(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sound, by its very nature, is intrusive. Even as the writer writes this review or the reader reads it, myriad uninvited sounds form a backdrop to the intellectual process involved in comprehending the written words or coherently paraphrasing another writer’s ideas. Its intrusiveness does not, however, necessarily mean that extraneous sounds destroy the intellectual process involved. The Bach partita fortuitously playing on the radio may help mask backfiring cars, low-flying jets, or noisy neighbors, in effect allowing people to hear themselves think. Paradoxically, it is often difficult to work in windowless, completely soundproof rooms; their ambience feels unnatural, too estranged from the living world.

It is, therefore, more than mere semantics to speak of hearing thought. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was not intended to facilitate the reading or writing of a book review, but for some at least it is anodynic and it or its like may even be necessary. David Burrows, a professor of music at New York University, examines these connections in his short but challenging book. He is not the first to posit three fields of human action. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Edmund Husserl recognized similar phenomenological spheres, but Burrows grounds his three fields in aesthetic experience, and rather than presenting them hierarchically demonstrates the surprising number of ways in which they interpenetrate.

Field 1 is physical space, that which a body occupies and through which a body moves. Because of its physicality, it is the most sense-related of the three, and vision thus necessarily dominates it. The very state of physical existence, environment, separation, or conjunction constitutes its domain, and accordingly every sentient creation is aware of itself functioning within its setting. The center of this field is the body, which accordingly perceives itself as central but influenced by that which surrounds it. All that surrounds the body thus assumes a unidirectional, dynamic character pulled tight to the ground level of the body. This is as true of a perceived distant object (for example, a star) as of one close at hand (a book). While content of the field constantly changes with the body’s mobility, the topological coordinates are constant since the body always perceives in relation to itself

Field 2 is invisible, intangible, intellectual space, the Cartesian res cogitans (the thinking process). Individuals have their own distinctive intellectual domains in memory, but these broaden, theoretically infinitely, through conjecture, hypothesis, and synthesis. Precincts within these domains may fall into disuse, though they may be perfectly (or imperfectly) recalled. It follows that Field 2 is concurrently collective, even though individuals who draw on the common treasury may be unaware that they do so. Hence, a carpenter may never have studied the Pythagorean theorem, yet may use it when constructing a staircase. Cognition, often an ancillary element in Field 1, thus becomes the focus of Field 2, for it is this that allows the patterns of associative thought that produce knowledge. Artifacts, institutions, and human works of any kind from codes of law to administrative procedures to a set of pliers function as a protective zone between individuals, groups, and their other. Field 2 is thus more associative and far-ranging than Field 1, though intelligibility as well as plausibility constrains it. Field 2 is consequently the domain of reason, but also of madness and violence.

Field 3 is the realm of the spirit, whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere. This is mystic more than theological spirituality; it is like Sigmund Freud’s “oceanic feeling,” the oneness of ensemble, or ritual celebration. Its visual depiction is the hologram. Burrows theorizes that because sound is constantly elaborating intellectual activity and concurrent with the spiritual, it plays a crucial role in human development. Vocal sound, ranging from inarticulate utterance to speech to versified language to sung words, is nonhierarchic but interpenetrative; each facet, often in combination, utilizes one or more of the three fields of human action. The fields themselves often overlap and include communications that range from fortuitous to purposeful.

Voice and appearance are the two means of establishing presence, though voice is more intimately social. They are discrete in the sense that the one can function without the other. Ideally, however, they are complementary. The perceiver in Field 1 instinctively seeks an appropriate pairing of the two, for example by imagining the appearance of a never-seen radio personality or by expecting that a large man will necessarily have a deep voice. The surprise when reality, as it sometimes does,...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)