“Who is playing?” (2). This question, which opens Høffding’s book, is prompted by the late Danish bassoonist Peter Bastian’s story of how he experienced looking at his own fingers “sprinting up and down the fingerboard” of the instrument he was playing, in awe of the skill of his own fingers. Høffding wants to understand the nature of such an unusual experience of the self, undergone by musicians in “those Golden Moments when it suddenly takes off”, as Bastian puts it. The debate regarding how best to comprehend and describe such altered states of subjectivity — found in, for instance, artistic absorption — has occupied theorists of expertise, cognitive scientists, and phenomenologists for a number of years. Høffding’s general approach is to find continuities between the various positions in this debate. The theory of one of the main voices in the debate, Hubert Dreyfus’ theory of skilled coping, is strongly disputed in Høffding’s book (94), though. Skilled coping is the idea that in expertise decision-making and skill acquisition are based on bodily coping rather than representational knowledge. Høffding’s own account of expertise, specifically of musical absorption, is built up through the chapters, and fully unfolds towards the end of the book.
Høffding develops his phenomenology of musical absorption by means of empirical as well as theoretical research. On the empirical side, he bases his investigation on a series of qualitative research interviews with the Danish String Quartet; on the theoretical side, Høffding’s work is rooted in the philosophy of mind and classical and contemporary phenomenology. Furthermore, theories from aesthetics, psychology of music, sleep science, and psychiatry are used in the comparative chapters of the book.
Throughout the book, Høffding focuses on three overlapping themes: the absorbed minimal self, the absorbed reflective self, and the absorbed body (6). These aspects of subjectivity are all part of what Høffding eventually calls performative passivity, a notion inspired by Edmund Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis (Husserliana 11).
Høffding’s book is divided into three parts: “Meeting the Danish String Quartet”, “Comparative Perspectives”, and “Phenomenological Underpinnings of the Musically Extended Mind”.
Part One, which presents his empirical research, starts with an elaboration of the qualitative interview processes. We are guided through Høffding’s cooperation with four classical musicians (Asbjørn, Rune, Fredrik and Frederik Ø) and are presented with interesting quotes from Høffding’s interviews with them. Høffding gives a detailed description of his method of phenomenological interview, or PI. PI is methodologically inspired by the work of “Susanne Ravn and Dorothée Legrand in particular” (15), and is developed because “classical phenomenology, apart from phenomenological psychiatry, has not been engaged with interviews” (27). PI is also inspired by Dan Zahavi’s work and by Shaun Gallagher’s idea of phenomenological factual variations relying on empirical data. As a supplement to the established phenomenological practice of thought experiments through eidetic variation, the idea is that “real cases” might serve the same function, and “force us to refine, revise, or even abandon our habitual way of thinking” (See Zahavi 2005 on “real-life deviations”, in Høffding 27).
Høffding takes the musicians’ first-person perspectives seriously and tries to dispense with other theories, explanations, and beliefs about musical absorption, letting the descriptions speak for themselves. The musicians’ descriptions comprise what he calls “tier one” in PI. “Tier two” is the phenomenological analysis of the empirical material, where structures behind the experiences are disclosed (19). Høffding explains how the two tiers are linked and overlap; phenomenology frames the research but the empirical material also informs the phenomenological investigation. To ensure transparent access to his data and work methods, Høffding provides an extensive explanation of how to conduct a phenomenological interview (33), and of his specific work with the quartet.
The musicians are presented one by one. We get to know the violinist Frederik Ø as a complex musician, with an initial need for “a little control” (47) during the performance of concerts. However, after his father’s sudden death, he becomes “emotionally involved in a different fashion” (50) and experiences what we later learn is intense absorption. Rune is the other violinist in the quartet, he is also a folk musician (54). During performances he is “letting the body take over”, and occasionally he experiences extremely intense absorption (57). Asbjørn plays the viola in the quartet. He easily gets intensely absorbed and regularly finds himself in “the zone”, as he calls it, during their concerts. Fredrik is the cellist of the quartet. Like Rune, Fredrik has also experienced the kind of extremely intense absorption one could call an “artistic blackout” (66). Fredrik is intensely absorbed during most concerts.
After the musicians’ profiles, Høffding presents a chart to distinguish the different kinds of experiences Frederik Ø, Fredrik, Asbjørn and Rune have described. Høffding names the chart “a topography of musical absorption” (73) and defines its five main categories as standard absorption, mind wandering not-being-there, frustrated playing, absorbed not-being-there, and ex-static absorption (74).
Standard absorption is the default mode of performing, Høffding writes. The quartet is often in this state, and the state covers a wide range of experiences. Standard absorption includes feeling slightly bored, such as when playing a concert is “just another day at work”, and it also includes more concentrated absorbed playing. In general, the performance runs smoothly in this state — the musicians feel satisfied, are not intensely absorbed and not too challenged (76).
To be in mind wandering not-being-there is the experience of playing automatically while non-related thoughts and associations pop up in one’s mind simultaneously. The quartet calls it “going to Netto”, indicating the experience of leaving the performance mentally to think about what one might need to shop later (77). This is not a state the musicians find themselves in very often.
Likewise, they do not often experience the state of frustrated playing. This mode of performance is one of pure survival. During and after an obstacle, interruption, or other externally imposed experiences, the musicians are intensively focused on trying to get back to standard absorption (80).
Absorbed not-being-there is one of the two states of intense absorption. It is the rare experience of being “completely gone” or “lost in the music” during performance (81). Even if they subsequently cannot conceptually recall the experience, the musicians describe it as bodily pleasant, euphoric, and “of high emotional and existential value” (82). This experience has been described as “lack of awareness, blackout, trance, or even that it wasn’t the musician himself who played” (81).
The other, and more frequently experienced, state of intense absorption is called ex-static absorption. Høffding takes its name from the Greek and Latin description of “standing out from” (85), “not only in the sense that one perceives the world in a distanced, disinterested fashion, but also that this kind of “neutral registration” pertains to oneself”. Here, Høffding aims to capture the intensely absorbed experience a musician has “in the zone”, when his sense of self is altered by the absorption. There is “a heightened overall perception” (86) and the musician feels “invincible”, “powerful” and in “control” of the situation as a whole (84) in this state.
In the following critique, I shall return to the experiences and descriptions of some of these modes of absorption.
In Part Two, Høffding presents and discusses theories of interest for a comparative study of absorption. We are introduced to viewpoints in the expertise debate, material on artistic and aesthetic experience, theories of sleep and dreaming, and the theory of flow, in addition to the phenomenology of schizophrenia.
Besides debating Dreyfus, Høffding engages in the expertise debate through the works of John Sutton et al. and Barbara Montero (102). The former’s theory of Mesh shows how conceptual reflection and bodily coping overlap in skilful activity; while the latter’s argument against “the just-do-it” principle is that thinking does not interfere with acting and “should not be avoided by experts” (106). Høffding is open towards these philosophers’ ideas on how conceptual reflection occurs in musical absorption.
In the discussions on artistic and aesthetic experience, dance and art appreciation is taken into account, and Høffding makes use of theories by Dorotheé Legrand as well as Mikel Dufrenne to finetune his arguments.
In the chapter on dreaming and sleeping, Høffding looks at Evan Thompson’s work and compares lucid dreaming and dreamless sleep with the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption and absorbed not-being-there, respectively. In this part of the book, Høffding draws a line between standard playing, mind wandering and absorbed being there, and sees this as a development where “the intentional threads are slackening” (151) and the musician gradually detaches more and more from the situation and his self.
Through the study of theories on schizophrenia, Høffding finds traits of hyper-reflection (168) and self-intimation in the musicians’ experiences of ex-static absorption. Although, where schizophrenia is an ipseity-disturbance (171), Høffding sees a musician as having a robust sense of self (163).
In Part Three, Høffding discusses musical absorption in light of Husserl’s notion of passive and active synthesis and presents his own theory of performative passivity. Høffding defines it as the experience of “altered agency over the process of playing”, “of someone or something other than me causing the music to unfold” (188). The main assumption behind his theory of performative passivty is that musical action is not primarily generated by active egoic consciousness but by a passive enlarged sense of subjectivity (188). The enlarged subject can easily include levels of egoic consciousness, though; there are constant and fluid shifts between passivity and activity (188). In this way, he sees no dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection in absorption.
According to Høffding, a well-trained body schema is necessary to achieve intense absorption; only experts with thousands of hours of practice behind them can enter these states (215). The music itself and “letting loose of one’s emotions” can boost the opening of the passive dimension (215), and the unfolding of the music through one’s instrument and the bodily we-intentionality and interaction with other musicians are all intertwined with the passive, enlarged self (244).
Høffding closes with a chapter on how playing together feeds the musicians’ sense of passivity. We learn of musical we-ness, partly through Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeity; the shared and anonymous body (241).
According to Høffding’s findings, there is a path from ordinary absentmindedness and daydreaming, past the state of mind wandering whilst performing, to the most absorbed state of performative passivity (70). In passivity, Høffding claims, the musicians’ body schemata afford the musicians to perform automatically and enable them let go of attending to the technicalities of the performance (199). To Høffding, musical absorption “is a question of “happening” rather than “doing”” (252) and he ends the book by claiming: “Pleasure, beauty, meaning, and encounters with others, in addition to being something we create, is something to which we must be receptive” (255).
In his book, Høffding is open about not having had first-person experience of intense musical absorption (13). He also shares his inability to hear the difference between absorbed musicians’ performances and their performances under stress: “I find myself unable to detect whether a particular performance instantiates standard playing or playing under unusual stress” (100). He writes that intense absorption and its seemingly contradictory experiences of being “more conscious/present”, on one hand, and “less conscious/not present”, on the other (85), generates “a fundamental inability to understand and adequately express the nature of this experience” (85). At the same time, he rejects theories from peers with first-person experience of intense absorption (178). These facts are not necessarily problematic. But in light of them, it is difficult to see, prima facie, how Høffding is entitled to see his own work as “a paradigmatic case” — “the first of its kind” — and to claim that his conclusions will “serve as universal” within his field (30). In other words: he has never experienced x himself, he cannot perceptually detect x in others, he claims that x resists coherent description, he rejects the theories of those who have themselves experienced x – and, nevertheless, he declares his theory of x to be “paradigmatic” and “universal”. But let us not prejudge this. Let’s have a closer look at Høffding’s work and see whether it lives up to its own expectations.
Absorption as Phenomenon
The main goal of Høffding’s book is to investigate absorption. So, how does he understand the term absorption and the experiences behind it? Etymologically, the term absorption has developed from the Latin word absorbeo, which means “sucked or swallowed up”. The musicians’ experiences of being absorbed in terms of being “swallowed up”, are categorized by Høffding as absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. These two are collectively referred to as intense absorption throughout the book.
According to Høffding, musicians are absorbed during all the five states in his topography, including frustrated playing and mind wandering not-being-there (73). But are these two states genuine experiences of absorption?
In frustrated playing, mind wandering not-being-there, as well as in standard absorption, Høffding includes the merely habitual activity of doing what one has learned by heart as an example of musical absorption. What does this all-embracing attitude do to Høffding’s theory of absorption?
Everyone experiences habitual activities, so let’s have a look at a plain example from our everyday lives. Learning how to bike demands conceptual reflection. As soon as you’ve mastered the skill, though, the task is engrained and will be experienced pre-reflectively. You can chat with your friends or listen to music while biking without being disturbed in the performance of the task. The same goes for artists and the elaborate skills they master. There is a level of performance where one is merely doing what one has memorized, and where random reflections and perceptions easily come and go on top of the execution of the activity itself, which has become second nature.
The question is: does this level of habitual mastering of skills qualify as absorption? As a practitioner of performing art, my answer is no. And so, as a philosopher, I find the dilution of the term absorption rather confusing. It is not clear how, for example, standard absorption is distinctly different, consciousness-wise, from situations like my biking example. Musical absorption is initially presented as “a self-transforming experience” (5), and the opening questions of the book: “Who is playing?” and “What kind of self is present when the musician is intensely absorbed in his music”? (2), are supposedly asked in order to investigate these altered experiences of the self. But only two out of Høffding’s five states of absorption constitute actual self-transformation and appear distinctively different from everyday experiences of consciousness; namely, absorbed not-being-there and ex-static absorption. That Høffding draws evidence from the musicians’ experiences of (what are quite plausibly) non-absorbed states in order to make his final points about what absorption as such amounts to, is a basic flaw in the argumentation that weakens the final theory.
That being said, seen as an overview and topography of musical performance, Høffding’s categorization chart nicely distinguishes different experiences musicians may have during practice, rehearsal and concert playing, and as such it is highly applicable.
Distance, Disinterest, and Detachment
In the construction of his arguments, Høffding appears to favour certain interpretations of the musicians’ statements, interpretations that emphasize occurrences of distance, disinterest, and detachment in absorption.
In one of his early interview sessions, Høffding categorized his transcriptions of the interviews in groups, one of them being “distance in absorption” (41). In his theoretical comparison chapters, he discusses how phenomenological psychopathology points to the existence of “unnatural” self-distance (8) in schizophrenia and finds parallels to this in the musicians’ experiences (162). He states that the musicians have “a superior bodily self-coinciding and self-reliance” (170), though, and sees the juxtaposing as a tool to understand how the “empirical foundation of ordinary consciousness (…) is prone to variation” (171). In a similar way, Høffding compares the musicians’ alleged experiences of self-distance in intense absorption to experiences of deep sleep (absorbed not-being-there) and lucid dreaming (ex-static absorption) (145).
Ex-static absorption “consists in a distance to oneself, one’s actions, and one’s body” (167), Høffding claims; whereas absorbed not-being-there is “entirely vacuous” (83), “followed by an almost total amnesia” (81). But how are the musicians phrasing these experiences?
Frederik Ø shares how he changes after his father’s sudden death and plays a concert where he lets go of his previous need to have “a little control” (47). During the concert it is “as if everything just disappears (…), I am not really there (…). Everything just is. So it is exactly both being present and not being present simultaneously” (50). He continues: “It is like… the feeling of looking over a large landscape (…), you cannot see the individual parts, you just know that all of it contributes to the being, and that you actually could affect the little things (…)” (51). Høffding sees Frederik Ø as being at a “distance from his own mental life” here (146).
Asbjørn tells us about the same experience of being “both less conscious and a lot more conscious (…)” (60). In his ideal absorption he is “this commander just moving the pieces and making the perfect phrase without trying, just because it is there and I can do anything I want” (62). In the same quote he talks about his ability to be aware of many musical elements at the same time, through his “hive mind” (62). We learn how he is “neutrally registering” the audience, not like a co-player but “looking at the set-up” and feeling like “a commander deploying the troops and control it (…)” (84). Høffding interprets Asbjørn’s experiences as “disinterested observation” (84).
Through his investigations of spatial experiences in schizophrenia, sleep, dream, and intense musical absorption, Høffding finds that they share traits of detachment (151), distance (85), and disinterest (192). Høffding takes these disconnections to the self and to the situation very literally. He compares the musicians’ experiences of being “a commander” and “flying over a landscape” with experiences of physical distance. In ex-static absorption one is thus too far away to have any agency, Høffding claims, “sitting in an airplane high up in the sky” perceiving from a great distance ”a very large landscape without parts” (147). When in absorbed not-being-there, the experience is of being too close to the music” to “perceive it well” (148). It’s like “looking at a large Monet from very close up” (147).
Høffding is referring to the altered perception of objects in the intensely absorbed states and offers us a discussion on the matter and a thorough explanation of his view. But is this the best way to interpret what the musicians experience?
Artists in general seem to claim that intense absorption is their ideal state of performing and the quartet is no exception. They stress how being intensely absorbed makes them “listen in a better way” (59), feel “powerful” (81), in “very deep control” (61), and feel “intense euphoric joy” (66). This sounds more like descriptions of total involvement — not like disinterest, distance or detachment. Is there an alternative to Høffding’s interpretation which captures the presence, engagement, and interest the musicians indicate they experience in intense absorption?
One way of describing it would be that in intense absorption the musician’s focus shifts from being on particular objects to embracing the situation as a whole. This does not indicate distance; on the contrary, it describes the integration with something larger than oneself that often happens in these states. As there is no experience of distance or disinterest in one’s bodily and affective self, but rather an increased focus through the body, intense absorption could be seen as a state characterized by bodily and affective agency. Høffding’s understanding, as well as the most common way of understanding agency, is based on the traditional dualistic and hierarchical idea that the self equals the mind, and that the bodily self is “automatic”, “pre-egoic”, and without the ability of agency — an understanding that often falls short in matters of art.
One could say that in intense absorption the mind is put on hold or is participating in a sparse manner; at that stage, judgments and objectifications are not needed to perform the activity. The bodily self has full power and control over the musical performance, works hard, and enjoys it.
Just like it is possible to be totally engaged in the analysis of a philosophical text, only to later to “wake up” and realize one is hungry or that one’s leg is “asleep”, one can shift focus from an everyday consciousness in performance to an utterly engaged bodily and affective focus.
Some of the above mentioned aspects seem close to what Høffding finds in his theory of performative passivity: the “blurring of the subject/object distinction” (215), “a powerful change in the deepest layers of subjectivity” (175), the opening to something larger than one’s self, for instance “musical interkinesthetic affectivity” (246), and the reliance upon the bodily (195). But Høffding favours the understanding of passivity and a receptive self in intense absorption and finds ways throughout the book to emphasise this.
In his theoretical investigations, Høffding occasionally uses quotes outside of their intended contexts. Referencing Evan Thompson, Høffding writes: “Lucid dreaming is essentially marked by a phenomenal distance to oneself (…)” (154). But on the page referred to in Thompson’s book “Waking, Dreaming, Being” (2015), there is no mention of distance in lucid dreaming. Thompson elaborates upon the I as dreamer and the I as dreamed in this manner: “These are not two entities or things; they’re two kinds of self-awareness, two modes of self-experience” (Thompson 2015, 140).
In another example, Høffding discusses the experience of objects in passive intentionality with Dan Zahavi. He mentions Zahavi’s “recent, comprehensive work on Husserl” (184), and glosses Zahavi as making a point about passivity (184). But the actual page concerns “the world annihilation” thought-experiment from Husserl’s “Ideen 1”, and says nothing about passivity.
Another example of biased use of theoretical evidence is Høffding’s references to the Kantian notion of aesthetic disinterest. He interprets this disinterest as “not soliciting engagement, but mere distanced observation” (124) and compares it with the quartet’s experiences of “observation as neutral” and not being “part of the set-up” (125). Though I’m far from being a Kant scholar, it is clear enough that Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterest differs from our everyday understanding of the term disinterest. The Kantian term covers an interest in the aesthetic object as experienced in its own right – the immediate, direct perception of the aesthetic object. The lack of interest is a lack of interest in the object’s utility and determinate meaning. Høffding seems to understand and use aesthetic disinterest in a different manner – as an experience of observing from a distance without engagement.
Høffding interprets Husserl’s theory of passive and active synthesis as holding that passive and active are opposing ends of a smooth continuum. As such, Høffding repeatedly mentions that the theory “fits like hand in glove” (178) with the altered state of the self found in intense absorption; characterizing this type of absorption as that of extreme passivity and differing from other types of absorption mainly in degree. Taken together with his lack of patience for the expertise debate’s dichotomy between reflection and pre-reflection (113), one gets the impression that passivity and activity in passive and active synthesis must be experiences of consciousness that are altogether different from reflection and pre-reflection – a Husserlian gem unknown to most of us, presented in this book as the resolution of dualistic thinking about artistically absorbed subjects. But a more thorough look at Husserl’s theory, in parallel with Høffding’s book, shows that even though the distinction between activity and passivity is not the distinction between reflection and pre-reflection, we are not faced with a distinctly alternative description of subjective experience. The theory of passive and active synthesis is Husserl’s further investigation into how the deepest pre-reflective layers of subjectivity influence and cooperate with the subject’s active and intentional acts, being it on a pre-reflective or a reflective level. Musicians are, doubtlessly, undergoing passive and active syntheses during their concerts. We all are, every day. There is nothing extraordinary in experiencing passive and active syntheses. Husserl’s theory is rather an extraordinarily profound description of our consciousness structures (as far as this author understands Husserliana 11).
I agree with Høffding, though, that describing intense absorption “as a certain relationship between reflective and pre-reflective awareness, or as a specially trained form of reflection or pre-reflection” (176) is insufficient. This terminology is based on an out-dated, dualistic hierarchy where mind reigns over a body, upon which it simultaneously depends. Yet, Høffding still seems to buy into this hierarchy by describing a bodily and affectively active subject as “passive” — just because the subject’s mind is passive. By calling one of the intense states absorbed not-being-there — when his qualitative material states that it is an experience of “really being there” (57) and of being “immensely present” (67) — Høffding seems to ignore the fact that there are parts of us that are indeed there in intense absorption, even when “the head is completely empty” (57). To be fair; Høffding does not entirely deny this in his conclusions. But his semantics, and what seems to be his overall view of what a subject is, contradicts his evidence.
So, how does Høffding see passivity as compatible with absorption? Does it make sense to say that musicians get increasingly immersed in their work by means of a path from absentmindedness to mind wandering, past daydreaming to intense absorption — all during habitual playing? (70) It sounds rather vacuous – and Høffding actually labels absorbed not-being-there as “vacuous” (83). What would be one’s drive and motive, as a musician, then? Høffding’s answer is that music as a structure affords cooperation and absorption (252) – one is simply drawn to it.
When asked how the “primitive phenomenality” of a passive self can produce “complex and beautiful music”, Høffding answers that the musical work performed through the body schema and the musicians’ “emotional engagement” is sufficient for that purpose (250).
Perhaps this process of random perception of impressions from one’s life-world, combined with “letting loose of one’s emotions” during the performance of one’s memorized work is enough for some performing artists. I am not able to tell. But when it comes to creators of art, this theory’s applicability seems even more limited. Improvising performers are creators, alongside painters, composers, choreographers, sculptors, poets and others. Creating and producing art from scratch cannot be explained as habitual activity and haphazard receptivity.
Many creators, like many performers, experience their artistic activities as a kind of “conversation” with the world and their fellow human beings — just like Fredrik does (64). There are things you want to express and share through your art. “In the same way that I do not think about the technicalities of talking, so do I not think about the technicalities of playing”, Fredrik says (64), and divulges that these processes are not necessarily conceptually reflective – neither are they passive and anonymous.
Trusting the body schema in order to “let go” and get absorbed, might prove to be problematic for creators and performers of improvised art. Høffding claims that “if those micro movements are not in perfect place, the necessary trust will not be relegated and the distanced or ex-static view of one’s own body will not be enabled” (171). In improvised dance, in much jazz music, and in the performance of classical Indian ragas, for example, there is no way of preparing “every micro movement” – these art forms are created and performed simultaneously.
It is, therefore, not clear to me how Høffding’s theory of performative passivity could serve as universal within the field of musical absorption. Besides, I am far from convinced that this theory accounts for the active body in sufficient detail. That being said, I find Høffding’s qualitative research and cooperation with the four musicians intriguing and inspiring.
What Høffding writes is of importance. We are not often made aware of our possibilities of mere receptivity, of “letting go” (of the mind’s activities), of “being open” and “one with the world” in the way radical passivity allows us. Høffding’s book reminds us of these possibilities. Undergoing these aspects in passive and active synthesis is necessary in order to become absorbed in artistic and aesthetic activity and experience. I don’t find the theory of performative passivity sufficient as an argument for what absorption amounts to, but I appreciate the book. It bears evidence of a hardworking, passionate, insistent, and thorough philosopher and researcher.
Husserl, Edmund. 1966. Analysen zur passiven Synthesis: Aus Vorlesungs- und Forschungsmanuskripten 1918-1926. Nijhoff: Den Haag.
Thompson, Evan. 2015. Waking, Dreaming, Being. Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Colombia University Press: New York.
Zahavi, Dan. 2017. Husserl’s Legacy. Phenomenology, Metaphysics, and Transcendental Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford.