Sunday, July 25, 2010

Attacking Plato

When I read Friedrich Nietzsche's bald "Plato is boring" declaration in Twilight of the Idols (at least in Walter Kaufmann's translation), my thoughts almost immediately turned to Louis Andriessen and his setting of passages about music from "Republic" in "De Staat." Here were two men from two adjacent centuries, who decided to have it out with Plato in ways whose similarities may ultimately be more interesting than their differences. This set me wondering just what intentions and motives they had brought to their respective efforts and what it was that each of them was really trying to say. At the very least it is clear that both philosopher and composer were interested in taking a polemic stance, but that observation means relatively little without homing in on the target of the polemic in each case.

In "Twilight of the Idols" it is too easy to read Nietzsche's sentence out of context, exactly the same problem we encounter with his more famous (infamous?) "God is dead" proclamation. I suspect that the best way to appreciate his attack on Plato leads through the opening paragraph of the section in which it appears and in the following sentences from that paragraph:
One does not learn from the Greeks—their manner is too foreign, and too fluid, to have an imperative, a "classical" effect. Who could ever have learned to write from a Greek? Who could ever have learned it without the Romans?
This paragraph, in turn, can only really be appreciated in Nietzsche's praise of Horace in the preceding section:
To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode have me from the first. In certain languages that which has been achieved here could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word—as sound, as place, as concept—pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs—all that is Roman and, if one will believe me, noble par excellence. All the test of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular—a mere garrulity of feelings.
In other words the appeal of Horace lies in his "way with words." At the risk of making too great a stretch, I would venture a guess that the virtue of Horace's "mosaic of words" resides in the way it integrates the three strands of the medieval trivium, which has influenced my writing about the performance of music so profoundly. Specifically, "concept" captures the relationship to logic, "place" the relationship to grammatical structure, and "sound" the relationship to rhetoric.

From this point of view, we can appreciate at least one aspect of why Nietzsche should have found Plato so annoying. Plato is strongly suspicious of rhetoric, and that suspicion surfaces in several of his dialogs. Logic is paramount, and grammar is there only to provide structural support for the expression of logical statements. Rhetoric is at best mere embellishment and at worst a distraction from the logic. Nietzsche, on the other hand, makes it clear after his bald declaration that he totally rejects these priorities:
My recreation, my preference, my cure from all Platonism has always been Thucydides. Thucydides and, perhaps, Machiavelli’s Principe are most closely related to myself by the unconditional will not to full oneself and to see reason in reality—not in "reason," still less in "morality."
In the context of "Twilight of the Idols" read in its entirety, this is a rejection of Plato's prioritizing logic in the face of the messiness of reality, not only in regard to man but also accounting for man's place in the overall natural world.

Here is where we may find a link to Andriessen, who in many respects is more interested in the messiness of reality (particularly the realities of making music) than in the pristine order of Plato's appeals to reason. His point of departure for "De Staat," at least according to the notes in the Elektra Nonesuch recording of the performance by the Schoenberg Ensemble, is the semantic absurdity of the excepts from "Republic" that he chose to set, particularly pertaining to the damaging effects of music that departs from the constraints imposed in "Republic." Andriessen flaunts Plato, not through the sort of highly charged words invoked by Nietzsche but through a deliberately iconoclastic approach to both composition and performance. The result strives to be an assault on our capacity as audience to find Friedrich Hayek's "sensory order" in the auditory signals that impose themselves on our ears. Indeed, if, in its minimalist unfolding of motifs, that assault was not strong enough, Andriessen strengthened it even further with "Hoketus," for two identical instrumental ensembles, each of which "fills in the rests" of the other (a device already exercised towards the end of "De Staat"), resulting in a maddening level of raw musical mechanism.

There is thus at least one way of approaching Andriessen has having carried the polemic torch that Nietzsche passed and expressing it through the composition of music. From this point of view, it should not be surprising that, a little more than ten years after the completion of "Hoketus," Andriessen composed "Nietzsche Redet" for speaker and chamber ensemble. I still need to track down the text he chose to set (let alone listen to this later work); but I now feel inclined to research this matter in greater depth!

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