Undivided we stand! Outcomes Spinoza redux II

talkshow-2Hosted by Machiel Keestra this second edition of our series Spinoza redux turned out to be another highlight in our brand new project space.

In case you have missed this evening or want to revisit the central thoughts here is what we could capture. This may grow with additional material or comment reaching us with time and can also be seen as a step only in an ongoing discussion.

Please find details about the contributors in the announcement of the evening.

aaThe first presentation was given by

Ariel Suhamy

Animal’s right: up to what point?

First of all I would like to thank this institution for inviting me to say a few words about Spinoza in his homeland. This is the first time I do such a thing, and I’m very glad and moved, because I have been studying Spinoza for years in France, without ever going to Netherlands, the country he dearly loved and, as a philosopher, fought for. As you know, Spinoza was one of the first and the greatest defenders of political freedom and religious tolerance in his century; and nowadays Holland is still considered, as it was in the XVIIth century, as the country of tolerance. That’s one of the reasons why I was very much appealed and puzzled when Mr Keestra told me that the parliament here had now even a party dedicated to the rights of animals. It happens that last year I published a little book, a sort of initiation to Spinoza, which I wrote with an illustrator, Alia Daval – during my speech I’ll show you a few pictures she made for the book. In this book we have presented Spinoza’s thought from the sole point of view of animals, that is after the animals which appear in his works. There are dozens of them, rather strangely, and I thought it would be funny to sum up his thought and his doctrine through this picturesque zoo; then I was amazed to realize that almost every important point of the doctrine could be explained through an animal that Spinoza mentioned, most of the time very briefly, in his demonstrations or argumentations, for instance in a scholium of the Ethics, in a Treatise, or in some letter. Thanks to this device, Spinoza makes us understand some important things about human nature. So I got very interested in this issue of animals in his works, and particularly of animals compared to man, as to their rights. So, when I learned that you here have a party dedicated to animals’ rights, I decided to examine, or to imagine, what Spinoza would have thought of this. This was obviously an important question for him, since in the Ethics, when he comes to politics and the constitution of the State, he mentions the question of animals. Well, I may as well tell you right away that he is not exactly in favor of this, and has even pretty rash words about it, but the important point is that he can help us to raise up the problem. But first of all, it is necessary to explain why.

So I shall first explain the very peculiar conception Spinoza had about human freedom, then about natural right. Then I’ll switch on to the issue of man, and human nature, and finally will go back to this statement he makes about animals’ rights in human politics.

Critique of free will

publiek-schrijvend1At first sight, in his system, man seems not far from animals, and not essentially different: one of Spinoza’s most famous statements is the denial of man’s free will by which, traditionally, man pretended to be radically different from and superior to the other living beings. As the Ethics quotes, man is not “an empire in an empire” or “a dominion in a dominion” (Ethics III, preface); he is part of Nature, and he is submitted, like any other being, to the laws of Nature, and determined by an absolute necessity. Free will – that is the possibility to break the laws of nature (or if you prefer, God’s commandments), and their absolute necessity, is therefore a mere illusion. In order to explain this illusion, Spinoza makes use of many examples, among which the stone you can see here. I quote letter 58: « For instance, a stone receives from the impulsion of an external cause, a certain quantity of motion, by virtue of which it continues to move after the impulsion given by the external cause has ceased. (…) Now conceive, if you will, that this stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. And this is that human freedom, which all men boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. Thus an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid one thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid. So the delirious, the garrulous, and others of the same sort think that they act from the free decision of their mind, not that they are carried away by impulse. As this misconception is innate in all men, they are not easily freed from it. » (Letter 58 to Schuller).

Right of Nature

We are not born free, but we can free ourselves from prejudice concerning freedom. This denial of free will scandalized many of his contemporaries, and one of them protested that if it were so, that is, if man could not make any free choice, there would be no difference between man and animals. But Spinoza deeply resented this accusation, and protested that he never meant such a thing. On the contrary, far from reducing man to animal, Spinoza claims that imitating them is what perpetually threatens humanity.

So we must suppose that he placed the difference between man and animal somewhere else. His conception of natural right, as it was expounded in the Theological and political Treatise, published in 1670, again generated a storm of protest, which made it impossible for him to publish his Ethics during his lifetime.fish_eat

This theory is illustrated by examples taken from the animal world, more precisely, from an old dutch proverb, illustrated by Bruegel and then by Alia, saying that “big fish eat litlle fish”:

« By the right of Nature, I merely mean those natural laws  wherewith  we conceive every  individual to be conditioned by nature, so as to live and act in a given way.  For instance, fishes are naturally conditioned for swimming, and the greater for devouring the less; therefore fishes enjoy the water, and the greater devour the less by sovereign natural right. (…) it follows that every individual has sovereign right to do all that he can; in other words, the rights of an individual extend to the utmost limits of his power as it has been conditioned. «  (Theologico-political Treatise, XVI)

According to Spinoza, therefore, man has a natural right to do anything he is constrained to, and there is no difference, from that point of view, between a rational man, led by his reason, and a passionate man, led by his affects. They are all as perfect as they can be. Natural right is absolutely co-extensive with power – physical power, or mental power. Everyone, man or animal, rational man or passionate man, have as much right as they have power to do what they do. There again, a new comparison with animals illustrate this point:

« The  natural  right  of  the individual man is determined, not by sound reason, but by desire and power.  All are not naturally conditioned so as to act according to the laws and rules of reason; nay, on  the contrary, all men are born ignorant, and before they can learn  the  right way of life and acquire the habit of virtue, the greater part  of their life, even if they have been well brought up, has passed away. Nature  has  given  them  no  other  guide,  and  has denied  them  the present power of living according to sound reason; so  that  they  are  no more bound to live by the dictates of reason,  than  a  cat  is  bound to live by the laws of the nature of a lion. » (Theologico-political Treatise, XVI)

This image shows a cat pretending to be a lion…

What is freedom

In this latter example lie the ultimate reason and the true conception of freedom.

Let us go back to Letter 58: “I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature. (…) You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity“. Everything, according to Spinoza, is necessary, and bound to behave the way it behaves. “Nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to any defect in it, for Nature is always the same” (Ethics III preface). But sometimes it is submitted to an external necessity (for instance when the smaller fish is eaten by the bigger), sometimes to an internal necessity, and in that last case, necessity is a “free necessity”, since one acts according to the laws of one’s own nature.m-schrijvend

Of course it is impossible that man always should behave and live according to the laws of his own nature, because he is a part of a whole and is submitted to the common laws of nature, which was not made for him. He will never be able to act totally according to his own nature: the only being able to do that is God, or Nature. Nevertheless, he can approach such an achievement, and that is what philosophy is made for – and religion as well, insofar as it is not contaminated by superstition.


Now, upon what condition is this possible? This is the point where society, and common laws of society, have a rule to play. For man is not essentially rational – a reasonable animal, as Aristotle would say. If it were so, most of the men would not be men at all, which is absurd. Man is first of all a creature capable of imitation. It is by imitating that his reason can rise and develop; but it is also by imitating that passions develop and rise. Spinoza explains all the human affects through this ability: affects are not, as you can now understand, faults, or vices, but proprieties of human nature, that can be explained as everything else in nature. Nevertheless, many of them are contrary to reason – mostly, passions rising from sadness, hate, jealousy, anger, etc. So for Spinoza, man was not born free, and freedom is not a universal specificity of man; but what is specific to him is his ability to imitate what he believes to be like him. The problem is that he does not immediately know what is like him; so he’s likely to imitate almost any kind of living being, particularly animals.imitation

A famous passage of the Ethics suggests a very original explanation of the story of the first man, Adam, and his sin. You can now understand that for Spinoza, Adam was not “guilty”, since there is no fault in nature, and Adam was not free to make a choice between vice and virtue. He was just ignorant.

Therefore, what theologians call Adam’s sin is not what theologian believe and teach: a free act of his will, implying responsibility, guilt and punishment. If Adam made this mistake, it was just because he was like a child, not knowing what is good for his own nature, for he did not know much about his own nature. No surprise in this: he was, after all, the first man. Freedom is not given from the beginning. It must be constructed, built up, it is a goal, and not a principle, an end, a purpose and not a beginning. The more we succeed in knowing our own nature, and the more we are able to act according to the laws of this nature, the more free we become.

So Adam believed animals to be like him, and began to imitate their affects, instead of imitating man’s (or woman’s) affects, and keeping safe his freedom. But animal ‘ss affects are quite different from man’s. For instance, as Spinoza wrote in a letter, rather strangely: “we all admire in animals qualities which we regard with dislike and aversion in men, such as the pugnacity of bees, the jealousy of doves, &c.; these in human beings are despised, but are nevertheless considered to enhance the value of animals. This being so, it follows that sin, which indicates nothing save imperfection, cannot consist in anything that expresses reality, as we see in the case of Adam’s decision and its execution.” (letter 19)

So, sin indicates nothing in a essence, save what is not in this essence. What does this mean? It means, as we have said before, that insofar as man is a part of nature, he is not always acting according to the laws of his own nature. Most of the time, and particularly when he is a child, or a passionate man, he’s driven by external causes and acts against his own nature, though still and always necessarily. To be able to recover, if one may say so, his own nature, he must understand what is really good for him – and only for him: the first step is to understand that nothing is good or evil in itself, but always good or evil insofar as it is related to some specific being ; and the same thing can be good for somebody, bad to another one, or indifferent. Now, Adam’s sin was not to desire knowledge, but to desire to know good and evil. I cannot help here to quote one of my favorite propositions of the Ethics:  « if men were born free, they would form no concept of good and evil so long as they remained free ». (Ethics IV 68). A free man does not believe in such a thing as good and evil, because he is always seeking directly what is good to him, and never thinks of evil.

Now, since natural right is nothing but power, it is obvious that we’ll be all the more powerful that we’ll be more numerous to be acting in the same way. When men are acted upon by external causes, that is when they are submitted to passions, they can be contrary to one another; whereas when they really act, according to the guidance of reason, then they agree in nature, and are more powerful, that is more virtuous, or more free.


vrouw-schrijvendThat is why tyrants of all kinds always want to transform their subjects into animals or automatons, and renew Adam’s sin. Spinoza has all his life fought against superstition and prejudices which “turn men from rational beings into beasts, since they prevent everyone form using his free judgment”. One must note here that the false conception of freedom, as free will and responsibility, is quite useful to tyrants because it is a source of sadness, bad conscience, shame, anguish and fear ; it then weakens men, and makes them dependent on superstition. It is not surprising then that Spinoza wrote, just before the sentence which was chosen as a motto for these sessions : the true aim of Society is liberty, that “the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets (automatons), but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled.” Beasts: since their nature is deeply different from man’s, jealousy or hatred being for some of them a virtue, a man cannot try to imitate them without losing his nature, that is, his freedom, or his reason.

Here Spinoza’s thought is rather optimistic, because he says that in fact it is impossible to transform men into animals or automatons: everything has a nature out of which it cannot be expelled. So if tyranny fails, it is not because it is morally wrong, it is because it tries to do impossible things, as transforming men into animals, or tables in animals.

“A commonwealth then does wrong, when it does, or suffers to be done, things which may be the cause of its own ruin; and we can say that it then does wrong, in the sense in which philosophers or doctors say that nature does wrong; and in this sense we can say, that a commonwealth does wrong, when it acts against the dictate of reason. For a commonwealth is most independent when it acts according to the dictate of reason; so far, then, as it acts against reason, it betrays itself, or does wrong. And we shall be able more easily to understand this if we reflect, that when we say, that a man can do what he will with his own, this authority must be limited not only by the power of the agent, but by the capacity of the object. If, for instance, I say that I can rightfully do what I will with this table, I do not certainly mean, that I have the right to make it eat grass. So, too, though we say, that men depend not on themselves, but on the commonwealth, we do not mean, that men lose their human nature and put on another; nor yet that the commonwealth has the right to make men wish for this or that, or (what is just as impossible) regard with honour things which excite ridicule or disgust.” So the limits of what a political power can do is just the limits of nature, and of human nature, nothing else.


ariel-met-mSo to conclude let us go back to the question of animals and their rights. We know that right is nothing but power; so if a right must be bestowed by men on animals, this means that a power must be given to them, but for Spinoza, power is never really given, transferred: we just constitute a greater individual, more powerful and mighty. So the real question would be: can we really form an individual with animals, I mean some real unity?

The answer is yes if they have the same nature as we have, no if they don’t. Now it is obvious that they are not entirely like us. One might object that men don’t always agree, and therefore are not either of the same nature, which is true: insofar as they are submitted to passions, they are different. But they still have a nature in common, and the possibility of sharing the same values: no one can affirm that this is impossible, since, as we said, reason is not given from the very beginning, but must be elaborated, through a rational use of imitation. And now we can, I hope read without prejudice this remark Spinoza makes in Ethics, IV 37, when he establishes the basis of the State:

“It is plain that the law against the slaughtering of animals is founded rather on vain superstition and womanish pity than on sound reason. The rational quest of what is useful to us further teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellowmen, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own; we have the same rights in respect to them as they have in respect to us. Nay, as everyone’s right is defined by his virtue, or power, men have far greater rights over beasts than beasts have over men. Still I do not deny that beasts feel: what I deny is, that we may not consult our own advantage and use them as we please, treating them in the way which best suits us; for their nature is not like ours, and their emotions are naturally different from human emotions.”

I don’t think he meant that reason teaches us to slaughter all the animals. He is just telling us that they have their own nature, not inferior. For sure they can be used to understand what we are and what we are not. There can be used as a means to attain a goal, whereas men are always a goal in themselves: the goal being, to form a greater whole, a greater individual.cat1

But the important point, for us, is that Spinoza pointed out that animals do have natural rights, and that these rights cannot be conceived after our own rights, but in respect to their own nature; so, eventually, if a right must or may be bestowed on them, it will be insofar as they can join to us, in order to form a new individual. Is that possible? Alia imagined so…

mmMachiel Keestra

followed with a statement that had the following point of departure:
Human culture is driven by dynamics and power struggles of different kinds. Easily overlooked, though, is the role played by the introduction of concepts. Such concepts can open up a new perspective on reality and offer new ways of dealing with it. The ‘bitter-sweet’ love in Sappho heralded emotional ambiguity, while scientist and philosopher Aristotle introduced concepts that enabled us to grasp development and change. Since understanding and action are tightly connected, coming to terms with these phenomena has many consequences.
In modernity, the influence of a dualism of sorts is rampant. Best known is of course the body-mind dualism attributed to Descartes. Other dualisms are between man and nature, between individual and society, between freedom and necessity. Although influenced by Descartes, Spinoza’s thoughts take a completely different starting point, avoiding thus a whole set of problems. Not wanting to deny differences, he still assumes an original unity between those domains.
Such unity is aspired too in neuroscience, most clearly in research on free will. How to reconcile neurophysiology with freedom is the question. Less problematic appears to be the explanation of our social nature, due to research on so-called mirror neurons and empathy: humans appear to be attuned to emotional exchanges.
However, I will end by discussing the limits of empathy and imitation for ethics: the sameness that imitation presupposes & confirms may easily overshadow the differences between persons, for instance. Instead of simply embracing a simple neuro-ethics we may need to draw on diverse sources of morality in order to seek unity and accept diversity – a necessary task in our present multi-crisis global society.

aiaiAlison Isadora:

Spinoza and the Sex Pistols – the politics of music making

I have to admit that my closest connection to Spinoza before several weeks ago was that while I was studying in the Hague Conservatorium in the late 80’s I lived in the same street as Spinoza did, and I knew the professional squatter  slash botanist who tended his garden. Or rather who postulated that by leaving the garden completely alone one had a chance that the plants that grew best in that habitat would return ,and that that was the closest one could get to reconstructing an ‘authentic’ Spinoza garden. Having now read a little about Spinoza, I can imagine that he might have appreciated this non-interventionist approach.

Let me read the Spinoza text for this evening again”A man who is guided by reason is more free in a society, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself.”

I ‘d like to relate this text of Spinoza’s to my own journey towards musical freedom and touch on some aspects of music-making that interest me. Music has the possibility of offering us reflection and inspiration on how we live together. If we take the idea of society at its broadest to include any organisation of human beings, we can think of music groups as micro-societies. I’d like to suggest that there is a relationship between the socio-political aspects of music-making, and the freedom that the musician enjoys, and that this in turn has aesthetic implications.

From an early age growing up in New Zealand, I became aware of the diversity of environments in which music was produced. I’m not talking about venues here, but about the organisation of the ensmbles themselves. In the early 80’s I was simultaneously: an orchestral violinist/member of punk band/performing in a West Javanese gamelan group/member of a Baroque ensemble and studying (political philosophy) at University.
In a single day I  was often confronted with a number of completely different models of music-making.

On arriving in The Hague to study violin and composition I added a few more genres to my musical bow – I perfomed in new music ensembles, improvising groups and as well as composing for chamber ensembles made music theatre productions and installations.rechts-met-amie

How do these widely divergent music cultures relate to Spinoza’s ideas on freedom?

Let’s first consider the orchestra.Orchestral musicans are organised into sections, each with a section leader. These liase with the conductor who has not only the responsibility of co-ordinating the musicians but also acts as the interpretor. There is a strict hierarchy in rehearsals and performances – I remember being 21 and enthuisiastically trying to suggest a different bowing from the back of the 2nd violins, only to discover that information moved in one direction only, from the top to the bottom. So one sat and waitied and hoped that the leader had good ideas!

Individual players (especially string players) focus on blending their sound with the others. The Individual chooses to live within this structure to achieve something that is not possible on his/her own and membership is only viable if one accepts these constraints.

The organisation of the orchestra has evolved as a practical way of synchronising a large group of musicians. I must say that for me it is reminiscent of the mass synchronised performances that I associate with Communist regimes. (I’m thinking of the opening of the Beijing Olympics or displays by the armed forces)

There are also democratic tendencies at work in orchestras  – orchestral players are often aware of the power that they wield – there are numerous anecdotes concerning moments in which the orchestra has demonstrated to the conductor the sound of his own baton! An article in the Volkskrant several weeks ago concerning the Concertgebouworkest and Jan-Willem de Vriend being assessed as a conductor highlights the potential power of the musicians. The performance of every conductor is judged by a committee of Concertgebouworkest musicians and the conductor’s future with the orchestra lies largely in their hands.

So how free is the orchestral musician? As far as I understand it, for Spinoza, freedom means to follow one’s determined conatus  – which is one’s striving to persist in one’s own being. Spinoza suggests that one is free in so far as she or he follows their necessary nature. Can we say then that one is free if it lies in one’s nature to be part of an orchestra?

As an artist I would argue it is essential to act in relationship to one’s own nature  – it is a necessary condition for  authentic artistic expression. However, and here I maybe diverge from Spinoza, I believe individuals may be guided by different reasons and reasoning. An orchestra may offer freedom for one musician and bondage for another. This is also true for composers relationships with the orchestra. There is no question that the musical potential of such a large body of musicians is extraordinary. However, many modern composers, myself included, have a love/hate relationship with the orchestra. The very organisation that allows such a large group to exist is also it’s  limitation.

  • pretty-vacant-excerpt (live recording 1977)

Punk music and particularily the Sex Pistols represented everything that was anti-establishment in the late 70’s, the nemesis of the symphony orchestra. Punk was loud, rude and unruly-it was all that I missed in classical music-chaotic, spontaneous and intuitive.

I’d like to look briefly at the Sex Pistols, as an extreme example of pop culture and their relationship with freedom.

publiek-met-nikoLike Spinoza, 300 years earlier, the Sex Pistols had material banned. The songs Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen both enjoyed a BBC radio ban for some time.

The Sex Pistols were a group formed by their manager Malcolm McClaren. He encouraged bad behaviour in the group, swearing on tv, public drunkenness/ vomiting etc were common. McClaren used shock tactics to revolt against musical expertise and the corporate machinery of pop. He set out to create scandals and coined the idea  of “Cash out of chaos”

Spinoza’s concept of the importance of connecting one’s own interests with the collective interests can be compared to the cynical fashion in which the  Sex Pistols made money by feeding society material (in the form of scandals) that society itself could financially profit from. Somehow I don’t think that was what Spinoza had in mind!

We can say that the Sex Pistols exploited freedom of speech to suggest a revolution, although their anti-art/counter culture tendencies were an aesthetic, rather than real. The Sex Pistols acts of defiance were largely symbolic – the band was repressed by the state, but tolerated -they posed no real threat. And in fact, the band benefited from the states repression.

Their clothes style was anti working class hero, they chose the cliches of white trash – safety pins, tattered clothing, dyed hair. But their so-called anti-art stance was actually fuelled by  a fashion shop run by Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood where the band often hung out.

The musicians in the Sex Pistols could not be said to be acting out of freedom but out of greed or ignorance. In Spinozian terms we could say that the actions of the musicians were passive – originating outside of themselves. They gave the impression of freedom but were not acting from a position of awareness, having been manipulated by their manager.

Spinoza believed that freedom of thought, speech and publication were important, and that a restriction on these things could jeapordise the security of the society. He recognised that it was ridiculous to suppose that the state could curtail individual thought. However he did consider that agitation of the mob through rhetoric was unacceptable – I wonder what he would have made of the Sex Pistols.?

My search for an ideal  musical envornment continued. Punk might seem to offer freedom, but at what cost?. I started to realise that the relationship between the maker and the performer played a central role in determining not only the aesthetics but also the kind of musical society that could be created.

Free jazz and collective improvisation grew, like punk rock, out of a dissatisfaction with both  musical and political cultures but  this time in the 50’s in the States. Arriving in the Netherlands in the late ’80’s I was exposed to Misha Mengelbergs Instant Composiers Pool, Guus Jansen and Han Bennink and performed with Willem Breuker Collectief and the Maarten Altena Ensemble amongst others.

Philosophically, improvisation often focuses on bringing one’s personal awareness “into the moment,” and on developing a profound understanding for the action one is doing. This fusion of “awareness” and “understanding” brings the practitioner to the point where he or she can act with a range of options that best fit the situation, and respond to the unexpected.

In a Spinozian world Improvisers could be said to be acting out of freedom in so far as their actions originate from their own nature.

In improvisation we are offered a model for positive, non-hierarchical, fluid communication, which I find very inspiring from both a socio-political as artistic viewpoint. My search is to find the  possibilities to integrate this kind of music-making within a  composed music  environment.

I’d like to mention briefly a man called Butch Morris, a respected cornet player in his own right who has developed a personal musical form that is both inclusive and specific. He calls what he does Conduction. At first sight it looks like conducting. He  stands in front of an ensemble with a baton and uses a vocabulary of signs and gestures to communicate with a group of musicians. Some of these gestures are related to traditional conducting, but Butch has also developed new signs such as: ‘memory’ – recalling material  or mimicry etc. There is no written music and he works with groups from diverse traditions, all with some connection with improvisation. The musicians offer their own musical material and Butch works on the material as a sound sculptor. While playing with the Maarten Altena Ensemble I experienced his Conductions as a facilitation of a new sound world

  • This is the beginning of a Conduction with the MAE. Conduction # 35

Another model that has been very influential for me is aleatoric or indeterminant music. Pierre Boulez popularised the term aleatoric music and used it to describe music in which ‘controlled chance operations’ were used. From the late 1950’s it became a widespread composition tool, with John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff in New York and Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Sockhausen in Europe all utilising it, albeit in very different ways.floris-en-dames

If we take Spinoza’s idea that we are free when the causes of our action are internal to us and we are unfree when those causes are external to us, it would make sense to create a situation in which the musicians considered the causes of their actions – their performance – to belong to them.

What are the possibilities for including the performers in the creative process? Of breaking down the segregation between the producer and the re-producer?

In 1999 I wrote a musictheatre piece called nachtvlinders and the last movement #6 was inspired by ideas from collective improvisation  and indeterminant music.

  • This is the beginning of #6

This kind of piece requires the musicians to have an understanding of their possible musical functions and the form of the piece as a whole. Although the pitch material is set, the musicians have many choices concerning timing, attack, colour, dynamic and melody. The piece is something they make within a given framework.

Collective improvisation, Butch Morris’s conduction and aleatoric music all offer ways of thinking that influence not only the music produced but the environment in which that occurs. I am convinced of the necessity for musicians to feel a sense of ownership towards the music they make, Without a conductor one already has a more active environment. New dynamics start to occur between the performers. The responsibility and power of making the piece work rests with them.

The use of biography is another way of including the performers, and of connecting a piece specifically to them. Since 1994 I have composed many works in which biographic information from the players is included.

I’d like to play a small excerpt from a piece called Le Reve, which combines various threads of interest. The text was based on musical nightmares the performers recounted to me.. One performer had a real-life story that involved reading a poster in town with his name on it and realising the concert was the same day in another city, rushing home to get his bass, falling down the stairs, and then breaking the key in the lock on his car. That story became the beginning of the text which I then combined with material from the other players. The piece has a number of elements that exist on both a musical as extra-musical level. During the work small events occur that appear to be mistakes – a musician drops his stand and the music falls on the ground. The conductor tidies the papers up. Someone coughs, another musician offers cough drops that fall on the floor, and so on. That these events are related and orchestrated only becomes apparent near the end of the piece when the events all occur again simultaneously.

The role of the conductor is largely that of a stage hand.

The text talks about a performer who is required to play an instrument they have never played before and this aspect is also musically present. During the piece musicians swap instruments which  allows a whole level of non-pitched material to develop. At the end of the piece no-one is performing on their own instrument.

•·  A short excerpt from Le Reve

The piece is specifically written for these musicians. It contains their stories and the instrument swapping that goes on is dramatically connected with specific body types (the large gangly doublebass player that has to play the recorder and the tiny Japanese recorder player behind the bass) and also specific issues of trust. Like many of my pieces, it is literally written on the body and being of specific players. Aleatoric moments, in which the players exercise decisions over aspects of the music occur while the singer is talking.

My hope is that the musicians will connect with the material and each other in a way in which the form and the material are embodied in the very process of music-making. Like the botanist in Spinoza’s garden, I try to provide an environment in which natural germination will occur.

Finally I’d like to remember Spinoza’s quote that “freedom is not freedom from necessity, but the consciousness of necessity”. As an artist one is always striving to make something that has an inner necessity, an inner logic..The question I ask myself constantly while composing is WHY. Why this note and not another, why this instrument, why this form. And the only satisfying answer is that is has to be that way and no other.

Here are some impressions of the evening and the public showing the concentrated sphere and the engaged public. These are as so often by Simon Bosch. Thanks to him –as always- for a great job. We will hear more about him and see more of his work soon in the framework of our Aura project.

















This series of lectures is part of the European Learning Partnership JETE (Jewish Education Traditions in Europe) DEF flag-logoeac-LLP_EN

_mg_5629_mg_5523_mg_5527_mg_5624_mg_5633_mg_5642This evening was made possible by the generous support of Maison Descartes and the LiraFonds


Undivided we stand! Programme Spinoza redux II

Reflections on music and politics, man and animals, body and mind:

Spinoza redux 19 March 2009

“A man who  is guided by reason is more free in a society, where he lives according a  common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself.” (Spinoza, Ethics IV P. 73) 

Tolerance towards animals: up to what point?
Ariel Suhamy (Philosopher; Sorbonne – Paris, France)

The parliament of The Netherlands has a party dedicated to the rights of animals. I wonder what Spinoza would have thought of this. At first sight, in his system, man is not far from animals: one of his most famous statements is the denial of man’s free will. Man is not “an empire in an empire” (Ethics III, preface), he is a part of Nature, and he is submitted, like any other being, to absolute necessity, and determined by the laws of Nature. “I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature. (…) You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity” (Letter 58). This statement scandalized many of his contemporaries, who protested that if it were so, there would be no difference between man and animals.
Not at all, Spinoza answers. There is a large difference between a man and, for instance, a rat, a pigeon or a bee. Far from reducing man to animal, he claims that imitating them is what perpetually threatens humanity. For instance, this is how he explains Adam’s sin: Adam believed animals to be like him, and began to imitate their affects, instead of imitating man’s (or woman’s) affects, and keeping safe his freedom. And tyrants of all kinds always want to transform their subjects into animal or automatons, and renew Adam’s sin. But since the nature of animals is deeply different from man’s, a man cannot try to imitate them without losing his nature, that is, his freedom. Therefore, to believe that they have the same rights as we have, would be quite contrary to reason and most perilous to freedom. 

Spinoza’s use of animals is therefore pretty ambiguous. On the one hand he uses them as examples to make us understand that man, exactly like them, is a part of Nature, and that free will is just an illusion. We are not more free than a bee or a donkey. But on the other hand he claims that they are not like us (their nature is different), and for that reason cannot be used as models; such a belief is quite dangerous to freedom, particularly to political freedom. We know that Spinoza was one of the great defenders of tolerance. The question I would like to examine is then: is a party dedicated to the rights of animals adverse to tolerance and a threat to human freedom?

Spinoza and the Sex Pistols – the politics of  music-making.
Alison Isadora (Composer and musician; Amsterdam)

Art in general is not an area devoid of any power struggles, unlike many people think. Music is characterised by several forms of power relations. If we take a look at the way how music is produced we can observe several relationships like the relationship between producer (as in  composer) and re-producer (as in performer) and of course also the relation to the audience. These all can be analysed in political terms.   However, we should acknowledge that different sorts of music-making assume different kinds of  relationships (power structures). What might be the
connections with actual political situations? One could examine various genres – punk,  romantic orchestral music, free jazz, the New York school (Cage and co.) with regards to  their internal power structures and the specific historical socio-political climates in which they emerged. There is of course also  the matter of how these musics are regarded by the public – which is not  always contiguous with the musicians own understanding – and how that changes  in time. I have been very influenced by the idea of music mirroring or embodying a political ideal and have written many pieces which deal with power issues on both a musical and meta-musical level. Apart from offering reflections I will present and discuss some examples of my own work.

Coming to terms with complexity. Neuroscience, free will, society and a Spinozan take on conceptual unity.
Machiel Keestra (Philosopher, University of Amsterdam)

Human culture is driven by dynamics and power struggles of different kinds. Easily overlooked, though, is the role played by the introduction of concepts. Such concepts can open up a new perspective on reality and offer new ways of dealing with it. The ‘bitter-sweet’ love in Sappho heralded emotional ambiguity, while scientist and philosopher Aristotle introduced concepts that enabled us to grasp development and change. Since understanding and action are tightly connected, coming to terms with these phenomena has many consequences.

In modernity, the influence of a dualism of sorts is rampant. Best known is of course the body-mind dualism attributed to Descartes. Other dualisms are between man and nature, between individual and society, between freedom and necessity. Although influenced by Descartes, Spinoza’s thoughts take a completely different starting point, avoiding thus a whole set of problems. Not wanting to deny differences, he still assumes an original unity between those domains.

Such unity is aspired too in neuroscience, most clearly in research on free will. How to reconcile neurophysiology with freedom is the question. Less problematic appears to be the explanation of our social nature, due to research on so-called mirror neurons and empathy: humans appear to be attuned to emotional exchanges.
However, this will end by discussing the limits of empathy and imitation for ethics: the sameness that  imitation presupposes & confirms may easily overshadow the differences  between persons, for instance. Instead of simply embracing a simple neuro-ethics we may need to draw on diverse sources of morality in order to seek unity and accept diversity – a necessary task in our present multi-crisis  global society.


suhamyAriel Suhamy studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and at the Sorbonne University. He is agrégé and doctor, and taught philosophy for a few years before turning to journalism and writing. He is also in charge of a Seminar on Spinoza at the Sorbonne.
He is currently chief assistant at the internet site and review La vie des idées (Books and Ideas in english) at the Collège de France in Paris.
His last book on Spinoza: Spinoza par les bêtes, with illustrations by Alia Daval, was published by Ollendorff & Dessein in 2008.

alison-isadoraAlison Isadora was born in Aotearoa/New Zealand. She studied political philosophy and music at the Victoria University of Wellington before moving to the Netherlands in 1986 primarily to study violin with Vera Beths and thereafter to study composition with Gilius van Bergeijk and Theo Loevendie at The Hague Conservatorium (1994, with distinction.) She has been a performing composer or a composing performer within numerous groups in the Netherlands including Hex, Gending, the Maarten Altena Ensemble, and her own group The Electric Aardvark. Her works have been performed in the Pacific, Europe and North America. In the last years she has become increasingly interested in the possibilities of connecting music to other disciplines, and in the ways realtime electronics can assist this process. Her first foray into this arena in 1995 was the music-theatre work Hoofdwas, for midi-controlled washing-machine, live electronics and mezzo-soprano which she created together with Jan-Bas Bollen (with whom she forms the duo SYNC). Many of Isadora’s recent works deal with cultural identity and the use of biographical material. In  2003 she graduated from DasArts (an institute for post-graduate theatre studies) with Speaking Rites, an installation and audio walk in which interviews with Dutch citizens from various cultural extraction were presented in an interactive environment. The work was premiered during the Gaudeamus Music Week. In 2005 as part of her Wild Creation residency she created an installation in which the situation of Chinese goldminers in 19th Century NZ was juxtaposed with current-day Chinese villagers dealing with e-waste sent by the west.

machielMachiel Keestra studied philosophy and psychology in Amsterdam and Heidelberg (Germany). Formerly a staff member of the International School of Philosophy in Leusden (NL) and the Studium Generale of the University of Amsterdam, he is currently assistant professor at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Amsterdam. He taught and organised many courses and seminars on philosophical, scientific and cultural subjects. He published edited volumes on the history of philosophy, breakthroughs in physics and a cultural history of mathematics. The topics of his articles range from philosophers like Aristotle and Hegel to the philosophy of language and tragedy. His current research is on the philosophy of neuroscience, in which he confronts concepts of action and understanding from philosophers like Aristotle, Ricoeur, Bratman and Frankfurt with recent evidence from cognitive neuroscience. Read more..

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