On Abstraction: a Kantian take on Abstract Expressionism and Impressionism, and the Possibility of Abstract Music

What I seek is a different understanding of avant-garde music that will in turn amount to new sonic presentations. Taking as inspiration post-war visual art driven by abstraction, I hope to apply my thoughts on the abstraction in their methods to music.



It began with a visit to the Musee d’art Comtemprain de Montreal this summer, where I was consumed by
the work of Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, in a trance from a fever and over-caffeination. I understood their methods of abstraction as the removal of the object from the presentation, allowing for a more fundamental truth transcending the limitations of traditional correspondence between representation and real object. Following Kant, these artists, these philosophers, as they seemed to me, recognized that our most profound truths would be had by removing the



external object from the equation and focusing on the conveyance of the truths about our structuring and cognitive apparatuses of human subjectivity. Here, lines and colors speak for themselves as the structures that are placed into experience. We remove the false image of the thing, the entity from which the secondary qualities emerge, we remove what we think to be the origin of those secondary, yet brutally phenomenological properties, leaving us with the true origin of those qualities, the structuring apparatus of cognition. The end result is a painting of raw, human subjectivity, revealing insights into the processes of cognition, and creating the possibility of intersubjective truth.

About a week ago, on my twenty fourth birthday, I was sitting in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,

Kline, credit VMFA


absorbed by a work by Franz Kline, when I recalled these thoughts I had had about abstraction and truth. I began to wonder whether another form of artistic expression near and dear to my heart, music, had been or could be used to convey such fundamental truths about human cognition. Realizing this idea has been my project as of late. It might turn out to be rather fruitless, but this sort of thing fits well with my personality, which shows a disposition for obsessive behavior in the expectation of continued gratification.

I’m nowhere close to the realization of this idea, but I am certain now that the end product would be nothing like the paintings of Borduas, Riopelle or Kline. I say this because the mimicking of the methods of abstraction in visual art would not be going far enough in music, perhaps because music is abstract by default. For example, a guiding idea of abstraction in visual art seems to be the working out of the intersection of form and content.



We see the simplification of form and content to the point of being non-representational in the work of Rothko, allowing the colors to speak for themselves and not as the content of an entity that is being pictured. In other words, we see content without form. The bifurcation of content and form is a distinction not so easily placed into music, but we might see the form of the musical note or pitch as being a product of the instrument from which it resounds, giving it its certain timber, while the content of the note is the specific frequency that the sound is, such as 440 Hz, the ‘A’ above middle C. Such separation of content from form seems made possible by synthesizers but doesn’t glean any special insights into the capturing of human subjectivity.

Indeed, the most promising way I see in moving forward upon this distinction is in considering the sound waves, the resonating frequencies of the pitches of notes, as the forms, and the experience of ‘A’ as the content. But how can we have ‘A’ without 440 Hz, how can we have content without form? I believe the answer to that question will be the realization of the project at hand.

A further question emerges from the preceding ruminations. Visual art, in its being visual, cannot fail to depict something – it is in its essence representational, for even if we remove objects of representation from the image we are left with a depiction of non-representation. This is, of course, what allows for the resulting picture to be capable of truth, as its being a depiction of raw subjectivity that corresponds, in some fashion, to human cognizing, makes it describe reality in a way consistent with a general correspondence theory of truth. Visual abstract art aims to depict and represent subjectivity, while it might seem that music aims to express subjectivity (express in the expressivist’s sense of exclamations of non-cognitive mental states). My project would seem to fail at the start if music is in its essence non-representational, as being but mere expressions of emotion or feeling, such displays would not be truth-apt.

But I think we must be careful not to confuse the artist’s act of creation and the subject’s experience of the thing created. Even if the creation of music is pure expression, wherein nothing is asserted to be true, but rather all is exclaimed, this says nothing about the experience of music and sounds in general. The subject’s qualia in relation to external sources are meant to guide the actions of the subject as inner is meant to sync up with the outer world. An inner experience can be erroneous, such that it can be said that hearing is meant to represent the world, and we can have audial representations that are true or false, such as the audial representation that the front door is being opened. So it seems clear we can have audial representations of the external world, and audial expressions of the inner realms of the artist. The hope of the project is to convey audial representations of the internal realm.

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  1. #1 by SamL on January 20, 2015 - 6:17 am

    This is a truly excellent post—I’m delighted to discover that you are fellow music/art geek!

    I couldn’t agree more with your Kantian analysis of abstract expressionism, and I certainly think that something similar can be said for (or applied to) avant grade music. As you say, music is not intrinsically representational in the way that visual art is, so that presents some challenges to analysing it from the point of view of a form/content distinction. One thing I’d be tempted to say (I’m just flinging thoughts off here) is that it is worth distinguishing between musical content and auditory content. The quale I experience when someone plays 440hz is an auditory content, but I wouldn’t call it a musical content until it has been put into some relation with other pitches. (Or, if it does have musical content then that content is in the change of volume and timbre as the note plays out, rather than the pitch itself). So perhaps I’d want to say something like: musical content is constituted by relationships between auditory content (or, to put it another way, musical content is the form of a temporally distributed ensemble of auditory content). Depending on what we think about whether keys have intrinsic moods, perhaps rather than say the content is ‘A’ we should say that it is the root, the dominant, the subdominant, the dissonant intruder, the leading tone, etc., depending on the musical context it occupies. Perhaps all that departs from what you’re getting at?

    I really like your invocation of expressivism, because thinking about music this ways emphasises how it works causally — as a kind of tool or technology. In particular I’m reminded of a British electronic musician called Mark Fell who, inspired by Husserl’s work on the perception of temporal unity in his (snappily titled) On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, operates on the principle “that music is a technology for constructing an experience of time” (http://www.markfell.com/wiki/index.php?n=Mf.MusicOfTheEternalNowPost-husserlianTemporalityPatternCyclicTime-consciousnessAndComputerMusic). His music is basically just extremely abstract patterns of synthesised, mostly percussive sounds which use all sort of rhythmic and arhythmic trickery to make your sense of passing moments stretch and flutter. I guess the master of all this should be mentioned — Steve Reich — whose whole musical schick was using gradual change to create musical forms which mess with the listeners ability to identify and separate auditory patterns (here’s something I wrote about Reich in case you’re interested: http://samludford.tumblr.com/post/105187592596/steve-reich-music-as-a-gradual).

    Anyway, sorry for all that rambling — may be miles from what you had in mind!


    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 21, 2015 - 12:18 am

      Thanks for the kind words! Very glad then to have shared these musings, I was conflicted about doing so, as my naiveté shows through some of my phases, but your comments are most incisive and thought provoking. Your point on the distinction between auditory and musical content strikes me as quite right. Surely I might tap a glass and it rings out at a certain frequency, but it only becomes music, that is, it only assumes a musical content in relation to other auditory content. This is not something I was considering, but definitely motivates the explorations of Reich, and Fell as well for that matter, as investigations into the temporal ordering capacities of cognition per the Kantian and Husserlian spirit — had been revisiting Kant in these endeavors but overlooked Husserl, his idea of protentions of impressions contributing to the tripartite system of time consciousness suggests an avenue of exploration. I must admit that I’m not very familiar with Fell or Reich and it has been a pleasure listening to their compositions this evening, thanks for sharing that excellent point of entry on Reich, well done.

      Y’know your point about musical content being auditory content in proper relations to other auditory content would seem to have some interesting implications with the expressivist analogy. I was sort of picturing the wild and wailing vibrato of Pharoah Sanders and the staccato pounces of Cecil Taylor as being divisible into singular exclamations. If we can’t make such divisions into isolated exclamations does the whole analogy break down? It by no means has to stick, but admittedly, my interest in thinking of music in this way was influenced by Blackburn, something I know you can appreciate, seeing the writing of lyrics for music as a sort of imposition of propositional grammar on top of what is, at its core, expression of attitudes.

      Thanks for “rambling” — pretty coherent and organized for “rambling” if you ask me — I learned a lot from it.


  2. #3 by PeterJ on January 20, 2015 - 8:31 am

    Good luck with the project AW. I feel that music naturally and almost unavoidably reflects out cognitive process and inner world, and that this is why the study of it helps us to think well. But this is normally a by-product rather than a goal as it will be for you. Maybe Heinrich Schenker would be a particularly relevant musicologist.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on January 21, 2015 - 12:20 am

      Thanks for the well wishes and the tip, looking for any solid leads right now.

  3. #5 by Daedalus Lex on January 20, 2015 - 2:01 pm

    I don’t know much about music but had some similar thoughts with more attention to language/literary correlatives (https://shakemyheadhollow.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/a-digression-on-abstract-art/). Didn’t some composers – from around the time of Stravinsky/Debussy, and more recently John Cage and atonal jazz musicians – do something similar by removing sound snippets from the conventional structures of music (i.e., removing the normal “frame of meaning” just as your artists remove the representational object from the canvas)? To many untrained ears, I think atonal jazz is “music that doesn’t make sense” just as abstract art is “art that doesn’t make sense.” There is some cognate response there to be unpacked.

    • #6 by ausomeawestin on January 21, 2015 - 12:31 am

      Enjoyed that entry, thanks for sharing it with me, will have to give it more thought in due time. Admittedly, I hadn’t thought of free jazz in such a way, but that understanding makes much sense to me, so I’ll have to think that through further. Many thanks for making that point!

  4. #7 by rung2diotimasladder on January 21, 2015 - 5:12 pm

    I had similar thoughts in making the connection between abstract art and atonal music. I no nothing about music, so I wasn’t sure if that connection made sense. Anyways, I’m glad someone else thought of it.

  5. #8 by rung2diotimasladder on January 21, 2015 - 5:23 pm

    Fascinating article. I definitely need others to make such interpretations, as I’d never come up with them on my own.

    “… the mimicking of the methods of abstraction in visual art would not be going far enough in music, perhaps because music is abstract by default. For example, a guiding idea of abstraction in visual art seems to be the working out of the intersection of form and content.”

    I had this thought too at about the same time that I read this quote. When I look at abstract art, I usually just have no idea what the point is. Your article helps make sense of it. But music already feels so much more abstract, I’m not sure I’d find these ideas (or whatever you want to call them) at all obvious.

    Nevertheless, it’s probably possible, I just don’t have the ear for it.

    I just noticed the first comment (SamL) mentions Steve Reich and that’s pretty abstract stuff, so I imagine that might come close to what you’re thinking of. I’m going to have to check out Mark Fell now…I can’t imagine making music inspired by Husserl, but I’m eager to find out.

    • #9 by ausomeawestin on February 1, 2015 - 11:45 am

      Yep it sounds to me like Mark Fell would be the guy — his methods of messing with how we hear music seems in the same spirit of my desire to depict the structuring apparatus of cognitive hearing.

  6. #10 by rung2diotimasladder on January 21, 2015 - 5:46 pm

    I just realized that the Husserl thing by Mark Fell is a silent video…not sure what’s meant by that. No music? In any case, I can’t find the video. 😦

  7. #11 by jmeqvist on January 25, 2015 - 3:35 pm

    This is a very interesting and well argued post. The subject of whether music can be said to be something that conveys truth in any sense is a question that I struggle with.

    Another challenge for seeing music as representing any kind of truth is how we must listen to music to understand what it conveys. Listening to something analytically with a detached perspective will yield a different sense of what piece of music conveys, than being fully absorbed in the music. So while the sound itself may be separate from us, our mode of engagement with the sound
    will colour our understanding of it. When we are fully engrossed with music, which is music at its best in my opinion, we lose our sense of self, and return to a de or pre-individuated state. The truth than that music reveals in this context is that we are not clearly demarcated separate selves, but rather that we are subject to reintegration with the whole.

    That said, one other way in which music can possibly reveal truth is in its relation to concepts of order and disorder. The b9th interval or the b5th interval embody disorder, like the major third or perfect fifth embody order. While it is hard to glean any ideas or linguistic truths from music, music reveals the play between order and disorder as a fundamental aspect of ourselves and the world.

    • #12 by ausomeawestin on February 1, 2015 - 12:44 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, and I’m grateful for your comments here as I know this is an area on which you’ve thought a great deal.

      You make a great point in noting that how we listen to music might effect the sorts of truths that might be conveyed — I can appreciate this distinction between analytic and immersive listening and am lead to reconsider which fork would best suit my aim. (Is the experience you have in mind for the engrossed, pre-individuated state of being in music the one of self-less unbridled excitement for the expression of ideas, or the sort of trance-like state one can enter when immersed in a groove while soloing or accompanying a soloist? Or both? They feel very different to me, so I ask, because for me the latter is unique to music, while the former I might also experience in viewing a so inspiring painting, or reading an incredible insight in a work of philosophy.)

      Your point on cacophony and euphony is very important as well as this is the sort of truth that I was gesturing towards above. Our experience of two frequencies together, such as in the b5 (the “devil’s chord” as it was called at one time) is one of tension, with release had in moving a half step up. I suppose the idea of the proposal above, delusional as it may be, is to somehow remove such tension and suspension, disorder and order from our experience of sound in order to show how we add it to our experiences. But, of course, it’s hard to see how this would be possible without not making music. The end result might sound like minimalist punk Gregorian chant. lol.

      Thanks again for the interesting comments and the well wishes.

      • #13 by jmeqvist on February 7, 2015 - 10:21 pm

        The pre-individuated state of being I have in mind is the trance like state one can enter when one is immersed in a groove, or while one is soloing or similarly while one is listening to an engaging piece. I would not say it has much to do with a general unbridled excitement for the expression of ideas.

        Thanks again for writing such interesting posts, and perhaps the music you are thinking of would be less like minimalist punk Gregorian chant, and more like stripped down Zeuhl with a hint of komische music. haha 😛

  8. #14 by jmeqvist on January 25, 2015 - 3:38 pm

    Also I just wanted to say good luck with your project and I look forward to hearing more about it.

  1. Music and Truth | jmeqvist

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