Music performance and morphic resonance

Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance posits the existence (in some metaphysical or conceptual sense) of morphic forms which arise when living beings act in the world. In this theory, these forms are strengthened with each repetition of the action, and create a force field (a morphic field) which can be drawn upon by subsequent beings repeating the same act. The theory predicts that doing the same thing should become easier over time, even when the entities doing the acting are different, in different locations or not not even alive at the same time. Morphic resonance, if it exists (whatever that may mean) is a form of action at a distance and action through time. I have been fascinated by this theory since first reading Sheldrake’s book about it 36 years ago.

One criticism that has been made of the theory is that Sheldrake provides no direct evidence for morphic fields, only indirect evidence of their alleged effects. As he points out, we are still waiting, almost three and a half centuries after Newton’s proposal of the concept of gravitational fields, for direct evidence for these fields. We still only have evidence of their effects, not of the fields themselves; nor do we yet have an agreed mechanism, if indeed they exist, for how gravitational fields operate. Because of the strength of modern, western school education, whenever I say this to people, almost always they push back: the notion of gravitational fields is so embedded in the modern western mind that most people cannot imagine the evidential flimsiness of its intellectual foundations. Science is a form of reasoning-to-the-best-explanation. This does not mean that the best explanation is necessarily good, only that any alternative explanations we currently have are worse.

Lately, I have been thinking about musical performance in relation to morphic resonance. If each act of performance of a specific work creates or reinforces a morphic field, then one would imagine that playing that particular work should become easier over time. I don’t know if Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, one of the most difficult works in the piano repertoire, has become easier to play or to learn since its composition in 1869, for example. But this hypothesis could be readily tested.

Developing this idea, one could imagine that each composition creates a generic, or platonic, morphic form, from which each interpretation of the work creates a specific variant sub-form. Performing a work by giving it a specific interpretation is a manner of “giving life” to the respective variant form, a reification or instantiation or precization, if you like. (English has no good word for the process opposite to the process of abstraction, that is, the process of going from the general to the particular. Precization is the word philosopher Arne Naess used.) Thus, for example, violinist Pekka Kuusisto has recorded a version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, in an interpretation I described once as follows:

We’ve had 60 years of elegant, effete and twee recordings of The Seasons, so we know what restrained with regard to this music means. PK’s treatment is rustic and earthy and full-blooded, as if the entire ensemble had been taken outside and roughed-up in the mud of the farmyard, and the complete opposite of restrained! A simply superb interpretation, original, fresh and compelling.”

Then, in a live performance of the same work led by PK that I was fortunate to hear in May 2014 (exactly ten years ago as I write this), his interpretation struck me as:

PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know. But this live performance was on another plane entirely. Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent. PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic. . . . The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording. If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording [by Kuusisto] is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

Thus here we are talking about three interpretations of The Four Seasons, each with its own character and personality, each evoking certain feelings and moods in the listener as a response to hearing the performance. The intellectual and emotional responses are so different it is hard for me to even think of these three interpretations as being the same work of music.

Related to this are ideas put to me recently by a musician friend, who said he feels a musical work has a certain autonomy, separate from whatever the composer may have intended for the work, which he, the performer, needs to grapple with in a dialectical fashion when learning the work and developing an interpretation of it. A performance then becomes (or seeks to become) an intellectually and emotionally coherent presentation of that autonomous entity or thing.

Some ideas of John Berger on the nature of drawing I think are relevant here:

where are we, during the act of drawing, in spirit? Where are you at such moments – moments which add up to so many, one might think of them as another life-time? Each pictorial tradition offers a different answer to this query. For instance, the European tradition, since the Renaissance, places the model over there, the draughtsman here, and the paper somewhere in between, within arms reach of the draughtsman, who observes the model and notes down what he has observed on the paper in front of him. The Chinese tradition arranges things differently. Calligraphy, the trace of things, is behind the model and the draughtsman has to search for it, looking through the model. On his paper he then repeats the gestures he has seen calligraphically. For the Paleolithic shaman, drawing inside a cave, it was different again. The model and the drawing surface were in the same place, calling to the draughtsman to come and meet them, and then trace, with his hand on the rock, their presence.” (See page 123 of “Berger on Drawing.” Edited by Jim Savage. Aghabullogue, Co. Cork, Eire: Occasional Press. Second Edition, 2007)

If we accept the idea of morphic resonance, then we can see this dialectical grappling process – a form of wrangling of the work – as interacting with the various different morphic forms of the variants of the work in order to hear through them all to find its essence, akin to the Chinese tradition of calligraphy. For a work already practiced and performed often before by others, the morphic resonances will be strong, making it both easier to learn (and perhaps to memorize) the piece, and yet also harder to find a new interpretation, or to bring anything personal from the performer to this task. A completely new work, with no prior performances, will be harder to learn and memorize, yet easier to find a coherent interpretation for or to bring one’s own personality to bear on the process.

I hope to explore these ideas further, looking for arguments for and against them. As always, I welcome comments and responses, and please feel free to contact me.

ACK: This post arose after separate conversations with Alexander Doronin and Vincent Neeb, to both of whom I am most grateful. However, responsibility for any errors, omissions or infelicities rests with me.

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