Essence and Context: A Conference Between Music and Philosophy

International Musicological Conference


Conference was held at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (Vilnius), 31 August — 3 September 2016

ABCTRACT BOOK – see here.

Keynote speakers:

  • Professor PAUL BOGHOSSIAN (New York University)
  • Professor VYTAUTAS LANDSBERGIS (Lithuania)
  • Professor JERROLD LEVINSON (University of Maryland)
  • Professor TAMARA LEVITZ (UCLA, Los Angeles)
  • Professor RICHARD TARUSKIN (University of California, Berkeley)

Plenary panellist:

  • Professor JOHN DEATHRIDGE (King’s College London)
  • Professor MIRJANA VESELINOVIĆ-HOFMAN (Belgrade University of Arts)
  • Professor MARIO VIDEIRA (São Paulo University)
  • Professor NICK ZANGWILL (Hull University)

This conference brings music scholars and philosophers together to examine the ideas of the essence and context as they apply to music. One central question is: does music have an essence? In philosophy, the notion of essence has seen a renaissance in the last twenty years, yet in many corners of the humanities, essences are still viewed with suspicion.

A common worry with thinking of music in terms of essence is about the plurality of music. Can the many musics be seen as the manifestations of one essence? Surely the many musics too diverse to be the manifestation of one essence. There is also the worry that thinking in terms of essence is an overly conservative way of imposing fixity on something that evolves. The appeal to essence in the cultural sphere is supposed to be fraught with the danger of imposing a normative straightjacket over divergent and dynamic phenomena. Many think that we must appeal to the varying historical and cultural contexts of music, and the idea of an essence of music is therefore misguided.

On the other hand, if we despair of finding something in common, are we really left with a chaos of completely different phenomena with nothing at all in common? That seems difficult to believe. Why then speak of ‘music’ in all the cases that we do across many different historical and cultural contexts? Furthermore, perhaps we can be more careful about the kind of essences we affirm, ones that may not have the normative consequences that some fear. Indeed, anti-essentialism may also have its own dangers. Or can we transcend this opposition? Is there really a tension between the context of music and its having some essence? If music, or our experience of music, or some music, has an essence, does that necessarily exclude any significant role for its context? Once we foreground the context of music, as has been dominant both in recent musicology and philosophy of music, have we necessarily turned away from essence? Or can essence and context co-exist? Can we deal in both notions simultaneously?

One way to admit both would be to say that one of the two explains the other. For example, perhaps the essence of music needs to be added to historical and cultural contingencies to explain its varied manifestations. Or a different approach would be to emphasize cultural context and essence together, but reverse the direction of explanation. Instead of essence explaining context, essence is contextual. That is, one could affirm a relational contextual essence.

Given the current interest in the notion of essence in philosophy, and given that exhaustively contextual approaches to music are now less dominant than they used to be in both musicology and philosophy, this is a good time to reconsider these notions and the relations between them as they bear on music and musical phenomena. We welcome a broad range of views on these questions, either focusing on particular music or taking a more general view.