Rebirth of Reason


The Myth of Orpheus and the Future of Music
by Joseph C. Maurone

It has been said of science fiction that any attempts to define the future will only result in "more of the same," a projection of the current period, only dressed up in space age splendor. It is also believed that any attempt to predict the future will rest on the identification of absolute values, or universal truths. Speculations on the future of music are not immune to these criticisms. The word "universe" traces its etymology back to joining of the words "unus" (one) and "verse" (meaning "to turn", which was used as a metaphor for the turning effect from one line to another in poetry). Knowing this, it is not surprising that music has been the subject of many Platonic myths and quests "in search of the lost chord" to harness "the music of the spheres."

In light of this, it is worth asking what is expected of future musicians: To seek "brave new worlds" of sonic possibilities, or a refinement of existing aural expectations? The clue to the answer may lie in the myth of Orpheus.

Orpheus, the son of a muse and in some accounts, the son of Apollo, was said to be the greatest musician and poet in Greek mythology, and his songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks and trees into movement. It was his music that was powerful enough to keep the Argonauts from being lured by the Sirens. But it is his descent into the underworld and his tragic end that have the most significance.

Orpheus, saddened by the loss of his wife Eurydice on their wedding day, ventures into the realm of Hades to bring her back. Moved by the power of Orpheus's song, Hades agrees to release Eurydice, on the condition that he must not look back until they've reached the surface. Of course, look back he does, and Eurydice fades back into Hades, with no chance of a reprise. Orpheus is left an empty shell, withdraws, and  his once beautiful songs turn to songs of grief. Legend has it that the Maenads, female devotees of Dionysus, came upon him in the forest. Refusing their drunken revelry, they tore him to pieces and threw his dismembered head, which was still singing, down the river, where it floated to the Isle of Lesbos.

The myth of Orpheus is an archetypal myth that symbolizes our questions of musical progress to this day. On the one hand, we look to the great composers as the epitome of musical advancement, and point to them as the model of where the next breakthrough will begin. On the other hand, we have an example of an attachment to the past leading to a loss of vision of the future. The morose Orpheus is dismembered for his refusal to let go of his love for Eurydice. And yet, Orpheus introduces a new style to his music as a result. The irony is that the Maeneds want Orpheus to play the songs he was known for, while his new style was based on a desire to hold to the past. The same happens every day on some scale, with appeals to tradition and "the good old days" bringing the past into conflict with the future. This was a central theme of Ayn Rand's fiction; when her heroes invent a new musical form, or a new metal alloy, or a new architectural design, they are met with the hostile response "we don't do that here." Tradition is invoked, the work of the masters cannot be surpassed. And those who dare to break with the past often meet the same metaphorical fate of Orpheus.

What is the root of this appeal to the past in musical appreciation? British Poet W. J. Turner suggests in his theory of music, entitled Orpheus, that the idea of progress in music hinged on the relation between form and imagination. Music, unlike the other arts, does not produce a tangible, concrete object, but works aurally through time. Turner makes the comparison between the changing contour of a melody to the atomic energy that underlies all matter, invoking the metaphor that all is rhythm. The insistence on a perfect, universal musical form is an appeal to "the increasing complexity of organization and a multiplication of lovely deaths." But art, like any endeavor, must not remain static, but adapt to an ever-expanding consciousness. Just as an infant leaves the nursery rhyme behind, so too will mankind's musical abilities change, and with an ever-increasing harmonic vocabulary combined with the technological innovations in sound generation and reproduction, mankind will be called upon to innovate even in the face of hostility to preserve traditional forms.

The call for tradition can be seen as a betrayal of a lack of imagination in the conservative view. But the conservative view can claim that there is a "universal" value in the traditional views, for music is more than mere patterns of sound, which can be imitated. Innovation is not mere imitation, but the integration of vision with craft. New technologies cannot be a substitute for creative vision, merely tools in the pursuit of giving form to thought. Ayn Rand wrote "a word of warning" regarding the "innovations" of modern composers:

They spout a great deal about the necessity of "conditioning" your ear to an appreciation of their "music." Their notion of conditioning is unlimited by reality and the law of identity; man, in their view, is infinitely conditionable. But, in fact, you can condition a human ear to different types of music (it is not the ear, but the mind that you have to condition in such cases); you cannot condition it to hear noise as if it were music, it is not personal training or social conventions that make it impossible, but the physiological nature, the identity, of the human ear and brain.

Rand makes a crucial argument here for the existence of absolute values in music. Most arguments against a universal language of music have been dismissed in our age due to postmodern arguments of the equality of all cultures and the dismissal of absolutes. Rand is much closer to the view of religious theories that claim a spiritual basis for music. But the distinction is that, although Rand and the "spiritualists" have identified the same quality, their interpretations rest on the rejection or acceptance of the mind/body dichotomy. As Rand explains, "Hence all the mystic clamor about the 'spiritual' or supernatural character of music. Mysticism ... here appropriates a phenomenon which is a product of the union, not the dichotomy, of man's body and mind: it is part physiological, part intellectual."

Turner, who could be described as one of Rand's 'mystics' (for his belief that music is defined as "the imagination of love in sound"), exemplifies the similarity and difference of Rand's claim when he writes that, "Apparently each of us carries within him a fundamental note struck upon us by nature and mankind and ranges them in a series. And it is this which gives to each one his values ... The fundamental note which any individual carries may not be the fundamental note of mankind, or of the Universe, but it must have a more or less simple relation with them. Thus the values are true for all others, within their limits." Turner, like many of the classical composers he champions, makes such appeals in the name of religion. But we can see a similar notion in the above to Rand's claim that one's musical tastes are a reflection of one's sense of life. The patterns of sound are not arbitrary; combined they somehow resound with a particular set of emotions and, like water, will take the shape of the emotional vessel of the listener. In the Orpheus myth, we saw the change in the sense of life of Orpheus, which, changing the music accordingly, caused him to fall out with the more joyous aspects of life and resulted in dismemberment.

On that note, Turner makes the case for Beethoven as the greatest composer, because of the flood of emotions captured in his work. His was a range of great emotional capacity, as if we were under control of every muse imaginable. It is also said that Beethoven's music made possible the rise of psychotherapy. It was this contribution of Beethoven's, not simply new forms or patterns, but his phrasing and emotional expansiveness, that stands as the last great achievement in music, one which has yet to be surpassed. This is not surprising given the modern attitude towards "spirituality". One either embraces spirituality in a religious sense, and foregoes musical advancement in favor of a heavenly, "Platonic" form that can never be achieved until death (since composers rarely hear angels anymore), or abandons spirituality altogether for a behaviorist model of man where music is merely a collection of patterns. (It is this latter view that leads to the pantonality of the 12-tone row, where all tones are considered equal, [abandoning musical hierarchy in the name of "freedom"], and the atonality that eventually followed, random noises and such, the basis for true "cauterwauling.")

Turner concludes his book with the promise that "Music will not end with Beethoven." But he offers a different outlook from the one that states that ideas of the future only present more of the same. He claims that "life without change is inconceivable among us and music that is alive must be changing."

Ayn Rand has left us the clue to finding the path of the music of the future, but she put her idea, oddly enough, in the words of her architects. Her ideas on the integration of form and function point the way to a future theory of music, one that will unite the new scientific advancements of music production with an understanding of the psychology of not only emotions (as Richard Halley remarked, "emotions be damned!"), but of imagination and vision in relation to man's physiology and relation to reality. Only then will Orpheus be remembered.

A note from the Editor: SOLOists interested in more discussion of this and other topics in music should check out the SOLOMusic Forums.
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