Category Archives: Art

T. M. Krishna!

Sunday, Susan and I got to attend a lec-dem by the great Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna. We were especially excited that he was accompanied by violinist, Akkarai Subhalakshmi.

I was most excited about the musical performance part of the event, but it turns out the lecture part might have more lasting impact.

His lecture was about the history of raga forms, and his own views on the degradation of raga forms from an organic aesthetically-guided musicality to a synthetic computational model. The great loss, according to T. M. Krisha, is the ability to spontaneously feel the belonging of any part of the raga to whole. The synthetic ragas must mechanically repeat phrasings to maintain its re-cognitive character.

What shocked and excited me about what he was saying is that this precisely is a distinction I have been trying to make in my own philosophical work, distinguishing between synthetic ideas — which must be explicitly recalled and applied in constructing thoughts — versus conceptive ideas which work spontaneously and produce givens: givens of perception, of interpretation and of thought. The acquisition of a new conceptive capacity gives us new givens from nowhere, expanding our ontological range, thus enlarging our enworldment and enabling us to accommodate more truth.

I feel certain that my profound philosophical — or better, praxic — kinship with T. M. Krishna’s accounts for my instant love of his music. I conceive his music as an auditory embodiment of the very ideas that animate my thinking.

India is a living superset of every possible philosophical idea humanity will ever conceive, so I am overjoyed, but not at all surprised, to have reconceived an Indian enworldment..

I dug through T. M. Krishna’s book, A Southern Music and found some of the content from his lecture:

In the early eighteenth century, Venkatamakhin’s descendent Muddu Venkatamakhin decided to artificially create ragas for the remaining fifty-three of the seventy-two possible melas computed by his ancestor Venkatamakhin. He used the same method that had been used to create the raga deshisimharavam. This meant that all seventy-two melas were functional. The raganga raga needed to have only the seven svaras. It was around this time that arohana and avarohana came to be used to define the melodic structure of a raga. This created artificial janya ragas that were formulated from the non-functional melas. As these ragas had no aesthetic component to their identity, the simplest way to describe them was to mention the svaras that appeared in their arohana and avarohana. These svaras were after all based on the computed svarasthanas. This was another important marker in raga history. Even under the constructed melas, Muddu Venkatamakhin placed older, naturally evolved ragas. He not only gave names to all the fifty-three raganga ragas that he constructed, but also altered the names of older raganga ragas. This was done to accommodate the ingenious syllabo-numeric memory system that was evolved to identify the number of the mela from the name of the raganga raga, a system called the katapayadi samkhya.

As I move to the next major development, I must point out that the exercise of computation resulted in ragas being reinterpreted in terms of only the svaras they contained, rather than the aesthetic form of their melodic movements. This is also revealed in the use of arohana and avarohana as the defining characteristic of ragas. We must realize that once these systems came into practice, they were also being placed upon ragas that had evolved organically and were not determined by the arohana or avarohana. All ragas were being looked at through the prism of the arohana and avarohana, thus deconstructing their natural melodic features. …

Ragas that evolved from melodic phraseology developed through time and remained cohesively held together by the aesthetic cognition of unity. These ragas may have seven svaras or even less. They cannot be purely defined by the sequence of the svaras in the arohana or avarohana. Examples of this are surati, ritigaula, anandabhairavi, gaula and saveri. …

In the eighteenth century, we come across another treatise called Sangraha Chudamani (1750–1800). We know very little about the treatise or its author Govinda (not to be confused with Govinda Dikshita). This treatise completely sterilized the concept of raga and mela. Govinda combined the ideas of sampurna along with arohana and avarohana. In doing so, he decided that the ragas that held the name of the mela must have all the seven svaras in sequential order both in the arohana and avarohana. He also created a new term for the melakarta: meladhikara (the raga that has authority over the mela). Most ragas that evolved naturally did not have svaras in linear sequence and could not be meladhikaras. Only six older ragas were given the meladhikara status. Older natural ragas were listed within artificial melas whose meladhikara was a synthetic raga. The status of the raga that held the title for the mela had thus changed from being the most popular raga to the one that had authority over the mela…

With these conceptual changes to raga and the adaptation of many forms of contrived svara sequences as ragas, we are faced with an aesthetic challenge. Do all these different types of ragas have the abstract nature that is a creation of the raga’s musical heritage, phraseology and its psychological recognition? An aware listener can sense this by listening to just one phrase. In an artificial raga, the musician and the listener have to constantly connect with all the svaras present and their sequence. They cannot transcend this level of engagement and move to the real level of aesthetics of phrase forms. Why is such transcendence important?

Let me suggest an answer to that question. A raga belongs not to the literal but to the inferred. The inferred comes alive when the perceiver can be invited into the sound of the raga, which is born from every svara, every phrase, every phrase connection and the raga as a whole. This experience is only possible when the listener does not need to be reminded of the technical nature of the svara or its sequence. Synthetic ragas lack the abstractive nature both in form and in the way they can be received.

Wordworlders

If you watch people draw, it is pretty obvious that most of them aren’t drawing as much as writing in some 2-dimensional hieroglyphic language.

I suspect something similar is going on with visual perception. When non-visual people look out on the world they don’t see images as much as read them.

Perhaps the same can be can be said for all experience — including the experience of thought. What defies language gets filtered out, or trapped within, denied full existence.

I suspect a great many people are imprisoned in a wordworld, locked in or walled in, and some without so much as a window to let in wordless light, sound or touch. (This is the consequence — and possibly the very purpose — of making the personal political.)

Jasper Johns said it best:

On screenplays

The compulsion to resolve conflict with others through dialogue is natural and good.

But some forms of conflict arise precisely from an incapacity for dialogue.

The problem might be the fault of one party or another, or both, or even neither. The problem might be specific to the relationship, a peculiarity of the chemistry of two misfitted personalities, and not attributable to any conspicuous shortcomings of anyone. The conflicting factors might be distributed between the conflicting parties and deeply engrained in the history and habits of the relationship, out of the direct control of either side, and in certain circumstances difficult or impossible to effectively address.

In these cases, attempts to resolve the conflict are unlikely to succeed, and are more likely to create even more conflict and more need for resolution.

And that is actually fine.

These reconciliations are not emergencies, and when they seem to be, things might not be as they seem so self-evidently to be.

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Sometimes our urgent need to resolve things with another person is not actually for the sake of the relationship at all — but, in fact, for the sake of restoring our own self-image, damaged by contact with real otherness. We are not trying to heal the relationship, or even heal ourselves, but rather to heal an image of ourselves, our morality, our sense of omniscience, our artistic vision of life.

If we manage to mature as people, sometimes life shows us that our efforts to reconcile — sincere efforts, too! — were really just attempts to persuade the other person to stop being so other, and instead to submit to performing the role of the person we need them to be. — All this so we can return to the comfortable self-satisfaction of playing our role in our movie.

Or, more accurately, our roles, plural.

We forget how many roles involved in creating movies are not acting roles.

In our own movie we are not only the star actor — we are also scriptwriter, producer, director, and editor. We may also be promoter, red carpet gala and paparazzi. Some of the more eggheaded of us are also film critic. All of us are audience.

Depending on who we are, we may root our selfhood in any of these roles, and what is at stake in many conflicts is not the on-screen drama but the off-screen creative differences.

The worst of these creative conflicts are those where one or both artists refuse to allow the other to be anything but a moving image on their screen. The real stakes are not the colorful shadows thrown on the screen, or even in the bright bulbs of the projector, but up out in the sunlight of reality, out in the source of these projected visions and self-contained realities, overlapping, clashing divine sparks — the jewels-within-jewels, jewels-within-nets, nets-within-jewels of Indra’s Net.

We may live our whole lives and die without ever catching ourselves in the act of relegating others to the confines of our screens. If so, we will have been one of the blessed ignoramuses who were right all along. Most of us fail to ever notice that we are not God.

Relationships are less like movies and more like improv. Each actor has a tentative vision of what is going on, but also intuits and responds to what other actors are doing and envisioning and intuiting, and the action transcends them all, while being immanent in each of them and all of them.

Only here, in the sunlight of improv, is reconciliation possible.

Reconciliation is not scripted, not directed, not produced. And despite popular wisdom, forgiveness is not a matter of editing or rewriting a script.

Art is enworldment

Too many people think art is the production of interesting, pleasing or entertaining sounds, images, performances, etc. This mode of making produces sterile artistic product.

We have forgotten that real art founds whole new ways to exist in the world.

Art is not here to be looked at, listened to or experienced. Art is here to give us new ways to look from ourselves, listen to the world around us and experience reality.

Socially, the purpose of artists is to enlarge the world and make room for more kinds of life, more kinds of personhood.

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This helps explain why art is so often created by misfits.

The artist does not fit into the world as it is, so they have to enworld a bigger world capable of accommodate them, so it can welcome them home.

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The purpose of art is enworldment.

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This is true also for philosophy. Philosophy is not here to produce arguments for what is true, or contrive new explanations for this and that, or speculate on what might be the case. Philosophy is the design of new ways to conceive existence, to experience life, to relate to others, to respond to events and to make something new of oneself and reality.

  • I say “design” because philosophies are not only about experience but interaction —  much of it functional — among groups of people. There is a need for what Nick Gall calls (borrowing from software engineering) interoperability. In cases where the user of something might be very different from the creator, design methods for explicitly understanding  and accommodating difference  are indispensable. It is true that philosophy has been done by solitary artists communicating to the few capable of understanding them, but this is only an accident of history. When our ways of conceiving existence begin to threaten our continued existence, it might be time to revisit how we think about how we think about thinking.