Friday, February 1, 2008

The Original Experience

Lately I have been conversing with several people, and reading a lot about, music and what, if anything, it is suppose to express. And if it doesn't have any inherent expression, as Stravinsky would say, what is the purpose of writing music. Stravinsky was notorious about saying that music expresses nothing. I think that has been slightly skewed over the years from what he originally meant. I was recently reading his autobiography, which I rather enjoyed and recommend, and he explained it in a very different way. It wasn't that music doesn't have expression; it was more about music does not, or cannot, represent. You can't make music represent a waterfall on Tuesday in May, and he believed looking for such things is useless.

So I was thinking about his idea a lot and started to connect it to the idea of "The Original Experience". What I mean by this is the experience someone has with music. I call this original because it is a completely unique experience from person to person, and even from hearing to hearing. This is a pretty common idea, we all react to pieces of music differently, and we all understand that. I like to think about this in connection with the questions "What does that piece mean?" or "what were you saying with that music?". I find these questions incredibly difficult to deal with... not in an angry way (usually), but they are very difficult to questions, in fact I would say they are impossible to answer, at least fully anyhow.

You might ask "but program music has those expressions and so on". Do they really? Or do they simply say they represent something that is really quite unrepresentable to auditory sound. And do they represent those things, do people hear those things, because they really represent them, or because they are told they represent them. I could write a piece about nuclear winter and tell people it is about springtime and a good percentage of them will hear springtime. So why is the question "What does this piece mean?" impossible to answer? Because its full meaning is impossible to express, if it were, I would have written it or said it, and not written music for it. Of course we can all try and explain what a piece means, but it will never be entirely correct, and we shouldn't try, it is fruitless, lay your energies elsewhere.

This brings me back to this "original experience". It is simple really; each piece of music that exists (and those that don't yet) offers an original experience to each person, composer, performer and listener. Even on recordings, but especially on live performances. The experience I have, the meaning I get out of and the part of me I put into writing a piece is obviously going to be unique to myself, and quite different from the meaning the piece has for someone else. The part of themselves that a performer and listener give of themselves to experience/perform a piece is going to dictate their original experience and they cannot understand the pieces meaning as I see it, no more then I can understand their experience and meaning of a piece. Now this does not in any way mean that we should talk about pieces, but to try and explain them (outside of the technical aspects) is almost useless.

Going back to the example of Stravinsky, he very much disliked interpretation of his work. He would often berate people (usually privately) for putting in their own interpretations and their own "he meant this, and he is saying that" in the music. He claimed that the music said something very specific and it is on the page, nowhere else, and nothing else should enter into the performance (this is why he liked to conduct his own music so much, especially in recordings. He felt that this meant that it would be done right, and with recordings that other composers would have a model to go after, leaving his dubious skill as a conductor aside). A lot of me will agree with this (excepting when that interpretation, or freedom has been built into the piece, but this was not Stravinsky's style, obviously). I believe that when people try to say "that composer meant this" or "which emperor was Beethoven talking about in his 5th piano concerto?" that it ultimately doesn't matter. Who cares? Does that take from, or add to the piece in anyway? I would say no. Other then useless trivia knowledge. I feel that when a composer is prompted to speak or write about their music, their expression should be of what they believe about music and composition and subjects of this nature, not "this piece is about waterfalls and roses". These ideas bring nothing to the original experience, and in fact take that opportunity away from the listener or performer. This does, however, give the opportunity of some understanding of you as an artist. I don't believe ideas about pieces are what matters (other than to the composer). There was something about that subject that couldn't be expressed in words, so it was said through music and should be treated as such. Thus giving every opportunity to give everyone that original experience, including the composer.


Stefan Kac said...

Your point about programmatic interpretations robbing listeners of their own "original experience" is spot on. This is precisely what is so wrong with all of the pre-concert lectures and program notes that attempt to teach people how to listen and what to listen for in a new piece (though they just as often take a more abstract, technical approach, i.e. by having various instruments play their statement of the theme before performing the entire piece).

As you say, every listener is different and deserves the opportunity to experience the music from within their own consciousness and on their own terms. It seems to me that having someone else's experience imposed on you is the surest way to come away from the experience unhappy.

James Sproul said...

Thanks for the comment. I completely agree of course. I especially dislike when they have the instruments play their part of the theme etc... that is just a waste of time in my mind.

It is also especially cumbersome when it is the composer imposing their experience on the listener because they are imposing the experience of writing it, not listening to it, so it is a very different thing entirely in my mind.

In school I was always forced to write some kind of program note at concerts etc... and I always felt a little dirty doing it. The technical program notes are the worst.

Thanks for your thoughts.