the 'quintina' - a 'female voice' that becomes audible when males sing a capella on Sardinia (Bernard Lortat-Jacob).

The phenomenon is to be heard in all clarity in the 'Hostias' from the Requiem of Berlioz, when, between the singing of the choir, but above all at the impressive conclusion, the trombones and the flutes resound; in Les mains de l'abîme of Messiaen, when, after a short introduction (1' 35"), three voices begin to move independently in three layers of musical space; or in the wonderful 'Stasimo secondo' from Nono's Prometeo.


Not only pitch seems to withdraw sound from the real world and to reallocate it in a musical space in its own right, also the concatenation of sustained sounds to motifs and melodies has the same effect. As long as tones are merely isolated events, it is natural to hear them as sounds that are produced by a musician. In a series of such isolated events, the sound acquires a certain autonomy when it appears to be part of more encompassing wholes like measure or metameasure, especially when, through variations in pitch, it also appears to be part of a more encompassing tonal structure - a melody or a succession of chords. But as long as a melody continues to consist of isolated events, we continue to hear the up-and-down of the tones as a sign for a movement, and as the products of the playing of a musician on a musical instrument. We described how an ever broader array of instruments make it possible to produce sustained tones. When such tones are combined to motifs that conjure movements, or - as is from the beginning the case with speech music - to melodies on longer successions of words (verses, stanzas), the attention shifts from the isolated tones to the succession as a whole. The succession of movement conjuring signs is then no longer heard as a succession of isolated tones of different pitch, but as one and the same sound that appears on different heights - as a melody.

The capacity of the voice or of instruments to produce a continuous succession of sounds is variable. Unbroken continuity is the rule with auditory expressions: think of the crying of the baby, the howling of wolves or the song of whales. With verbal utterances, the continuity of the expiration is broken through articulation, whereby a whole array of attacks - the consonants - is joined by a whole array of sustained tones - vowels. It suffices to omit the consonants when singing (and that is from the beginning the case with instrumental singing) to obtain a full melody where the beat and the rhythm are no longer marked by the onset of an isolated tone, but by pure change of pitch. With the voice and wind instruments, the length of the succession is limited by the necessity to breathe in again ('Om). This problem can be solved through circular breathing; or with instruments like the bagpipe or the organ. With bowed string instruments, the length of the 'expiration' can be prolonged at will - think of the grandiose melodic arc in the Adagietto of Mahler, of the melodies in the Vorspiel to the IIIth Act of the Tristan of Wagner, or of the long succession of chords at the end of 'Im Abendrot' of Richard Strauss. Even the nearly perceptible interruption caused by the change of the direction of bowing can be got rid of, as with a hurdy-gurdy, or, better still, in an orchestra, where seamless changes of all kinds can be obtained through gradual or differential onset - think of Atmosphères of Ligeti or the spectralists. With electronic sound production, there are no limitations whatsoever. Let us remark that also a fast repetition of notes may give the impression of a continuous movement, so that also plucked or struck string instruments can proceed to producing sustained tones - just think of that marvellous Finale Presto of the 2nd piano sonata of Chopin.And that reminds us of the fact that also purely rhythmic formations can be experienced as coherent entities, especially when they are no longer meant to conjure human movements, like with Taiko drummers.

The more a tone comes to unfold in time into a melody that comes to freely traverse musical space, the more compellingly is it experienced as a sound that moves in musical space. Conversely, it becomes all the more difficult to find movements of the human body that could be the earthly analogue of such a melody, or to hear the melody as the (vocal or instrumental) singing of the singer or the musician that plays it. The only solution is to no longer conceive of the sound as of a movement conjuring sign for vocal or instrumental song or for dance movements, but to hear it as a sound in its own right that seems to follow its own trajectory in musical space. We will come back on this subject in 'preferential reading' below.

The reading of tone as a sonorous being imposes itself especially when several melodies begin to move simultaneously. That begins already when men and women sing together, so that the voices begin to move in parallel octaves. But soon the voices begin to move independently, as when one voice begins to move freely above sustained bass notes, like in Gospodi, or the later cantus firmus, whence full polyphony and its monodic offspring. Other trajectories towards polyphony are conceivable (Aka polyphony). But in all these cases, tonal relations, that up to now were only audible as succession, become also audible as simultaneous distances between the voices: as a succession of chords. Nothing contributes more to the unfolding of musical space than the combination of independent voices moving through chords. Chords as such already exert a magical attraction, but is only in the succession of chords that the magic comes to its apogee and that the emancipation of the sound, which was already announced in the single melody, is fully realised. That magic is all the greater since - as already Pythagoras discovered - it seems to be governed by a system of simple mathematical proportions, that are easily discovered and applied when building musical instruments.

It is through the magic that unfolds when sounds begin to move in musical space, that the metamorphosis of speech music and dance music into what is called 'absolute music' is accomplished. A comparison with that other typically human auditory sign system - human language - is instructive. The sonorous body of the verbal signs can here equally draw the attention, but the system of oppositions that structures the verbal sonorous bodies (the system of vowels and consonants) does not lead to the ascent of a new world - especially since the consonants belong to the kind of sonorous material that is common in our everyday auditory environment. That is why endeavours to create a new world with the sonorous material of language never give rise to a new world: we continue to hearpoems like those ofHugo Ball or Kurt Schwitters as - albeit 'meaningless' -'language'.


We described how pitch lies at the roots of the unfolding of musical space, and how successions of sounds of increasing duration come to inhabit that space simultaneously or successively. When it is the same sound that changes pitch, the impression arises of a sonorous being that moves in space, and, since it is not an erratic, aimless movement, but a movement that is governed by movement conjuring signs (see below), the being seems animated. The colour of the sound, but foremost the course of its movement has an outspoken expressive freight: solemn or erratic, cheerful or depressed, elegant or clumsy. That is why the moving sound is not only the momentaneous appearance of an enduring being that can take many other positions in space, but also of something that inhabits the sound - a being with an enduring substance or a soul. (Let us remark that the why of this expressiveness should not further concern us here any more than the question why a certain curve of the lips has an certain expression: that is a problem for a theory of expression, like Darwin's 'Emotions and expressions of man').

The sound that moves in musical space is no longer an accumulation of auditory signs (for the movement of dancers or the expression of the singer), but a phenomenon sui generis, and not so much a mere phenomenon, but rather an appearance in the double sense: a momentaneous phase in the process of appearing, and the outer appearance of an internal soul. Granted, this is a most remarkable being. Since only an auditory appearance is given, we cannot conjure up other appearances in our mind, like we do with the visual image of singing whales or weeping children. The sonorous beings in musical space are monosensorial beings. Also in the visual world, there are monosensorial phenomena (fire, the rainbow, polar light, mist and sunsets). To avoid misrecognising the monosensorial nature of sonorous beings in musical space, we will avoid speaking of an underlying substance, but rather of a soul that inhabits not so much a tangible body as rather an immaterial sound. Substance is a term that suits the visible world, where substances are mostly tangible and material. The term 'soul' is also appropriate because the human voice is a sound that resounds from behind the visible surface of the body and that informs us about what is not visible 'inside' the body. Also Schopenhauer's will is all too readily associated with movements of the body in a three-dimensional world. The soul of the sonorous body is rather akin to the ghost in the marsh fire. Therein, the soul of the otherwise often antropomorphous sonorous beings differs radically from the human soul that has descended into a material body.

The shift of the attention to the sonorous body has as a consequence that music is no longer read as an exherent movement conjuring sing that conjures movements of bodies that are susceptible to gravitation, nor as inherent movement conjuring signs that conjure the (vocal or instrumental singing) of bodies of expressive beings, but as the auditory appearance of a being wherein an autonomous soul manifests itself . This metamorphosis can be represented schematically by adding the red rectangles to the scheme from 'Movement conjuring signs':

sonorous being
auditory appearance
in musical space
movement conjuring sign in real space dancing

In the first instance, it is existing speech music and dance music - foremost the virtuoso version of 'play music' - that may be read as absolute music, and absolute music may to a great extent develop within the confines of speech music and dance music. But it is obvious that the perspectives opened by the reading of sounds as moving beings are so promising, that absolute music will soon break any bonds with vocal or instrumental singing and with working or dancing bodies, so that the sonorous body can unfold in all its glory. As soon as that is the case, music is no longer experienced as the vocal or instrumental expression of a singer or a musician, nor as a sign for working or dancing bodies, but as an expressive moving sound.

Let us illustrate this scheme with a progression of examples. In the Vorspiel to the 3th act of the Tristan of Richard Wagner sounds are moving from the depths to the highest regions of musical space. In the overture to Lohengrin of Wagner sounds descend in ever lower regions of musical space. In the Finale Presto of the 2nd piano sonata of Chopin, a musical being is moving erratically through broad regions of musical space. In most polyphonic music, par excellence in the fugue (for instance Bachs Contrapunctus 1), several kindred beings ('voices') are moving in diverse layers of musical space. Less anthropomorphic beings appear in Atmosphères of Ligeti or Pithoprakta (1956) of Xenakis, and with the Taiko drummers.

The examples are chosen with care, because there are many examples that are less convincing. The reason is that many absolute music is combined or condensed with other kinds of music - which adds only to the protean nature of music, that is already familiar to us from (Proteus) and which is a major obstacle in a proper approach of the phenomenon of music. But, before delving deeper into this, time has come to make a general statement on the nature of the music that consists of sounds that are no longer read as movement conjuring signs


The above scheme clearly shows why music that is no longer conjuring the singing or the dancing of human bodies, but a sonorous being sui generis - music that is no longer speech music or dance music - is an imitation, mimesis. The auditory appearance that unfolds in musical space is not emanating from a really existing soul, it is produced by instruments in three-dimensional space. The singer or the musician are merely the medium bearers of the moving tones. We could compare with the way in which marble as a medium bearer conjures up the visual appearance of the David of Michelangelo that normally emanates from a real body in flesh and blood. The sole difference is that the David is a visual appearance of a being that is also tangible (and hence at least bisensorial), so that we can feel the mimetic difference by touching the marble. With absolute music, we are dealing with a monosenosial being whose imitation is bisensorial; here, the mimetic difference is to be found in that we also see musicians and their instruments, where we should only hear sounds.

Absolute music is not only mimesis, it is also the very paradigm of completed mimesis: through having the musician produce the outer appearance, the composer conjures up the 'soul' of non-existent beings that come to inhabit that appearance. The whole world of the sonorous beings in their musical space only exists through the activity of the musicians; they create the beings that they are imitating through duplicating their auditory appearance, just like painters conjure up living beings through duplicating their visual appearance on a canvas. The irony is that the very absolute music, that has been proclaimed as the absolute - 'abstract' - counterpart of 'mimetic' photography, especially by painters, is in fact the very paradigm of pure mimesis - completed mimesis. Not as negation of mimesis, but rather as its completed form is music the counterpart of photography, which is the very paradigm of uncompleted mimesis.

And, since we are dealing with sounds that are really audible, and not with mental representations, absolute music is also unmediated mimesis - even when the sounds are situated in a non-existing musical space.

Finally, we have to remind that absolute music is mimesis of monosensorial beings.


The transformation of movement conjuring signs into moving sound can only occur when we no longer understand sound as something that is produced by a musician on an instrument, but rather as the auditory appearance of a monosensorial being in musical space. Several factors impede such an uncoupling of sound from musical instrument.

Although we naturally make abstraction of the production of the sound when hearing absolute music, the absence of an explicit theoretical model that clearly distinguishes between speech music and dance music on the one hand, and absolute music on the other hand, hinders us from understanding sound as an animated sonorous being. That is a first factor that makes us believe that the sounds that we hear in musical space are the voices of singers or sounds from instruments. This approach is anchored in language: we cannot help talking about the 'voices' of the fugue, whereas there is nobody singing there, even not when the fugue is sung.

The reading of the sound as a product of singer of a player is enhanced in that we use to listen to music with open eyes, so that we actually see how each sound is produced. It is as if we lose sight of musical space when concentrating on the studio where it is produced. In the studio, we no longer hear movements in musical space, but rather see fingers and hands at work on keyboards, strings, winds and percussion, - so that we rather see the sounds move from left to right over the keyboard rather than up and down in musical space.

But also with closed eyes, the unfolding of musical space can be hindered in that a sound may all too readily betray that it is produced by a voice or a musical instrument. Foremost the onset is revealing, especially with percussion and plucked and struck instruments. Also the new 'ways of playing' are inimical to the unfolding of musical space - just compare the prelude to the third act of La traviata with Grido of Helmut Lachenmann. With singers, it is the articulation and the particular timbre of a voice that betray that we are dealing with a singer and with which (think of Satchmo), especially when we see him and when he is a lyric or dramatic singer. The joint onset of several kinds of instruments reduces the recognisability in that the identity of each attck is lost in the combination. Timbre and onset can be neutralised through the use of monochrome ensembles (choir, string quartet, recorder .... and so on). Also the localisability in real space is important; sounds of which it cannot be assessed where they are produced - were it only for the echo - cannot but easily ascend in musical space, especially when the musician is nowhere to be seen, as with many an organist in a church. That is one of the reasons why many an instrument has an 'echo chamber' in the guise of a resonance box. Conversely, drawing the attention to the location of the sound source (polychorality, letting the sound circulate in space) to the localisation of sound in three-dimensional space (see 'Musical space'.)

A next factor that prevents a sound from ascending in musical space, is its similarity to existing sounds: it is practically impossible to hear the sound of a siren or a train whistle, the breathing in Sciarrino's Autoritratto or the wordless speaking in Harvey's 'Speakings' as pure sound. In most of these cases, the sound is coupled to a mostly visually perceptible object - chain saws, cracking doors and what have you. The avoidance of similarity with existing sounds is the main reason why, from way back, music shows an outspoken preference for pure tones that are produced by musical instruments: the more sustained and fixed the tones, the less they remind of the more gliding tones of speech, and the purer the sound, the less it is likely to occur in the real world. In principle, it is also possible to hear existing sounds as auditory appearances - just think of the sound of jet engines (Stockhausen), or when we concentrate on the song of the bird, rather than on the bird that is singing. But the less pure the sound, the more it is likely to resemble existing sounds, and the purer it is, the more the sound sources become interchangeable - just think of the resemblance between a woman's voice and the sound of a violin or a flute. When there is no tone at all, musical space cannot unfold. Let us remark that variations in the width of clusters are perceived as tonal differences (think of Ligeti's Atmospères or the beginning of Phasma of Beat Furrer), and that many complex sounds are combinations of discrete tones.

A last factor that hinders the uncoupling of sound and sound source is, that with all speech music and dance music (just like with their imitations, see 'Auditory mimesis and music'), the music has the be heard as the sound that is produced by the singer or the musician indeed: otherwise, it would be impossible to understand vocal or instrumental speech music as the singing of a singer (be it a real or an imaginary one like Arianna) or as the playing of a musician (be it a real of an imaginary one like the Leiermann). Since these are the most popular kinds of music, it is swimming against the tide to conceive of sound as of an autonomous phenomenon. Add to this that most absolute music is combined or condensed with other kinds of music, so that we have to hear the sound now as produced by a voice or an instrument, and then as an autonomous phenomenon.


After having highlighted the existence of (imaginary) sonorous beings, and having demonstrated which resistances hinder an adequate perception of these beings, it matters to refine our analysis.

That sounds are heard as the auditory appearance of sonorous beings in musical space, does not mean that pitches would no longer be read as signs for the course of a movement, and even less that their movement would not be organised metrically and rhythmically. Quite the contrary: their tonal and metric-rhythmic relations are heard as movement conjuring signs that are inherent to the movement of the sonorous appearance - and hence no longer as movement conjuring signs that are inherent to the singing or exherent to movements of workers or dancers. Also moving sounds may, just like singing or dancing men, organise their movement through meter and rhythm and through tonal tensions, and synchronise them with those of other moving sounds. And, since they consist of sounds, they can do so by just transforming their sounding appearance into movement conjuring signs, just like it was the case with the musicalisation of speech. Thus, an individual sound - a melody or 'voice' - can move in a certain measure and on a certain rhythm, and over fixed pitches that are part of a scale, so that they generate tonal tensions that structure the course of the movement. Thus, several moving voices ('the 'voices' in a motet or a fuge) may move in the same measure, and the distance between them in musical space can equally coincide with tonal intervals that structure the course of their common movement.

It is only natural that the sonorous beings move on the tones of a scale, because such are the tones that are produced by the musical instruments that are used for playing speech music and dance music. But especially in view of the developments of the past hundred years, we should point to the fact that the presence of structured tonal and metric-rhythmic relations is not at all necessary to be able to speak of music: not all sonorous beings are moving within an ordered meter and on ordered scales. Sometimes the tonal relations are secondary, as with purely moving up and down over the keyboard - think of the already mentioned Finale Presto of the 2nd piano sonata of Chopin or on the many 'waves' of Liszt in as far as they are read absolutely. Further, a melody can be a-metric and/or atonal. And several - metrically or tonally organised - melodies may move independently without common meter - polymetric, polyrhytmic or just a-metric - and on distances that contain no tonal tensions (polytonal or atonal, or in clusters like in Atmosphères' of Ligeti). Let us also remind that not only regularity makes us expect the next event: also complete unpredictability may produce an intense feeling of expectation.

The domain of sonorous beings merely overlaps the domain of movement conjuring signs, which in its turn not only contains the world of moving sounds, but also speech music and dance music, where the movement conjuring signs are either exherent (with dance music and most work music), or inherent (most work music and all speech music). We can visualise this state of affairs as follows (whereby pink refers to the domain of movement conjuring signs and the red letters to the domain of moving sounds):

movement conjuring

exherent work - and dance music
inherent language,
(semi) audible movements
sonorous beings
none sonorous beings

The domain of the movement conjuring signs (pink) is only partially coextensive with that of music as such: it contains speech-, work- and dance music, and that of absolute music only partially.

It pays to delve somewhat deeper into the relation between absolute music and meter, rhythm and pitch. With speech music and dance music, from both the basic parameters of movement conjuring signs, meter is imperative and tone facultative (think of marching on the pure rhythm of drums), but they only come to full bloom when tone is added. Work or dance music with only tonal relations without meter and rhythm is inconceivable.

metric/rhythmic metric/rhythmic

With the sonorous beings of absolute music, things are different, because it is no longer movements of human bodies that have to be conjured up, but all the conceivable simultaneous or successive moments of one or more sounds: very fast and very slow movements, gradual change (glissando, crescendo or gradual changes of colour like in Volumina of Ligeti), and even standstill (like in the beginning of Mahler's Mitternachtslied) or movements that are not metrically organised at all (Stasimo secondo from the Prometeo of Luigi Nono, or the unpredictable 'measure' of many contemporary compositions). We have to construct a different spectrum, hence:

neutralised tone tone (complex of) tones
metric/rhythmic metric/rhythmic a-metric/ neutralised meter

At the left end of the spectrum, we have sounds with metrically organised movement and where tone is neutralised in that there is (practically) no change: think of the sound blocks in the Sacre of Stravinsky. We are dealing with sonorous beings that appear intermittently, whereby the moment of their appearance functions as a synchronising movement conjuring sign. At the opposite end, we have sounds that are (practically) not organised metrically or rhythmically, but only tonally, like in the first stanza of 'Hor che'l ciel' of Monteverdi,'Institution de l'Eucharistie' of Messiaen, the end of 'Abendrot' of Richard Strauss, but above all in Guai ai gelidi mostri of Luigi Nono. The less metric-rhythmic the sonorous beings, the more they discern themselves from the movement conjuring signs of dance music, and the more easily musical space unfolds; the more metric-rhythmic the sonorous beings, the more they come to resemble the movement conjuring signs of dance music - just think of the Sacre, and the greater the resistance against the ascent of the sounds in musical space. That is why it comes only fully apparent that there is something like musical space inhabited with sonorous beings when their movement ceases to be organised metrically and rhythmically (as in the already mentioned Guai ai gelidi mostri). But absolute music can stress its inalienable identity also through movements that can not be executed by human bodies: think of the scherzos of Beethoven (Scherzo quartet opus 131) and Brahms, or the studies of Chopin and Liszt (La leggierezza), or the early works of Xenakis like Pithoprakta (1956).


'Singend und tanzend äussert sich der Mensch als Mitglied einer höheren Gemeinschaft:
er hat das Gehen und Sprechen verlernt und ist auf dem Wege, tanzend in die Lüfte emporzufliegen'

Nietzsche, Geburt der Tragödie, (1871).

Rhythmically, metrically and tonally organised movements ignite an irresistible urge to imitate them. In 'movement conjuring signs', we already described how that leads to the formation of the community of speakers (like praying believers or scanning demonstrators), workers or dancers. In that community, all enjoy the sense of community that originates in simultaneously executing the same movements, but also the activity itself, in case: the performance of (subdued or crazy, erotic or aggressive,....) expressive movements.

Especially the movements in absolute music (in so far as it is structured by inherent metric and tonal movement conjuring signs) are apt to ignite the urge to join it. Therein it comes to resemble the very speech and dance music from which it had emancipated. But, there is a difference: the movements that are conjured up here, are no longer movements of the human body (speaking or singing, working or dancing), but movements of sonorous beings in musical space. Whereas in speech music and dance music, movements are conjured up that are made for human beings, it is not evident to join the movements of sonorous beings - we can move on the surface of the earth, but not in musical space, and we have a body that is only able to perform a limited range of movements. Only when we leave our body in the material world, in the wake of the sonorous beings that left the musical instruments to which they owe their existence behind, can we join the movements of the sonorous beings. In the ideal case, the listener undergoes a metamorphosis into a sonorous soul that joins the movements of the sonorous beings in musical space. We can speak of a kind of ascent in heaven, like Nietzsche in the quotation above. And, since all the listeners are moving along with the same moving sounds, they become one with each other and with the moving sounds in one single encompassing ethereal community But, whereas all those who sing or dance together can hear or see each other, and hence enjoy their communal merger with the singing or dancing community, in the concert hall only immobile listeners are to be seen who seem to look at the spectacle of an orchestra playing, while in an invisible musical space the souls of the listeners are moving together with the sounds that are duplicated by the orchestra. Only after the concert, they express their consent by applause. The situation resembles that of the readers that read a novel in seclusion and talk about their experience afterwards.

sonorous being
auditory appearance
in musical space
singing/playing body

movement conjuring sign in real space dancing body

If there is something like a community of moving souls, it is to be heard in musical space (the pink cell), whereas the community of speakers or singers (yellow cell) is audible in the church or in the streets, and the community of dancers is visible on the dance floor (grey cell)..

To highlight that phenomenon, I have given it a name: sympathetic mimesis - the identification with imitated beings. Whoever listens to Isoldes Liebestod, is joining the ecstatic movements of the sounds. Therein, absolute music differs from the normal, non-sympathetic forms of mimesis: whoever sees the Mona Lisa smiling, does not feel inclined to smile along with her,but rather reacts as it is appropriate to such appearance.

Let us remark that such an imaginary community of listeners and sonorous beings is not always formed: that is only the case in so far as absolute music is condensed with inherent movement conjuring signs. When that is not the case, the soul of the listeners continues to dwell in their bodies, like with other forms of mimesis. That is especially the case with music on the right side of the continuum in the scheme above, where there are only (the rests of) purely tonal tension: our attitude towards Pitoprakta does not differ from that towards an avalanche or towards the weeping of a child - and is similar, hence, to that towards the smile of the Mona Lisa. In 'Auditory mimesis and music' we will demonstrate that sympathetic mimesis is not a privilege of absolute music, but that it is a general characteristic of mimetic music as such: just like we join the ecstatic movements of sounds in Isoldes Liebestod, we also join the lament of Monteverdi's Arianna.


The presence of movement conjuring signs in the auditory appearance of sonorous beings carries a danger: they threaten to inspire not so much the sonorous soul of the listener, as rather his body, that then feels compelled to dance or play (or sing) along. Both propensities hinder the advent of musical space and the conception of music as an autonomous moving sound, whether or not in combination with the factors with the same effect that we mentioned above.

Let us first examine the propensity to interpret the movement conjuring signs that are meant to structure the movement of the sonorous beings as exherent movement conjuring signs for the movement of tangible bodies - as a kind of dance music, - rather than as an invitation to join the movement of the immaterial sounds after our own transformation into a sonorous soul. The temptation is all the more real when absolute music resembles dance music (Handel concerto for harp, Stravinsky's Symphonies of wind instruments). When the sounds move in a meter and in a tempo that suits the movements of legs, arms and hands, the tangible body can no longer refrain from moving along. But the reverse metamorphosis of sonorous soul to moving body is only partial: it is only parts of the body that begin to move, and their movements are only a faint afterglow of the richness of the movements of the sonorous beings (especially when it is not a single being that is moving there, but several) if they are not confining themselves to the performance of some arbitrary movement in a measure that structures totally different movements of the sonorous beings. It is as if the ethereal world of the sonorous beings is partly anchored in the visible, material world. Whereas we are dealing with a double - proper and improper - interpretation of the music, the false impression arises that there is only one dimension: as if the sounds that are moving in musical space would conjure up the movements of the listeners, not otherwise than the sounds of a dance orchestra. Such elliptic reading gives the impression that there are only the coloured cells in the scheme below, whereby the rose cell finds its prolongation in the grey ones:

sonorous being
auditory appearance
in musical space
movement conjuring sign in real space dancing bodies

Far more fertile is the temptation to have the movement conjuring signs no longer conjure up merely the movements of the moving sounds and sonorous souls, but also the movements with which it is produced. With the listener, that leads to the propensity to sing or play along, or to feel like a conductor that conjures up the playing of the musicians, and ,with the musicians, to the propensity to conceive of the movement of the sonorous beings as their own vocal or instrumental singing:

sonorous being
auditory appearance
in musical space
movement conjuring sign in real space dancing bodies

Also this double phenomenon is often read elliptically as if it were a single phenomenon: the listeners and the musicians get the impression that the music is their auditory Absolute music is then experienced as if the were the vocal or instrumental expression of the musicians.


Such elliptic reading lies at the roots of the ineradicable misconception that absolute music is the appearance of the musician (or the composer) rather than of sonorous beings.

The adepts of this theory mostly forget that there is often not only an immense difference between the nature of the musician and that of the musical being that is conjured up in musical space - just think of the difference between the unsightly organist and the overwhelming 'Eglise éternelle' of Messiaen, but that there are also purely quantitative differences: either there is only one musician for many musical beings (as with the execution of a fugue on the piano), or several musicians are conjuring up a single sonorous being (think of Atmosphères of Ligeti). Against this background, there is some irony in the expressive performances of four part fugues by musicians like Glenn Gould.Absolute music is thus not the expression of the performer, even when it is a lyric or dramatic singer like in the love duet of Tristan and Isolde or in the Liebestod: how less we are dealing here with singing beings becomes apparent as soon as we realise that the singing 'voices' are embedded in instrumentally played movements, or when we hear instrumental versions, or just listen to the Vorspiel. We come back to these problems in 'Auditory mimesis and music', where we shall see that the problem with absolute music is only a particular variant of the problem with imitated auditory beings in general, and how it is obfuscated by the many kinds of combinations of many kinds of music - like in the Tristan.

Except when we are dealing with vocal or instrumental speech music (or with the imitation of singers which will be dealt with in 'Auditory mimesis and music'), music is something quite different from weeping or expression in general.

The wrong idea that absolute music is the expression of the composer or the musician, entails a misunderstanding of the phenomenon of sympathetic mimesis. We have seen how the inherent movement conjuring signs that conjure up the movements of sonorous beings may also elicit the propensity of the listener to move along as a sonorous soul, or, less appropriately, as a singer, musician or conductor, yes even as a dancer. Whoever understands absolute music as the expression of the musician, cannot but understand such moving along as a direct transfer of the emotion of the musician or the composer on the listener. In reality, we are only dealing with a more complicated version of what happens when the community of the singers sing together or when the community of the dancers dances together: the sympathetic singing or sympathetic dancing that we described in the previous text ('Singing versus listening').


Apparently, absolute music is not always heard as absolute music. The degree to which it is heard as speech music or dance music depends on the nature of the music itself: to what extent is musical space unfolded, to what extent is the individuality of the sonorous beings accentuated (length, gestalt), how many musical beings are there (polyphony, fugue), in how far do the sounds lend themselves for a reading as auditory expression and speaking, or as signs for the movements of human body, and in how far can the sound be uncoupled from the instrument on which it is produced.

Also the reverse is true:all speech or dance music can be heard as absolute music, and the more easily when musical space is not confined within the limits of a single octave, when more than one being is moving, when sounds resemble less the auditory expression and speaking, when they lend themselves less to execution through the human body, and when they can easily be uncoupled form the instruments on which they are produced. Thus, the long sustained tones in 'Nacht und Träume' - that do not particularly resemble articulated speech music, but are nevertheless taken for expressive speech music because they are sung on words, lend themselves also, or even better, to a reading as sounds moving in musical space, all the more since the movement conjuring signs in the accompaniment facilitate such reading. The same goes for Barbarina's cavatina 'L'ho he perduta'. And the music of the Vorspiel to the third act of the Tristan can in the beginning also be read as a kind of auditory expression, but as soon a reading as sounds ascending to heaven imposes itself irresistibly.

Although every kind of music can be heard as expressive speech music or as dance music and as absolute music, it is apparent that there is something like a preferential reading. The possibility of double reading should not make us blind for the existence of opposite kinds of music, nor should we feel obliged to range music exclusively in one of those categories. Only when we recognise that there is something like preferential reading do we begin to realise that there also many kinds of combinations.

In the next text, we will show that other kinds of mimetic music only come to add to the kinds of music that can be read as absolute music and only increases the number of possible combinations of different kinds of music.

© Stefan Beyst, spring 2012.

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