new zealand electronic poetry centre


 Capital of  the minimal
B r u c e   R u s s e l l

The Disharmony of the Spheres Extolled in Ten Theses

  1. That there is a tradition in Western thought, stretching back at least to Pythagoras[1], that the cosmos is structured according to the principles of musical harmony.

  2. That as a corollary of the above, harmony in music is seen as both 'natural' [2] and (ethically) 'good'.[3]

  3. This concept of celestial harmony has been commonly expressed by the metaphor of the 'music of the spheres'[4], wherein the planets are associated with specific musical notes or melodic modes.[5]

  4. In theological terms this is reflected in the similes of God the Master Musician [6] and of Creation as His instrument.[7]

  5. To conceive of the world other than as a rationally and harmoniously ordered, teleologically-directed whole[8] is to invert the terms of the musico-cosmical trope. [9]

  6. A world of random facticity, devoid of intentionality at the ontological level, requires a new approach to music - a tabula rasa of theory .[10]

  7. Overturning the tutelage of the Master Musician frees humanity to make music no longer celestial but human.[11] The locus of human music is grounded in the human subject, not surrendered to a metaphysical abstract.[12]

  8. Recaptured in this way the music freely chosen by human musicians need conform to no abstract model. The dance of the planets, caught in their net of interlocking gravitational fields and eternally predictable orbits, is no longer the 'natural' paradigm of music.[13]

  9. Freed from the fallacy of Natural Law, no one music is ethically superior to any other.[14]

  10. In the end, music returns to what it was when Pythagoras came to it, the fall of hammers on a blacksmith's anvil. 9;

1. Aristotle in his Metaphysics (986aI) attributes the idea of the 'harmony of the spheres' to Pythagoras (c.550-460 BCE). Pythagoras' followers interpreted this idea as deriving from the ordering of the entire cosmos according to number, and they consequently tended to deify geometrical order (The Oxford Classical Dictionary: Oxford: 1949. pp 110 & 751). Pythagoras himself is said to have discovered the ratios of the musical consonances while listening to the sounds of blacksmiths hammering in a forge. It is suggestive in this connection that in Gnostic mythology the seven demiurges responsible for the creation of the material world are referred to as Hephaestuses, blacksmiths, who are also associated with the seven planets known in pre-modern times (W. Pagel & M.Winder:'The Eightness of Adam and Related 'Gnostic' Ideas in the Paracelsian Corpus': Ambix: XVI (3): 1969. pp 119-137). Pythagorean number mysticism and related musical theories were revived by the neo-Pythagoreans in the first century BCE and carried forward by the neo-Platonists of the third century CE. They were thus alive for the revival of neo-Platonism in the Renaissance and formed part of the mental equipment of all those responsible for the flowering of both astronomy and musical theory in the Early Modern period.

2. As a consequence of this implicit identification, harmony and its associated concepts became solidified as 'music'. Music was not conceived as soundwaves in space (idem est noise) but rather as noise organised according to specific rules, the arbitrary nature of which was concealed by reference to a specific conception of the structure of the cosmos and ultimately to a specific metaphysics. As the validity of these grounds was not admitted as a subject for question, the whole matter of the definition of 'music' was ergo also ruled out of court. "[music] is not a human invention, subject as such to change, but a construction that is so rational and natural that God the Creator has impressed it upon the relations of the celestial movements." J. Kepler: Harmonices Mundi: 1619.

3. The 'naturalistic fallacy' has been comprehensively debunked in the sphere of political philosophy. To equate what is ethically good with what is 'natural' is to beg the question of 'what is natural?'. When we examine our concept of 'nature' we come to discover that it contains a host of philosophical presuppositions and very little else. To uncritically adopt 'nature' as a criterion of value is to smuggle this great baggage of value-judgements into one's argument, through the back door. In other words: [(What is natural in my frame of reference) = (What is good)] = [(What is good in my frame of reference) = (What is natural)]. idem est, a tautology.

4. This figure of speech has meant a variety of things at different times throughout its history. In its initial formulation it implied a real, audible, music which the appropriately annointed could actually hear (Pythagoras, for example). By the Middle Ages it had become purely metaphorical and referred to no music in particular. In his Harmonices Mundi Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) revived the ancient conception of a real celestial music, with a new twist, his was real but inaudible. It was expressed purely in terms of mathematical ratios between the fastest and slowest apparent speeds of the six planets, when observed from the sun. The cosmos played it - but no one could apprehend it in an anything but intellectual fashion.

5. Again, these ideas have their roots in classical antiquity, if not before. The coincidence between the seven intervals in the octave and the seven planets known to the ancients was one which had been remarked upon endlessly by proponents of 'celestial harmony'. In Kepler's formulation the planets were each assigned a scale, determined by their velocity, calculated according to the most rigorous data then available (that of Tycho Brahe). Conjunctions of the planets produced chords, with the 'perfect' or whole chord perhaps only having been played once, at Creation, and only to occur once more at the Last Judgement (D.P. Walker: 'Kepler's Celestial Music': Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes:(30) 1967.pp 228-250). Kepler based the coincidence of human and celestial music not on the derivation of one from the other, but on the dependence of both on certain geometrical archetypes which underpin all of Creation, and which are inherent in God's being. Once again we see the familiar pattern of cosmic predestination reflected in deicentric metaphysics and harmonocratic musical theory.

6. "God, the monad of monads, the unity above all units, intoned to the world that... primordial sound by whose unisonous and uniform pulsation, touch and afflatus the world and its creatures were endowed with the various and concordant forms by which they might exist and live. That unity plays on the monochord. It is the form and the soul of the entire harmony of macrocosm and microcosm (... Haec, inquam, unitas est pulsator monochordii et ipsa forma ac anima totius harmoniae macrocosmicae et microcosmicae...)": Robert Fludd: Utriusque cosmi... historia: Frankfurt: 1619: vol. ii, tract i, p 22.

7. This metaphor is present in its most fully developed form throughout the writings of Dr Robert Fludd (1574-1637). He repeatedly uses the model of the monochord (monochordum mundi) to explicate the structure of the entire cosmos, from its pinnacle (the Godhead, pure form) to its nethermost point (the centre of the terrestrial globe, pure matter). In a series of works he outlines several interpretations of the physical and the metaphysical realms and their inter-relationship (both for Fludd are equally real and interpenetrate each other at every level). In all of these interpretations he relates the parts of the two realms to the musical divisions of a single tuned string. Using the analogy of the macrocosm and the microcosm he also extends the same metaphor to the human body, in the context of Paracelsian medical theory (P.J. Ammann: 'The Musical Theory and Philosophy of Robert Fludd': Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Intitutes: (30) 1967:pp198-227).

8. It now seems clear that the whole thrust of the cosmology of even such a 'scientifically accepted' pillar of the modern world-outlook as Johannes Kepler was teleological rather than causal. Kepler's use of proportions derived from the ratios of musical notes to explain the structure of the solar system and its relationship to the 'sphere of the fixed stars' is from the very beginning motivated by the desire to prove that the real structure of the cosmos derives from the revealed score of a divine composer. His originality stems from the attempt to derive these ratios from a geometrical rather than an arithmetical foundation. (F. Hallyn: The Poetic Structure of the World: Zone Books: New York: 1933. pp232-233)

9. "... it is above all a matter of the 'assimilation' of things to the subject in one case, and the subject's 'accomodation' to reality in the other... From this point of view, the specific effect of a literary trope lies in its manner of posing an 'assimilation': it is interpreted and evaluated not with respect to how it conforms to objective reality, but as a subject's subjective assimilation of reality; it tends to subordinate... the environment to the organism as it is." F. Hallyn: op cit: pp 30-31.

10. It is this context that the famous controversy between Kepler and Fludd must be re-evaluated (W. Pauli: 'The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler': in The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche: Bollingen Series 51: Pantheon Books: New York: 1955). Essentially the debate was over trifles, the exact interpretation of 'scientific method', whether or not theories and diagrams represent reality empirically or symbolically (as 'heiroglyphs'), whether number should be interpreted in a realistic sense or as a mystic ideal; in effect whether the 'music of the spheres' is an observable pheno-menon or an ideal (but no less real) form of reality. Our position must step radically beyond such cavils. If chance is the determining factor in the universe, then our conception of music ought to be broadened to accomodate this reality. Presented with this prospect, both Fludd and Kepler must resolve their differences tout de suite.

11. "It is... the task of history, now the truth is no longer in the beyond, to establish the truth of the here and now. The first task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, once the holy form of self-alienation has been discovered, is to discover self-alienation in its unholy forms. The criticism of heaven is thus transformed into the criticism of earth..." K. Marx: Towards a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction: 1844.

12. In this sense the making of human music - free music - becomes a 'revolutionary' exercise. It is a skirmish in the war against human self-alienation, a recapturing from the 'metaphysical' realm of attributes and activities more properly reserved to humanity itself. To decide for oneself not only the sort of music to be made but also the rules according to which this music is to be both made and actually defined, is a radical act of self-determination. It is a leap into the realm of freedom.

13. The chimaera of astronomical cosmology in the pre-modern period, the explication and prediction of all celestial motions, is mirrored in the ubiquitous attempts by musical theorists to 'explain' the effect of music on the senses in terms of a closed system of correspondences between given harmonic modes and emotions. The origin of such attempts is the astrological system of 'correspondences' and astral influences keyed to the four humours, the four elements, the eight parts of Adam Qadmon, and other such arcana.

14. If we replace the Deity with 'real human being', and overthrow the rigid strictures of 'celestial' musical theory for free human praxis experientially validated, then (in an inverted sense) we may still see the validity of Dr Fludd's equation of music with alchemy (P.J.Ammann: op cit: p212). For Fludd music was "an ascent from imperfection to perfection, from impurity to purity... in fact from the devil to God" (R.Fludd: Veritatis proscenium: Frankfurt, 1621.p 29). If the philosophers' stone is conceived not as knowledge of God (alienated human being) but as knowledge of Self -then the practice of free music can be seen as 'an ascent' validated not by adherence to a system of rules whose prestige derives from a spurious equation with cosmic structure, but rather by (in a word) itself.

This World Has More Beauty Than A Ram's Skin Painted Red [mp3 : 7.8MB]

ęBruce Russell 2004


Last updated 13 July, 2004