The Ethics of Timbre – my current research project

I have been awarded one year of funding for my research project entitled The Ethics of Timbre: Phenomenology, Spectralism, and two Lévinas’s through a SSHRC Insight Development Grant. In short, it looks at some of the connections between music and philosophy in late 20th C France, with emphasis on the relationship between philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas and composer/pianist son Michaël. I have enjoyed getting started on this project, and I am very much looking forward to continuing the work. As the project unfolds I will be sharing some of the results on this website. Just keep an eye on the project home page. I’ve included a summary of the project below, and I’ve already put a couple of pages up on the project site, including:

1. Research Assistant job postings (for Trinity Western University students only)

2. The text from a presentation I gave at the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group Conference in July 2012, which serves as a introduction to this project and my first but of writing on the topic.

Project summary

This research project explores the mutual influence of prominent movements in music and philosophy in France in the 1960s and 1970s and the continued influence of these encounters today. The specific movements explored are the musical emphasis on timbre in Messiaen, Michaël Lévinas and others that were later called ‘spectralists’, and the phenomenology and philosophical ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas. The project seeks to examine how musical and philosophical discourses influence each other through this historical moment with an emphasis on the relationship between music, ethics, experience, and society.
The Lévinas family holds an interesting place in the intersection of philosophy and music that has not been explored in musicological or philosophical research. On Sundays in 1959, the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote his first magnum opus, Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité, his 10 year old son Michaël practiced the piano in preparation for the Academy. By 1974, when the elder Lévinas’s second magnum opus – Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence – was published, the younger Lévinas was studying with Olivier Messiaen. In 1970, Emmanuel had met Olivier Messiaen – who was not Michaël’s teacher – and the composer Iannis Xenakis, and the resulting discussions with his son resulted in a key passage in the 1974 publication. A few years later Michaël – along with some of Messiaen’s other students – founded the ‘groupe l’Itinéraire’, a group of performers and composers interested in the exploration of timbre, a movement that was later called ‘spectralism’. This group of composers explored the nature of sound and the physical basis of the spectra that make up sound. These are but a few of the mutual influences between two important and influential streams in French music and philosophy.

Despite the connections between these important musical and philosophical movements, very little has been written about the connection of the two Lévinas’s in any discipline in the English language. This research explores these connections through the following research questions:

  • In what ways do phenomenology and spectralism intersect and influence each other, both in historical encounters and in thought process?
  • What ways do Emmanuel Lévinas’s ethics and spectralism appeal to experience and nature?
  • How does each movement respond to politics?
  • In what ways does each movement invoke notions of spirituality/the other/the beyond?

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