Music, Madness and the Unworking of Language

There is a particular line in John T Hamiliton’s 2008 book, Music, Madness and the Unworking of Language that some months after reading it continues to turn in my mind like a stick caught between rocks in a stream. The book largely concerns itself with a specific period in German music when the emergence of a fully tonal language, rich in harmony and completely free from the lead of the written word, took flight.

To lead us from the moment at hand to that particular period he observes that the present age “is assured of the power of music but not where it might lead.” He offers this to allow us to relate to the impact of developments over 200 years ago – a period when music having become untethered from language became, or so it seemed, ineffable. Until this time music was effectively related to the ineffable only inasmuch as it was predominantly commissioned by the church to represent in structured form the ineffable nature of the divine.

Hamilton describes how music and madness define the upper and lower limits respectively of a continuum of language where madness exists beneath the word and the divine is located above and beyond music, both marking a conceptual boundary that language cannot reach: “Whereas madness as the lower limit to language dissolves the boundaries between mankind and savagery, music as the upper limit overrides the division that separates humanity from the divine”

Its a debatable logic that would place divinity and savagery at polar extremes from each other, of course. Longing can be savage, and there can be elements of divinity in the most crimson rage. Neither has divine cause through the ages revealed itself to ever be very far from savagery. However, the position is compellingly affirmed with Hamilton’s assertion that “Music’s transcendence is based on a series of negations – “unknown”, “inexpressible””

So, in summary, music is, by popular expression, a powerful medium, one step shy of the ineffable divine, a condition whereby we are pushed to the limits of our own expressive potential – where we remain unsure of where this power should be directed. The only thing  of which we are certain, in this model, is that music is far from madness and that we can use language to escape insanity and savagery, but that this same language can only get us so far towards divinity before we have to take recourse to music, leave language behind, and hope that we lack the resource to get us over the border into what – salvation? universal harmony? transcendence?

There is a liminal territory that crosses the divide from language and into tonal, musical expression. A place where language stutters and fails, and we push its limits to try and get the sluggish words, the concrete, prosaic structures to represent that which is escaping our grasp. It is in this grey, transitional area where we find much prseudo-religious, crypto-mythical, new-age, florid bluster – and bad music journalism.

When we reach that upper liminality, where language runs thin, and superlatives ring dull and false, as we approach the ineffable, we effectively become, again, savages – in Hamilton’s sense of the savage – rendered inhuman through our inability to express thought with language. The continuum of language itself, the measure of our entire linguistic contribution, is mocked and ridiculed. Madness before, and music afterward, and the space in between is where we languor.