Lecture Eleven: Relations 11.2

11.2 Beyond tonality

Nineteenth-century Western music was mostly based on what is called the tonal system. The tonal system is a historical product of early modern Western music, and by Nietzsche’s time it was already increasingly under pressure. As we discussed in Lecture Nine, Nietzsche envisages the way that music handles dissonances as a paradigm for a tragic approach to life. In doing so, Nietzsche takes for granted how dissonances are conceptualized from the point of view of tonality. This is the unchallenged assumption that we need to deconstruct; doing so will also provide a useful bridge to early Buddhist thought.

In a nutshell, dissonance is not a natural kind, but rather a way of conceptualizing the relation between different tones from the point of view of an assumed fundamental tone (a tonic, or the tonal key of a piece of music). The properties that Nietzsche imputes to dissonance are dependent upon its being contextualized in a tonal framework. Without this framework, dissonance is not necessarily something dynamic, or unstable, or in need of resolution, nor even something necessarily painful to hear. In other words, it is only in a specific context, or from a specific perspective, namely, that of a tonal system, that dissonance appears in the form Nietzsche conceives of it. As it turns out, the tonal system is a good musical parallel for the way that a sense of self (identity, unity, central coherence in the whole of experience) can arise and be established.

The best guide to explore this issue is provided by some of Arnold Schönberg’s reflections on musical thought. Schönberg (1874-1951) was a generation younger than Nietzsche and was well acquainted with his thought. More importantly, Schönberg was one of the most influential composers and musical theorists of the first half of the twentieth century. For present purposes, we shall focus on his essay Problems of Harmony (1934), in which Schönberg summarizes his main point that tonality is a historically constructed and contingent device aimed at achieving unity in music (the equivalent of mastering uncertainty in life), but neither necessary nor the only possible way of doing so. This claim also provides a theoretical explanation of Schönberg’s own project of developing a new musical system based on ‘twelve tones in relation to one another’ (usually referred to as ‘dodecaphony’ or ‘serialism’). In following the unfolding of Schönberg’s thoughts, we shall bring them into relief with his musical reflections and show how they resonate with our general discussion of the constructed nature of selfhood, and with Nietzsche’s project more specifically.

Schönberg’s starting point is an assertion of the relational nature of music. Music is a relation among codified sounds, namely tones, and musical thoughts are ways of expressing specific and interesting relations among tones. A musical thought can be understood as a way of expressing a certain form of unity among tones or conveying the sense in which a certain series of tones form a coherent whole. Schönberg stresses the perpetual striving of the composer to uncover new possibilities and ways of articulating musical thoughts, while steering away from those forms and structures that would sound tired or no longer interesting. Creating music is thus akin to the will to create novelty (Lecture Ten). As he writes:

An idea in music consists principally in the relation of tones to one another. But every relationship that has been used often, no matter how extensively modified, must finally be regarded as exhausted; it ceases to have power to convey a thought worthy of expression. Therefore every composer is obliged to invent, to invent new things, to present new tone relations for discussion and to work out their consequences. It is for this reason that the technic of music must develop so quickly and so persistently. (Schönberg 1973, 4)

It is not obvious that this striving for novelty has been universally appreciated and valued by composers in the history of music. It is more likely that conservative drives also played a prominent role in certain periods. Nonetheless, Schönberg’s view gives prominence to the forward-looking and actively creative attitude that Zarathustra ascribes to the child. And Schönberg himself is confronted with the same paradox of Zarathustra’s child: in order to create something new, the inertia of the past must be challenged. In this case, what needs to be abandoned is the idea that musical thoughts can achieve unity only if they are shaped in the framework of a tonal system must be rejected.

To argue for this point, Schönberg explores the general conditions for the establishment of any relation between tones. His main point is that tones can be related because they are inherently relational, namely, because each tone already entails a relation to others. Consider, once again, Plato’s theorem in the Sophist: no identity without difference and relation. In fact, one might even go further and argue that music is what provides the blueprint or template for conceptualizing any more abstract relational ontology; unsurprisingly both Plato and Nietzsche were very interested in music.

Schönberg writes:

How, after all, can two tones be joined one with another? My answer is that such a juxtaposition of tones, if a connection is to be brought about from which a piece of music may be the result, is only possible because a relation already exists between the tones themselves. Logically, we can only join things that are related, directly or indirectly. In a piece of music, I cannot establish a relation between a tone and, let us say, an eraser; simply because no musical relation exists. (Schönberg 1973, 5)

The most general way of connecting tones is by considering them as complex rather than simple. Schönberg relies on the acoustic theory of overtones, according to which any natural tone comes with a series of overtones. For instance, when one presses a C key on a piano, the fundamental tone that one hears is C, but within that tone, one can also discern another C that resonates an octave higher, and then a G that resonates a fifth even higher. The chromatic scale can be derived from the series of overtones. While the chromatic scale is a way of ordering different tones in a temporal succession, chords can be used to order different tones spatially in the same moment of time.

Tonality arises out of the use of specific technical devices used to emphasized one particular fundamental tone, which becomes the tonic of a key (like C in the key of C major). Traditionally, this is done by alternating relatively consonant chords derived from the very first overtones of the fundamental tonic (like the chord of C major, composed of C, G and E), with other more dissonant chords, which include tones that are farther away in the sequence of overtones and thus are recognized as more extraneous by the ear (like a cord of G major, composed of G, B and D). These chords are thus perceived as dissonant to some extent, and this dissonance can be handled in such a way as to create a sense of need for the re-assertion of the tonic. Schönberg observes:

Even in the relatively simple forms, those most nearly related to the fundamental tone, which employ chords and chord successions that are very near the key, tonality does not appear automatically, of itself, but requires the application of a number of artistic means to achieve its end unequivocally and convincingly. (Schönberg 1973, 9)

The core insight is that no matter how straightforward a sequence of chords are, they do not entail the establishment of a certain tonality all by themselves. Tonality is not something that exists or is inherent in any particular chord, but results from a skillful construction of a series of chords and the use of other devices that create the impression, for the listener, of one key tone dominating the composition. In summarizing his view, Schönberg explains:

Every isolated major triad can of itself express a key. If no contradiction is added it may be taken for a tonic-chord. But every succeeding chord contests the feeling for tonality and pleads for others. Only a few very special kinds of chord-successions permit the conception that any one of the used chords, chiefly the last one, is the fundamental chord of a key. But even this designation is only final if nothing contradictory follows. Without the application of very definite art-means a key cannot be unequivocally expressed. (Schönberg 1973, 10)

Compare this with how the sense of self is constructed. The self is established as a fundamental key-tonic in experience. A key-tonic is a musical construction that results from an artful treatment of the relation among chords and sounds, in which one chord emerges as the establishment of a fundamental key, although this result is never absolute and can always be challenged, it remains uncertain and under threat. The self emerges from the attempt at mastering uncertainty in the same way that a key-tonic emerges from the attempt to establish it on the background of harmonic ambiguity and fluctuation. Like the self, the tonic becomes what defines the ‘main character’ of a piece of music, and its overall unity in the tonal system. Various ideas can then be introduced and developed in that piece, but the tonic provides a way of unifying their diversity and heterogeneity. However, any deviation from the tonic is perceived as a dissonance that challenges the establishment of the key-tonic and raises a sense of dynamism and drama in the musical discourse (remember the dynamics between local selves and global selves from Lecture Two). Difficulties and failures in the self’s attempt at mastering uncertainty give rise to the vicissitudes of life, and when extreme, to its tragedy.

As Schönberg remarks, any isolated chord can be used to establish a key. However, music is inherently relational and thus always open to becoming (remember the connection between relationality and becoming we encountered in Nietzsche, and its roots in Plato’s theory of the five great kinds). Any chord is bound to be followed by something different, and this new chord will contest the establishment of the tonic. While the sense of self can arise and be attached to any given experience, the inevitable change that this experience will undergo challenges the current sense of self. As I identify with my experience when I am awake, whenever I go to sleep and become something else (like my dreaming I), this new experience challenges the earlier identity. While I dream, am I still the same self as when I am awake? As we discussed in Lecture Two, there is no straightforward answer to this question.

In music, composers crafted a number of rhetorical devices (so-called ‘cadences’) meant to reinforce the sense of a particular key. The final ending bars of any piece of Mozart provide a canonical instance of what that sounds like. However, these devices only work if nothing else prevails or follows. In other words, the ‘victory’ of the tonic (or of the sense of self) can never be absolute or permanent, it is always the provisional victory of a specific battle, never the victory of the whole war. Schönberg emphasizes that the way the tonic is established is entirely artificial; it is a skillful construction on the part of the composer and is not natural or inherent in the musical matter. The same is true of the self, which can be established and constructed, but never entirely secured.

Schönberg’s aim is not to dismiss tonality. In fact, he insists on the pragmatic and aesthetic function that it serves. Tonality provides a powerful tool for creating unity in music and imposing structure on musical thought.[1] Unity and coherence are Schönberg’s ways of expressing the ideal of intelligibility, namely, the possibility for a listener to understand musical thought. Intelligibility (and hence, unity and coherence) is not an intrinsic property, but arises from the match and fit between the composer’s language and the listener’s understanding. When the ear understands a musical thought, that thought is appreciated and reveals its aesthetic positive qualities (it sounds ‘beautiful’). Tonality is a widely established tool in Western classical music, used to convey a sense of unity and coherence, and hence to support intelligibility and achieve beauty. By contrast, dissonance can be seen as problematic or even aesthetically repulsive only because (and insofar as) it is not understood by the musical ear. According to Schönberg, tonality itself is not the problem. The problem is conceiving of tonality as natural or inherent in music, which is misleading and limiting. The real question is whether it would be possible to achieve comparable (or even better) results from the point of view of unity and form (intelligibility), without exploiting the artificial devices based on tonality.

The reasons for seeking an alternative to tonality are twofold. On the one hand, there is the urge to create something new which was mentioned above. After some time, tonal solutions will be experienced as not only intelligible, but predictable and thus uninteresting. They will cease to be an empowering means of expressing new thoughts and will become a constricting past, from which the composer’s will must then escape. On the other hand, tonality is a particular means of creating unity and coherence, and hence imposes a specific meaning upon the musical material. But since tonality is inherently unstable, it is torn between the Apolline ideal of ensuring intelligibility and the Dionysian framework of uncertainty and disintegration. What if the tonal paradigm is abandoned and the very unstable, uncertain, relational nature of the musical matter becomes the ground for establishing unity and coherence? What if we try to understand not how a contradiction can be avoided, but how a contradiction sounds in its own right?

From the beginning of these lectures, we have explored how selfhood is conceived along a spectrum. A particular way of constructing the self amounts to a particular strategy for mastering uncertainty. Mastering uncertainty is a way of unifying experience and giving it meaning. Different conceptions of selfhood amount to different ways of unifying experience and assigning different meanings to it. In seeking intelligibility without relying on tonality, Schönberg is seeking the musical equivalent of a different from of selfhood from that which is enacted in the tonal system—or even more radically, an alternative to the whole project of self-mastery.

In music, it is possible to have tonal structures (in which a key-tonic is established as fundamental, like in classical composers such as Mozart or Haydn), or else polytonal structures (multiple tonal structures are superimposed, like in some Stravinsky), or even non-tonal structures (like in some of Schönberg’s own compositions). In all these cases, what changes is the way that overall unity and coherence is achieved in relation to the establishment of one, more than one, or no fundamental center of gravitation. Even in music, we are faced with a spectrum of possible ways of creating unity, of constructing (musical) selfhood.

In the extreme case in which no tonal center is established, though, unity will acquire a fundamentally different meaning from the sense of unity that is perceived in a tonal composition. Schönberg achieves this result by taking as his starting point the relational nature of musical tones themselves (their conditionality, hence the equivalent of what would be perceived as uncertainty), and exploits that to build a series. A series is a fixed set of tones that will shape most of the other aspects of a given composition by engendering an overall sense of coherence, intelligibility, and unity, but without establishing any permanent center or core (a key-tonic). The structure itself (the series of twelve tones and their relations) is taken as more fundamental than any of its constituent parts. The sort of intelligibility and unity introduced by the use of serialism is based on the lack of any unique and fundamental core (or tonic or self). The experience of this absence—this groundlessness—becomes the new focal point around which the rest of the musical experience and thought gravitate. In this way, Schönberg’s construction illustrates how one might build a meaning for experience on the acknowledgement of its conditionality and uncertainty, without mastering it or subordinating it to some permanent core, tonic, or self. This enacts in music the tragic view that Nietzsche was after, but also brings us close with early Buddhist thought and practice, as we shall see in the next lecture.

Schönberg continues:

Though the development of tonality was by leaps and bounds, though it has not signified the identical thing at all times, its function has, nevertheless, been one and the same. It has always been the referring of all results to a centre, to a fundamental tone, to an emanation point of tonality, which rendered important service to the composer in matters of form. All the tonal successions, chords and chord-successions in a piece achieve a unified meaning through their definite relation to a tonal centre and also through their mutual ties. That is the unifying function of tonality. (Schönberg 1973, 13)

The question of the self is not just whether the it exists or not, whether it is an illusion or just a delusion, but also, importantly, how it is enacted and supported. It is the question of what sort of fuel it runs on (so to speak). Schönberg’s phrasing is particularly relevant since it stresses that this is not a matter of replacing one system with another, but of having more options available. Schönberg himself sometimes wrote (remarkable) pieces using tonal language, although he also decided at some point to avoid tonality altogether and explore alternative structures. Is it possible to do the same with the self? In Lecture Two, we saw Thompson’s claim that we ought not to fall into neuro-nihilism, by considering the self merely an illusion or as entirely non-existent, because without some sense of self any experience would seem entirely incoherent. In turn, Thompson claims, this would paralyze action and cognition. Schönberg provides us with a vantage point to address this issue. Unity and coherence in music (the intelligibility of experience provided by a broad and processual sense of self) can be achieved without appealing to tonality (the equivalent of supporting this sense of self with beliefs and conative attitudes that imbue it with a strong ontological autonomy and independence). This means that what matters most is not the sort of structure that it is imposed upon the material (tones, experience), but rather the intelligibility that follows and the possibility of making that material understandable and meaningful. Selfhood, like tonality in music, is a way of interpreting experience, of making sense of it. We can now see that this might not be the only way.

Schönberg is cautious in framing his point:

It is evident that abandoning tonality can be contemplated only if other satisfactory means for coherence and articulation present themselves. If, in other words, one could write a piece which does not use the advantages offered by tonality and yet unifies all elements so that their succession and relation are logically comprehensible, and which is articulated as our mental capacity requires, namely so that the parts unfold clearly and characteristically in related significance and function […]. Let us ask then: do unity and coherence depend exclusively on tonality? (Schönberg 1973, 15)

The answer is negative. According to Schönberg, music in the second half of the nineteenth century especially (the music in which Nietzsche himself was immersed) provides ample examples. Among which, Schönberg includes Wagner’s music:

If, with the simplest triads […] we can produce short phrases which do not definitely determine a key, we can also take chords, not too complicated, such as are used in Wagner’s harmony, and make rather extensive examples in which no unresolved dissonance occurs, all of which by themselves may refer to a key but which in toto leave no doubt that no tonal center exists and therefore no modulation. (Schönberg 1973, 17)

In Schönberg’s interpretation, Wagner’s harmony can use relatively simple and traditional chords, which follow each other in relatively traditional ways, and thus allow dissonances to be resolved as expected. And yet, these progressions do not establish any overall tonic. Wagner’s works can be regarded as an example of tonal music that escapes the overall goal of fixating a key-tonic as the musical centre. There is a semblance of tonality but without the assertion of any genuine tonal core. To rephrase in more dramatic terms: there is a semblance of strong individuality (the tonic), while at the same time this semblance is also undermined by the overall development. We might wonder whether Nietzsche’s musical sensitivity somehow heard this point, and whether it was for this reason that he was drawn, in The Birth of Tragedy, to present Wagner’s music as the best expression of the tragic synergy between Apolline and Dionysiac.

In another essay, Composition with Twelve Tones (originally published in 1941, then in Style and Idea, 1975), Schönberg presents some important aspects of his own composition style. Given our limits of space and time, we cannot delve into this further essay here, but it might be helpful to take a short detour to explore the notion of ‘emancipation of the dissonance,’ which Schönberg associated with Wagner. Schönberg explains:

In the last hundred years, the concept of harmony has changed tremendously through the development of chromaticism. The idea that one basic tone, the root, dominated the construction of chords and regulated their succession—the concept of tonality—had to develop first into the concept of extended tonality. Very soon it became doubtful whether such a root still remained the center to which every harmony and harmonic succession must be referred. Furthermore, it became doubtful whether a tonic appearing at the beginning, at the end, or at any other point really had a constructive meaning. Richard Wagner’s harmony had promoted a change in the logic and constructive power of harmony. One of its consequences was the so-called impressionistic use of harmonies, especially practised by Debussy. […] In this way, tonality was already dethroned in practise, if not in theory. This alone would perhaps not have caused a radical change in compositional technique. However, such a change became necessary when there occurred simultaneously a development which ended in what I call the emancipation of the dissonance.

The ear had gradually become acquainted with a great number of dissonances, and so had lost the fear of their “sense-interrupting” effect. One no longer expected preparations of Wagner’s dissonances or resolutions of Strauss’ discords; one was not disturbed by Debussy’s non-functional harmonies, or by the harsh counterpoint of later composers. This state of affairs led to a freer use of dissonances comparable to classic composers’ treatment of diminished seventh chords, which could precede and follow any other harmony, consonant or dissonant, as if there were no dissonance at all.

What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility. In my Harmonielehre I presented the theory that dissonant tones appear later among the overtones, for which reason the ear is less intimately acquainted with them. This phenomenon does not justify such sharply contradictory terms as concord and discord. Closer acquaintance with the more remote consonances—the dissonances, that is— gradually eliminated the difficulty of comprehension and finally admitted not only the emancipation of dominant and other seventh chords, diminished sevenths and augmented triads, but also the emancipation of Wagner’s, Strauss’, Moussorgsky’s; Debussy’s, Mahler’s, Puccini’s, and Reger’s more remote dissonances.

The term emancipation of the dissonance refers to its comprehensibility, which is considered equivalent to the consonance’s comprehensibility. A style based on this premise treats dissonances like consonances and renounces a tonal center. By avoiding the establishment of a key modulation is excluded, since modulation means leaving an established tonality and establishing another tonality. (Schönberg 1975, 216-217)

Schönberg first emphasises how the use of chromatism (harmonically remote or foreign tones with respect to the fundamental key) expanded the notion of tonality, by allowing the listener to become increasingly more familiar with dissonances, and to thus dissociate the hearing of a dissonance from the feeling of confusion or even disunity in the piece. Notice that Schönberg’s discussion continuously shifts back and forth between musical practice and musical listening, stressing how the evolution of musical practice is symbiotic with the evolution of the listener’s understanding (although he also, more polemically, remarks that the two do not run at the same speed). This phenomenon shows that unity (intelligibility) in music can exist without the needing a strong centre that legitimizes and upholds that same unity against its many threats. Uncertainty does not necessitate nor require mastery.

Wagner plays a pivotal role in this process. Wagner uses relatively traditional harmonic forms, but also progressively dissociating or undermining their structural tonal function. This process is what leads to the emancipation of the dissonance, which is a hermeneutic phenomenon. Becoming more and more acquainted with various dissonances and starting to understand their role and contribution to the shaping of musical unity, the listener’s ear begins to understand dissonances differently, no longer as something that disrupts or breaks unity and coherence, but as part of it. Emancipation arises from the feedback between new musical styles and how they affect listening practices. Emancipation is not achieved unilaterally by one party moving away from the other (remember the dilemma of the Vedic seer we encountered in Lecture Five), but collaboratively, as all parties moves closer to a mutual understanding.

Schönberg remarks that dissonance and consonance are not opposed, but should be considered on a spectrum. The genuine difference between them is not aesthetic (it does not concern perception), but semantic (it concerns understanding). Dissonances might be more difficult to understand for the ear, but this is just a matter of acquaintance, not an inherent feature of the musical material itself. Dissonances are just ‘remote consonances,’ there is nothing inherently ‘disturbing,’ ‘painful’ or even ‘ugly’ in dissonances and they are not inherently ‘dynamic’ or in need for ‘resolution.’ Dissonances are not ‘problems’ or ‘challenges,’ unless they are perceived in the narrow framework of a tonal system and the listener’s ear has not developed the ability to understand how dissonances do not necessarily disrupt unity and coherence. From this point of view, we can see that ‘dissonance’ does not inherently mean (it does not have to be perceived as) ‘suffering’ or ‘pain.’ Whether this happens depends on two variables: the musical context (tonal or not) and the listener’s degree of understanding.

Admittedly, the historical development of musical styles is less linear than Schönberg presents it. We should not forget that in playing the role of a historian, Schönberg also aims to legitimize (or at least defend) his own approach by reconstructing a suitable genealogy and lineage. The historical context of Schönberg’s own work is well discussed by Luigi Rognoni, in his The Second Vienna School. The Rise of Expressionism in the Music of Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern (1977). Rognoni shows how, in the post-Wagnerian period, composers tended to drift along two actually divergent paths. Debussy reacted to chromatism by reducing the use of semitones and experimenting with diatonic, esatonal or whole-tone scales. The Paris circle of composers (which included Ravel and Satie) then tended to develop a poetic based on ‘objectivism’ and, later, on a form of neo-classicism, of which Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress (1951) is perhaps the most emblematic example. This is a gesture towards reality, even in its ordinary aspects, an attempt to refrain from what is perceived as excessive drama (à la Wagner). Schönberg’s own research goes exactly in the opposite direction, since his aim is to exploit the democratic nature of the chromatic scale for the purpose of creating a new language, profoundly shaped by expressionistic features and aims. In doing so, Schönberg does not try to silence or dismiss subjectivity, but forges a new way for the subject to exist and express itself. Notice the paradox: subjectivity and selfhood are authentically expressed not when they are portrayed as objective beings, master of their reality, but when they are exposed in their inherent vulnerability, fragility, failure, uncertainty. These two artistic drives (objectivism and expressionism) can not only be matched with Nietzsche’s Apolline-Dionysiac divide, but also understood within the broader opposition between anaesthetic trance (which is aimed at shutting down the self and reaching ultimate reality) and an alternative effort (witnessed in Nietzsche, and perhaps also in Schönberg) to reconceptualize the way in which the self can be enacted.

According to Schönberg the emancipation of the dissonance is a process that needs to be carried out to its conclusion. This does not happen with Wagner, and Schönberg himself takes responsibility for clearly spelling out the theorical implications of it. To use Zarathustra’s anthropological scheme, Wagner still plays the lion’s game: he subverts the received tonal order, without inventing a new one. He is still caught in active nihilism, not yet ready to fully become a child. Schönberg offers instead a more radical perspective: systematically avoid establishing any tonic by building musical thoughts on the basis of pre-established and carefully crafted musical series in which each of the twelve tones occurs only once, in a well thought out order. The main rationale for this approach is that all tones are ultimately related together through their overtones, and hence emphasising one central tonic is not needed to achieve unity. As he explains (back in Problems of Harmony), intelligibility is based on:

the relation of all tones to one another, regardless of occasional occurrences, assured by the circumstance of a common origin. I believe, to be sure, that this interrelationship of all tones exists not only because of their derivation from the first thirteen overtones of the three fundamental tones, as I have shown, but that, should this proof be inadequate, it would be possible to find another. For it is indisputable that we can join twelve tones with one another and this can only follow from the already existing relations between the twelve tones. (Schönberg 1973, 20)

Schönberg’s solution to the problem of finding an alternative device to create unity consists in building on the relational nature of tones themselves. Unity can be expressed and conceived of in terms of a centralized relation in which all differences converge or are brought back to the same focal point. This is the approach pursued in the tonal system, and is similar to the use of a global sense of self as the focal point of action and cognition. However, Schönberg argues that since all tones are already naturally and inherently relational, they are also connected by their own natural relationality. The chromatic sequence of the twelve tones offers the spectrum of tones, and taking this whole sequence as the general framework, a series of twelve tones establishes unity by appeal to the fact that all twelve are (and are expected to be) included in that series. A tonal chord is an incomplete series, in which unity is achieved by reference to a common ground or tonic, which establishes a hierarchy (subordination) or an exclusion (distancing) with respect to other tones perceived as extraneous. A dodecaphonic series, instead, is the complete sequence of the twelve tones, and hence the unity among them is given by the fact that the series must contain all twelve, and each of them is presented in relation to one another, without any subordinating or distancing. Unity is derived from relationality itself. But relationality means conditionality, and conditionality means uncertainty. Hence, building unity by bringing to the forestage relationality means creating unity (intelligibility) by expressing uncertainty overtly rather than attempting to master it. The emancipation of dissonance is the ability to hear a dissonance without expecting it to be resolved. The emancipation of uncertainty is the ability to withstand uncertainty without the need to master it, overcome it, subordinate it, or run away from it. As we will find, this is the direction in which early Buddhist practice moves.

At this point, it should be clear that dissonance itself is relative to the musical system in which it occurs, and its function depends on that context. Not all dissonance needs resolution or is in need of treatment. The use of dissonance in tonal music does not necessarily undermine its tonal character, and by contrast the absence of dissonance does not establish tonality per se. Dissonance and tonality are not necessarily linked. However, the way dissonance is perceived within a tonal frame is specific to the work that dissonance performs in that context, namely, that of ‘challenging’ the tonic and thus urging further (re)action. This is the understanding of dissonance that Nietzsche takes for granted. Schönberg shows that this understanding must be indexed to tonal music only, which is but one subset of the possibilities offered by music in general:

since dissonances need not in the least disturb tonality, no matter how increasingly difficult they may make the understanding of a work; and inasmuch as the use of exclusively tonal chords does not guarantee a tonal result, I come to the following conclusion: music which today is called “tonal” establishes a key relationship continuously or does so at least at the proper moment; but music which is today called “not tonal” never allows predominance of key relationships. The difference between the two methods is largely in the emphasis or non-emphasis on the tonality. We further conclude that the manner of composition of a piece abandoning tonality in the traditional sense must be different from that in which tonality is followed. From this angle tonality is seen as one of the means which facilitates the unifying comprehension of a thought and satisfies the feeling for form. But since this means alone does not achieve the goal, it may be said that tonality accomplishes but a part of the purpose. If the function of tonality be dispensed with, but the same consideration be given to unity and feeling of form, this effect must be achieved by some other function. Obviously music so contrived can hardly be easy to grasp. (Schönberg 1973, 21)

Dissonance does not inherently sound harsh or even dynamic. These moral qualities of dissonances depend on their tonal context. In a non-tonal context, dissonances can have a completely different meaning. Applying this perspectival understanding of dissonance to Nietzsche’s early account, we can derive the following conclusion: the unity of the opposites, the contradictory nature of reality and becoming, does not inherently entail suffering (it does not necessarily mean suffering or pain). If the dissonant nature of life appears in this way, this is because it is still heard in a particular context, namely, in a context in which, more or less explicitly, a central tonic core is still established and valued, in relation to which dissonance sounds like a challenge. In other words, Nietzsche’s judgment that life is suffering (the bedrock of his tragic view of life) cannot be an ontological statement, it can only be a moral judgment, and this judgment can be meaningful only in a particular context in which identity (consonance) has been established or retained to some extent. In judging contradiction painful, Nietzsche betrays how much his ear has remained faithful to that same metaphysical way of interpreting reality that equates eternal being and goodness. This is in fact Nietzsche’s own contradiction. While he acknowledges that everything is constructed and shaped by becoming, he still regards the phenomenon of suffering as belonging to the inner core of nature itself, without realizing that even suffering must be a construction. Nature has no inner core.

Notice, this does not mean that the contradiction of life is not real or merely a semblance, in the same way in which the simultaneous overlap between two different tones is not merely the semblance of two genuinely different tones resonating together. What is at stake is understanding this contradiction as a form of suffering. This is a further moral interpretation that mobilizes how the fact of contradiction is understood and lived by someone who experiences and feels it. The feeling of suffering can be only in the hearing of dissonance, not in the existence of dissonance as such. But feeling is not encoded in experience and Nietzsche would grant that it is dependent on its context. And yet, he does not recognize how he himself ends up assuming that suffering must ultimately be an inherent feature of reality. But this does not logically follow: reality can be contradictory, but this does not mean that it has to be perceived as suffering. The notion of ‘dissonance’ is meaningful only in relation to its opposite, ‘consonance.’ In talking about dissonance, Nietzsche still holds onto the idea of a fundamental consonance, which is surely frustrated and impossible to restore, and yet still longed for.

In holding this view, Nietzsche sides with Wagner’s lion-attitude towards the self and its problem: he recognizes it, but he does not really manage to move beyond it. And this might explain why it is so difficult for Zarathustra to move towards the overhuman, despite his many efforts. We saw Zarathustra’s initial despair when faced with the thought of eternal recurrence: he cannot accept and does not want to acknowledge that his struggle to create something new, to prepare the ground for the overhuman, will bring about the recurrence of the last man as well as its archenemy. This reveals that Zarathustra is still holding to a certain idea of what a human should be, of how human life should unfold. This ‘should,’ despite how much at odds it is with a traditional Christian ‘should,’ remains Zarathustra’s (and Nietzsche’s) nemesis, the pivot with respect to which the failure of fulfilling this project (the dissonance of it) can only sound painful. Since this ‘should’ cannot possibly be satisfied, its dissonance is inescapable and inescapably painful. Life is (i.e., sounds like) suffering.

This observation ties in with the role of the listener (experiencer) in understanding experience. Schönberg stresses that the difference between consonance and dissonance, and even between tonal and atonal music, is ultimately established by the capabilities of the listener to discern and disentangle complex relations between musical tones. Now it should be emphasized that listening (experiencing) not only entails normative demands and expectations, but also that such demands profoundly shape the whole perceptual process. It is not the case that one first perceives something, receives it in a neutral and non-judgmental way, and only afterwards decides how to assess it. Quite the contrary, one perceives what one is looking for, and perception itself is shaped by normative demands and expectations rooted in the perceiver’s current concerns. To perceive something, one needs to have some sort of interest, and by pursuing that interest, the experience of perception takes place.[2]

In Lecture One, we discussed the enactive, autopoietic account in which living organisms continuously construct an interpretation of their world based on their needs. Perception is not a passive process of witnessing a pregiven world, but a complex way of enacting a world and playing within it. Any such playing is done for a purpose, because of some sort of stirring, need, urgency, curiosity, or interest. In the context of music, one listens to music rather than to any other sounds, because one is looking for that particular phenomenon in the field of auditory experience. If we take seriously the idea that perception is not a purely passive process that precedes any further assessment, but is directed, shaped, and oriented by normative demands, then it becomes clear that listening to music is not a matter of simply receiving sounds, but actively seeking in the experience of sound a certain kind of order or form of unity. This can be generalized to any experience in general, in which the broader form of this normative demand ordinarily concerns a way of mastering uncertainty and thus seeking in experience ways of enacting a self. Zarathustra took issue with this ordinary way of enacting selfhood, and yet his struggle to escape from it has to do with his reluctance to abandon a certain normative demand, his own normative demand.

Without a normative demand, perception would collapse and blur. The alternative to any ordinary normativity embedded in the experience of reality cannot be the absence of any normativity tout court. This would be equivalent to reverting to the project of anesthetic trance, finding in the shutting down of experience the solution to the difficulty of bearing with it. We saw why this route is blocked. The real alternative lies in a different way of looking at normativity as such and in ceasing to take it at face value, as something inherent, intrinsic, natural, encoded in things as they are, in reality as such. Zarathustra saw this point, or rather Life taught him this (Lecture Ten). And yet, he might not have been able to fully endorse this view. If one realizes that normativity itself is conditioned, uncertain, and constructed, then the demands that it can pose appear radically different. Any ‘should’ becomes a ‘can’ because there is no longer any inherent ground that could determine the necessity in virtue of which something must happen or be pursued. Justice and Necessity are the goddesses that guide Parmenides to discover the way of Being. But if one steps outside of this Parmenidean path, normativity itself must be regarded like any other aspect of experience: uncertain, conditional, constructed. If there is no normativity inherently encoded in the nature of reality (just as there is no inherent necessity for musical tones to be subordinated to a fundamental key), then any disruption of that normativity cannot be understood (or heard) as painful. The normative demand remains, its disruption remains too, but its meaning is no longer that of the breaking of an oath or the failing of a duty. Normativity in facts becomes possibility; the ability to do, the power to create. Instead of seeking what one should be, one learns what one could enact. Zarathustra’s ideal of the overhuman remains yoked to a normative demand about what should be brought about, also entailing a precise hierarchy of values and judgments about other available options (the overhuman is better than the last man, higher than nihilists of all sorts, and so forth). Zarathustra (and Nietzsche) does not seem able to let go of this hierarchization (he could not let it go without undermining his whole philosophical project), and in this respect, he fails to ultimately transcend the metaphysical worldview that he tries to escape from.

Schönberg’s analysis allows us to see that, to sidestep the project of mastery, what is needed is not to define a different anthropological model (as Zarathustra attempted with his announce of the overhuman), but rather to reflect on the ways in which all models and normative demands can be disempowered in such a way as to give rise to unbinding freedom. The point is not to endorse the pseudo-duty of becoming fully human, a better human, or an overhuman. This is only a pseudo-duty, because there cannot be any duty encoded in something that is inherently contingent. If contingency is taken seriously, then no proper duty can be taken at face value, and all duties revert into possibilities, potentials for freedom. To articulate this point further, a confrontation with early Buddhist thought is revealing. 

  1. In Schönberg’s work, the ‘musical thought’ (German musikalische Gedanke) entails something complex and deep, akin to a direct intuition of a superior order of reality, irreducible to fully articulated verbalization. Musical form enables the composer to express this thought, although the actual expression never exhausts it (see Schönberg’s essay Composition with Twelve Tones in Id. Style and Idea, 1975). This view is arguably influenced by Schönberg’s familiarity with a rage of Western modern esoteric sources, as documented by John Covach, ‘Schoenberg and The Occult: Some Reflections on the Musical Idea’ (1992) and Id., ‘The Sources of Schoenberg’s “Aesthetic Theology”’ (1996). However, it also ties in with the Nietzschean distinction between a sense of inarticulate meaningfulness (Dyonisian) and a sense of individualized and articulated form (Apolline). Notice that Schönberg was not only familiar with Nietzsche’s thought but also wrote a lied (op. 6 no. 8) based on a Nietzsche’s poem (Der Wanderer).
  2. As Spinoza would say, intellect and will, perception and judgment, cannot be divorced from one another, each idea always simultaneously entails the representation of a content (the perceptual aspect of it) and an affirmation or denial of some of its features (the normative aspect of it). See Spinoza, Ethics, part 2, propositions 48 and 49 (with scholia, see Spinoza 1985, 483-491).


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.