Paul Lodge is Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and a professorial fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford. He is also a musician and songwriter who sets philosophical poems to music. In this interview, we discuss his background, his recent project Cantat Ergo Sumus, and whether philosophy makes for good songs.
Professor Paul Lodge, welcome to Daily Philosophy and thank you for agreeing to this interview! I am very happy and honoured to have you here. To start with, let’s briefly tell our readers what it is that brings you here today. Could you briefly tell us what your project Cantat Ergo Sumus is about?
Thanks very much for inviting me. I started writing and performing songs when I was in high school, with the lyrics written by my younger brother Richard. This continued into our time as undergraduates when we were contemporaries at Oxford. However, after moving to New Jersey in 1992 to study for my PhD at Rutgers University, I found myself without a lyricist. It was at this point that Cantat Ergo Sumus was initially born – though the title came much later.
The idea of philosophy entered my consciousness as a teenager primarily through references that I came across in popular culture. I don’t remember there being a point at which I self-consciously attempted to mimic this approach, but in early 1994 I found myself turning to the idea of taking the words of philosophers themselves and setting them to music. And I had the vague thought that at some point in the future I might to try to do something more public with them. However, only three of the songs that make up Cantat Ergo Sumus come from that time. It wasn’t until 2019, when performing other music on a bill with Oxford band Flights of Helios that it took off again. They liked some of the material they heard and were particularly enthused by the idea of philosophy and music coming together. We decided to collaborate and that point I wrote the rest of the songs. Then, with the help of a grant from The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH), we started to work on the album that should be released in the next few months.
Even with my broken Latin, I can tell that “Cantat Ergo Sumus” is not the same form that Descartes chose for his “cogito ergo sum.” It’s not “I sing there for I am,” but more something like “it sings therefore we are.” Is that right? And why did you choose this particular form as a name for your project?
I had toyed with Canto Ergo Sum as a straight play on Descartes, and then Cantamus Ergo Sumus (we sing therefore we are) to reflect the collaborative element. But, ultimately, I went for the impersonal ‘cantat’, intending as you say ‘It sings therefore we are’. Here I took the lead from Heidegger and his attempts to capture the way in which our sense of existing in a world with other beings should be taken to emerge as one aspect of a more fundamental impersonal event of ‘worlding’. I hope people may find their experience of music resonates with the way in which I’m trying to indicate with this a mysterious sense of the songs coming from nowhere and bringing us to be as performers and listeners.
In your project, you take the lyrics from classic texts of philosophy. In some I am reminded me a bit of Bob Dylan, perhaps. How does this process of setting a piece of text to music work? Do you always choose tunes and instruments from the folk-rock tradition, or do you try to find an individual tune and style for each piece of text? Does the Daodejing, for instance, not need a different musical style than, say, Nietzsche or Hildegard von Bingen?
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is actually from another project – Preludes To Wordsworth – which I’ve just released as an album. These are all settings of poems by Wordsworth and produced by Ryan Michaels who works out of Nashville. But obviously the same issue applies. The vast majority of my songs have words by others, mainly written by my brother Richard. I start out with just an acoustic guitar. Given that I usually perform solo, the songs have to be able to stand alone in that way. But there’s a bit more to it than that. My aim is to keep them simple and memorable, in something like the way that hymns are intended to be. I also write very quickly; either the tune comes in 10 mins and works or I abandon things, sometimes coming back, sometimes not.
There is a mysterious sense of the songs coming from nowhere and bringing us to be as performers and listeners.
The written style doesn’t really vary according to the content; and they are most naturally labelled ‘folk/folk-rock songs’. However, the recordings I’ve done most recently have been produced by others and those people have had pretty much free reign. The Wordsworth songs reflect Ryan’s background as a part of husband and wife country-rock duo Haley and Michaels; the Cantat Ergo Sumus album is very much a product of the mind of Phil Hanaway-Oakley, who is the bass player with Flights of Helios. Some of the songs are close to the demos I gave him. But others have gone in very different directions, with a number of them sung by other people. For example, my piece based on the Daodejing is set against a pattern generated on an old-style analogue synthesiser – i.e., the kind with leads and no keyboard – and then turns into a kind of house/rave thing toward the end; and the Hildegard von Bingen song starts out very dreamy and ‘Vaughan Williams’, with amazing violin by Angharad Jenkins; but a darker psychedelic guitar sets in toward the end to take us to a more sinister place. I like what arose in all these cases, but others have to take the credit.
When I read your biographical note, it occurred to me how similar our influences and literary tastes are, yours and mine. Probably it’s a generational thing: Pink Floyd and Genesis, Monty Python and Douglas Adams, and even Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. What do you think was the influence of these particular sources of inspiration on your musical work?
A non-trivial part of the way in which philosophy entered my consciousness was as a teenager through references that I came across in popular culture. As you say, like you I was raised on reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus with its philosophers’ football match and philosophers’ song, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, at the centre of whose plot is the claim that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. But perhaps more than anything it was the allusion to philosophical ideas in music that peeked my interest. I spent hours listening to existentially laden concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Dark Side of the Moon moves from one existentially significant aspect of human existence to another; life; time; death and post mortem existence; money; war; and madness. And ‘The Lamb’ is an even more complex existential odyssey. I must have listened to them hundreds of times; the constant waves of music and words over and over left an inevitable impact.
I spent hours listening to existentially laden concept albums such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Genesis’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.”
Although Close To The Edge by Yes is inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I came to his writings a little later, and via a different route – the happenstance of finding a copy of his book The Glass Bead Game in our school library and my pretentious desire to read what was billed as one of the most important philosophical novels of the twentieth century. I was about sixteen and that was at a time when part of me was explicitly searching for philosophy.
Recommended for you:
Hacker culture and Hesse’s Glass Bead Game
Hermann Hesse’s ‘The Glass Bead Game’ is probably his greatest novel, his deepest, most intriguing, most hackerish in spirit. It combines a theory of history and education with lessons in Zen, meditations on the enduring power of institutions, friendship, duty and excellence.
Particularly when working with religious sources, or with very old and widely respected texts, do you ever have the feeling that you might, in some way, be treating them disrespectfully by setting them to modern music? Does it demean Hildegard von Bingen in any way to be listened to as pop music, rather than against the background of a Gregorian chant?
It’s not something I’ve worried about. Hildegard von Bingen’s music is available already in something like its original form; and I always encourage people to listen to the interpretations by early music groups such as the amazing Sequentia. But our settings of the songs with a more overtly mystical character aren’t really ‘pop’; and the hope is that they take people to something like the same place as was originally intended.
Are some texts easier to set to music than others? I imagine that a poem that already has a rhythm and a rhyme should be easier to turn into a song than something like a passage from Heidegger or Aristotle.
Most philosophical writing is impossible to set to music in the way I am doing it. I’m trying to write songs that stick in the head; to do that they need to be relatively short and have simple rhyme schemes, or something very close to rhyme. So I wouldn’t try to do something with a passage of prose from a treatise by Aristotle, for example. And many of the philosophical poems that we have are just far too long. Heidegger is one of the philosopher’s whose ideas interest me most; but his poetry competes with that of the Vogons.
We can listen to your piece “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” on the Internet (I link it below). This one is based on a poem by Wordsworth, and I hear that you are releasing a whole album this month that consists of settings of Wordsworth. What is it about Wordsworth that you find philosophically interesting, and what makes him a good fit for your music?
Yes, thanks for the plug. Preludes To Wordsworth is now out and can be streamed on all the normal streaming sites. That has a slightly different provenance. I started the project during the first of the Covid lockdowns in the UK. Wordsworth’s family own Rydal Mount in the Lake District, which is the house he lived in for the last 37 years of his life. They had intended to celebrate his 250th anniversary by coming together and doing readings of his works. But for obvious reasons that was impossible. Instead Christopher Wordsworth Andrew created a webs project ‘Wordsworth 250 - For the love of nature’ and invited people to submit their own readings. The site has a number of famous actors such as Brian Cox, Hugh Bonneville, and William H Macy and well-known UK celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Davina McCall, and Caroline Quentin; but mostly it is people like me. I heard the call for readings on BBC Radio 3 one morning and thought I would have a go at setting one of the poems. This first song – To–, on Her First Ascent To The Summit Of Helvellyn – was well-received by Christopher and so I kept going and wrote 10 in all.
Wordsworth is perhaps less philosophically self-conscious than others such as Keats and Coleridge.
That said, ‘romanticism’ and the kind of ‘nature mysticism’ that is attributed to Wordsworth are of great interest to me. I remember studying Kant for the first time and feeling positively disposed to the idea that the subject/object distinction is not fundamental as a result. One way to think about romanticism is as an attempt to move beyond that; and that the poetic mode of discourse is intrinsic to that. Wordsworth is perhaps less philosophically self-conscious than others such as Keats and Coleridge when it comes to such issues; but they are clearly hovering around and some of the poems I have set seem to speak to them.
There is some tradition to setting philosophy to music. I’m thinking of M.A. Numminen singing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, for example. How do you see your own project within this tradition? Are you continuing the same kind of work, or is your project significantly different in scope and aims?
I don’t really have a sense of what M.A. Numminen was trying to do. But I think of myself more as a song and dance man.
Apart from the fun of it, I’m wondering what exactly you aim to achieve with these projects. One could see them as popularising philosophy and bringing it to new audiences, but do you think that this is really an effective way to go about it? Will anyone have the time, within the space of a song, to meditate on the lyrics and to get philosophical inspiration from it? What makes a three-minute song a good vehicle for philosophical thought?
The main hope is that the songs might lead some people to engage with philosophy who wouldn’t otherwise and that they might be vehicles for conveying philosophical thought in that sense. Existentially laden songs were an effective way of drawing my attention in that direction, so there’s at least some proof of concept. As I suggested above, I think that would be most likely to happen insofar as people got to know the songs through listening to them more than once. I don’t have expectations that the reach will be all that great, but I wouldn’t measure the success or failure in those terms. I certainly don’t think of the songs as ways to convey philosophical ideas in a transparent way. They are invitations to find out more.
The main hope is that the songs might lead some people to engage with philosophy who wouldn’t otherwise…
Where can readers find your latest compositions and other projects?
As I mentioned above, the Wordsworth album is now out and there to be downloaded from my Bandcamp page and streamed on Spotify, AppleMusic etc. There are also CDs to buy if anyone has the capability and would like one. I launched the album at a wonderful little concert in the drawing room at Rydal Mount of Sept. 17th. And I will be performing it again in and around Oxford over the next few months; quite possibly returning to the Lakes next year. A couple of the Cantat Ergo Sumus songs have been released too, although these are only on Bandcamp. But the album should appear soon. Finally, my webpage has more music and details than anyone could want, including my contact details. There are even some philosophy papers to read!
Professor Lodge, thank you so much for this interview!
No; thank you for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and discuss these recent projects. I hope they will be of interest to some of your readers.
◊ ◊ ◊
Paul Lodge is Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and a professorial fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford. His published research is focussed on the philosophy of G.W. Leibniz. He has edited several volumes of papers on G. W. Leibniz, including an edition and translation of his Leibniz’s correspondence with De Volder (Yale, 2013), and, with Lloyd Strickland, Leibniz’s Key Philosophical Writings: A Guide (Oxford, 2020); and has published numerous articles on Leibniz’s philosophy.
He is also a musician and songwriter, and among his recent projects is Cantat Ergo Sumus, which consists of settings of philosophical poems. For more on Paul’s philosophy and music, see www.paullodge.com.
Cover image supplied by Paul Lodge.