Lawrence Dillon posts a charming anecdote from when he was in grad school, of having had three professors in a row begin classes by asking every student to define “music.” The first funny part is that all three thought it profound to begin with that question. The second funny part is that, after the students had stumbled through various answers, all three professors gave their own definitions to the effect that music is a form of personal expression. Lawrence calls this “nonsense” and “tough to defend as a thesis,” but it is one of those things that I’ve heard tumble out of composers’ mouths many times over the years as a well-learned cliché. Poke a preoccupied composer in the ribs unexpectedly, and certain phrases emerge spontaneously: “Program notes aren’t important, the music should speak for itself”; “Labels and -isms are limiting, it’s all just music”; “Music’s importance is as a form of self-expression.” None of these mean anything, and I’ve never seen anyone arrive at one of them through actual cogitation, they’re just things that composers pick up from the culture and learn to parrot in self-defense, or to avoid responsibilities they don’t want to deal with.
The “personal expression” meme may be generational; it seemed particularly intense back in the ’70s when many composers were threatened by the “mathematical” techniques of serialism. I theorize, though my knowledge of the history is vague, that it got a tremendous boost from the “express yourself” philosophy of child education in the ’50s and ’60s. I remember as a child having colorful orchestral music played on a record in art class, and being told to paint whatever the music inspired. The liberational trends of the time decreed that discipline was stultifying, and that the glory of art was the freedom it allowed for self-expression. Zip ahead 20 years and you get the identity politics art of the ’80s: that lesbians make lesbian art, Blacks make Black art, and so on. Eventually even White men make guilty-White-male art, and I write an opera about Custer.
But in the more august tradition of the history of aesthetics, Lawrence is right: that’s not a thesis. Back in the ’50s, while we toddlers were being encouraged to slap paint onto posterboard to reveal what kind of mood we were in, one man was going to extreme lengths to remove any mark of his personality from his music: I mean, obviously, John Cage. If you read Cage’s Silence, compiled from essays written in those years, it’s curious how much of what he says was cribbed from ancient, Christian, and Eastern sources, from Meister Eckhardt, Diasetz Suzuki, Dame Julian of Norwich, Gita Sarabji, Zen writings. One of Cage’s models, whom I discovered through Silence, was the Ceylonese philosopher Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), who became curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and one of the leading early explicators of Eastern art for the West. (I quote in my previous blog entry a wonderful passage of his I ran across researching this one.)
Coomaraswamy had written an important little book titled Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, in which he claimed that up until modern times the Eastern and Western worlds had shared a unified philosophy of art, from which the Euro-American world departed in favor of a shallow individualism. You get the impression in Silence that Cage and Lou Harrison were combing through this ancient worldview for some more permanent base for their aesthetics of music than contemporary culture offered. In Coomaraswamy’s view, which they encountered, beauty is “the attractive power of perfection.” (p. 28) He continues,
…beauty is objective, residing in the artefact and not in the spectator, who may or may not be qualified to recognize it. The work of art is good of its kind, or not good at all; its excellence is as independent of our reaction to its aesthetic surfaces as it is of our moral reaction to its thesis. (pp. 28-29)
This sounds like great comfort for 12-tone composers, but the Perennial Philosophy of which Coomaraswamy speaks also entails that every work of art be made for a social purpose, not as mere decoration or for aesthetic contemplation. Here’s what he has to say about self-expression:
There is also a sense in which the man as an individual “expresses himself” whether he will or no. This is inevitable, only because nothing can be known or done except in accordance with the mode of the knower. So the man himself, as he is in himself, appears in style and handling, and can be recognized accordingly. The uses and significance of works of art may remain the same for millennia, and yet we can often date and place a work at first glance. Human idiosyncracy us thus the explanation of style and of stylistic sequences: “style is the man.” Styles are the basis of our histories of art, which are written like other histories to flatter our human vanity. But the artist whom we have in view is innocent of history and unaware of the existence of stylistic sequences. Styles are the accident and by no means the essence of art; the free man is not trying to express himself, but that which was to be expressed. Our conception of art as essentially the expression of a personality, our whole view of genius, our impertinent curiosities about the artist’s private life, all these things are the products of a perverted individualism…. In all respects the traditional artist devotes himself to the good of the work to be done. The operation is a rite, the celebrant neither intentionally nor even consciously expressing himself. It is by no accident of time… that works of traditional art, whether Christian, Oriental or folk art, are hardly ever signed: the artist is anonymous… In traditional arts it is never Who said? but only What was said? that concerns us….
You’ll recall Harry Partch saying something similar in the documentary The Dreamer that Remains, that, “Of course, I’d prefer to remain anonymous… Who cares what the name was?”
Well, thank goodness we have this ancient philosophy to rescue us from the panicky responsibilities of self-expression. Because who among us has a personality fascinating enough that audiences will still want to hear an expression of it fifty years hence? Certainly not me. Balding, pot-bellied theory professor with few social graces, ranked as a scintillating conversationalist somewhere between Conlon Nancarrow and Calvin Coolidge, I’ve got no self-expression to offer that an experienced psychotherapist wouldn’t have heard dozens of times before. If I relied on my self-expression to make my music remarkable, I might as well quit writing it today. John Luther Adams is a lovely guy, but not the kind of larger-than-life character toward whom all heads turn as he enters a room; his music is great not because it tells us all about JLA, but because it takes on some of the largest issues the human race can tackle. His music is huge because he himself is so modest. Bill Duckworth is not so Oscar Wildish that his witticisms, once uttered, ripple through New York social society, but every time I play his music for friends they buy the CD: because his music achieves a kind of perfection of proportion and appropriateness of melody to form. He puts his music together from elements – chant, the Fibonacci series, bluegrass patterns, shaped-note singing, Messiaen-like rhythms – he found outside himself. Some of the most eccentric personalities I’ve met produced forgettable music. Yet Cage had one of the 20th century’s most fascinating personalities, and went further than anyone else in an effort to keep his music from expressing it. He was the living embodiment of something T.S. Eliot said:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
One might compare another quotation of a quotation from Charles Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata:
“The nearer we get to the mere expression of emotion,” says Professor Sturt in his “Philosophy of Art and Personality,” “as in the antics of boys who have been promised a holiday, the further we get away from art.”
Clearly, it’s the things outside ourselves that our music expresses that give it importance. The finer gradations of harmony that microtonality offers, the wheels-within-wheels implied by different tempos rotating against each other, echoing the motions of the planets, were there long before I came to them, and would have remained had I never paid attention. That Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse, and I manifest those rhythmic constants differently is inevitable given idiosyncrasies in training and personality, but the random idiosyncrasies do not account for the effect of the music. Lawrence’s teachers may have been among those who feared that music would become too “mathematical,” but how much recent music is as lovely to hear as Jim Tenney’s player-piano piece Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow, based on a mathematical algorithm that anyone else could have calculated, had they thought of it? It is perfect of its kind, the number system made audible. By grasping something from the world of Platonic ideals and making it perceptible, we attempt on behalf of others that bridging of the subjective and objective realms that humans yearn for to ease the contradictions of conscious existence. To remain in our own subjectivity would be of no help to anyone. The nature of language makes it easier to express the principle in terms of mathematical phenomena, but I don’t mean to exclude those whose creative paradigms are more emotional or psychic than arithmetical.
It’s tempting to argue that music has gone downhill with the arrival of the “music is self-expression” trope, that for too many composers music has become merely self-expression, and therefore forgettable. One could argue cases, but I think it more likely that most composers talk one way and vote another, chattering about self-expression but actually, instinctively, probably continuing to do what musicians have always done. Even if self-expression were good philosophy, it’s ineffective rhetoric, and I think composers should drop it. It’s trivializing. Who cares if you express yourself? That might have benefits for you, but how about the listener? That’s what we tell kids in kindergarten to go do. We are important as composers not because we get things off our chest, but because we ascend into the supersensible world, bring parts of it down, and make them audible. If in so doing we accidentally express ourselves, well, it’s hard to avoid.