- Musical Vitalities: Ventures in a Biotic Aesthetics of Music by Holly Watkins
Two very different movies came to mind when I started reading this book. The first was Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy What's Up Doc? (1972), whose musicologist hero Howard Bannister summarizes the focus of his research as being 'early man's musical relationship to igneous rock formations'. The second was the Dan Brown thriller Angels and Demons (2009), in which the CERN scientist Vittoria Vetra pithily describes her field as 'bio-entanglement physics: interconnectivity of life systems'. We are in similar territory—bio-entanglement musicology, perhaps—in Holly Watkins's ambitious new monograph, although as with most real-life research it resolutely resists being condensed into a snappy soundbite or Hollywood-style pitch. Watkins makes several gestures towards pinning down the book's focus in its Introduction, yet all of these seem to sell short its richly entangled themes and approaches. On one level, she describes it as offering 'roughly equal parts philosophy of music, history of aesthetics, and analytically informed criticism' (p. 2), pointing to its genesis as a series of hermeneutic readings in nineteenth-century aesthetics, musical discourse, and composition. While this accurately accounts for some of the chapters, the book does a lot more than treat ecological perspectives as hermeneutic tools. Instead of simply using contemporary theories as a means of illuminating historical texts it aims to rethink music aesthetics in the light of post-humanist thought, redefining music as 'the art of possibly animate things' (p. 2) and reconfiguring our understanding of the relationship between human and animal modes of experience.
Such an agenda demands confidence in handling a range of disciplines across the humanities and life sciences, and Watkins demonstrates this to an impressive degree. This is not merely a smash-and-grab raid on another discipline or an attempt to wedge music into a pre-existing body of theory; indeed, she shows a healthy contempt for such bandwagonism, being rightly suspicious of the 'increasingly cozy relationship between academic fashion and the neoliberal directive of constant innovation' (p. 5). Instead, Watkins takes a reflective approach to negotiating relationships with other disciplines, offering a series of exploratory engagements with areas of contemporary philosophy, systems theory, cognitive psychology, and biosemiotics. The word 'ventures' is highly apt here, since in provisionally mapping the field of biotic music aesthetics, the book takes up and discards a multiplicity of focuses, theories, and methodologies. While this gives it a level of diversity unusual in a monograph, its multiple, shifting concerns can sometimes be disconcerting (this is particularly the case in chapter 5, where the Hanslick discussion seems to digress from the themes set up earlier in the chapter).
The outer sections of the book are the most theory-driven, bearing the brunt of sifting and applying ideas from other fields to music and aesthetics. In the Introduction, Watkins traces aspects of post-humanist thinking back to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, arguing that the conceptual tools for reimagining the relationship between humans and nature are already present in nineteenth-century philosophical and musical discourses. This move reflects the most sustained and remarkable aspect of her project: the impulse to unleash the critical potential of the texts and music of the past so that they can serve as interventions in present-day debates. This approach challenges not only historicist modes of approaching the artefacts of the past but also the assumption that only contemporary music can illuminate the preoccupations of the present. While Watkins does not spell out the theoretical underpinnings for this post-historicist approach, she characterizes it colourfully as 'the philosophy of a scavenger [End Page 760] who scrounges around the scattered remains of nineteenth-century culture for life-sustaining tidbits' (p. 14).
The idea that past texts are 'renewable resources' (p. 14) capable of exercising a transformative effect in the present sits well with figures such as Schopenhauer, given the long-standing philosophical habit of dialoguing with the great philosophers as if they were...