Art, Ligeti and Reflection

Part of the PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE IMAGE research project

In Eye and Mind Merleau-Ponty makes a case for art’s singularity, expressed in its capacity to reflect our thoughtless and concernful encounters with beings and things in the world. This is in contrast to the abstracted objects of scientific research, whose disinterestedness echoes the manner of their collection. An overt surveillance in which each becomes an “object-in-general”, without meaning for you or for me.

Visual art’s expressions of unease are drawn from our everyday encounters with things and others. They are grounded in our bodily “there is”, through which we are attached to “the soil of the sensible and opened world” (160). Here the body is understood as an “intertwining of vision and movement” (161). We move in a world of visible others, who have the capacity to affect me, to haunt me, and I them.

Merleau-Ponty describes our relationship to things as continuous, an “… undividedness of the sensing and the sensed” (163). We are with things, they are prolongations of ourselves. Yet this is not a spatial continuum, the body’s relationship to objects, things in the world, is one of radiation and reflection, at the core of which is the grounded self. My bodily movements and vision radiates from this self, which “… holds things in a circle around itself” (ibid).

This figure of the circle shouldn’t be thought as a Copernican model of the solar system writ into our bodies. The radiation of the self does not stop at the things that surround us. Instead, in our concernful dealings with them, a system of exchanges is setup. We do not see things, we work with them, we use them, we take care of them. In the process of which we give ourselves over to them, we are lost in them. In this giving of the self to things the self is returned, given back, as a reflection of itself from amongst them. Thus things have what Merleau-Ponty calls an “internal equivalent in me” (164), they are of me.

Art draws upon the capacity of things to “arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence” (ibid) by calling upon the essence of this circle of exchange, expressed in the reflection of the self from things. This is manifested in the words of the composer György Ligeti, when describing the process through which he composed his Ètudes for piano (1985 – 2001).

I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music. My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is very inexact: a feedback emerges between idea and tactile/motor execution. This feedback loop repeats itself many times, enriched by provisional sketches: a mill wheel turns between my inner ear, my fingers and the marks on the paper. The result sounds completely different from my initial conceptions: the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs. In addition, all the details of the resulting music must fit together coherently, the gears must mesh. The criteria are only partly determined in my imagination; to some extent they also lie in the nature of the piano – I have to feel them out with my hand. For a piece to be well-suited for the piano, tactile concepts are almost as important as acoustic ones; so I call for support upon the four great composers who thought pianistically: Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy. A Chopinesque melodic twist or accompaniment figure is not just heard; it is also felt as a tactile shape, as a succession of muscular exertions. A well-formed piano work produces physical pleasure.

Here the circle of exchange between the concrete and the idea, ordered through the body, is a constant presence. The process of composition is expressed in figures of circularity; feedback loop, mill wheel, gears, all governed by the body, in this case the composer’s fingers on the piano. These images of circularity allow the exchange between the imagined sound, and the sketches, the ‘marks on the paper’ of the musical notation, to be expressed. Each sketch a circle, a cog, which in meshing together – create the finished piece.

When played the work is returned to the listener as a sound, which is also experienced as a thing in the world, a “tactile shape” that produces “physical pleasure”, a bodily response.

Derek Hampson

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