The Ethics of Timbre

My current research project

My current major book length research project is preliminarily entitled The Ethics of Timbre. My first two years were funded by a SSHRC Insight Development Grant.

This research project explores the mutual influence of prominent movements in music and philosophy in France in the 1960s and 1970s and the continued influence of these encounters today. The specific movements explored are the musical emphasis on timbre in Messiaen, Michaël Lévinas and others that were later called ‘spectralists’, and the phenomenology and philosophical ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas. The project seeks to examine how musical and philosophical discourses influence each other through this historical moment with an emphasis on the relationship between music, ethics, experience, and society.

The Lévinas family holds an interesting place in the intersection of philosophy and music that has not been explored in musicological or philosophical research. On Sundays in 1959, the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote his first magnum opus, Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité, his 10 year old son Michaël practiced the piano in preparation for the Academy. By 1974, when the elder Lévinas’s second magnum opus – Autrement qu’être ou au-delà de l’essence – was published, the younger Lévinas was studying with Olivier Messiaen. In 1970, Emmanuel had met Olivier Messiaen – who was not Michaël’s teacher – and the composer Iannis Xenakis, and the resulting discussions with his son resulted in a key passage in the 1974 publication. A few years later Michaël – along with some of Messiaen’s other students – founded the ‘groupe l’Itinéraire’, a group of performers and composers interested in the exploration of timbre, a movement that was later called ‘spectralism’. This group of composers explored the nature of sound and the physical basis of the spectra that make up sound. These are but a few of the mutual influences between two important and influential streams in French music and philosophy.

Despite the connections between these important musical and philosophical movements, very little has been written about the connection of the two Lévinas’s in any discipline in the English language. This research explores these connections through the following research questions: