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Connecting Philosophy and Music

Try to explain music.

When philosophy professor Christoph Cox puts that challenge to his students, he can never predict the outcome. Almost everyone has an opinion when it comes to music, and generally it’s more passionate than reasoned. Getting past the primary emotional response, and moving on to a more critical analysis, is what Professor Cox likes to see in the classroom.

“First year students say they want to write on music, but mostly it turns out they really just want to examine lyrics. I think that’s ok, but it’s more than just poetry and language, I want to get them to deal with sounds. And that isn’t very easy to do,” he says.

Christoph Cox
That noted, Cox is pretty good at dealing with sounds. He started his career teaching the standard coursework in philosophical thought from the ancient to the postmodern (his first book was on Friedrich Nietzsche). In addition, though, Cox was writing on the side about contemporary art and music for magazines such as Artforum and The Wire. The two paths rarely crossed until he arrived at Hampshire.

“When I came here, [music professor] Dan Warner suggested that we teach a course together. I think it was really then that my interests in music and art and philosophy came together. This is a place where you can do those things all at once, and not only won’t people hassle you about it, they’ll think it’s a good thing,” says Cox. “I think students are really into connecting philosophy and music. It’s something that really speaks to the interests of Hampshire students, and my interests too.”

Traditional philosophy classes are still a big part of Cox’s academic life, but that collaboration with Warner has ended up a mainstay on the college curriculum, even resulting in a book co-edited by the two professors. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, with writing by the likes of composer John Cage, pianist Glenn Gould, jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, and critic and novelist Umberto Eco, is a sampling of the kind of inquiry Cox sees as essential to pushing past artistic boundaries towards more exciting creation.

“From the start, Dan and I wanted the class to be on key concepts. In the first half we talk about the relationship between music and things like silence, noise, and environmental sound. In the second half of the course, we look at musical practices. We play a lot of music and use it to talk critically and historically,” he says.

In recent years, Cox’s own writing has begun to focus on sound art, and how sound art can be shown in exhibitions. From there, it wasn’t much of a step to become curator of those exhibits. He has been involved with shows everywhere from The Kitchen arts center in New York City to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where this past fall the exhibit Every Sound You Can Imagine presented experimental musical scores as visual works of art.

Cox discusses the subject in the Audio Culture essay “Visual Sounds: On Graphic Scores,” pointing out that this novel form of notation was a result of everything from the technical developments of electronic and tape music (“How to score factory noises, or the sweeps and squiggles of sine tones?”) and the influence of jazz improvisation to interaction between composers and visual artists. With the exhibit, Cox hopes he was able to give visitors a comprehensive understanding of the topic, and more than he could give with just words.

“When I work as a curator, I always work as a philosopher who is a curator. I want a conceptual philosophical component,” says Cox.
The same goes for the music Cox listens to outside of academic studies.

Christoph Cox
“What turns me on is something new that makes me think about music in a different way,” says Cox, who says his classes are among the ways he makes new discoveries. “Students are constantly passing music along to me, and I’ll pass stuff back to them. We have a real exchange.”

He sees a lot of innovative work being done around Hampshire and in the Amherst area. The interaction between new musicians and established artists helps fuel experimentation in everything from techno to noise rock.

“There is a strong scene around here. I think Hampshire students have a huge part in that. And then there are established artists like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., who serve as kind of mentors,” says Cox.

The bulk of this music may not make an immediate dent in mainstream culture, but that doesn’t mean much to Cox. It’s the outlying edges he’s interested in, the new forms and ideas. And when he finds them, well, it just might end up the next class discussion. Or magazine article. Or exhibit, with a very conceptual, very philosophical underpinning.

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