A Podcast on the Relationship Between Music and Argument

I have a seperate blog for my podcast, In the Bin, but maybe I shouldn’t. I feel like my audience is the same for both, or at least people who read my writing here would also like my podcast.

In this episode we talk to Dr. Ian Reyes about music and argument (he knows a lot) and wonder about the relationship between music, purity, quality, industry, and of course, communication. Have a listen!


Rhetoric, Kairos, Metallica, and PBS

It’s 202o, so of course PBS is airing the San Francisco Symphony and Metallica’s second live concert together. Such a strange combination might just be evidence of getting older, nothing else. Probably not going to get over that this is on PBS. But PBS is where I discovered Doctor Who, so perhaps this is on brand for them.

When S&M first appeared, it was a very strange but delightful combination for me. At the time I was thinking a lot about rock operas such as Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar and so the idea of symphonic heavy metal was quite nice. I thought it worked pretty well and still really enjoy that album.

Now watching the second go round, it appears they aren’t really changing up much of the set. It feels like a “lets do that again!” Or it could be the anniversary of the original S&M concert, somewhere around 1999 or 2000 I’m guessing. Could be an anniversary, or a marking of the moment.

What it isn’t is anything like the first one, even if they play the exact same set list in the level of mastery you’d expect from that many career professional musicians. The first collaboration is an example of kairos.

This ancient Greek term is poorly defined in many places as “opportunity” or “the opportune.” This makes kairos seem like a natural force, and those who can use it incredibly lucky. Or perceptive. Or a bit of both. Kairos has little to do with luck, and a lot to do with one of the most important practices that the discipline of rhetoric teaches: Recognition.

I think the best way to teach kairos is to couch it in layers of recognition: First being that we must recognize that any rhetorical intervention is temporary. That’s how it has meaning at all. It’s contingent, of the moment, and will have to be rearticulated, or created anew, at some point in the future. It also is the recognition of the complexities of the moment, situation, reason for the articulation, and the audience. It’s also the recognition that our words are always incomplete and that the audience isn’t there to receive them but to work with them.

One of my favorite definitions of kairos doesn’t come from professional rhetoric scholars, but from Paul Tillich, a theologian, who defined it as moments where “the eternal breaks into the temporal,” moments where one moment becomes hyperweighted, a moment of decision or realization, one where one is compelled to respond by the sheer weight of the realization of the moment and it’s relation to what has happened and what shall be coming.

There are a lot of great definitions that might be better. I’m a big fan of:

Roger Thomson, writing about the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, defines kairos as, “A moment of spiritual insight and propriety.” Also: “Invocation of the eternal during a specific moment in history to enact change.”

James Kinneavy: “Right timing and due measure” (seems almost like opposites?)

Augusto Rostagini explains Gorgias’s understanding as three fold: 1) Knowledge of the different forms speech can take, 2)adapt it to the situation before you and 3) harmonize it with the speech around you.

Eric Charles White defines it as the recognition that, “there can never be more than a contingent and provisional management of the present opportunity.”

Also: “understanding willing to begin again” and “A unique opportunity to confer meaning upon the world.”

John Poulakos says that kairos, “expands the frontiers of language and invites audiences to settle them.”

These are all present to some degree in S&M, but maybe not so much in S&M 2. Right timing and due measure seem obvious for musicians, so that one is present. But is the concert timed right? It seems like it’s the twentieth anniversary of the first S&M, so maybe that’s something. But that seems more like appropriateness. Perhaps there’s a kairos that is just for epidictic moments? This is more a celebration of the initial collaboration as not much changed. Reiteration can’t be kairotic, can it?

Perhaps it’s like White – this is the understanding of the initial combination of heavy metal and symphonic sounds articulating and understanding itself again. Maybe this is another “opportunity” to appreciate how weird, natural, or unique this music is.

Gorgias, through Rostagini, is the musician’s method here: Harmony. They know what they are supposed to do with their instrument and how to play it. But what applies to this new and contingent situation? How can I bring the form I know into concert with the situation that is unfamiliar? That’s the practice of kairos, or maybe rhetoric as a whole – not sure.

Poulakos is the most obvious really. Let’s push the envelope because we can, and let’s see the audience push back. The audience is a contributor at this point, and as we see many times in the concert, an additional musician.

There’s another definition I wish I had written down that I heard several years ago at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. It was a super weird Sunday morning panel, the last day of the conference. It had a woman working a loom in the corner, a speaker handed out porcupine quills to us, and another professor talked about how making lines on rocks 15,000 years ago was indeed rhetoric. I enjoyed the hell out of it. One of the speakers talked about kairos as being a term from weaving, which was related to being able to deftly move the thread up and down, between the perpendicular threads in a way that was efficient and good. Weaving is something we naturally associate with rhetoric (Weaving words, spinning a yarn, creating an argument out of whole cloth) but this really solidifies the connection, perhaps ironically.

Kairos might not be a big PBS aired concert like this, but playing the music together, hitting the notes at just the right moment together, would be. It is kairos to take a look at the music of a metal band and say, “I wonder how I can weave this into a symphony performance?” Kairos is not the memory of the concert, or even being able to go, but the recognition of a weighty moment that draws into contrast the expected, and compares the past to the future. I liked watching it, but it was nothing like the 1999 concert, more of a tribute to it. However there were still those moments of play in the concert that brought to bear the beauty and intensity of the symphony and Metallica’s music in ways that both heightened and dissolved those distinctions into meaning.