Expressing the Unself

April 7, 2008

By Kyle Gann

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, 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.


Art provides an occasion for an experience. Expression, emotion, ideas, politics — they’re all part of it. But only part. Like you said. Self-expression is both very hard — ask any psychoanalyst — and often trivial. “I hope this comment makes a good impression on readers! I hope Kyle likes it! I hope everybody thinks I’m smart & charming! I have to go the bathroom! No, I can wait a while longer! I really should get back to what I should be doing!” And on and on it goes. Nice post — thanks. Lots to dig in there. As you imply, the world and the self are a continuum, not an opposition, and art reflects that as well as everything else.

At least there may be a glimpse of hope, since I have never heard composers being given the advice some people hand out to writers: that they should not read too much lest they spoil their natural style. (I can hardly even write that down! Natural style!)
KG replies: I was about to say I’d never heard of such a thing, but actually, I do know one composer who tells students not to listen to or analyze much music until they’ve developed their own style. Seems insane to me.

Robert Davidson
Re. defining music – I can’t see that it’s possible, any more than one can define language or morals, as music is not a thing – it’s an umbrella collection of many things, and the boundaries of the set (of simpler, definable things) changes according to cultural or even individual preference.
Re. expression – again, it all depends.

robert berger
It never ceases to amuse me how certain 20th century composers dogmatically state what
music should or should not be,and use this as
an excuse to knock composers they happen
to dislike.Harry Partch dismissed the whole
tradition of Western classical music
because it wasn’nt microtonal.
John Cage declared that”Beethoven was wrong”.
But this is like criticizing Goya for
not painting like Picasso.

kaz maslanka
This is a very nice essay and inspires me to express that I see the confusion being that the un-self and the self are really the same thing. It all depends on how you look at it. The self listens to the muses and expresses the un-self(muses). An un-self requires a self to bring the mysteries into existence.
In reference to Jim Tenney’s player-piano piece in so much as getting “outside” of art by getting “in” to mathematics or a mathematical expression – I wish to point out that the beauty in his piece is not so much a musical beauty but a mathematical beauty; I tend not to wrestle music into one ‘box’ furthermore; I tend to do the same with art, mathematics, science or poetry. I tend to break things up into aesthetics and judge a work by its component aesthetics. That is I judge the mathematical aspect about a work by using a criteria set for mathematics as opposed to art. I also judge the same work artistically by a different set of criteria established for art. What you may find is that a work that functions weak as art however, is beautiful mathematically or vice versa. I always look at works from a polyaesthetic point of view by breaking it into its component ideas and aesthetics. Microtonal music is a perfect example of polyaesthetics for you have the aesthetics of sound as well as the aesthetics of tuning (math). The bottom line is that everything does not have to be thrown into the art ‘box’ or the music ‘box’ especially if the lid won’t stay on.
Kaz Maslanka

Nice essay, Kyle.
One interesting, and possibly intentionally ironic, aspect of Cage’s music is his use of the I Ching. Rather than being a form of objective chance, as westerners usually misinterpret it, taoists would see the I Ching as a form of determinism — a pre-determined response by the universe to a specific question asked by a specific person at a specific moment. If you believe there are underlying, sychronistic forces linking all events together, there are no such things as chance events. Thus, while appearing to most westerners to de-personalize his music by using the I Ching, Cage was in fact infusing his music with his personality through this process.
KG replies: Yes, Earle Brown and Elodie Lauten have expressed similar doubts about Cage’s use of the I Ching. I do gather that he felt he was relying on inherent synchronicity to put down the note that was appropriate to each moment. But when he started carrying around sheets of I Ching numbers generated by computer, the *appearance* of the process, at least, seemed a little diluted.

“…Composers and critics…fought the new [modernist] style by declaring it dry and lacking in feeling. The modernists quickly struck back, not only admitting but boasting of that lack. However, in continuation of this tendency…any emotional undercurrent which enlivened a musical composition was finally declared taboo. Indeed, the development went so far that what amounted to a dogma was introduced, claiming that if a musical work were to have any personal appeal and create a direct impression on the listener, one could justly suspect it of being of lower artistic quality. (..)
“…Pure structuralism and `objectivity’ may mean the dehumanization of art. Musical shapes remain lifeless matter, unless by transcending their own nature they become part of Man’s metaphysical heart-beat.
“Of course, the truly problematic, almost grotesque character of the whole argument broke into the open when anti-romanticism became not only a refuge for lack of imagination and emptiness of expression but, astoundingly, during recent times even reversed its own meaning. For the tendency to avoid emotion became amazingly emotional, the factual attitude became personalized. Subjective, indeed romantic, expression crept into the neatly prepared structures and rows. Then, in the electronic musical experiments, outburts of super-romantic, often sentimental sound filled the air.” [Reti, Rudolph, Tonality — Atonality — Pantonality: A study Of Some Trends In Twentieth Century Music, Greenwood Press : Westport Connecticut, 1958, pp. 124-125]

Copyright 2008 by Kyle Gann

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