Some Consequences of Four Incapacities

Released on New Focus Recordings, June 2018.

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  • Aeolus Quartet: 102nd and Amsterdam
  • counter)induction: Piano Quartet No. 1 MORE INFO
  • Trio Cavatina: Fortuitous Variations

Some Consequence of Four Incapacities is a project that takes its role as a namesake quite seriously. The philosopher C.S. Peirce wrote the eponymous essay in 1868, in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, with all the brash intensity that flavors all his work. He attacks so much over which human thought claims a singular ownership: we are incapable of introspection, for the interiority we value as something singularly ours is a mirror of the world; we are incapable of intuition, for each thought is predicated upon prior thought, some our own to be sure, but all in the end derived from judgement and labor predating our own births; we are incapable of thinking a thought without the use of a language of signs, which as signs must be something other than the truth that they (re)present; and most perturbingly, we are not capable of conceiving of these limits, to catch even some sense of what resides beyond our finite imaginings. An odd source of inspiration for a composer, someone tasked with bringing something that has never existed into the oikumene of musical being. In writing this little essay, I hope to frame some of the manifestation of this thinking in my work. Even better: this is a memo, a note to help one remember, to carry forward into the moment of listening. It aims not to predetermine or privilege interpretations or experiences, but to contribute to the expansiveness of music's potential for meaningfulness, the ever-not-quite-ness that abets its escape from language's prisonhouse and reason's legalistic entanglements.

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Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) is a fascinating figure philosophically, historically, and biographically. He was the inaugurator of Pragmatism, America's great contribution to philosophy; he is the founder of an intellectual enterprise committed to disrupting all foundations. His most inventive work addressed language, communication, and symbology; the pure volume of his output on pretty much everything is quite belittling to one's own sense of capacity– mathematics, mathematical logic, physics, geodesy, spectroscopy, astronomy, psychology, anthropology, history, and economics. He developed a theory of semiotics quite distinct from his contemporary Saussure, and always, like his great friend William James, sought to radically reconsider the relation of thought to practice, of theoria to praxis.

His biography is as cinematic as his thought is imposing. For thirty-two years, from 1859 until the last day of 1891, he was employed by the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, mainly surveying and carrying out geodetic investigations. This largely mechanical work done to finance his philosophical work and his extravagant spending. This was increasingly a problem after the termination of his teaching position at Johns Hopkins; this was due, it seems, to the public disapproval of Peirce's second wife (a Gypsy), and even more so by the scandal that Peirce had more or less openly cohabited with her before marriage and before his divorce from his first wife. This was all quite beyond the pale of 19th century American academia. Thereafter, Peirce often lived on the edge of penury, eking out a living doing intellectual odd-jobs and because of the overt or covert charity of relatives or friends, for example that of his old friend William James.

For Peirce, humans' knowledge of their world is contingent on understandings of external facts, there is no intuition, as all thought is carries forward its past. Indeed, there are no means by which the human can think anything wholly new– there is no "conception of the absolutely incognizable.” This is a thread the runs through much of his work, but is distilled in this essay most clearly. There is a darkness here, as there is in so much of Peirce– a seeming submission to human finitude, to limits both cognitive and biological.

And, I think, that gothic and mournful mood carries across all the works on the disc, and the following postings should illustrated the significance of historicality, conditionality, and finitude in my work. And there is also a ferocity to Peirce's faith in Mind, in the potentiality of human thought, and I hear a bit of this heroism in this music– certainly in the peerless performances of my collaborators Trio Cavatina, Aeolus Quartet, and counter)induction.

There is here a poetic of composing that is generative rather than creative— a kind of redemptive catastrophism, a newness achieved the the acknowledgement and endorsement of its own lateness.