PhD student in Music wins Arts Faculty Three Minute Thesis competition

PhD student in Music wins Arts Faculty Three Minute Thesis competition

PhD student at the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Ian Parsons recently won the Arts Faculty Three Minute Thesis competition for his pitch of a Lacanian analysis of Karlheinz Stockhausen's 7-day opera cycle ‘Licht‘  (Light).

Researching in the field of music and psychoanalysis, in an attempt to uncover the sense of humanity expressed through music, Mr Parsons is analysing this major 20-21st century Stockhausen work from the perspective of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to try and decipher what the operas can tell us about how the human mind functions.

Our three-way divided selves

PhD student Ian Parsons poses with a cutout of Karlheinz Stockhausen
PhD student Ian Parsons poses with a cutout of Karlheinz Stockhausen

For Jacques Lacan, humans are not simple entities, particularly when his register theory is applied. Lacan identified three registers of the human psyche: the Imaginary – which relates to our image of ourselves; the Symbolic – which connects with how we communicate and function within society; and the Real which is about something more fundamental and primal than this and which resists our ability to understand it.

“We’re actually a tangled web of these different aspects. At one level, we are people who identify as human beings made up of a whole lot of different parts to form a single identity,” Mr Parsons said.

But, he says, we are also people who live in a social world where we have to communicate with others, understand others and fit in with certain kinds of societal expectations. These are often expressed collectively in laws and religions.

“Then there is something beneath all of that which is more primal that isn’t captured in our image of ourselves, that isn’t captured in the way we live in society, but is still fundamental to who we are,” he said.

“These three strands are always interacting in different ways and different tangles and different tensions,” Mr Parsons said.

Those Lacanian registers seem to be very well reflected in how the three core characters of Licht – Michael, Eve, and Lucifer – behave and in how their music is structured, even though Stockhausen was not a Lacanian and, indeed, the two were in some ways poles apart in their views of the world. Mr Parsons, however, was intrigued by the synergies between Stockhausen's characters and Lacan's registers and so decided to explore how this might provide a new way of understanding both.

Working closely with the published scores of the operas and other resources offered by the Stockhausen Foundation in Kürten, Germany, Mr Parsons is looking at how the themes of each character are used throughout the scores. All of the music is a representation or a use of some aspect of those musical themes, which Stockhausen called ‘formulas'.

“I’m looking at how that happens and develops throughout the scores. Is the formula being played backwards or upside down, are the intervals being stretched in some way, or some other technique that serialist composers use? How does one formula influence another in different passages of the operas?” Mr Parsons said.

“All the while I’m exploring this, I am asking what does that imply about that strand of Lacanian thinking about the human mind that I have linked to that character?”

One thing Stockhausen said that’s really important in all of this is the characters in these operas are in their most essential form in their music, particularly in these musical formulas. There are three bodily incarnations of each character on stage, but these are only outward manifestations of them. Their most essential form are these formulas that represent them musically.

“Whenever you hear or see any version of their music in the score, which is all throughout, then it’s some representation of some different aspect of that character,” he said.

“I look at that and I think what does that mean if we equate that character with that Lacanian register, or Lacanian thread, and what does that suggest to us about that aspect of human personality?”

“It’s looking at the music and trying to see what does the music suggest to us in terms of human personality through that Lacanian lens?”

What does it mean for us?

Collection of Stockhausen music
Collection of Stockhausen music

Mr Parsons said this research is an indicator of how music can show us something different about the way we live our lives. We are dynamic beings, not just static subjects, and this can be a revealing lesson in how we think about human personality.

“One of the problems today in the way we look at people is that sometimes they are seen as inert objects, and the stresses and tensions we live with are often pathologized and medicalised. But this music, when we examine it in this way, suggests that all of those aspects of our psyche are always changing, always affecting one another, always behaving differently than they did before. It creates a richer view of who we are, and it suggests that those tensions and tangles are part of the natural weaving of the different threads of who we are.”

The main theme throughout his thesis is it suggests human personality is a constantly evolving cycle: we are always searching for a balance between those three elements of what makes us but we never really find it or when we do we lose it straight away.

“Human personality is a constant battle within ourselves between our need to be connected to our sense of identity, through our need to be part of a society, and through all the unspoken primal ‘stuff' – rather akin to what Aristotle called the hyle of the universe – that is rumbling away beneath all of that,” Mr Parsons said.

“All of those aspects of ourselves are constantly competing against each other but they all rely on each other.” Mr Parsons said that that mutual reliance is reflected both in Lacan's theory that the three registers related to each other like interconnected rings, as well as in the way Stockhausen composed the three formulas, where each is musically connected to the other two in a way that means they are only ever complete together.

One example of this interconnection is a vital point in the middle of Licht where all three strands of music are heard together – and this is the only time in the whole seven operas where the three formulas are performed together, in full and unaltered.

“It is just absolutely beautiful,” Mr Parsons says, “but it falls apart almost immediately. So it’s like human personality is always trying to grapple with these different tensions within it but it can find that balance only for it to fall apart again. But it is not a tragic thing that it falls apart. The music seems to tell us that what matters is not that the balance dissipated, but rather that it was searched for.”

He compares it to Sisyphus, who in Greek mythology was condemned to pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down. Sisyphus is often analysed as a nod to eternal damnation but French philosopher Camus said it wasn’t.

“[Camus said] it’s a recognition of what life is like,” Mr Parsons said.

“We are constantly reaching for the heights. It’s a search for the heights that makes life meaningful: it’s not getting to the goal, it’s the search. And I think that’s what comes out of these operas when you look at it in this way.”

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