Chapter V - The Void
"Does Mr. Byron think?"
"Think!.....Never. There isn't a more cheerful lad in existence."
George Bernard Shaw Byron Cashel's Profession
In this world high art is either diverting entertainment or it is nothing: anything that demands more from an audience or is more serious in its goals is open to the twin fatal charges of elitism and social irrelevance.
Samuel Lipman (written in 1980)
(Note: For those without religious belief, the first section of this chapter can be omitted without detriment to the argument of the book. Its inclusion is a connecting tissue from the last chapter to the larger issues of musical expression in present day culture discussed further below.)
Music is as close an analogy to the religious experience that humans have. The first parallel worth noting is that God is larger in His operations than any definition that we can give to describe Hirn. When we try to define in words who and what He is, the experience tends to disappear and we are left with words. So it is with music. When we try to say that it is notes, rhythm, form, or any other analytical thing, we know something, but we don't experience the music. It is only when we feel the music that the experience happens and, most importantly, what we experience is so much larger than what we hear. Further, if we as performers are preoccupied only with the music instead of the words (singers) or the speech of the instrument (instrumentalists), then what we as fallible mortals experience is the result of our fallible perception of the music and manipulation of it. But if we allow the music to speak through us by making not only the instrument but our very selves available to it, it will speak to us and to our audience by absorbing us with its fullness. It will reveal things we never knew were there.
The process is analogous to the idea that God is both at the same time transcendent and immanent in our lives. Music too can be transcendent as well as immanent in that it informs us by its own capacity to draw us to it by our own desires and appetite (transcendence) and engages our own personality in its expression (immanence).
In other words, we exercise humility before God so that He can operate fully in us and through us. Then our real and deep spiritual personality will shine forth. Likewise, if we are humble before a score of a great composer, the depth of musical experience that operates in us and through us brings our true artistic personality to its fullness in our performance. This result is not possible if we impose false stresses upon the notation.
Another very obvious parallel for religiously oriented people is the assertion that communicated power comes from weakness and not from strength -- true in both religious experience and in music. Having dealt with this earlier, we leave the reader to ponder it well and long. Every human is unique and will arrive at his or her unique expressivity in this matter.
Another parallel can be drawn between music and the related subject of religion. Religion is a source of many feelings in people seeking God, and among them is the fact that it makes them feel good. But certain individuals use religion only for the purpose of feeling good and ignore its other operations in their lives. That is true in music as well; many people use it for its “feel good” function and ignore the rest of its expressive power. This is not to say that religion and music are not supposed to make us feel good. However, that is but the base level of their operations for humans, for there is so much more to which they do move us.
Technique can be related to virtue in the spiritual life. Perhaps the best way to look at it is by comparing how the great mystics of all traditions regard the practice of virtue. For them (in the early stages of the mystical life) the practice of virtue is of such importance that it takes much of their attention. But after a certain and usually long while, something impels them to abandon the pursuit of virtue because it distracts them from the real object of their love. This is not to say that they are no longer virtuous. It is just that they find the virtues to be a necessary condition of their lives as they experience transcendence. They can rely upon their past virtuous experiences as they move to deeper and more real experiences with transcendence. Musicians must look at technique in the same way. They become artists when technical issues are reliable enough to have become part of the emotional fabric of their experiences and the emotional expression of the music becomes the end of desire.
It takes many years to develop a technique that will sustain anyone through the repertoire allotted by fate and circumstance (for instrumentalists the choice of instrument, for singers their Fach). But after a certain point, there must come the realization that technique can be relied upon and the music pursued, paradoxically not by playing or singing it, but by releasing the self to its movement in our selves while playing our instruments or singing.
One of the secondary reasons we keep listening to great music is that its greatness takes on different facets with different performers, because of the unique and individual nature of each person and his or her instrument. But that uniqueness loses communicative power when the performer does not face the score as the guide to the emotions. Goethe said that the older music is and the more we are accustomed to it, the greater its effects. What he perceived might explain why, as artists keep performing old material, the public seems to hear each new artist as the perfect interpreter simply because the music is reaching us more and more deeply, not necessarily because the actual performance was ideal. That statement is a double-edged sword because either an excellent performance or a not so wonderful one can let us hear the greatness of the music in an abstract way. But, abstraction is not absorption. An emotional approach to the music in the light of the composer's intentions will touch us to the core of our being more eloquently regardless of the technical expertise of the performer, though we all agree that we are more moved by emotions capable of musical expression rooted in a well-founded technique. Further, we must not sell short the capacity of student recitals to move more than proud parents if the student's efforts are rooted in emotional expression, regardless of the current state of their technique. Under no circumstances will a performance of technical perfection, but without line rooted in the notation, be an adequate substitute for deep musical experience.
We insist that the musical experience is a result of cumulative processes, and that at any given state of one's technical prowess a satisfying musical experience is available to those who follow the principles by which notation relates to technique.
The problem of new music is a much more complex issue. As time moves on, traditions lose the strength of their hold, and composers and performers have gradually lost the emotional purposes of the bar line. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, a conductor said something about the bar line's being the box that holds the matches. A conductor, not a composer, made that statement. In the twentieth century the search for new notations and the omission of the bar line by some composers contributed to the neglect of this expressive device.
Furthermore, a split occurred among composers that is a result of their differing capabilities which began almost from the very beginning of the common practice period and which culminated with Wagner in the nineteenth century. The split was described precisely by Debussy as coming from the discovery of harmonic "moments" to caress the ear to make life easier for those less comfortable in writing "pure" music. (Footnote: Samuel Lipman said that Wagner was the Woodstock of the nineteenth century.) While very great and enduring masterpieces from the pens of masters have contributed much to Western civilization in this vein, a lessening of musical theatrical power becomes evident when text becomes a lesser font of inspiration than the pit. This does not mean that the results are necessarily inferior; rather they are different in kind and quality as theater, and this difference has added to the gradual weakening of the dramatic power given to music by the bar line.
The trend continues with the gradual but palpable shift of great performers who treat music as entertainment for the masses as opposed to communicating great depth of feeling, especially when the great performers themselves use techniques that are based on brute force instead of finesse.
Additionally, the remarkable shift of entertainment music to vocal music in the last half of the twentieth century (as opposed to piano music written for the parlor) is an indication of the paucity of musical expression inherent in popular forms of entertainment. The shallowness of musical ideas that appeal to the masses contained in the entertainment pandered to them would glaringly expose itself in instrumental music. Lights, volume and percussion are not enough to sustain interest in such ideas. Besides, the debasing of greater music to the entertainment level in vocal performance cannot happen in instrumental performances, say, of Tchaikovsky's Overture to Romeo and Juliet, although that statement must be tempered by any rational consideration of contemporary performances of the 1812 Overture.