Saturday, May 24, 2014

Music and Self-Expression

As everyone knows, music is all about self-expression. I recall a comment made by a piano student once that Brahms was her "sex" music. And Kanye West certainly seems to do a lot of self-expression in his music.

Kanye and Kim are much in the news right now because they are, finally, getting married. The pre-wedding party was at Versailles and the wedding will be in Florence at the Belvedere. The Daily Mail has all the details. Here they are at the party. Nice, uh, dress?

So what you do is, express yourself in your music, like Kanye West, make over $100 million, hook up with a Kardashian and throw a big wedding. I'm not sure that "big" quite captures it. Go read the Daily Mail story which just seems to get longer and longer as the weekend unfolds.

Now all this seems a nightmare to me! I think the last place on earth I would want to be is within a hundred miles of this wedding. I don't think I have ever seen a more dismaying display of sheer ugliness.

So let me pose an alternate theory: music isn't about self-expression at all. Sure, you can pervert it to those ends the way you can pervert anything, but the real aesthetic nature of music is quite different. It is fundamentally about structure and beauty or beauty through structure. Trust me, Beethoven did not sit down to the piano and mutter to himself, "hmmm, I need to express myself--how about a gloomy arpeggio in C# minor?"

That is not about Beethoven's mood, biography, or love-life. Nor is it about Valentina Lisitsa's, nor mine, nor, I'm sorry to say yours. That is just "about" beauty.

As soon as we start thinking that music is expression or "self-expression" then we start looking at the life of the composer for clues as to what it "means". In that sense, it doesn't "mean" anything. It is just about the beauty of the music. But "beauty" in this sense, has a perhaps complex meaning. We create musical beauty in many ways, often through contrast with passages that might sound "ugly". We create a feeling of tranquillity by preceding it with agitation. We create passages with the energy of the dance and others with the calm of meditation. We create passages that we might call "passionate", though really only by metaphor.

But if we decide that we need to express ourselves, we risk the danger of ending up like Kanye West.

Oh, incidentally, Louis XIV, who built Versailles, liked to listen to some music when he retired for the evening. The musician who provided this service, Robert de ViséeMaître de Guitare du Roi, left us several volumes of his music. He was a lutenist as well as guitarist and here is a sample:

And no, he wasn't expressing himself. But he is expressing something: musical beauty.


Shantanu said...

So, you mean, creating music is like making a beautiful thing - which pleases the senses in an invigorating and as complete manner as possible?

I think you are right about that. Because, honestly, most people's "self-expression" would consist of something, err, not so beautiful or even worth sharing. In fact, the creation of great art might consist of stepping outside of your selfish interests, predispositions and private concerns for a while, and enlivening your senses to the "generally good and beautiful".

A very insightful post - it is making me think a lot!

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Shantanu, that is exactly what I mean. You put it very well.

For one thing, "self-expression" would seem to consist of simply expressing what you feel. Creating art is much more difficult than that!

Rickard Dahl said...

I've been quite busy with school recently so haven't had time to comment any at all even if I had the intention. I'm still busy, just not as much, so I hope to catch up soon. Anyways, time to start with it.

It's an interesting point. Obviously composers tried to express various things such as a sense of nationality, feelings of love, anger etc., nature, for opera and so on. However, I don't thing that was generally done, as a way of self-expression, at least not directly. I might be wrong but for instance Bach didn't see it his music as an self-expression. In some cases he wrote music that was useful for technique, in some cases it was for religious reasons, in other cases it was to push his abilities of counterpoint (Art of Counterpoint) or for job positions (Brandenburg Concertos). Fundamentally I think most composers (including Bach) wanted to write music that sounded good, with the purpose/intentions being secondary.

Personally I don't think much about self-expression when composing. For me it's more about finding good sounding music and it's not linked to my emotions or expressions at the moment when writing. Writing music in a minor-type scale (natural minor/aeolian, dorian, phrygian, harmonic minor, melodic minor etc.) doesn't mean that I'm sad or other similar emotions. It means that I have found something that sounds good and I'm working on developing the ideas. There are cases where my ideas have a more solid theme, i.e. trying to describe something, for instance a place, nature etc. But even then it's not self-expression in that regard. Anyways, to summarize it, I think classical music can mean something (lets say if it's called "Finlandia" and written by Jean Sibelius then it's clearly a statement of proudness or national belonging) or nothing at all (like one of Beethoven's symphonies, the music is abstract and has no inherent meanings (although some people create meanings to it)). On the other hand, music that was meant to mean something by the composer can mean nothing at all to the listener except that it's simply good music. It works in both ways.

Bryan Townsend said...

Being busy is good! Sometimes I get so tied up with things that it is very difficult to put up my daily post.

That's an excellent description of what seems to be going on with composers! I have sometimes tried to express something specific in a piece of music--I mean something non-musical. It was a piece for flute and guitar inspired by the ever-changing colors and textures of the clouds, ocean and mountains where I used to go for a walk every day. I called it "Unbounded Vision in Blue and Purple". Alas, it was not a very good piece because I did not work out the musical structure very thoroughly. Debussy did rather a better job with his piece "La Mer".

Melodica World said...

Well, I agree with you. Music is considered as source of self expression but music is more than this. Music is a beautiful art and most self expressions do not contain beauty. It is very interesting post. Thanks for sharing. For music lessons visit