Wisdom in Music

Music often seems to connote an emotion or a state of being – we reach a consensus, for example, that one piece of music expresses carefree youth, while another expresses world-weary wisdom. But is music properly expressing anything? Here’s Stravinsky on the subject:

"For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc....Expression has never been an inherent property of music…It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.”

Alas, Stravinsky does not tell us what music’s “essential being” is, only that we have mistaken the property of expression with it. He seems to be repeating the gambit of thinkers from Plato onward – he tells us that what we observe is false, posits another realm that is more real, but gives us no concrete information about it. There is no information to give, after all – what is essential lies beyond our reach; we’re stuck in our empirical shallowness. Essentialist tropes are everywhere in discussions about music, smugly short circuiting further inquiry, maintaining: “We cannot put in words what is essential about music.”

It is probably more reasonable to say that we cannot put in words what is essential about anything. Essence is a cipher, a phantom, and a perilous one at that – by the time Stravinsky was writing those words, essentialist ideas were being stapled onto notions of race and nation with horrific results. These kinds of tropes about music always persist, though, because music acts like language in its ability to represent things, yet its mode of expression, if Stravinsky will pardon us, is free of language. So we see it as the ideal form of communication – one that supersedes language. The irony and ultimately the weakness of this viewpoint is that our ability to posit this idealized communication is dependent on the very language that we wish to transcend. Language is simply feasting on itself, on its own poverty – it has revealed nothing about music.

Was Stravinsky merely perpetuating a kind of sophistry? His statement confounded and bothered people who took it at face value for years, assuming that he meant that music is not expressive, period. Years later, he clarified what he meant – a little grumpily:

"The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself."

So Stravinsky wanted to do away with a subtle but pervasive notion: that of a pre-existing idea or emotion that a composer will then set to music. A composer does not “feel sad” and then write “sad” music; that is a childishly reductive view of how music is created. It is the listener, after all, who assigns meaning, ideas and emotions to music once he or she hears it. We commit a blunder when we imagine a transcendental idea that existed before music, like one of Plato’s ideal Forms.

When Stravinsky says that “music expresses itself”, he is speaking of the process by which it comes into being – for himself at least. It does not borrow from language to generate itself; the composer does not have to have a particular feeling as he composes. Music’s abstract quality – the way in which it does not it does not refer to something other than itself - gives it autonomy in this reasoning.

This is not true, cut and dry, of course. Someone could point to any number of works that seem to be driven by a specific idea, or music that we retrospectively know was inspired by specific feelings – happy, sad, what have you – that came about from an event in the composer or performer’s life. Many of Stravinsky’s works seem to be related to a concrete idea – an imagined primitive ceremony, famously, in The Rite of Spring. And I’m bracketing out music with words, which is a whole other matter.

Stravinsky’s statement was probably born out of frustration, as he repeatedly encountered reductive, mistaken characterizations of the composer’s creative process. To the extent that he is correcting that reduction, I agree with him. It is easy to demonstrate the validity of his view by considering perceived youth in one work and wisdom in another.

Consider two examples among many: Schubert’s perfect song, Gretchen am Spinnrade. This song changed the expressive possibility of song, upping the ante forever. He wrote it when he was 17. Or there is Jimi Hendrix’s album,Are You Experienced, recorded when he was 24. The guitar was never the same again; rock music was never the same again; music was never the same again.

How was Schubert able to think up music like that – music that telegraphed the emotions of desire, fear, passion and unrest so uncannily? Doesn’t it take wisdom to portray emotions like that – from where did young Schubert’s psychological insight into female desire come? From what deep, sad place did a song like Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” emerge; what informed the ecstasy of his “Third Stone From The Sun” – memories of high school?

It was not wisdom that comes with age, strictly speaking, in any of those cases. In day to day life, wisdom means: We have grown older, we have learned much through numerous experiences, some painful and some pleasurable, we have reflected on them, and we base our observations, judgments and actions on them. Music is different. A musician does not necessarily need a wealth of experiences to express something that others will find profound. He or she obviously needs some – you can’t live in a cave and pop out and start waxing profound – but not as many as one would expect. A musician can demand our attention – young and old alike – without having necessarily lived many years.

This suggests that musical wisdom has different rules than the wisdom that tells someone, for instance, not to argue a point, because he’s argued it so many times before and it’s an argument he can’t win; or the wisdom that helps an older guy win the affection of a beautiful younger woman for a night because he understands her – he knows what she wants to hear more than the twenty-something guy vying for her attention. The twenty-something guy, on the other hand, might be arguing shrilly about politics, full of youthful stridency, sounding self-important to everyone except himself; he might be saying all the wrong stuff to the girl at the bar while the silver fox steals her away. But: That night he might go home and write some music of profundity, music that has no stridency, music that bewitches us and soothes us.

Should we say then, that musical wisdom arrives somehow faster than normal wisdom? That hypothesis won’t do, though, because, in essentialist fashion, it brackets out the experience of composing and playing music from other experiences. There must be some way to account for the ability of musical expression to arrive before the depth of experience it seems to convey. The key word there is “seems” – it takes us back to Stravinsky, who would say, simply that music only seems to convey wisdom – there is not a shred of wisdom in it at all. Music is onlyrepresenting wisdom for a group of listeners; it is not properly exuding it. So let us not assign this agency to music at all; let us more accurately say that the group of listeners is attaching a quality to the music – it comes from them.

This works the other way around as well: Older musicians and composers create “youthful” music – music that sounds quirky, full of anxious energy, untamed- sounding, awkward, jagged, rhapsodic, or even foolish-sounding – at a station in their lives where they are not particularly anxious, foolish or awkward in their bearing at all. (Brahms’ Double Concerto is a beloved example for me.)

This should be good news for the listener. I propose that we never grow out of good music – the whole idea is nonsense. Anything that is strong stays with us our whole lives. We forget about music sometimes, but then we come back to it, and it yields fresh pleasure and insight, along with a beautiful, bittersweet cadence of our past merging with the present moment. Thank goodness it is this way; thank Goodness that great music isn’t “age sensitive” – what a sad world that would be!

Rock ’n’roll is often by definition a young man’s game – Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or The Rolling Stones released some of their most enduring music before they were 30. We don’t stop listening to their music past the age of 30, though. Any music that is strong will speak to us in different ways at different points in our lives, and will never truly grow irrelevant.

© Brad Mehldau, All Rights Reserved