Sunday, October 23, 2016

Erik Satie’s Encounter with Aristotle

I recently decided that I needed a better acquaintance with the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle, when, through a footnote, I discovered that it was the source of one of my favorite quotes (first encountered, along with attribution to Aristotle, by reading Pogo):
For one swallow does not make a summer
This morning I found another fascinating connection, although it would not surprise me if the connection were an accidental one. It has to do with an observation that usually seems to be attributed to Erik Satie, which is the music is what happens at concerts. Unless I am mistaken, I first learned about this from John Cage int he summer of 1968; and it has stuck with me ever since then. (It even showed up on this site back in April of 2012.)

The “Aristotle connection” has to do with his thoughts about how doing is necessary for learning. One of his examples is that one becomes a lyre-player by playing the lyre. In a more general sense this means that one becomes a music-maker by making music; and, to move into Satie’s domain, another version would be that one becomes a concert performer by giving performances in concert settings. This is a favorite topic of mine, because it offers yet another perspective on the need to establish a verb-based foundation (as opposed to a noun-based one that is grounded only in objects and attributes, just like entries in a database) whenever we try to talk about music in a productive way. It is not just that both making and listening to music are inextricably anchored to the fundamental flow of time; it is also that our very knowledge of music (a word I try to use with great delicacy) cannot be abstracted away from that same temporal flow through noun-based “representations” of “concepts,” “notations,” or “documents.”

This is a stance that I encountered many years ago in a book that I still value highly by Donald A. Schön, whose full title is The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. In his coy way, Satie was basically saying that, if you want to know what music is, pay attention to how a music-maker (be (s)he performer, composers, or even improviser) is “thinking in action.” If you can think that way, then you, too, can give concerts and be recognized as a music-maker!

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