Musica Speculativa


Documentation from the October 2018 performance available soon…


The medieval philosophy of Musica Speculativa suggests that music as it is understood today (musica instrumentalis) is the only tangible form of the metaphysical music ruling human interactions (musica humana) and ordering the cosmos (musica mundana). Musica Speculativa is a fitting metaphor for how music and art allude to our own perception of reality and our place within that world. The project as a whole reexamines the concept of Musica Speculativa in light of our current technological landscape to gain a deeper understanding of how we interact with the world around us.

O virtus Sapientiae
quae circuiens circuisti comprehendendo omnia
in una via, quae habet vitam

-Hildegard von Bingen


Musica Speculativa, “music through the glass” or “reflective music” is a Neoplatonic philosophy popularized by St. Augustine in De musica (391) and Boethius in De institutione musica (6th century). The ideas of Musica Speculativa are perhaps most beautifully captured in the illumination on the first page of the 13th-century collection of works from the Notre Dame School, the Magnum Liber Organi VI. In the triptych the allegorical figure Musica points to the music of the cosmos (musica mundana), then underneath it the music moving humankind (musica humana), but cautiously warns about the vague representation of instrumental music (musica instrumentalis). The Neoplatonists viewed instrumental music as but a sensible metaphor of the real metaphysical music ruling our human interactions and ordering the cosmos. It was important to understand music in its metaphysical form to truly appreciate the audible music of our physical world (Taruskin, 2010).

Contemporary music theorists, musicologists, and critics still describe music through the use of metaphor even though we often do not think of the emotions, interactions, and objects it represents as being a type of music in and of themselves.

In the present work, Musica returns to remind us of what we once knew but lost through the ages, that music is the real force that binds, moves, and encircles everything. Knowing that we still hear music as metaphor she uses our current technological advances to show us the true music behind our instrumental sounds. With each successive demonstration, Musica’s metaphors become more vivid, revealing to us what music truly is.

Prelude – Musica enters and initiates the opening demonstration

I. Musica sub elementis – Technology has allowed us to glimpse a vast subatomic world but though our scientific instruments have shown us much, we can never fully “see” what is truly there. In Musica sub elementis the percussive scientist tries to understand the image of his latest technological instrument to understand subatomic structures, the Lightning Bottles. While he attempts to interpret the image, his own understanding begins to inform what he “sees” through the instrument. Eventually his understanding blinds his ability to view what was there in the first place.

Intermezzo I – Musica, capturing the subatomic music from the scientist, moves to the next demonstration.

II. Musica elementis – Though we try to mediate the at times disastrous effects the natural world can unleash upon us, we are often never more understanding of our limits than when we are brought low by the awesome power of nature. In Musica elementis, the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water, represented by the clarinet, flute, violin, and cello, clash and mix with the technology trying to control them.

Intermezzo II – Musica, recognizing the chaos caused by the technological attempts to control the elements, erases the damage and begins again bringing life to the third demonstration.

III. Musica vita – Through the example of life, Musica demonstrates that death and destruction is part of a cycle of rebirth. The pianist captures Musica’s seed and with the help of a few elements grows a strong life-giving tree.

Intermezzo III – Musica retrieves the new life and begins to transform it into a more earthly image through painting segments of video. The images catch the attention of Hilda from Binghamton who feels unknowingly drawn to Musica’s message.

IV. Musica humana – Thinking of the earthly cycles of life, Hilda reflects on her own cycle of life and her eventual passing.

V. Musica universalis – Comforted by the thought of deliverance, Hilda finds her own voice and is transfigured as Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th-century mystic and composer. Fully comprehending the true meaning of music she shares her understandings.

Taruskin, R. (2010). “Chapter 3 Retheorizing Music.” In The Oxford History of Western Music, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (pp. 69-72). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Explore the Score and Stage Directions for Musica Speculativa