Chiffres of Change: Music and Apocalypse

Thursday, Feb 23, 2023

13:15 p.m. - 16:00 p.m.

Focusing on the question of the metaphysical possibility of change, the proposed paper explores a particular musical instance of change: the loss of world. Starting from the general observation that music plays a special role when it comes to the collapse of worlds, it studies two philosophical scenes (from Plato and Schopenhauer) in which music is thought as opening the possibility of change. In Plato, music occurs as an educational facilitator of (individual, personal) change that is ambiguously described in terms of sovereignty and groundlessness. In Schopenhauer, music is thought as the very edge of the world, where the loss of world (and the transition to religious renunciation) is a structural aspect of music's very concept. 

This notion of music as being somehow outside, or on the margin of the world, but in a hyperbolical and almost redemptive sense, is then taken into a discussion of the Hollywood blockbuster The Big Short (2015), in which the (historical) 2007 collapse of Wall Street is prophesized by a number of marginal figures, one of whom entertains a special relation to music. Again, music appears as a figure (a cipher) of the change that these characters feel coming, and a shift near the end of the movie suggests a loss that not only affects the world, but this time also music.

 While music has historically been regarded as an agent of change (of feeling, concept, or sociality), here it would seem that it is music itself that is affected by the possibility of change beyond recognition, and perhaps beyond its own concept. The idea of music would then suggest a logic of change reminding on one hand of the eminent hyperboles of ancient music theologies (Augustine), and on the other hand the more recent accounts of change, apocalypse and miracles in such diverse thinkers as Derrida and Meillassoux, and in contemporary “apocalyptic” novels such as David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). Does the loss of music in these works suggest a possibility of new worlds?

Sander van Maas

Sander van Maas teaches philosophy and music at Utrecht University College, the University of Amsterdam, and the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. His publications include The Reinvention of Religious Music: Olivier Messiaen and the Breakthrough toward the Beyond (Fordham UP, 2009), Thresholds of Listening: Sound, Technics, Space (Fordham UP, 2015) and Contemporary Music and Spirituality (Routledge, 2016).