Thoughts on the end of the world
The end of the world has been on my mind lately. In the city where I live, Seattle, this summer saw dramatic differences in the climate; for weeks the air quality was worse than in Beijing. On one occasion ash rained down from the sky, covering windows, lawn chairs and spider webs in a preternaturally grubby residue. These events were unnerving in no small part because of their baleful coincidence with the news that the current administration would be pulling out of the Paris climate accord. What can music do to address problems like these; in particular, the sort of music that comes out of a classical tradition of art understood broadly as a practice with ineffably metaphysical intentions and pretensions, a practice that, these days, is often cast as blind or indifferent to the world and the problems in it? How can a piece of music address such issues without making them into a gimmick, a glorified marketing ploy? How can a composer connect musical practice to larger considerations of the world and our ethical relationship to it? There are two approaches to these questions that I would like to explore here. The first involves an examination of the sorts of value that the natural world has. The second involves the ways that a work of contemporary music might bring us into a deeper awareness and appreciation of this value, which could create a space to encounter the connection between humanity, nature, ethics, and music. Do humans have ethical obligations to the natural world? Is it unethical, for instance, to continue mining coal when cleaner energy sources are available? Responses to these questions usually come down to the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value. Instrumental value concerns the value of things as a means to some other end (such as human self-preservation). Intrinsic value refers to the value things have for their own sake, in and of themselves. There is something intuitively very right about the idea that we should protect the environment for its own sake. The alternative, that we should protect it only to the extent that it serves our material interests, seems disturbingly similar to the idea of keeping torture victims alive only in the service of extracting maximum information out of them. But if the natural world does have intrinsic value, how might we ever encounter it? How might we experience a relationship to the world that is not oriented toward utility, control and material self-interest? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in the sort of experience of the world that has always been central to music and the contemplative arts; namely, aesthetic experience. Aesthetic experience allows us to consider the natural world as something more than a locus of material resources or information to be extracted, to establish instead a relationship to nature defined in terms of joy, of wonder. But it can also allow us to grieve, to experience a cathartic sadness commensurate with the gravity of our looming self-destruction and the absurd intractability of a problem that everyone wants to avoid but no one wants to solve. The truth of art resides in its ability to reveal our complex and fragile relationship to the world, allowing us to take stock of it and become accountable for it. It is here that we may encounter the ethical dimension of art and our obligation to the world. On this view, the world does have intrinsic value, but this value is dependent on the presence of the sort of intelligence that has the capacity to make evaluative judgments (e.g., human intelligence). In other words, the intrinsic aesthetic value of the world only exists if there is a mind to enjoy it. But such mind is not somehow irrevocably separated from nature, it is nature in one of its “manifest operations”, to paraphrase John Dewey. This symbiosis uncovers an important misconception behind instrumental self-interest: namely, that there is a fundamental distinction between selves and others, between mind and world. We are born of nature. Our minds are not separable from it. And yet, the world only has meaning if there is a mind that can apprehend it.
Music has a unique and uncanny power to express these ideas. Through music we can encounter the fluidity of the concepts of self and other, mind and world, nature and humanity in myriad ways. One approach might involve uniting individual, semiotically unrelated or even contradictory concrete sounds by fusing them into rich and complex timbres and textures guided by musical logic. In works such as Time is the substance I am made of, this takes shape through separate and distinct sound-signs (flowing water, iron church bells, air raid sirens, etc.) that transform into one another and become unified in an intricate musical tapestry. A new percussion concerto I'm envisaging could potentially explore the structural relationships between humans and the natural world in this and other ways. The percussionist might interact with water in a variety of ways: amplifying the sound of water poured into different containers or using it together with percussion instruments (e.g., water gongs, bells dipped in water, etc.). Individual percussion instruments might be successively "lost to the elements", dropped irrecoverably into the depths of the water containers, thus embodying our ambivalent and fragile relationship to the natural world: nature is the source of life but the instrumental domination of it may well lead to a situation in which it spells our destruction.