Breathless, Cornelia Parker

Metaphysics and Heavy Breathing (or Tippett’s Fourth Symphony)

Composer Toby Young writes:

Tippett’s Fourth Symphony is a vast and complex tone poem, concerned with life, death and the very essence of being: a pretty impressive list of topics for a composer to deal with, perhaps, but not unexpected from a composer whose music tackles issues ranging from political activism and pacifism to metaphysics and God. Nevertheless, the concepts of life and being have been thoroughly explored by the philosophical canon, with many narratives of ‘being’ played out through the two main metaphysical theories: monism (the theory that we are made of one substance, a staple of stoic thought, later taken up by Spinoza and Hegel) or dualism (the notion that mind and matter are two different but interconnected things, borne out of Plato’s discussions with Aristotle, and later forming the foundation of Descartes’ thought).

How can music shed light on such well-rehearsed arguments? Tippett called his fourth symphony ‘a birth to death piece’, focussing our attention on the issues of the metaphysical through an iconoclastic, and now infamous, sound of live human breathing. This ‘breathing effect’ (as Tippett calls it), involves reproducing the sound of human inhalation and exhalation in the concert hall, either pre-recorded on a tape or sampler, or performed live by an amplified ‘breather’, in duet with the orchestra at key moments in the music. The breathing is marked meticulously in the score, and is meant to be particularly prominent at the beginning and end of the symphony; the latter presented as a single, unaccompanied intake of breath, which forms the work’s conclusion.

It is quite clear that the human breath is a signifier for life, and its final conclusion an equivalent for death. Many critics pick up on this striking gesture, suggesting that it is an abstracted metaphor for Tippett’s soul, framing the work as an autobiography. Thomas Schuttenhelm describes the breathing as a ‘revelation of Self into subject’, implying a transcendence as Tippett’s real self is removed from the world, taken from the physical realm to be reformed as an abstract noise. In terms of staking a claim in the monist/dualist debate, there is clearly a dualist Cartesian thinking here (‘I breathe therefore I am’), with the sound of breathing a separate soul/self, linked intrinsically to the physical body. Equally, the embodiment of this simple act of breathing is so far removed from the ‘real’ of the body, that perhaps it is actually a representation of the ‘one stuff’ of a monist being?

In fact, neither the monist nor dualist notions satisfactorily explain our understanding of the mortality of the symphony’s musical journey. We know as the music comes winding down in the last moments that the return of the distant breathing marks an ending, a final drawing out of the last threads of breath. When we hear a breath, we understand the new life it gives to ‘be’ in the world, to have a real and physical place, even if the sound of it is only abstract. The inherent physicality of the breath is synonymous with life, even when its telling backdrop of an ever-quietening musical score points only to death.

One gets the sense from listening to Tippett’s works that he understands this contradiction. His is an artistry constantly searching for metaphors for his wordly experiences, to act in some way as poetical agents, bringing his physical understandings of the world into the abstract sphere of music, removing their worldly meanings, yet strengthening them at the same time. These metaphors can be both musical, as in the famous example of the traditional spirituals he brings in as modern-day ‘chorales’ in the oratorio A Child of Our Time, as well as extra-musical, for example in Tippett’s use of the writings of Saint Augustine in numerous works.

This concept of worldliness, or at least ‘worldifying’, is a far cry from the abstract esotericism of Hegel or Descartes and their respective notions of being. A philosopher whose thought is much more helpful in addressing Tippett’s symphony is Martin Heidegger, much of whose work deals with this notion of worldliness or presence. One of Heidegger’s biggest philosophical breakthroughs was the concept of dasein, which translates as ‘existence’. Heidegger uses the term to denote the human being, replacing previous, more traditional terms such as ‘subject’ or ‘person’ with a novel term to show his break with the metaphysical tradition and its presuppositions. He therefore uses the term to mean something closer to ‘presence’ or ‘being there’ (German: da ‘there’; sein ‘being’). In comparison to the abstract notions of an ideal being that we find in the monist/dualist lines of thought, dasein refers specifically to the experience of being that is peculiar to human beings: the being specifically in-the-world that is aware of and must confront issues of mortality.

Rather than an abstracted being, Tippett’s use of live breathing acts as a signifier of the essence of dasein, of our presence in the world. Even if the work is performed with the ‘breather’ offstage (as it sometimes is) we hear the breath and know its human quality. It acts as an exemplar for the worldly experience of breathing shared by all humans. It is a snapshot of dasein that is at once a celebration of life and a reminder of our mortality, a snapshot that reminds us how finite these discrete, fleeting moments are in our lives. This snapshot is of the very essence of being. It is pure, direct, and unmediated expression, and more importantly is tangible to us in the world, removed from the stuffy face of academic debate. What can music tell us about metaphysics? If this work is an autobiography, it is not just of Tippett but of all humanity. The music makes the philosophy real.

Toby Young

Toby Young is a composer, songwriter and researcher. His music has been performed by ensembles and orchestras. Toby is also a lecturer at Oxford specialising in the relationship between creativity and philosophy.

Other posts by this author


The image is a photograph of an artwork called ‘Breathless’, on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cornelia Parker, 2001).

Leave a Reply