Monday, 17 September 2012

Book Launch: 'Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music' by Ferruccio Busoni

Having released my essay 'Heaven is Real: John Maus and the Truth of Pop' last summer, this year I've been working with Precinct on a new edition of the semi-forgotten progressive musical manifesto 'Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music', written in 1907 by Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni. This new edition includes an introduction by myself, a fresh and elegant new English translation by Pamela Johnston (an update of the choppy 1911 translation), and the epilogue - a short and deeply poetic text written to Busoni's wife - which is rarely included with the main text.

'Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music' is an astonishing essay - beautifully and imaginatively written, with historical colour and yet amazingly ahead of its time - which still has much to say. It was a major inspiration for Infinite Music. This Friday I'll be talking a little about the book at a launch in Bethnal Green. Details of the event and more blurb below, and below that, some quotes from the book.

Friday 21 September 2012


At X Marks the Bökship

Unit 3, 210 Cambridge Heath Rd

London E2 9NQ



Little known in the English-speaking world, Ferruccio Busoni’s Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (originally published in 1907) is a daringly progressive statement about the necessary freedom and future of music, its broad and prescient outlook all the more fascinating for its having arrived so early. Busoni was a composer, composition teacher and virtuoso concert pianist of early twentieth-century Europe, born Italian but working in Germany, and a highly respected figure in his time. The Sketch was written immediately prior to his mentoring of avant-garde composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Edgard Varèse, whose ground-breaking work came to define twentieth-century classical music. Yet Busoni’s writing is steeped in ornate, deeply poetic language, in nineteenth-century philosophy and Romanticism. As a bygone era metamorphoses into the new one that will stretch all the way to John Cage, he even brandishes news of the first keyboard-based electric sound synthesiser with enthralled delight.

This edition features a new translation into English by Pamela Johnston, a foreword by Adam Harper, and includes the rare and remarkable Epilogue, an abstract imagining of a ‘Realm of Music’. It has been prepared in the hope that Busoni’s passion for the eternally new freedoms of musical creativity might not only refresh the way we encounter twentieth century music, but might inspire twenty-first century musicians and listeners to rediscover the deepest questions in musical philosophy and resume the constant struggle for the music of the future.

For all enquiries please contact Wayne Daly:

Published by Precinct

September 2012

96pp, softcover, b&w / col cover

174.5 x 108 mm

ISBN 978-0-9569524-3-1

Retail price: £6 / €8 / $10

From the Foreword (by me):

Despite its ornate fin-de-siècle language, the extreme outpourings of a dying age, the ambition of Busoni’s essay extends beyond his already avant-garde milieu to  that of the generation after Schoenberg, glimpsing the radically expansive musical cosmos of Varèse, Cage and Stockhausen – one inhabited, perhaps, by countless generations of composers to come. Busoni’s New Aesthetic is both exquisitely, manneristically ‘of its time’ and way ahead of it. It’s like reading a Latin treatise on black holes written by Isaac Newton, or finding an ink sketch of a jet engine among the papers of the Wright Brothers.


The New Aesthetic also seems to address the prevalent turn-of-the-century despair about the decline of a tradition of great (classical) music – a despair that, in the twenty-first century, is not only alive and well but has spread to many other music-making traditions too. He is very keen to stress that musical composition is not an old and dying art whose greatest successes – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – lie in the past, never again to be surpassed. Busoni’s radical response to this zeitgeist is to cast music as a child that is only just beginning to find its feet, even if it has been doing so for hundreds of years. Proportionally, then, he projects his hopes into a musical golden age that extends for several millennia at least, with the best yet to come.


‘Eternal harmony’ seems to be Busoni’s only absolute, one whose transcendent, possibly natural laws govern the development of music despite the interfering, artificial laws of human hands. It’s also ‘an encyclopaedic work’, a sum total, perhaps, of the best of all the infinite and infinitesimal combinations that wait to be achieved in the great music of tomorrow, and a ‘sun’, the centre of musical enlightenment, its first and final fact. We see a dazzling glimpse of this eternal harmony in the extraordinary Epilogue to the New Aesthetic, ‘The Realm of Music’, never published in English alongside the original text until now. In it, a universe overflowing with intensive, heterogeneous musical complexity on the grandest possible scale is paradoxically unified, univocal, eternal and harmonious. It is both sublime chaos and cosmic order simultaneously.

From the Main Text:

Musical art is like a child that has learned to walk, but still has to be led. It is a virgin art that has not yet experienced life or suffered. It has no sense of how to array itself, no awareness of its advantages, its unawakened capacities. At the same time, it is a wunderkind that is already able to create beautiful things and bring joy to many, and on account of this, it is generally assumed to be fully formed. Music as an art, our so-called Western music, is barely four hundred years old. It is in a state of development – perhaps even at the very first stage of an infinitely long development – and yet still we talk about ‘classics and ‘hallowed traditions’!

We have formulated rules, defined principles, laid down laws – laws conceived for an adult, but applied to a child that does not yet know the meaning of responsibility. Young as this child is, it already possesses one radiant quality that distinguishes it from its older sisters. The law-makers are reluctant to recognise this wonderful attribute, as it overturns all their rules. This child – it floats on air! Its feet do not touch the ground. It knows no law of gravitation. It is practically incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature itself. It is free.


Beethoven, the romantic revolutionary, was filled with such a yearning for freedom that he managed one small step on the path taking music back to its higher nature – one small step in terms of the overall task, but a giant leap in his own personal journey. He did not quite reach the absolute in music, but in certain moments he divined it.


Movement and repose, major and minor, high and low, in their standard meanings, flesh out the inventory – these are auxiliaries which can be deployed to good effect on a broad canvas, but which by themselves can no more pass for music than a wax figure can for a monument. And what, ultimately, could this representation of a trivial event on earth, a report on a troublesome neighbour – whether they’re next door, or across the border – have in common with the music that courses through the cosmos?


For the law-makers, the signs themselves are already the most important thing, and their importance is growing all the time – the new art of music is derived from the old signs, which now stand for musical art itself.


A clown who by some trick produces sounds when he is touched would be a fake musical person.


The creative artist must never blindly accept an established law or rule. Instead, from the outset, they must regard their own work as an exception and find and formulate a rule that corresponds to their own individual case – and then, after they’ve applied it once, destroy it, to avoid lapsing into repetition with their next work. The creative artist has to make up the rules – not follow them. The moment someone follows readymade rules, they cease to be creative.

The more independent a work is from tradition the more readily we recognise in it a measure of creative power. But a simple side-stepping of the rules can never pass for creativity, and still less produce it.


We have divided the octave into twelve equidistant degrees – because we had to come up with something – and constructed our instruments in such a way that we cannot get around them (or above or below them). Our ears have become so attuned to keyboard instruments, in particular, that we can no longer hear anything else – we’re incapable of hearing except through this impure medium. Yet Nature created an infinite gradation – infinite! Who would now know it?


Fortunately, while working on this essay I got news from the United States of an invention that appears to offer a simple solution to this problem. Dr Thaddeus Cahill has constructed an apparatus that makes it possible to convert an electric current into a fixed and mathematically exact number of vibrations: as the pitch depends on the number of vibrations, and the apparatus may be set to any desired number, the infinite gradation of the octave may be accomplished by simply moving a lever.


If Nirvana is the realm ‘beyond Good and Evil’, then we have, here, one path that will lead us to it. To its threshhold. To the barrier that separates men from eternity – or opens up to admit that which was once temporal. On the other side of that threshhold sounds music. Not the strains of the ‘musical art’. Perhaps we have to leave earth to find that music. But the barrier will only open to the traveller who has freed himself from earthly shackles.

From the Epilogue, 'The Realm of Music'

Come, follow me into the realm of music. Here is the barrier that separates the earthly from the eternal. Have you undone the shackles and thrown them away? Then come. It is not like it was before, when we went to a strange country and soon learned to know everything there, so that nothing surprised us anymore. Here there is no end to the astonishment, and yet from the beginning we feel at home.

You still hear nothing because everything sounds. But before long you begin to pick things out. Listen, every star has its rhythm and every world its beat. And on each of the stars and each of the worlds, the heart of every single living being is beating in its own way. And all the beats are in accord with each other – pulsing separately, but as a whole.


And now sound opens up to you! Its voices are innumerable; compared to them the murmur of the harp is a rumble, the blare of a thousand trombones mere chirping. Everything – all melodies heard before or never heard – resound completely and simultaneously, carrying you, hanging over you, skimming lightly past you – speaking of love and passion, of spring and of winter, of melancholy and of exuberance, they are themselves the souls of millions of beings in millions of epochs. Focus in on one of them and you will see how it is connected to all the others, how it is combined with all the rhythms, coloured by all kinds of sounds, accompanied by all harmonies, down to unfathomable depths and up to the vaulted roof of the heavens.


  1. It sounds brilliant, surely a must for any music lover! Will it be available in places like Waterstone etc?

    1. Unfortunately I don't think so, just here:

      But you may be a bot, in which case I can't help you.