Modes of Consciousness and Style in Music and Other Arts
Felipe M. de Leon, Jr.
The arts of a particular culture or historical period display a remarkable unity of style that perhaps stems from the prevailing mode of consciousness or way of experiencing reality. A style is both vision and design; a mode of representation. The whole organization of the artist’s sensibility is a screen through which filters the world he represents. A prevailing style in the arts is the configuration of a people’s experience of reality. It corresponds to the way in which a society thinks, feels, responds, acts communicates, dreams, and hopes.
A style, particularly a major style, being a symbol of consciousness, will often express itself in several media. Thus, if we are dealing with an authentic style and not merely an imitation, a structure in literature will normally find its analogy in the other arts. We must not expect to define the structure of a novel in a visual or musical categories, however.
The problem instead, is to use these categories to understand better the style or syntax in question, which is a structure that manifests itself in more than just a single medium. In order to be valid, any comparison of different arts belonging to one style must be made not on the basis of material, medium, subject, or statement but rather on the basis of form and technique. Form is the way in which the artist organizes his material or statement. Technique is simply the means he utilizes to achieve this form. Techniques may resemble each other even when media differ. The tone poem in music, for instance, uses techniques that are pictorial and narrative. Some works of art dealing with the same subject may have entirely different forms, while others may deal entirely different subjects but present strikingly similar forms.
Thus, the more accurate basis for comparison in the arts is the manner(i.e., form and technique) in which the subject is portrayed. The literature and the other arts belonging to a particular culture or period may reveal analogous modes of treating the same or different subjects. This is not to deny the possible existence of resemblances in the choice of subject within the different arts especially during the peak of a particular period or lifestyle. The subject of angels and saints, for example, was especially popular during the medieval period in Europe but not so in our age.
In order to illustrate specific instances or correlation between the forms of literature and those of the other arts, I shall confine myself to the experience of time and space. What are the ways in which time and space may be experienced? What categories of style in literature and the other arts they give rise to? Western classical tradition in literature, deriving from Aristotle’s Poetics, tells us that a drama, and consequently any other literary work, must have a beginning, middle and end. The action begins at a certain point, rises toward a climax, falls to a denouncement, and then ends with finality.
The underlying concept of time here is linear, the highest expression of which is what we know as clock time. The linear time view regards the future as inaccessible the past as irrevocably gone, and the present as a kind of time slot in which we move, think, and otherwise exist. It is as if we live in a small moving cage on a track, and those points through which we have moved past, or have yet to arrive at, are totally sealed off from us. There is a large amount of literature of linear time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West, with a heavy emphasis on chronological causality and determinism.
In his works, for instance, Emile Zola sought to demonstrate the belief that given certain facts (a particular milieu and set of circumstances), certain consequences must follow. (Linear time fell in so well with the Protestant ethic and the rise of the factory system). Western music of the same period manifested the same concept of time. Time as a linear progression from a beginning to an end, is parallel by the purposive nature of classical music, as it progresses from a clear beginning to its foreordained end.
The complex temporal articulation of a classical work has as one of its functions the protection of the listener from being lost in time, from not knowing where he is in relation to the beginning and end of the music. The proliferation of clocks, watches and timechecks in Western society bears witness to a need, certainly over and above the actual requirements of every affairs, to know what time it is. Articulative devices in music such as introductions, transitions recapitulations, as well as whole temporal structures are all devices for helping us keep our bearings in time.
The listener to an unfamiliar work, as long as he is familiar with these devices will always know where he is in the music. Not to be able to do so will induce uneasiness and discomfort. Many concert-goers in the West are ill at ease with much modern music simply because “you don’t know where you are in it.” They cannot let go and stop worrying about their orientation in time.
Other cultures have an entirely different attitude towards time. The form of transitional Asian and African music has a function in time which is the reverse of Western music - to dissolve past and future into an eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. A performance may go on for several hours, all night, or even days, and will have no formal beginning or end. Rather, the musicians will begin when they feel they have attuned themselves to the occasion and end when the occasion calls for it. There is no time limit set. Such a practice is unthinkable in the West, where they try to predetermine every thing and shorten the Catholic mass to half an hour or even less (the mass still lasted for three hours during the Baroque period).
Nevertheless, an attitude towards time related to that of the Asian and African began emerge in the Western world in the nineteenth century and was established in the twentieth century. In the form of the Western novel, a discernible trend is toward the concept of the novel as a series of moments, rather than a planned progression of events or incidents moving toward a defined end. Recent novelist tend to explore rather than arrange their materials. Often the arrangement is random rather than sequential. In older tradition, a novel was a formal structure composed of actions and reactions which were finished by the end of the story, which did have an end.
The modern novel often has no such finality. Lewis Caroll’s “Sylvie and Bruno”contains a presentation of simultaneous presents without “earlier than” or “later than”. Instead of a definite beginning, middle and end, the movement of James Joyce’s work, “Ulysses”, is always horizontal, never ascending toward any crisis. This is equally true of modern drama. In Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the world is a “void” in which men wait out their lives for what-they-know-not that never comes. Beckett is portraying the predicament of the “Incarnate Man”inhabiting a limbo of futility, tedium, physical discomfort, and “waiting it out”.
In Western music, the roots of the new non-linear concept may be traced back to Debussy, whose “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”, written between 1892 and 1894, undoubtedly heralds the avant-garde music of the West. This work lacks any urge toward climax and resolution, and therefore inhabiting a different world from that of his predecessors like Wagner. It is a manifesto for a society living happily in the present, free from the constraint of clock time and the urge to domination. The music no longer creates expectation, no longer pulls us forward into the future. It remains firmly in the present, to be experienced moment by moment. We lived in the now, holding ourselves receptive, with trust and openness of him who watches with a lover’s concern, at work in her own time, not coerced into action in a laboratory.
The ear no longer attempts to analyze the combination of sounds or to discern the direction in which they are tending, but simply accepts them, as one does a peal of bells, the sound of the wind or the sea, as they are. The moment, the now is all important looking neither forward nor backward, using none of the devices of anticipation or reference back that had previously characterized Western music. His music has in fact a hypnotic quality that takes us out of linear or clock time. Other composers soon followed Debussy in the exploration of non- linear organization of time. Among them are Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Varese and Cage.
This development brings modern Western music quite close to the very heart of traditional principle in the study of Zen and any East Asian. There is no goal to be attained. Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.
The West is only now beginning to understand such paradoxes as taught in Zen and related Asian disciplines, so that their exponents in music, literature, and drama are still considered avant-garde and the things that they saw and do are difficult for the ordinary Westerner to comprehend. The grip of the linear concept of time on the popular Western mind remains strong. The traditional concept of marking the beginning, middle and end of a finite segment of time is a much ingrained habit of thought that manifests itself even in the way food is served in the West.
The structure is chronological: with a beginning (appetizer, soup), a crescendo towards a climax (salad, fish, chicken, and/or meat), and a steady progression toward an anticipated end. When the English see tea, or American coffee, they know dinner is over. The structure of Filipino meals is entirely different, for every thing is served all at once, and we are free to choose the combination of foods that we would like to eat at any one moment. It is thus a sense of space rather than a sense of time that is created. The structure of Indian meals, similarly, depends on spatial layout. The foods are arranged on the right, left and middle of the dish.
Obviously, the concept of time implied by the structure or layout of Filipino and Indian meals is open-ended and non-finite. We cannot anticipate when the meal will end. There is no definite climax. As in some modern novels, we have here a series of moments, rather than a planned progression of events moving towards a definite end. The simultaneity of past, present and future is also suggested for if there are at least three people eating, one will be eating what the second has already eaten and what the third is still going to eat.
This analogy of forms between the culinary and other arts serves to illustrate better how a style may transcend any particular medium and express itself in several media. In other words, similarities of form among the arts may identify them as belonging to one style. Another correlation I would like to make is that rhythm in poetry and rhythm in music. Linear time is associated with measurable rhythms while non-linear time, with non measurable rhythms. During the height of the mechanistic or linear view of the world in the West, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, measurable rhythms in the form of regular metric patterns dominated both poetry and music.
A related development was the rise in popularity of the quatrain, or the four-line stanza in poetry. It may have become popular because its symmetry and balance fitted in so well with the idea of a pre-established pattern of regularly occurring accent and rhyme controlling form of the poem. Similarly, the symmetrical four-phase structure characterized the music of the period, whether vocal or instrumental. This structure resembles that of a grid with neat, little square boxes symmetrically arranged in horizontal and vertical rows. Such a grid structure was born in the West during the Renaissance and died a natural death in the late nineteenth century but continues to survive in Western popular music of today, as in the music of the Beatles, Richard Rogers, or the Bee Gees.
The American Walt Whitman startled the West in 1855 by using loosely rhythmic and variable lines in his Leaves of Grass, thus introducing a form that would later develop into what is known as free verse, which, although without a regular metric pattern and usually without rhyme is more rhythmic than ordinary prose. The poets of 1900’s (The Imagists) began the intensive exploitation of this type of verse. What they had was a poetic form that would respond more directly to the inner control of the emotion or experience, rather than the outer control of a pre-established pattern of accent and rhyme. Here is a fragment of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Dog as an example of free verse:
A parallel development occurs in the music of the West during the same period. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Romantic composers started abandoning regular metric patterns and structures. Tchaikovsky surprised the music world with his use of an asymmetrical five-beat meter throughout whole movement of his Symphony No. 6. Earlier, Wagner was already mystifying his audiences with his seemingly interminable phrases and unpredictable lengths. In 1910 Cyril Scott produced a whole series of songs using very irregular rhythms and praising, while in 1913, Stravinsky scandalized the Paris music world with the highly syncopated, displaced and asymmetrical rhythms and structures of his now celebrated Rite of Spring.
In poetry, a natural accompaniment of the free verse development has been the energence of the prose poem. The prose poem also discards meter and rhyme, but it goes one step further. It abandons line divisions. It seeks to achieve poetry by imaginative power, evocation of mood, and concentrated brevity.
Here is an excerpt from the prose poem of Paul Valery, The Young Mother:
The abandoning of line divisions in the prose poem is analogous to the emergence before the second world war of completely or almost completely non-sectional structures in what is now called the avant-garde music of the west, as in Penderecki’s Chrenody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Rather than manifest the usual binary and ternary divisions, da capos, arias, recapitulations, and refrains, this new music simply ebbs and flows. Like so many organic processes in nature, it constantly unfolds and undergoes continuous but subtle, instead of abrupt transformations. So far, I have refrained from relating the visual arts to literature. One reason for this is what I feel to be a closer and more natural correspondence between literature and music, particularly between poetry and music, since both arts are temporal in nature. Another is the very intimate association of literature and music throughout history on the form of the song, epic, or chanting.
Saying all these does not mean there are no significant analogies between literature and music, on the one hand, and the visual or plastic arts, on the other. Indeed, the correlations between them are equally, if not more significant. I take it as axiomtatic that the history and development of literature, music and the visual arts within a culture tends to run parallel to each other.
What are the counterparts of linear (or clock) time and non-linear (or “lived,”“experiential”) time in painting and sculpture? In order to answer this, we have to translate time into space. But since time and space are actually two aspects of one indivisible reality, our task will not be difficult. But first I would like to explain further the two concepts of time so that relating them to spatial categories will be made much easier.
Linear time may be understood as a one dimensional arrow travelling in only one direction: from the past to present to future, which cannot even overlap with each other. Thus the way one thinks with linear time is necessarily compartmentalized, step by step, one thing at a time. Thus linear time is also called monochronic time. Western culture is definitely committed to monochronic time. Americans, for instance, when they are serious prefer to do one thing at a time.
Monochronic time emphasizes schedules, segmentation, promptness. By scheduling, we compartmentalize. This makes it possible to concentrate on one thing at a time but it also denies us context. Many Westernized people make the common mistake of associating the schedule with reality and one’s self or the activity as something that is removed from life. Monochronic clock time can alienate us from ourselves and nature and deny us the experience of context in the wider sense.
We know through experience that there is usually a discrepancy between clock time and experienced time. The same length of clock time may be experienced by us as much shorter or longer depending on whether what we are experiencing is interesting or uninteresting to us.
The opposite, or better, the complement of linear or monochronic time is experiential or polychronic time. Polychronic time systems are characterized by several things happening at once. They emphasize involvement of people and completion of activities rather than adherence to present schedules.
Polychronic time is felt by Westerners to be much less tangible than monochronic time. Polychronic time is non-measurable in the same way that experience defies measurement. Experience is a gestalt, a configuration, a contextual field containing several levels all happening at the same time, and therefore cannot be conveyed by monochronic time.
Polychronic time is the eternal now of the poetic, intuitive mode; monochronic time belongs to the linear world of logic and cause-effect, action-reaction relationship of science and technology. Polychronic time corresponds to the creative, integrated functioning of being-thinking and feeling, of the conscious, and the unconscious - and the integrative world of dreams, where everything occurs simultaneously.
Monochronic time is the prosaic, compartmentalized time of the single-step events of everyday life. It favors industrial society and a consumerist economy, where schedule and meeting of deadlines is everything and is usually achieved at the expense of personal feeling, inspiration and creativity. This linear thinking is also the basis of the insatiable urge to plan and control everything from cities to degrees to babies. It is also epitomized in our letting the TV commercial, the“special message,” to break the continuity of even the most important communication. What now are the spatial aspects or counterparts of these two categories of time?
When we are viewing something, we usually shift from one point of view (or angle) to another as we move our gaze. As we shift our eyes from view to view, we experience the passage of time in a linear manner, i.e. from past to present to future.
If we paint a picture of what we see from one point of view alone, the painting will contain what we saw within one instant or point in time, and therefore the painting will suggest linear or monochronic time (one thing at a time). The moment we combine in one picture several views, which we saw at different points in time, we will have combined several points in time in one picture. Such combination is definitely non-linear. For we could not have experienced all those views in one instant of time, more than which monochronic time cannot deal with.
Consequently, the moment we witness in the history of Western painting and sculpture a shift from depicting scenes from one point of view (or single perspective), as in traditional “naturalistic” representation, to the portrayal of (in a single picture of a scene, human figure, or object as seen from several points of view, as in the works of Cezanne or Picasso, then we have here the exact analogy of the shift from linear to non-linear time in literature and music. In fact, a very significant case of parallel development of literature and painting is seen in the way of view is differently conceived in the traditional and in the modern novel.
A relatively traditional writer like Henry James felt that the novelist should stick to one point of view in a strong and not shift arbitrarily. Some temporary writers, on the contrary, shift the narrator voice from character to character to reveal more than one point of view, to show time and space as different people perceive them or portray the actual content and workings of consciousness.
Such an omniscient view, which is necessarily non-linear and polychronic, is what most Asian literature and art is all about, particularly because the profound spiritual orientation in Asian culture makes it identify essentially with the omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-spatio-temporal consciousness of God of the universe. Lady Musasaki’s Tale of Genji or a Japanese scroll painting, for example, present to our view a vast panorama of persons and events which require that “the eye devote several chapters, as it were, to taking in simultaneous actions.”
In Western culture, multiple-points-of-view representation was better understanding before the Renaissance. In Giotto’s paintings, we might see the portrayal of the life of a saint, in which his birth, several miracles, his martyrdom and his apotheosis are all contained with a single visual field.
This can be taken as representing not only the combined vision of all whom knew the saint, the communal experience, but also the divine, timeless, God’s eye-view of his life, in which all events are , not foreordained (or linear), but simply simultaneous (and therefore polychronic). The painter was so little concerned with the individual experience that the picture was usually unsigned.
The Renaissance artist, on the other hand, saw his subject as if through the eye of a single spectator, in a particular spot at a particular instant (one thing at a time). This vision, called single-vision or one-point perspective, assumes that we look through the eyes of man rather than God, the individual rather than the community.
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907, marked twentieth century painting’s break from the one-point perspective/monochronic time system established since the Renaissance. Picasso achieves spatial freedom through a combination of multiple viewpoints. This results in a flattening out of all planes upon the plane of the picture.
Near and far are pushed together. In literature, time is flattered out upon a single plans. Past, present and future are represented as occurring simultaneously, upon a single plane, as in James Joyce’s Ulysses, T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
Another aspect of the two different time systems that was touched upon earlier may now be correlated with the visual arts. This aspect has to do with either we experience a sense of progression towards a climax (linear, non-chronic) or state of“timelessness” simply because everything is happening all at once (non-linear, polychronic). In traditional Western painting we find a central subject, located or near the center of the picture, and the surrounding space is subordinate to this. Cubism abolished this idea of the pictorial climax. The whole space of the picture became of equal importance.
This brings a modern Western painting very close to the character of traditional Southeast Asian painting, particularly Balinese, in which every figure is equally important. Similarly, our sari-sari store displays of goods give equal importance to every item unlike the climactic way in which goods are displayed in a Westernized store like Rustan’s at Makati, where one item or a class of items is given prominence while the others are comparatively subordinate (or else, the manner in which they are displayed is strictly compartmentalized).
The struggle towards structure having no beginning, middle and end in some modern literary works is analogous to the abandoning of pictorial climax in modern painting; or to the abolition of a clearly demarcated foreground, middleground, and background. In music, as in Schoenbergian atonality, all the elements of a work are thematic and of equal importance, as, for instance, in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet. To the traditional Western mind deeply immersed in the Western classical tradition, all this appear negative and destructive. But if we keep our sights narrowly pegged to the tradition of the West, we find that the requirements of logical, linear or monochronic thinking do not hold for other artistic and cultural traditions, particularly the Asian.