Thursday, January 15, 2009

Self-Expression in Music

I've been thinking about music's reputation as an immensely self-expressive and emotionally conveying art form. But raw emotion is far from the only source of musical creation. In live performance, the artist's role is not at all to simply express their self, but to fulfill the expectations of the audience members, to perform as appropriately as possible given the setting. In a performance setting, there is a feedback loop between the audience members, who respond positively when the artist approaches their expectations, and the artist who feels encouraged and compelled to continue in that direction. So there is an illusion of self-expression on the part of the performer, but in reality what is happening is group expression. The group of individuals that is the audience and performer(s) are all working together to find the most agreeable medium of entertainment. One is simply not allowed to perform a spoken word piece at a heavy metal concert, or a freestyle at a square dance.
This group-expression and fulfillment of expectations proliferates beyond the obvious give-and-take relationship of a live audience. For instance, it is easy to see that a group of musicians are collectively expressing something shared, but completely separate from each individual. Each member of the band, ensemble, whatever, is making the most appropriate addition they can, within their ability, to a sound entity that exists outside of them. But what about solo artists? Composers? Solitary electronic artists?
I would argue that music is another specialized branch of knowledge, exactly like science or mathematics, and that any musician is an expert (or amateur) in the field, and like any branch of knowledge, they draw from observations and practices of other experts in the field, and make contributions to the field in the form of subtle variations or small advances. And just as science speciates into biology, geology, astronomy, etc. as the body of knowledge grows and the questions become increasingly specific, music speciates into different scales, instruments, genres, technologies, etc. In this sense, when a guitar player creates a new sound by combining two disparate scales, he or she is no more expressing their self than an engineer who discovers a novel way to make a solar panel more efficient.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not succumbing to pure, cold determinism here, and ignoring the profound emotions that emerge in creative processes. I'm saying two things, to review:
1. The complexity and beauty of music, like all stochastic and evolutionary systems, arises from multiple, interacting influences, not the least of which is cultural pressure. I think most people underestimate the contributing roles of these other influencing systems and overestimate the role of individual ingenuity.
2. The arts aren't the only specializations that develop through profound creativity. Every specialization develops this way in equal degree.

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