Musical Beauty: Negotiating the Boundary between Subject and Object
Férdia J. Stone-Davis. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011. 210 pages.
Beauty bids. Resolutely located neither in object nor subject, world nor self, beauty provides an ecstatic mode of attention wherein the boundary between perceived and perceiver is blurred and the intimate connection between the two is disclosed. Such beauty as the animating agent of a non-reducing relationality of ontology and epistemology is the call of Musical Beauty by Férdia Stone-Davis. She presents her thesis directly: “musical beauty offers a pre-reflective stance towards the world wherein one focuses outwards and experiences an abundance of meaning that is not self-generated but is presented from without whilst ‘resonating’ within. . . . Music thus can be said to encourage an ‘enchanted’ mode of attention.” To take us there Stone-Davis pursues two august figures in Western aesthetics, Anicius Boethius and Immanuel Kant, neither of whom, in her view, satisfactorily reconciles the expression of musical sound with the measure of soundness. However, both lead through musical engagement to a possible mutuality of subject and object.
The book consists primarily of an impressive disentangling of the rationalist arguments of Boethius and Kant. The strength of the study lies in the negotiations through which Stone-Davis weaves their thought together, even if her presentation style inclines towards the pedantic, a common trait of dissertation-based research. In her estimation both thinkers approach but ultimately recoil from the beauty of which she is convinced, for each relies on the grounding of musical significance in non-musical frameworks of verbal communication. (We might find such dependence on linguistic semantics to constitute a similar deficit in millennia-old anxieties over liturgical musical expression. Arguably, this charge turns on Musical Beauty itself, for its verbal expression is not problematised.) Stone-Davis seeks credibility in realigning excessive inclinations of Boethius and Kant through the other. That is, she overlays Boethius’ apprehension of beauty as external to individual experience, and concomitantly his valuing of form over sound, with Kant’s insight into beauty as a means of knowing, even if hampered by music’s subsidiary status of mere sensation.
Stone-Davis draws on the relatively synonymous agency of “beauty” and “music” in classical Greek tradition, to which Boethius gave ongoing and theological import in early sixth-century Rome. Indeed, “order” and “harmony” further co-mingle with “beauty” and “music” in the ancient discourse of health and wholeness of the cosmos, its song ever reaching to and from God as it extends into and beyond particular instantiations throughout the created world. Stone-Davis highlights how Boethius’ account of beauty employs music as the active communicating principle of both orderly form and resonant expression. She also accents two shortcomings in his presentation, the first of his own admission. Boethius fails to offer rationale for the experience of pain, injustice, and evil in the world; further, he renders the materiality of sound subservient to the intellectual perception of form.
Enlightenment tradition identifies beauty with what is agreeable to individual taste and sensation. Stone-Davis demonstrates Kant’s contributions and challenges to this understanding; particularly, his mediating of empiricist and rationalist concerns. Kant attributes beauty to objects that encourage harmony in the free play of powers of imagination, evincing the disinterested pleasure (“purposive purposelessness”) of his epistemological understanding of beauty. Music is pertinent to this mediation insofar as it acts to measure harmony. However, given music’s low amenability to verbal conceptualization when compared with verbal and pictorial arts, he reduces music’s worth to mere pleasure.
Stone-Davis redresses some inconsistencies of musical evaluation in Boethius and Kant. More significantly, she demonstrates how these figures incline towards a pre-reflective mutuality of musical beauty involving impact, absorption, and ekstasis. This possibility derives from music’s physicality as sound, for music infuses with and is altered by the human body even as it invites the subject’s attention and action. Stone-Davis is compelling in her pursuit of re-enchantment within the world today, whereby the subject is rendered open to meaning derived from outside, even if this discussion lacks theological engagement. Given the author’s insistence that musical valuation not achieve rest and resolution in formal abstraction, it is appropriate that she connect the study to expressions and locations of musical pursuit today. Understandably brief, this portion of the book is also disappointing, for she glosses over terms of musical engagement uncritically, effecting problems of historical anachronism and contemporary reification in the treatment of music theoretic categories like tonality and sonata form, and of sociologically informed inquiries into musical experience. Despite these concerns, Stone-Davis’s proposal of a pre-reflective stance that can be differentiated from the clichéd posturings of a “universal language’s” solipsism or of the escapist highs of “beyond words” experience in aesthetic and religious expression alike is persuasive. Indeed, the negotiations she offers leave the reader longing for a musical beauty that may well contribute significantly to a healthy collaboration of music, philosophy, and theology.