Musical expression

Perhaps the most difficult thing for the contemporary composer is finding something to say. In a society literally immersed in stimulation, finding clarity of expression can be very difficult. More importantly, the frenetic pace of life makes an audience with time to spare a virtual nonentity. The biggest challenge becomes to express oneself directly and clearly, such that the impact is both immediate and cumulative. Such a thing is easy to say, of course.

Knowing one's audience is a long-standing point of necessity for anyone in the business of public expression. For instance, to what extent is everyone reading this paragraph aware of the specifics I have mentioned tangentially in previous writing? That is an issue to be balanced, between boring some and confusing others, and hopefully there is enough direct expression that other references act merely as a bonus. The issue is paramount for the contemporary composer interested in multiple traditions, because few audience members will be aware of them all (or the same ones). For Beethoven, such a thing was never an issue, at least not on this scale.

Postmodern philosophy is essentially written, and so raises a problem for composition in the various styles which have arisen from it. The written word actually serves better to illuminate the fundamental ideas, whereas the music is of secondary significance, often serving as a mere example of the primary idea. This is a muted expression at best, and I think it safe to say that the best music has always been inexpressible in any other medium. This idea is particularly significant in the repertory on the cusp between Renaissance & Baroque, where even the composers of the time were concerned with illuminating the text as a primary means of expression. Of necessity, this places music as a secondary attribute, and is in opposition to the medieval idea of music as one of the primary sciences. It seems to me that if something can be expressed more naturally in another medium, it is better to express it there.

Music as expression

In many places, the idea is controversial. It is argued that music expresses nothing, and the trump card in such an exchange is always the question "Ok, what does this piece express?" Of course there are different answers, because if the ideas were primarily verbal they would (or rather should) be articulated that way. For summations of great literature, similar divergences occur, yet few argue that literature expresses nothing. Ultimately the scope of interpretation argues for the stature of the piece, yet the underlying triggers speak directly to the mind.

The denial of substance expresses itself in the current penchant for bland meaningless interpretations, which function as little more than soundscapes splashed across the backdrop of our daily existence. Fundamentally, there is too little attention to feeling by the musician, and consequently works which could be illuminated by that involvement fade into sludge. Of course, who can really blame them? After all, personal involvement takes time, and consequently costs money. Perhaps more significantly, an act of expression opens oneself to criticism which is not generally felt by the bland, a seemingly ubiquitous trait which I abhor about our society. This leads to the ultimate in cynicism, and is self-defeating in a particularly ugly way. The lessons of television are a "gee whiz" attitude toward gimmickry, and a profound malaise blunting any emotional intensity.

Going beyond that status quo and ultimately communicating is the primary task of the contemporary artist. This fact is made even more painfully clear by the sheer volume of entertainment which fills every nook & cranny of our existence. Art for diversion has become superfluous. While that was the standard practice above which some great artists raised themselves, today it is merely a competitive market requiring a truly eye-popping diversion. Humanity is distinguished from automaton primarily by its capacity to feel, and the illumination of emotion in all its depth is the highest endeavor of art for a society immersed in its own noise. For me, the most natural method of explanation is simply doing it, openly and directly.

The emotional kaleidoscope

The specific identification of emotional reaction as triggered by art (i.e. rasa) was laid out approximately two millennia ago in India, yet Bharata speaks concretely only about drama and the musical examples are disappointing. However, the idea has persisted in classical music today, although it does seem to be disappearing as an active element. Apparently the concept of specific emotional expression is compelling, if ineffable. I tend to believe that the musical stimulus moduli an underlying mental orientation gives a specific response in the perceptive listener, where it is the "modulation" which is not constant. Toward that end, one still sees in some Indian musicians the insistence that music has precise evocative power, and indeed one prominent performer is quite confident that he could transcribe the specific curative effects of different melodies into a scientific context, given the funding. I tend to believe there are too many individual variables for a rigid system of this sort, but the variables are then the spice of art.

After all of this talk on emotion, some of my friends have to wonder on my interpretive preferences, because I sometimes hear how they lack emotion (but not the reverse). I disagree strongly, and wish to express it clearly here. There is a tremendous difference between the direct expression of emotion and the misdirection of the buildup with "Ok, next I will express this," followed by a self-conscious expression of extreme duration. While such a thing might help us follow along, and may work well in a one-time concert, I end up feeling nothing at all. This is primarily because the performer feels nothing at all; whatever may have been felt is replaced by a memory of it, and the expression "look at me feeling" overwhelms any history of the sort. Self-consciousness is the key, and very difficult to avoid. Yet a performance free of this vice, can be vividly emotional, with an infinite degree of subtle variation and complexity of feeling.

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Todd M. McComb