Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Explaining The Void

Another day has passed and here I am having worked through another musical project. It has often occurred to me in previous times that my music is philosophical in its basis but these days I actually think it is philosophical commentary and expression regarding the subjects that I am thinking about. A case in point is my newly completed projected which, to myself at least, is known as The Emptiness Suite. This comprises my latest four albums, Absence of Presence, Engineers of A Meaningless Universe, Anthropocentric and We Are The Void. Of course, to make music as philosophy is not a straightforward business. When one philosophizes with words one utilizes language which, it might be argued, is much more precise in delineating terms and communicating ideas. But is it? I have read much philosophy written in books that was dense, stodgy and often incomprehensible so it is not as if, in using words, clarity is assured. 

But when philosophizing with music one faces a different task. A primary factor here is that the experience of listening to the music should engender feelings and ideas to do with the subject matter. This is the case here with The Emptiness Suite in that listeners should experience the ideas the sounds are about. One should experience or imagine an absence of presence when listening to Absence of Presence and feel themselves actually in a meaningless universe when listening to Engineers of A Meaningless Universe. When listening to We Are The Void I want you to feel in The Void. I have tried, by the use and manipulation of sounds, to make this a possibility but, of course, I cannot guarantee it anymore than someone who writes philosophy in books can guarantee that you get the point. Crucially though, it is relevant to note here that the music I have made in this suite (and more generally) is not an object, some piece of music that you subjectively appreciate as an entity. My music is an interactive and interdependent experience. How you feel in listening to it, what it makes you think and feel, is exactly the point of it. My ideal listener cannot distinguish between themselves and what they are hearing because it is all taken up in one holistic activity.

All that said, what is The Emptiness Suite about? I think that its a voyage of discovery, a voyage into emptiness, a voyage away from familiarity, a voyage away from much of the thinking that we in The West are immersed in, dominated, as it is, by all kinds of deceptive dualisms. The suite tells a kind of loose story. In Absence of Presence a malady is diagnosed. This malady is that the substance and presence we want to give to things is lacking. It is noticed that things never stand by or for themselves. They always need rhetorical backup. Things are always challengeable or even ignorable and this is worrying. We seem to want something beyond what we have got, something more firm and unarguable. But it is not to be found. This is experienced deep within us as a lack.

The focus then shifts from an implicit view from within a thinking subject to a macro view of the mass of humanity. The second album sets out to view us human beings as the engineers of a meaningless universe. This album is a comment on our activity, meaning and worth on planet Earth. As I see it, we go about building and doing and working, always only having enough to go on and do the same again tomorrow (if we are lucky) but we never build or work on anything that means something by and for itself. In the end it seems as if we are just doing all these things to fight off the nagging fear that if we didn't do something the horror of everything's meaninglessness would sink in. Everything passes away and all that's left is the fact we did a few things. We seek to increase our knowledge and our understanding of the universe through science but what meaning do these things give us? They seem unable to provide any because what does knowledge of particles mean to any of us? Its useless knowledge. We seem impotent to provide the meaning we need and so we build meaningless empires of knowledge instead to give ourselves a purpose that we cannot find in nature. The lack is there again.

And so, in album three, we become anthropocentric. In the famous statement that summarizes the Enlightenment, Man is the measure. When Man is the measure rationality is praised. This album focuses on human beings as they have become today, beings who see themselves as in some sense special or different in the universe. They regard themselves as tasked with a purpose and regard their knowledge and science as ways to objectively improve the situation of both themselves and other things with which they have to do. This is built on the belief that humans beings can have real knowledge of things and objectively understand the universe in which they are set. Thus, human ways of thinking and acting are accorded the status necessary to believe that such goals are possible. It is believed that the universe has a fixed, objective reality and that, as perspicuous beings, we have the possibility to learn what this is. Having this knowledge will, we think, make us the masters of it. I see all this as a kind of God complex within human beings who always either want divinity for themselves or to be put in touch with something more permanent or eternal than they are. It is, for me, another expression of the lack expressed in parts one and two. Human beings are never happy to settle for being just more meaningless matter in an uncaring universe. They always want to build up their part. 

My conclusion is reached in album four, We Are The Void. This is a musical expression of the idea from my last blog "Eureka!" but reinforced by some recent reading of Buddhist texts, notably the so-called "Heart Sutra". Talk of Buddhism may scare some of my readers and I admit that I myself hesitate to read the texts I have done because I am, these days, very wary regarding religious or spiritual doctrines and dogmas. I am looking for neither thing but am open to philosophical insights. And the problem with a lot of religions is that they find themselves unable to resist the urge to make doctrines and dogmas out of things. Surely thousands of years of human history has taught us, however, that ways of understanding change and that if you want to make yourself look a fool write up some document and then say that it is forever eternally true. You will look as silly as those Americans who blather on about the right to bear arms because some guys 200+ years ago wrote the 2nd Amendment. The past cannot bind the future. The future must take care of itself.

So I read The Heart Sutra not as any doctrine or dogma and not to be told "the world is really like this" (which would be a massive mistake, not least in the context of what it says) but in order to stimulate my own thinking about my own place in the world and how I see this vale of tears we call life. Much that I found there is readily compatible with the sorts of pragmatist and existentialist philosophical things I have talked about in numerous blogs. The key idea is that of Śūnyatā (emptiness). This emptiness is not one of nothingness. Rather it is the idea that nothing is one thing. It is a way of expressing the idea that everything is, in fact, a flux of interdependent becoming. (Nietzsche said much the same thing.) This is said because it is recognized that nothing is able to bring itself into being. There is always some other cause outside of itself. Everything is always related to other things and, in this sense, a subject/object duality seems beside the point. (Hence why my ideal listener can't distinguish themselves from the music: its all one holistic event.) I see this idea as readily compatible with something such as Richard Rorty's idea that all meaning and understanding is a matter of panrelationalism, the relating of all things to other things in order to make sense of them. In turn, this is a holistic vision. Everything is one. This insight is for Buddhists a way to enlightenment. It also works well with the existentialist mantra "existence precedes essence". The flux of your experience is paramount, not some magical essence that is supposedly the real you.

I think, in the terms of a centuries old Buddhism, this is a similar thought to my own about we humans being The Void that we diagnose in our life and experience. The lack we feel is at times unavoidable even though we can try to work and build and ignore the voice always waiting to be heard in our heads, the voice that tells us something is missing. It is my idea that we being the very creatures we are creates the void, the lack, that we experience. It is part of the human condition. This Buddhist idea of emptiness, of the radical interdependent flux of being, of all things, ("things" becomes a problematic designation because the Buddhist idea wants to experience a holistic flux and not see an atomistic set of objects) augments this by providing a philosophical background in which my idea can find a home. In this flux we, in our form of being, partake of it. It is, if you will, and without wanting to sound too much like a Swami or a huckster, a way of experiencing reality as a unity without objects and feeling at one with everything else. We are supposed to feel The Void. Experiencing this lack is the good faith of recognizing that there are no gods or eternal divinities for us to get in touch with (whilst simultaneously experiencing the existential rift over which we must leap if we will live). There is just the forever relatability of all things. 

I cannot but admit that this has a therapeutic effect for me. But if you find that out of bounds ask yourself why anyone at all ever asks themselves what their place in the universe is. This is a basic human question and I can't believe that anybody, whatever their answer, does it for any other reason than to provide themselves with some kind of stability, peace or comfort. So if you find it illegitimate of me here - back atcha! The important thing, I feel, is that it is done as honestly as you can. There is no cheating the person you see in the mirror.

So my story is one of people who experience lack, who can never find the permanence and stability they seek. There is always an existential lack, a not quite full enough, not quite stable enough. We try to build empires but they are built on the equivalent of sand. Each gets washed away and superceded. This, I am saying, is because we are the void. We can never fill it because our make up includes this emptiness. It is basic to us and our form of being. This, in turn, is an expression of our link to all other things in a great emptiness, the emptiness that is all things, all things that are interdependently related, forever linked in a flux of becoming.

So that was the text explaining my latest project but, ideally, it should be experienced musically. Maybe it will make more (or less) or different sense when done that way. It is basic to my understanding of life that things which are experienced are those which are, at heart, understood. Book learning, facts, knowledge, only takes you so far. The lesson of emptiness is that all is a matter of relationships and it is only by being in relationship with people and things that we can truly have any understanding of them.

You can hear The Emptiness Suite of albums at my Bandcamp which is at

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