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The truth within the illusion: on the interplay of music, perception, and ethics

This paper was originally given at the Music Cognition Colloquium at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. My thanks to Oliver Schneller and David Temperley for the invitation and to their many colleagues and students who contributed thought-provoking questions and discussion. This version of the paper has been substantially revised for the THEME colloquium series at the University of Washington.


In a well-known scene from The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus offers Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, a choice between two pills. If Neo takes the blue pill he will stay in the comforting delusion that the Matrix provides. If he takes the red pill he will awaken from his hallucinatory slumber and glimpse the material reality the Matrix is constructed upon. Commenting on this scene in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slovenian philosopher and clown prince of Media Studies, Slavoj Žižek says:

"I want a third pill…that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.” He adds, "The choice between the blue pill and the red pill is not really a choice between illusion and reality. If you take away from reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself...Our fundamental delusion today is not to take fictions too seriously. It's on the contrary not to take fictions seriously enough."[1]

This is not to deny the reality of matters of fact, or to suggest that matters of fact are somehow false, subjective, or illusory, but only to recognize that they are incomplete. That is, to point up a nuanced distinction between the factual and the meaningful. Within the domain of art, this can be drawn in terms of the distinction between technique, understood as the material basis through which a work of art is constructed, and something much harder to define. Namely, that which technique seems to be aimed at, the originary impulse of the creative act. In other words, the why of artistic expression that calls the how of technique into action.

More precisely, we might consider this in terms of the enormous practical value that psychoacoustic research has in its application to musical composition. Research in psychoacoustics can help to identify possibilities and constraints that might suggest innovative material as a starting point for a new work. Knowledge of the effect of perceptual and cognitive constraints on such aspects as harmony, acoustics, timbral perception and the relative clarity of musical material is an indispensable tool for any composer.

And yet, as a composer, I still feel as though there is something missing here. This sort of technical knowledge is incomplete. How do we move from observations of and about sense perception to actual pieces of music? How do we, in the words of Bruno Latour, add reality to matters of fact[2] — that is, to move from the mere fact of interesting phenomena and techniques toward something more meaningful, from the how to the why of art?

And beyond this, how can we connect our musical practice and the resulting artifacts, i.e., musical works, to larger considerations of life, human interaction, or ethics? Perhaps the most difficult thing about situating these concerns in a piece of music can be summed up in the question: how do you create both the code and the message at the same time?

How do you get these ideas across while the audience is still learning the language that the ideas are being expressed in? Rather than relying on an external source — a text setting, a program note — to convey these ideas, how can they be communicated in and through the music itself?

Auditory illusion can serve as a starting point. Illusion makes us question what we perceive to be real, what we might otherwise uncritically accept in the world as given to us. Music has the power to express this questioning in a non-discursive way. It can give pleasurable aesthetic shape to something we might normally experience as unpleasurable, as a rupture, namely, the shock of having believed in a given reality and finding it to be an illusion. This questioning can function in the negative, as a rejection of the categories we use to navigate the world, but it can also lead us to an awareness of the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate, or even contradictory states of affairs by creating situations in which contradictions may be presented in combinations that we grasp as unified Gestalten - or by dispersing apparently unified Gestalten into fluid and disorienting streams of events. It is within this fluid relationship to a perceived reality that a space for the ethical dimension of music opens up. To show how this is so I would like to turn to a few of my compositions that explore the potential of auditory illusion.

We might begin by considering the phenomenon of the missing (or ‘phantom’) fundamental. The missing fundamental is an illusion that involves perception of a fundamental frequency of a complex harmonic spectrum that is not physically produced in sound waves. This phenomenon arises in sounds with spectra that correspond to the natural overtone series (spectra with consecutive partials in superparticular integer ratios). The illusion arises because pitch perception is not based entirely on the perception of individual frequencies, but also on the periodicity implied by the relationship between the higher harmonics. If we take a complete harmonic spectrum and successively remove lower-order partials, the listener will continue to hear the fundamental frequency, although this may be combined with a noticeable change in the perceived timbre. Interestingly, this illusion is now widely believed to arise not through physical nonlinearities in the ear, but through information-processing functions in the brain — most notably, the autocorrelation function.

Example 1

This phenomenon persists even after extraction of the first six lower-order partials. Partials 8-14 of the overtone series constitute the pitches of the so-called acoustic scale in natural tuning.

Example 2

This scale contains subsets (e.g., partials 11, 12, 14 / 11, 13, 14) that are microtonal variants of set class 3-3/3-3B, the [014/034] collections, which is "common to most of Schoenberg's atonal and serial music"[3] such as Op. 25, Op. 33, and Nacht from Pierrot Lunaire. We also find microtonally inflected instances of set class 3-5, the [016/056] collection (partials 6, 8, 11 / 7, 10, 13) which is used so extensively in atonal works that Richard Taruskin has termed it the “atonal triad.”[4] Beyond this, there is also a special semiotic value to set 3-3 due to its pervasive use as a musical monogram for Schoenberg [Eb - C - B / (e)S - C - H, in German].

If we reduce the spectrum to just those partials that approximate the [014/034] collections [e.g., above F1: B4(-.49), C5, Eb5(-.31) / Eb5(-.31), B4(-.49), D6(+.40), etc.] and produce those combined frequencies with sine waves will we still hear the missing fundamental? Examples 3c and 3d demonstrate that this is indeed the case. Overtones approximated in equal temperament (i.e., [0134]) can even create a sense of pitch centrality when combined with an implied fundamental pitch (Example 3b).

Example 3 (links open in a new tab)

What is particularly intriguing here is that this illusion mediates elements of two harmonic vocabularies that are usually taken to be quite distinct, even contradictory — the dissonant and paradigmatically atonal [014/034] collections and the harmonic overtone spectrum.

The musical potential for this protean shift between harmonic vocabularies was of considerable interest to me during the composition of re[(f)use] for live processed melodica, amplified string quartet and electronics. The dissonance of the microtonal pitch collections in the piece is stabilized at various points as it becomes subsumed into the overtone series above a series of three fundamental pitches (F1, m. 12 / B1, m. 24, D2, m. 40).

Example 4 (pitch material in opening section of re[(f)use])

(click links to open audio in a new tab)

In this way, the piece reveals that two seemingly incongruous practices, two opposing musical vocabularies, are in fact so close that one can be transmogrified into the other through a slight shift in perception. Even before the arrival of the fundamental pitch of the first collection (F1, m. 12) there are presentiments of this transformation in the harmonic glissando that sets the piece in motion and the jittery and unstable flickering between stopped notes in the strings and trills to their artificial harmonics two octaves higher. Timbre also comes to bear on this as the instruments tease out various harmonics of their pitches by moving the bow between ordinary position and molto sul ponticello.

But it is not just the fluid motion between musical vocabularies that invites a questioning of our perceptions in this piece. Moreover, the sounds themselves, as well as the values and associations they call forth, intensify the effect of auditory illusion. The electronic sounds in the piece represent a veritable list of the noises that are conventionally banned from the concert hall; speaker hum, feedback, cell phone interference. A standard element of every dress rehearsal for this piece involves the stage manager going into paroxysms trying to ferret out the source of these electroacoustic calamities, only to discover reluctantly and with some malice that, no, they are supposed to be there, that they in fact supply the driving pitch material in the piece.

And there is some humor, even sarcasm intended here. But beyond this, it is my contention that by taking noises that are normally held to be problems, mistakes, and allowing them to unfold in their own strange sonic richness and complexity, the piece illuminates a possible way out of the default valuation of problem-solving, efficiency and utility that characterizes our commonplace, goal-oriented relating to the world. It is through this rupture in our quotidian experience that we might gain some insight into our concepts of self and other that can suggest modes of ethical engagement in and with our shared world.

In our everyday experience of the world we do not typically have the sense of being a mind trapped in a body that is irrevocably barred from some “external” world of objects, a strong break between self and other. Rather, we tend to have a sense of being immersed in the world and of having an intuitive and continuous connection between our intentions and the objects we use to carry them out. When I write down a message on a piece of paper, for instance, the pencil is transparent to me; I'm lost in the act of transmitting my thought into language and manifesting it on the paper. Consider, for instance, your experience of a bicycle while riding it, a fork while eating with it, or perhaps even the feeling (or absence of feeling) in the integration of your bodily motion and your desire to move in a particular direction. This state of transparency, through which we engage with objects in a relationship of “in-order-to” is characteristic of what Martin Heidegger calls readiness-to-hand.[5]

In an important sense our tools remain hidden from us by their closeness, becoming an extension of our somatic and psychic reaching into the world. It is only when difficulties arise, when the pencil’s lead breaks, when we are too drunk to walk, when we encounter an artwork that defies comprehension or otherwise ruptures our unreflective perception of reality, that we really notice and reflect on these objects. At moments like these, we may experience an opening into the ‘inner life’ of these objects, or put more precisely, an opening into the nature of our relationship to them and to the world.

Given over to the usual purpose of audio fidelity, the ideal role of a loudspeaker is to be a transparent carrier for the sounds it reproduces. In effect, to speak with another’s voice. But if we put aside for a moment the reproduction ideal, we might raise the question: what can be gained by using loudspeakers, not as a tool of reproduction, but as a musical object in their own right; in effect, to let them speak with their own voice? And what form might this autochthonous voice take?

My view is that it takes a form that dispels the utilitarian transparency within which we relate to tools such as loudspeakers or, for that matter, compositional technique or psychoacoustic research. Namely, that which is experienced as an unreadiness-to-hand, a problem, a rift, a roughening of the easy sort of practical engagement with the world in which tools like loudspeakers serve as a psychosomatic prosthesis for us. In the case of audio equipment, this may take the form of speaker hum, feedback, interference, in short, noise, the other of music. Noise, the other of information; noise, that which resists the categories by which we name, tame and ultimately maim the manifest diversity of experience.

But what does this have to do with ethics? After all, we are only talking about loudspeakers and noise, not about silenced human voices. And that’s true, but I would cautiously like to advance the claim that there is an underlying homology that connects the ways we experience noise and otherness as a problem more generally and how we experience otherness in human form.

There is abundant experimental literature in social psychology that points to the effect that human perception about in-groups and out-groups has on moral behavior, and on the way that people treat members of their own groups compared to people outside these groups.[6] A general finding is that people tend to feel a greater sense of moral responsibility toward members of their own groups. Moreover, strong distinction between groups can serve as a precondition, as well as a rationalization, for the denigration of and cruelty toward individuals who are deemed to be members of an inferior out-group.[7]

Developing an ethic that is based on an openness and hospitality toward otherness, rather than on universally binding moral principles, Jacques Derrida argues that our moral responsibility is not only to the other who is like us, who “speaks our language” but to all others, regardless of the extent of their alterity from us. He contrasts the stranger “with a name”, whose motives are intelligible, who is one of us, to what he terms the “absolute stranger”, whose motives and discourse remain concealed. Derrida advocates an ethic that is not conditional on assimilation into accepted customs and principles, but that makes room for otherness to exist on its own terms within them. Ethics, for Derrida, arises in this tension between universal acceptance and the irreducible particularity of absolute otherness.[8]

Such an encounter with unmitigated otherness is not easy to handle. Our spontaneous reactions to it complicate the matter enormously. Edmund Husserl offers us an intriguing thought experiment: imagine you are sitting at a table immersed in your work when you reach for a drink of water.[9] Except, it’s not water; it's milk. In this instant, we are momentarily confronted by the pure “that it is”, the sense datum, prior to the categories by which we are able to make sense of “what it is.”

In this encounter with sheer thatness, this otherness that defeats our expectations and resists easy assimilation into determinate categories and identity conditions, we recoil in disgust. It is not that otherness is disgusting in and of itself in this scenario, rather it is the unexpected intrusion of otherness into a space of intimate proximity that arouses disgust; it is a transgression of boundaries, both physical and imaginary.

Here, the element of exteriority is key, as is the potential for unwanted contact, that is, for contamination. Consider Paul Rozin's rather appalling invitation to spit into a cup and then to immediately drink the contents of that cup. Notwithstanding the minimal difference between this action and our constant consumption of the saliva that is in our mouths at any given time, there is something undeniably repulsive about this proposition. The externalization at work here is decisive – what had been part of a healthy, normally functioning body (in fact, my own) is made to seem foreign, a foreignness that signals an objectification of the body. That substance in the cup is no longer mine, it is a mere object, an unfamiliar, alien factum.

The discomfort stemming from this othering of the body opens a fissure of doubt in the salvific narratives that afford the subject a privileged position in the cosmos. This is what so disturbs Julia Kristeva in Approaching Abjection when she writes, “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life.”[10] Objects of disgust appear as a threat to the unity and stability of subjective identity.

Infection, abjection, and contamination, then, may be understood as a challenge to notions of purity and unity, be they racial, political, religious, moral, aesthetic, or sonic. From here we can see a shift away from merely biological determinations of disgust; disgust enters into metaphor and ideology. Martha Nussbaum, in commenting on the language of disgust and its relationship to political oppression notes that, “throughout history, certain disgust properties...have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with groups, by reference to whom, privileged groups seek to define their superior human status...Thus for Hitler (and not only for him), the Jew is a maggot in a festering abscess, hidden away inside the apparently clean and healthy body of the nation.”[11] With this in mind, we might follow Marcel Cobussen in his suggestion that if we are to approach the ethical dimension of music a first step could be to identify a means of rethinking noise, strangeness and impurity away from the spontaneously negative reaction we often have to them.[12] That is, to effectively dissolve the specter of contagion and contamination associated with these phenomena and to recast them in the light of what might be termed the heterogenous sublime — a multifarious and profoundly irreducible beauty that defies easy categorization, manipulation, and control.

Art has the capacity to make strangeness acceptable, even beautiful. Again turning to Heidegger, we see that within artistic practice our relationship to the objects of experience can become wholly transformed. In The Origin of the Artwork, he writes that within art “fundamentally, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary, [ungeheuer (or, out of our comfort zone, my translation)].”[13] Art forges a rift, an opening into our unreflective, use-oriented relationship to the world in such a way, “that now, for the first time, in the midst of beings, it brings them to shine and sound.”[14]

He writes: “In the manufacture of equipment — for example, an ax — the stone is used and used up. It disappears into usefulness.”[15] Within the world-making potential of art, however, “metal comes to glitter and shimmer, colors to shine, sounds to ring, the word to speak."[16] These quasi-magical attributes are born of our response to the materiality of the artwork, provided we adopt an open and attentive attitude to it. This sort of openness allows an artist to recognize the aesthetic potential within the objects of experience and allow it to emerge through creative and masterful shaping of the material underlying the work. Heidegger continues, "All this comes forth as the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of the stone, into the firmness and flexibility of the wood, into the hardness and gleam of the ore, into the lightening and darkening of color, into the ringing of sound, and the naming power of the word.”[17]

For Heidegger, the truth of art resides in its ability to illuminate our intricate and fragile relationship to the world, in all its manifest strangeness and uncertainty. This illumination “sets its shining into the work. The shining that is set into the work is the beautiful. Beauty is one way in which truth as unconcealment comes to presence."[18]

Art creates a space in which our often negative reaction to otherness can be laid aside and a new relationship to it can be disclosed to us. An artwork can present us with an alternative to the practical or technique-oriented attitude we have to the world, an alternative to the paradigm of manipulation and control through which we exert ourselves in the world, an alternative to that “in-order-to” through which we often instrumentalize our engagement with others and otherness. Art creates an opening for us to rethink our relationship to chaos, difference and noise not in terms of problems to be solved, but in terms of wonder.

Coming back to our discussion of auditory illusion and harmonic vocabularies, I would like to make the case that there is a direct link between these psychoacoustically derived compositional techniques and the phenomenological reflections on ethics expressed above. Both approaches have the power to reveal that putatively oppositional binaries such as dissonance and consonance, music and noise, alterity and familiarity may, through just a slight shift in perception, be understood to be mutually constitutive of and emergent from one another.

In this light, re[(f)use] estranges the familiar and familiarizes the strange. It re-situates noise through the sense of order that is brought about by the momentary recasting of dissonant and paradigmatically atonal pitch collections as harmonic spectra, thus granting us a glimpse that there is form, logic, structure in the noise. But it also puts the stability, validity and distinction of these very categories into question. The piece represents an attempt to provide a space for the other of music (noise, dissonance, etc.) to be experienced and grasped as otherness and yet to resist neutralizing it through absorption into familiar categories by which to understand and ultimately to control it.

The problem of identity

A further step toward rethinking the oppositional binary of self and other might be to consider the ways we make judgments about identity more generally. Traditionally, ethical responsibility has been taken to rely on a concept of personal identity, understood variously as a continuing substance or essence that is distinct from inessential actions (see, for example, Plato’s Timaeus, 90a2–d7). I can only be said to be responsible for my actions if there is a “me” that is distinct from those actions. If who I am just is what I do then there can be no moral praise or blame given to me simply because there is no “me” apart from those actions.

Kant raises this principle to the level of moral law. For Kant, to act morally is to act in accordance with our intelligible character — our transcendental agency as rational beings, separate from the empirical character, which is of the order of natural causality. Our actions can only be said to be moral if they are ours to make freely in accordance with reason and are the sort of actions that are performed without regard to material self-interest. They must be the sort of actions that apply to everyone in the same way, or in Kantian terms, that can be universalized without contradiction.

But to what extent are we justified in positing this sort of transcendental identity? One possible contention here is that the conceptions of identity just given rely on a tenuous non-reductionism. That is, identity is taken to be fundamentally distinct from underlying material objects and processes, resulting in the so-called mind/body problem. But perhaps a more serious problem with the notion of personal identity as a precondition for ethics involves the way that identity can act as a boundary between the self and the world.[19] As in the example of in/out-groups, above, a hardened conception of identity as boundary can serve as the precondition for unethical, even morally abhorrent behavior.

What makes it so hard to conceive of an alternative to this sort of identitarian thinking? Is there something about the structure of consciousness that compels us to think in this way? If so, can music express an alternative in a way that might allow us to encounter a fluidization of the boundaries between self and other so as to glimpse a connection between music and ethics?

Here again, auditory illusion might serve as an initial point of departure. To show this in action, I would like to turn to a phenomenon that Albert Bregman has termed auditory stream segregation.[20] An examination of stream segregation can give us insight into the schemata by which we parse groups, apply identity conditions and make same-other distinctions. Beyond this, it can reveal the diachronous or processual nature of identity by making us aware of the effect of fluid and contextual interactions in shaping what we perceive to be distinct objects of consciousness.

These simple examples suggest that our ability to form judgments about identity is highly dependent on relational context. The identities of the melodies in each stream are not an intrinsic property of them. Rather, identity is revealed to be a function of ongoing processes and relationships shaped by the mind into manageable groups through regulative strategies that are distinct from the raw characteristics of the data. Identity is not a fixed entity, but a system of relationships jointly created by physical, perceptual, and cognitive processes.

What implications about personal identity might we draw from this phenomenon? One implication is that the notion of a fixed, essential self, separate from ongoing action, is an illusion. From this perspective, the self can be seen to be a fluid and kinetic process that is continually changing, transforming, becoming different from itself. Thus, the self is no thing, but rather a misrecognition of process in terms of substance, of difference in terms of sameness, of absence in terms of presence. This might lead us to ask how and why the apparent thingness of the self arises. And this is, in fact, a question that many traditions have raised. Expressed variously as anatman, the Buddhist no-self doctrine, or in David Hume’s “bundle theory” of identity, this idea has perennially flitted on the margins of acceptance in the Western world until the middle of the 20th century. One particularly intriguing articulation of the question is given by the contemporary philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller.

Keeping with the tradition following Kant, Miller holds that there must be something that ties together our continuous stream of sense data and unifies it with the conceptual categories by which we make sense of the world.[21] But he departs from Kant in favor of the Lacanian psychoanalytic tradition in arguing that it is the structure of signification that does this binding, not some transcendental self, which the Lacanian tradition holds to be non-existent.

But if the self is not a thing how does it come to acquire this form in our thinking? In a much earlier essay,[22] Miller argues that this is an effect of the misrecognition of absence as presence. Drawing on Gottlob Frege’s Grundlage der Arithmetik, Miller develops an argument derived from the incorporation of nothingness into the system of numbers by way of its signification through the numeral 0.[23]

The most salient component of the argument can be summarized in the following way. In order to think about nothing we have to give it a name, we have to conceptualize it, bringing it into the system of signifiers. This transfer involves a misattribution of existence to non-existence. When nothing as void becomes named, either lexically or in the numeral 0, the non-conceptualizable becomes conceptualized. The number 0 is a positive formulation of the negative, a conceptual transformation of absence into presence.[24]

If Miller’s account is right then we might begin to see how the illusory presence of identity could be misconstrued out of the gap between non-identical stages of an ongoing process of self-differentiation. The self as process becomes the self as substance. This entails an interesting response to the mind/body problem mentioned above: the emergence of the self from its underlying mental/bodily processes is a product of the structures that make the world intelligible to us. On this account the self just is a system of relationships. But from this it does not follow that it has essential or substantial existence.

If all this seems a bit mind-numbing just consider this statement: “nothing》 is a thing.” Or consider that, as parts of speech, verbs are nouns, but nouns can never be verbs. At this point, language breaks down; it becomes inadequate to the task of exploring these ideas. Our language must circumscribe the world in terms of objects, things, subjects and predicates, shaping our attitudes toward existence. For this reason, music may be uniquely suited to engage this question.

If it is true that the phenomenal experience of identity is the result of the misrecognition of absence in terms of presence, might we be able to find other illusions in which the mind spontaneously fills in gaps with illusory presences? Gestalt psychology offers us some intriguing results, for instance, in the law of good continuation:

But what about auditory illusions?

When two pitches are very close together (e.g., ¼-tone apart), they yield a strange presence known as difference tones, so called because they cause us to perceive a frequency that is the arithmetical difference between the two sounding frequencies (for examples of this phenomenon, see here) . In fact, the beating of difference tones is another example of the way in which the mind fills in presences where there are none. As demonstrated by the phenomenon of binaural beating, even if two tones are played dichotically, one in each of two headphones, the brain still fills in the beating. It seems that the mind abhors a vacuum.

Putting this all together: The Topography of Desire

These elements combine to shape many aspects of my work, The Topography of Desire, for string quartet. Among the conceits in the piece is an interest in what I call the "poetics of the near miss," articulated through imperfect unisons in tuning, timbre, harmony, and rhythm. The ensemble uses a microtonal scordatura in which adjacent instruments are tuned 1/8 tone higher or lower than the next. The strange presence of difference tones serves as a motif throughout, as exemplified by the near unisons of the opening measures.

Example 5 (click score to open audio in a new tab)

Drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan, the piece represents an effort to musically express the structure of desire and the emergence of identity from relational contexts. Put succinctly, Lacan argues that desire arises out of a mismatch or gap between our psychosomatic drives, which we experience directly, prior to conceptual representation, and the way we come to symbolize them as concepts in the mind. Because we are socially mediated beings, we can never express some transcendentally individual need, but must always express this need in intelligible conceptual, linguistic and cultural forms that are communally constituted. Because of this, our desires are never truly our own.[25]

On this account, the insatiability of desire stems from our incapacity to genuinely articulate the drives that give rise to the experience of longing. The fact that we tend toward desiring behavior even after acquiring the things we think we want leads to an ever-fleeting search for new objects to stand in for this basic and fundamental lack.

Underlying the experience of desire is the structure that gives rise to the illusion of the self. For Lacan, the illusion of self that is produced by the conversion of absence into presence is false because in it we attribute a sense of wholeness to ourselves that doesn’t really exist. As such, it manifests as a constantly deferred unity that is ultimately unattainable. This illusion arises early in childhood, initially as a means of coping with separation from the mother, and serves as the originary object of desire that shapes future desiring behavior and the pathologies the stem from it.

And yet, when the illusion of self breaks down, we are cast into a state of anxiety and uncertainty. Consider the paradigmatic condition of the so-called midlife crisis — a search for an answer to the questions “who am I really? What do I really want?” For Lacan, this enterprise is doomed to failure because it involves a search for something that does not exist. Even so, it is precisely this inexorable failure of striving after a perpetually deferred unity that gives meaning to our lives.

If Lacan is right about the way that language and culture help to shape our notion of identity we might expect this to be evident in musical practice. From a historical standpoint, then, it is perhaps no surprise that the late Enlightenment and Romantic periods, eras marked by an ever intensifying expression of belief in the power of individual personal identity, also saw the rise of thematic musical composition, such that musical themes gradually begin to stand in for the identity of the works in which they appear.

But what sort of musical devices might be suggested by Lacan’s notion of the self as an illusory unity that constantly evades our grasp? What sort of musical treatment would be adequate to a conception of identity understood not as an expression of a continuing essence, but as an expression of the continuing activity of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world in its fullness; an elusive, non-positional self that, at most, is really only there “in the corner of our eye” when we examine the contents of our consciousness, as Jean-Paul Sartre tells us?[26]

To explore these ideas, the quartet draws from a phantom theme — a melody that is always present but never articulated in a straight-forwardly melodic way (example 6). Sometimes the theme is presented so fast as to sound like a mere gesture, at other times it is glacially slow or spread out across the entire range of the ensemble (example 7).

Example 6 (melodic phrases from phantom theme)

The phantom theme is based on the acoustic scale, in natural tuning (i.e., the 4th scale degree is tuned down 49 cents, the 6th down 59 cents and the 7th down 31 cents). The theme appears in two modes; scale/mode I begins on the 4th scale degree, scale/mode II begins on the 1st scale degree.

Example 6 (mm. 234 - 250 from The Topography of Desire. The roman numerals refer to the scales in use, the Arabic numerals refer to the melodic phrase from Example 5, above, the pitch class names in parentheses refer to the 1st scale degree of the transposition from which the phrase fragments are drawn.)

(click score to open audio in a new tab)

As is apparent from example 6, the pitches in this theme are all drawn from the natural overtone series, so that every time we hear a string plucked or bowed, the phantom theme is there, “in the corner of our ear.” And yet, the theme is continuously presented not in terms of the unity and stability of the overtone series, but in a state of fluid and unstable dissonance, registral fragmentation and dense, thorny textures. The fugitive, incomplete glimpses of the theme that do appear are always presented in a destabilizing context.

The deliquescence of identity that this suggests is meant as a challenge to our nominally comforting, yet ultimately injurious notions of self and other. Moreover, the piece is meant to open up a space in which the fluidity of these concepts may be experienced and appreciated. In this openness to the symbiotic relationship between ourselves and others, music can bring us into the domain of the ethical.

From illusion to ethics

If identity is relational in this way, then it means that the self is dependent on otherness for its very existence. This understanding of identity does not posit the merely self-identical (viz., A = A). Rather it presents a symbiosis in which identity and non-identity conspire; they breathe together to mutually constitute identity, not as mere continuation through change, or as a fixed substance, but as a supple and fragile process of give and take. On this view, the we is always already prior to the I; the relationship precedes the individual.

If we examine this view for a moment, we will see that it suggests that the subject/object distinction is not properly basic. But if the relation to the other precedes the subject, then neither ontology nor epistemology can be taken as a ground for ethics.[27] Rather it is the relationship itself that precedes being and knowing. It is here that we encounter what Emmanuel Levinas calls “ethics as first philosophy.”[28]

In spirit with Lacan, Levinas speaks of “a desire that [fundamentally] cannot be satisfied.”[29] His thought marks a move toward an understanding of desire as a metaphysical longing for a transcendent, inarticulable dimension of experience, a desire for the absolutely other. This desire is not directed at a determinate object that might satisfy it; it is not a "god-shaped hole." Rather, it is a desire for that which exceeds all knowledge and ratiocination.

This insatiable desire for the limitless transcendence of the other arises out of the gap between our simultaneous conceptual awareness of infinity and our inability to imagine or comprehend it.[30] It is born out of a curious cognitive dissonance; it arises precisely when rational cognition fails. It is, therefore, a peculiarly human affair. A less-than-human consciousness would not be able to grasp the concept of infinity, a divine consciousness would comprehend it in its totality. Not surprisingly then, Levinas situates this infinite desire in the sphere of human interaction. It is through engagement with the human other that we can glimpse something of that transcendent alterity in our awareness of the infinite. “Ethics is the spiritual optics,” he tells us.[31] Desire, then, is not (or at least not only) a barrier to freedom or a source of suffering; it also provides the originary conative ignition for ethical engagement with others.

The primacy of the relationship to the other means that for Levinas, even (or especially) Heidegger's method falls short as a basis for ethics.[32] Where Heidegger reduces the relationship with the other to a mere means of disclosing being and achieving self-realization, Levinas sees the demand made upon us to respond to the other as enabling our very being. Where Heidegger posits a side-by-side relation to the other in Mitsein, Levinas speaks of the face-to-face encounter with the other as the originary ethical relation that forms the heart of our being-in-the-world.

This encounter with the face of the other exceeds my knowledge or understanding of the other. To encounter the other in this way is to recognize my own vulnerability in the vulnerability of the other, to love without knowing or needing to know. I am reminded here of the words of Norman Maclean, who in reflecting on the unfathomable death of a loved one writes, "we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or...the part we have to give is not wanted. And so, it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”[33]

To demand to know is to objectify, to thingify, to reduce the other to the same, the “you” to the “I”. In an important sense, the objects of my consciousness are part of me, they are made to conform to my mind. Otherness, however, is that which resists all absorption into sameness.

Here we can see with immense clarity the difference between an ethics of otherness and ethics as understood by the Western philosophical tradition. From Socrates to Kant, knowledge has been the key to traditional conceptions of morality, be it in the striving toward knowledge of the good or the rational deduction of universal ethical maxims. But for Levinas, the loving response-ability to the other precedes all knowledge. For this reason we might do better to speak not of philosophy but of sophophilia, not the love of wisdom, but the wisdom of love.

But there is something prior even to ethics at work here. Jacques Derrida, in a eulogy given at his funeral, remembers how Levinas once remarked, "you know, one often speaks of ethics to describe what I do, but what really interests me in the end is not ethics, not ethics alone, but the holy, the holiness of the holy."[34] The domain of the holy is the domain of non-intentional, non-objectifying consciousness, a consciousness that precedes mere knowledge manifested as a tool by which to measure, organize and control the world and the people in it. It is the realm of the apophatic, the ineffable, the realm of that which resists knowing as grasping, knowing as consumption. It is the infinite that cannot be made finite. The holy is that which always remains irreducibly other and yet which is indispensable in the creation of my being.[35]

It is here that music and illusion return to take up the call of ethics. Here we can encounter something like that intuitive awareness of our relation to otherness of which Levinas speaks.There is always something in musical experience that is in excess of the analytical stratagems we use to circumscribe it; a surplus beyond the tools we use to objectify, harness and utilize what Adorno calls its "mythic substrate." There is a remainder that is left over after music has been dissected into mere techniques, materials, and structures. Attempts to discursively explain this experiential aspect of music unavoidably distort the experience.

Music can act as an opening into that ineffable dimension of experience that marks the irreducible holiness in the face of the other. This holiness is not abstract, timeless or impersonal. Rather, it is a call to treat the other as a real, existing, individual entity, not as a unit or rule in the service of a codified system of ethics. Such a conception of ethics will be personal, local, and epistemologically humble rather than architectonic, systematic, or rationally calculable in the service of maximized utility. It marks an end to theodicy. Now, rather than the presumption of an ordered and knowable universe left to account for the problem of evil, we must deal with the problem of good; if human societies are capable of the most monstrous acts of evil, how is it that individuals are still capable of courageous acts of kindness and selflessness? In considering the status of theology and ethics after the Holocaust, Rabbi Irving Greenberg puts the point in the most succinct and disturbing way imaginable, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”[36] My encounter with the face of the other is simultaneously a mystery and an epiphany. There is something transcendent, infinite in the way this relationship exceeds the totalizing grasp of knowledge. This encounter gives rise to my own identity, but it also implicates me in my debt to and responsibility for the other.

This emphasis on encounter rather than understanding, on experience rather than explanation, suggests some approaches to creating and hearing music. To encounter the other in music requires an openness to the unique message of each musical utterance and the patience to hear the beauty in the voice of sounds that one might otherwise spontaneously reject or refuse. It requires a suspension of forgone conclusions and biases about what is proper to music, or indeed, what must be kept out of music. If it is true that the relation to the other is prior to my identity, then a relation defined by openness and responsibility to the call of otherness will shape the sort of person that I may become. This is the ethical moment of music.

The mysterious quality of illusions and paradoxes can act as a source of inspiration; a prompt to reflect on what it means to be a living, breathing, dreaming, experiencing being-in-the-world. Illusions can cause us to reconsider our notions of ourselves and our attitudes toward others. They can elicit a reflection on the limitations but also on the vast resources of the human mind.

Philosophy’s purpose has traditionally been construed to be in its revelatory powers, in its axiomatic distinction between reality and illusion. But to reduce illusion to the merely false is in an important sense to lose sight of the strange magic in the illusory experience itself. Art is the other to this true-false distinction; its ethical potential lies in its incommensurability with fallacious either/or disjunctions. Art is what is left over after the world has been divided up into falsities, myths, illusions on one side and the truth-bearing facts upon which knowledge is based on the other. From this point of view, it is not that art is an illusion that tells us the truth, to paraphrase Picasso. Rather, as Adorno suggests, “art is magic set free from the lie of being truth.”[37]

[1] Fiennes, S., Žižek, S., Eno, B., Myers, T., Amoeba Film., Lone Star Productions., & Mischief Films. (2006). The pervert's guide to cinema. London: P Guide

[2] Latour, B. (2004). Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical Inquiry, 30(2), 225-248. doi:10.1086/421123, p. 232

[3] Boss, J. (2014). Schoenberg's twelve-tone music : Symmetry and the musical idea(Music since 1900). Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 6 Inner Occurrences (Transcendentalism, III). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Nov. 2017, from

[5] Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, John, & Robinson, Edward S. (1962). Being and time(Frye annotated ; no. 709). New York: Harper, 99

[6] For two classic studies on the issue, see Sherif, M. (1954). Experimental study of positive and negative intergroup attitudes between experimentally produced groups: robbers cave study, and Tajfel H, Billig M G, Bundy R P & Flament C. Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 1:149-77, 1971. [University of Bristol, England, and University of Aix-Marseille, France]

[7] See, for instance, Aberson, C. L., Healy, M., & Romero, V. (2000). In-group bias and self-esteem: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 157-173,

Brewer, M. B. (1979). In-group bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307-324,

Gramzow, R. H., & Gaertner, L. (2005). Self-esteem and favoritism toward novel in-groups: The self as an evaluative base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 801-815

[8] Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, Anne. (2000). Of hospitality (Cultural memory in the present). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

[9] Dreyfus, H. (1992). What computers still can't do : A critique of artificial reason. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. It should be noted that Dreyfus does not cite this reference, and I have been unable to find it in the published works of Edmund Husserl.

[10] Kristeva, J., & Roudiez, Leon S. (1982). "Approaching Abjection," in Powers of horror : An essay on abjection(European perspectives). New York: Columbia University Press, 4

[11] Nussbaum, M. (2003). Upheavals of thought : The intelligence of emotions (1st pbk. ed.). Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Cobussen, M., & Nielsen, Nanette. (2012). Music and ethics. Burlington: Ashgate.

[13] Heidegger, M., Macquarrie, John, & Robinson, Edward S. (1962). Being and time (Frye annotated ; no. 709). New York: Harper. p. 99

It is important to note that Heidegger holds that the body is more than an object and so it is unclear if we can really stand in a relation of readiness-to-hand toward it.

[14] Heidegger, M., Young, Julian, & Haynes, Kenneth. (2002). Off the beaten track. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 31.

[15] ibid., p. 45

[16] ibid., p. 24

[17] ibid., p. 24

[18] ibid., p. 32 (Heidegger’s emphasis)

[19] Whether in the hardening of boundaries in “fight or flight”, by which we try to make the world less threatening by increasing the intensity of our distinction from it, or in the eradication of otherness involved in the acquisition of knowledge and the gratification of desires, in which we absorb objects in the world into ourselves, this sort of identitarian thinking reduces human interaction to a calculus of competing self-interests.

[20] Bregman, A. (1990). Auditory scene analysis : The perceptual organization of sound. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[21] Miller, J. (1986) "A and a in Clinical Structures" in Acts of the Paris-New York Psychoanalytic Workshop. Stuart Schneideman, ed. New York: Schneideman (1987), 14-29.

[22] Miller, J. (1965). "Suture (Elements of the Logic of the Signifier)", trans. Jacqueline Rose. Screen 18:4 (Winter 1977-78): 24-34.

[23] While we may not want to follow Miller in his more ambitious project of establishing a necessarily subjective component in the grounding of logic, this essay does provide a persuasive account of the subjective experience of identity. For a dissenting opinion on Miller’s argument concerning the grounding of logic and science, see Alain Badiou, Mark and Lack (1967).

[24] This can be demonstrated through binary logic: if we use the number 1 to signify truth (i.e., tautology/self-identity, being) and 0 to signify falsity (i.e., self-contradiction/non-self-identity, non-being) then we get the following result: if 0 = 0 then 0 = 1. There is an important distinction between nothing and the number 0, which is used as a concept to stand in for it. Here we might apprise ourselves of Frege’s injunction that existence (and by extension non-existence) is not a real predicate of individuals. Thus, to speak of nonexistent objects is to fall into a kind of non-sense that arises out of a violation of logical grammar.

[25] In the Écrits Lacan writes “it must be posited that, as a characteristic of an animal at the mercy of language, man’s desire is the Other’s desire.” Lacan, J., "Seminar XI" in Lacan, J., & Fink, Bruce. (2006). Ecrits : The first complete edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton &. Co.

[26] Sartre refers here to the self as “a certain density [épaisseur] of unreflected consciousness” left over when bracketing out memories, experiences, and objects of consciousness. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Transcendence of the Ego, trans. Forset Williams and Robert Kirkpatrick (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1957), 46.

[27] On this view, ontology cannot be taken as a ground for ethics because there are no inherent entities apart from the processual relationship that is prior to identity. Epistemology cannot be taken as a ground because the knowing subject of the Cartesian cogito is posterior to this relationship.

[28] Lévinas, E., "Ethics as First Philosophy" in Lévinas, E., & Hand, Seán. (1989). The Levinas reader (Blackwell readers). Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA, USA: B. Blackwell.

[29] Lévinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity : An essay on exteriority. (Duquesne studies. Philosophical series ; v. 24). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 34 - 35. Quoted in Dalton, Drew M. “The Vaccination of the Infinite: Levinas’s Metaphysical Desire and the Call of the Other,” in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory vol. 11 no. 3 (Fall 2011): 22-29.

[30] In this respect it shares an affinity with the structure of the mathematical sublime in Kant's third critique.

[31] Lévinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity : An essay on exteriority. (Duquesne studies. Philosophical series ; v. 24). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 78. Quoted in Dalton, Drew M. “The Vaccination of the Infinite: Levinas’s Metaphysical Desire and the Call of the Other,” in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory vol. 11 no. 3 (Fall 2011): 22-29.

[32] And this is not only because of the fact that in the thousands of pages he wrote after the Second World War Heidegger never once mentions Auschwitz or because of the recently revealed depths of his sympathy to the tenets of Nazism and his deeply abhorrent anti-semitism.

[33] Maclean, N. (1976). A river runs through it, and other stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[34] Greenberg, I. (1974). "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire," in A Holocaust reader : Responses to the Nazi extermination,Michael L. Morgan, ed. (2001). New York: Oxford University Press.

[35] It should be noted that the irreducibility of which I speak here is of a wholly different kind than in mind/body nonreductionism. As an expression of the structure of thought, the notion of irreducible alterity is not committed to a necessary distinction between mind and body. That is, thought could be reducible to the physical world and yet still recognize the inaccessibility of the unknowable, of the absolutely other. Consequently, alterity would be irreducible only in the sense of being incommensurate with epistemic categorization.

[36] Derrida, J. (1999). Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas (Meridian (Stanford, Calif.)). Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

[37] Adorno, T., & Jephcott, E. F. N. (2005). Minima moralia : Reflections on a damaged life (Radical thinkers ; 1). London ; New York: Verso, 222.

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