I always thought that podcasts were not my cup of tea. I have never found a moment during the day when I really wanted to listen to an episode or a series that kept me glued to the headphones. Last week, however, I saw that a BBC radio 1 presenter, Phil Taggart, interviewed one of my favorite bands for his podcast. I listened to it while chilling on my terrace and, maybe because Phil’s strong Irish accent is particularly charming, I found myself in the same situation of those who say “I will never buy a pair of those ugly German sandals,” and then get obsessed with them and are unable to wear normal flip-flops anymore. Among the forty-one episodes, the interview with Ludovico Einaudi, one of the most famous living pianists, could not pass unnoticed. Although it might not have been Phil’s funniest interview, it can help us in drawing some preliminary connections between art and philosophy. In a sort of funny twist, we can think of Ludovico Einaudi’s interview as a piano keyboard itself. In the course of this introduction, I will press some of the keys and try to sketch my own composition.
Pressing the first key, the string that vibrates is the one of privilege and capitalism. Einaudi was born in a quite wealthy family. His grandfather was Luigi Einaudi, who has been President of Italy for seven years (1948-1955). His father was Giulio Einaudi, founder of one of the most important publishing houses in Italy, Giulio Einaudi Editore, which published the works of Italo Calvino, Antonio Gramsci, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi and other influential writers. His mother was Renata Aldrovandi, amateur pianist and daughter of a pianist herself. Although both Ludovico’s father and grandfather were active antifascists in the political arena of their time, and although Ludovico himself partook in the 1968 student protests in Italy, the economic privilege of his family is quite evident when he talks about his personal development. To own a piano and to be able to devote a considerable amount of time to music is often a sign of wealth in itself. Moreover, Ludovico reveals that, while he was still studying, and because he was not a very good student, he decided to take some time off and go to Morocco for two months before going back and entering the conservatory. This is, again, a sign of economic privilege. Not everyone, especially in the sixties in Italy, could just take some time off and travel to exotic places to “find themselves.” To have access to higher education was already a privilege. Most of the people had to find a job, work, and earn enough money for themselves and for their families. Yet, the economic situation did not only have an impact on the beginning of Ludovico’s career, but also on the kind of music he composed. As Edward Said reminds us, capitalism transformed the fine arts and the role of artists, who had to be able to sell their artworks in order to be considered a “real” artist. The very same thing happened to Ludovico, whose career really took off when he started to compose soundtracks for movies. The film industry, where the quality and the success of movies is based upon box office revenue, is not only a product of capitalism, but it also poses some limits to the artistic freedom of musicians (and other artists of course). Ludovico Einaudi, while talking to Phil about his experience of writing music for This is England (2006), admits that he has been quite lucky since Shane Meadows, the director of the movie, allowed him to improvise most of the songs and decide where to put them in the movie. However, it is difficult to imagine that the same artistic freedom would be granted to an almost unknown pianist. On the contrary, what happens to most artists is that they start making art by conforming to the standards of the market and, only when they have considerable fame or a sufficient group of admirers, then they can experiment more and bend the standards that were initially imposed upon them.
The second key plucks a string that is quite close to the first one, the one connected to academy and knowledge production. Ludovico explains to Phil how he got into playing piano, and he remembers his mother Renata introducing him to classical music and playing Chopin, Bach, and Schubert, what he defines as “the classic repertoire.” Ludovico evidently had a natural talent for music, and he started to recognize the notes of the compositions his mum was playing when he was just a kid who loved to read comics in his bedroom. He then received a more formal education at a conservatory in Milan, where he learned the “right” technique and started to compose music. When listening to this, I had the feeling that music, which is one of the most creative activities I can think of, was now reduced to a set of technicalities, of rules that one has to follow and apply to be considered a good pianist or a good composer. Ludovico had to remind himself of the dreams he had at the beginning, and why he loved music as his activity was starting to become drier and drier. It started to be emotionless. As it happens to other jobs that start out as passions; the higher ranks you reach, the higher the risks of getting lost in the bureaucratic and technical aspects of the profession, and therefore of losing sight of what really motivated you in the first place. Think of philosophers themselves. You start studying philosophy because you like it, most of the times at least. You are passionate about philosophical texts; you like to examine the arguments in favor of or against a certain thesis. You start your master and then your PhD with the same enthusiasm, I mean, you are going to get paid to do research on what you like! But then you also start to feel the pressure of getting published, of obtaining a certain position at a university, and all the other academic troubles that we (kind of) know about. Along the way, you have to remind yourself why you started this and why you still love it, despite all the hardship. Yet, another thing that struck me of this part of the interview was the reference to the “classic repertoire,” the canon. Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Vivaldi, Chopin, Haydn, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and all the others that come to mind when thinking of classical composers. All white men, generally from the West (Austria, Germany, Italy, or Russia, of which the latter might not be considered West geographically speaking, but it was, and still is, one of the most important political actors in the Western world nonetheless). Not one among them is a woman, or a black person, or from somewhere else than the Western world. Yet, this tends to be omitted. The “classic repertoire” is indeed “classic,” whoever studies the piano starts by studying these “classic” composers, as if this canon was universally acknowledged. The Western centeredness of the classical canon has not really been challenged; it is still the canon.
“What is the relation between capitalism and art? What is the role that art and artists have in our societies?”
These first two keys give philosophers some music for thought. What is the relation between capitalism and art? What is the role that art and artists have in our societies? Is art a form of escapism, a way of imagining alternative realities, or can it contribute to political change? What is artistic knowledge and what kind of knowledge is it? But we can also ask ourselves a more meta-philosophical question. In which ways can institutions and academia change the way philosophy and art is done?
My melody is not done yet. A few strings still have to be strung.
Ludovico opens up about his relationship with his own music. He talks about it as an individual, who has a personality and a soul, who is able to warm up his spirit. Music is very often referred to as a person, metaphorically. Andrea Bocelli, in his song Vivo per lei refers to it as a “she,” a muse he fell in love with the first time he met her. According to Snap, “rhythm is a dancer, it’s a soul companion.” Music is the shoulder to cry on when you are sad, the travel buddy who follows you in your adventures, the life of every party, the trainer who supports you during a challenging workout, the date on a Sunday night with whom you drink a glass of wine, the discreet spectator who sees you pretending to be a singer in the shower, or when doing chores. But music is not only a person who takes part in your life every now and then. It also seems to shape your own identity and your memories. According to Ludovico, music is connected to specific parts of its life. He compares it to the fireplace in the house where the family gathers at the end of the day, it is like the smell of the house. Music is the diary to which he confesses everything. It is a part of who he is.
This is also intriguing for philosophers. How are our identities formed? What role does art play in this process? What are the implications of considering art, or music, as a person with its own individuality? Does it mean that it also has autonomy? If yes, what is then the role of the artist? Is the artist simply the medium through which art expresses itself, as Michelangelo would probably say, or does the artist impose himself on the art? If no, does it mean that art lends itself to different, and often contradictory, interpretations? What is then the relationship between art and its context? And again, even if art has no autonomy and can be interpreted in several ways, does the artist have a privileged access to its meaning? These are all, in my opinion, interesting connections between art and philosophy, which may bring these two disciplines closer than initially thought.
“This issue was actually supposed to come out right before our yearly Splijtstof symposium. Unfortunately, Covid-19 happened and we had to cancel the symposium, at least for now.”
This special issue is all about the links between art and philosophy. It was actually supposed to come out right before our yearly Splijtstof symposium, which would have been about the same topic and for which our Symposium team was preparing an amazing program. Unfortunately, Covid-19 happened and we had to cancel the symposium, at least for now. Fortunately, this did not mean that the special issue had to be cancelled too. After all, it is quite reassuring and delightful to look at beautiful artworks and to talk about beautiful artworks when you are locked in your room, even if just to remind yourself of how beautiful the world out there can be. This issue is indeed a product of its own time. We did not want to make it all about the world pandemic that is around us, but each of us writes from a particular point of view and from a particular position in time and space. The conditions we live in have an impact on our thinking and writing. This is maybe what you will find in the illustrations Roberta Müller made for the issue, among which the Venus who, wearing gloves and a face mask, protecting herself from Zephyr’s breath, will certainly grab your attention.
This period forced us to work differently, and we have been quieter than usual. Yet, as the Mediterranean Sea that, especially in the summer, seems calm and quiet on the surface, but has a lively underwater life, in the same manner we have been working under the surface. Since our last special issue in 2019 many things have changed. We welcomed new editors: Janneke Toonders, Laura Keulartz, Manon Lambooij, Paula Müller, Sami Dogan, Willem Vernooij. We said goodbye to one of our editors in chief, Gaia Klabbers. Gaia and I started this adventure together in February 2019. I do remember the exact moment when we thought about it, we were at the Staddsschouwburg, and about to attend the Radboud Reflects’ lecture “The Political Activism of Pussy Riot.” It has not been easy to catch up with everything, especially because neither Gaia nor I had previous experience with this task. And yet, I am so proud of what we accomplished, and so happy to have shared this journey with a person who is thoughtful, dedicated, kind, and a true friend. Of course, a lot of work still needs to be done. That is why I am particularly excited about our new co-editor in chief, Janneke Toonders, who showed her enthusiasm and commitment from day one. I am sure this is the beginning of yet another great journey. We also have a brand-new board, all female! After many years, Wouter Veldman and René van Son left their positions as voorzitter and penningmeester. I would like to thank them officially for their work and all the effort they have put into Splijtstof, for the nights spent thinking about last year’s symposium and the bestuur dates in the Splijtstofkamer. I also left my position as secretary to focus more on the editorial side. This means that we have now a new chair-woman, Vera Deurloo, a new treasurer, Célina Ngapy, and a new secretary, Paula Müller. I am personally very glad to see this group of wonderful women who have joined the team, and I am really looking forward to our new challenges together! Last but not least, I think all the not-yet-mentioned editors deserve a shout-out here. Jochem Snijders, Piet Wiersma, Mark van Doorn, Pieter Theunissen because they are wonderful editors, Dennis Hamer and Selina van der Laan for their illustrations, Esmée van den Wildenberg for checking our grammar mistakes together with the new help of Tara Smid and Vera Deurloo, Stefan Schevelier because he is our spy at the faculty, Ted van Aanholt because without him Splijtstof would not be online (or on paper for that matter). Everyone who is working for and has contributed to Splijtstof really deserves a virtual round of applause because they kept spending time on the magazine, even in these weird times. This issue would not have been possible without them.
And now, there is one last key to press. Ludovico Einaudi says that one of the things he likes most about classical music is that it, being without lyrics, gives everyone the possibility of feeling the music in their own way, of giving it the meaning they want, of being free to interpret it as they please. This introduction has been my own melody. The rest of the issue is the melody of our editors and of everyone who has contributed to this issue. What will your melody sound like?