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Musing on music

“Korean flamenco” might appear to be an oxymoron, and in a sense it is. After all, flamenco is as Spanish as one can get in the realm of music … and indigenous Korean music is nothing like it. But last night we – the delegates to a conference on English literature organised by the English Language and Literature Association of Korea – were entertained by two Korean teenagers, who treated us to a rendition of flamenco music that no one there would have thought possible.

Not merely because intuitively one might expect Eastern people’s appropriation of Western music, as specific as flamenco guitar, to be less convincing than Spanish guitarists’ rendition of it – an unjustifiable prejudice, as we would find out – but further to this, the spare figure of the teenage Korean girl, whose brother was not much bigger than she was, somehow seemed no match for the strength and energy required by flamenco.

Whoever had thought this, proved to be sorely mistaken.

Within a few minutes of launching into their first flamenco number, it was clear that we were witnessing a prodigy of the performing arts. Although one could not fault the boy on his technique, meticulously playing the background notes to the girl’s vigorous strumming and drumming on the guitar strings and the guitar’s acoustic box, it was the latter who captured the show. It was as if she became one with the instrument; her head bent low over it, and her long, fine hair flying as her body moved in rhythm with the hypnotising beat of the music.

It struck me that what we were witnessing was the living embodiment of the original meaning of music among ancient nations, such as the Greeks whose word for “music” is intimately related to the word “muse”. Ancient Greeks recognised nine muses, one of who putatively inspired the arts – including music.

They believed there were times when one could be possessed by a god (in Iliad Homer describes some such instances), which made submitting to the god impossible to resist. And just like the ancient Greeks’ belief, this young Korean girl – who seemed no older than 15 – was evidently in the grip of the muse of music. There was no time for deliberation in her choice of strings or chords; it was all a creative blur emitting a wonderful, mesmerising sonic canopy that descended on and enmeshed all the listeners. Experiencing the complete performative abandon on her part, gave new meaning to the word “enthusiasm” – the etymology of which amounts to the affirmation of being “in God (or a god)”.

I cannot – nor should one expect to be able to – do justice to the sheer exuberance of their performance in a mere verbal account; all that I can do here is to reflect, verbally, on what struck me last night, for the umpteenth time in my life, as the miracle of music. Small wonder why Plato wanted to disallow ancient Greek dithyrambic music, which was supposed to whip listeners or dancers up into an uncontrollable frenzy.

He preferred the “rational” kind of music which displayed what one may gather from his description to be a rhythm similar to military or marching music. Consonant with Plato’s understanding of music as something that addresses the deepest, oldest sources of being in one’s psyche (what Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, called the “realm of the mothers”) – Arthur Schopenhauer, the great pessimist of the history of Western philosophy, declared music to be the only one among the arts to be the “direct” or immediate expression of the irrational, blind world-will, which comprises the “groundless ground” of all being.

In contrast, all the other arts can only represent the will indirectly through some or other idea. Architecture, for example, expresses its relation to the will through the idea of mass (heaviness or lightness), but in music one can experience the creative and destructive aspects of the blind world-will directly in the cadences of rhythm, the joyful affirmation of compositions in a major key and the melancholy registered in those composed in a minor key.

Anyone familiar with the theatre of the absurd, especially the plays of Samuel Beckett (Endgame, Waiting for Godot), would recognise in them the dramatic counterpart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the “musical” will. Similarly the work of Kafka testifies to what some individuals experience as the absurdity of existence.

In the Jewish Quarter of Prague there is a Kafka statue inspired by an image from Schopenhauer’s work, that of a headless (in Schopenhauer a blind), strong man bearing a paralysed, clairvoyant man on his shoulders. The blind, or headless man represents the blind, irrational will, and the clear-sighted but paralysed man represents reason, which is capable of offering accurate descriptions of the world, but is powerless to influence the will decisively. In other words, unlike the majority of philosophers, who valorise reason’s capacity for determining what happens in human life, Schopenhauer, Kafka and Beckett believe that it is illusory, and that it is the will, or unreason, which drives human beings, no matter how much we may rationalise after choosing or acting on the basis of an irrational impulse. And if Schopenhauer is right, it is in music that one encounters this “determining cause” face to face.

From a different, but equally illuminating perspective, Julia Kristeva’s notion of the “semiotic” sheds light on the powerful effect of the Korean flamenco guitarists’ musical performance on their audience. For Kristeva it is not sufficient to employ Lacan’s imaginary and symbolic registers (that of particularistic images and universalistic language, respectively) to be able to understand how meaning is generated in iconic or verbal communication – one needs a concept for a wholly different register of meaning, one that is not yet either image or word, but is not outside of language either (like the unsymbolisable “real”). Hence the “semiotic”, which is the register of meaning in which music, noise, sounds in general, colours, smells, texture, grain, and so on, belong.

The timbre of Nina Simone’s voice, inimitable as it is, functions at the level of the semiotic, as does a perfume with its own, distinctive, inimitable aroma. Hence, the “semiotic signature” of a musical performance is itself unique, unrepeatable in its time- and space-bound specificity.

This means that the young Koreans’ flamenco performance may well continue exercising its muse-emanating musical magic in memory for a long time after that evening; it was a singular, unique occasion of the muses addressing a small group of humans through the gifted hands and bodies of two very young performing artists.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.