Musical expression

In 2010 I took part in the Darmstadt International Contemporary Music Festival for the third consecutive time. In the months leading to the festival I was asked to write an essay on musical expression. Five composers, all winners of the Kranichsteiner Music Prize, shared their opinions on this subject and our essays were published in that year’s festival handbook. I rediscovered this essay as I was going through my archives the other day and I would like to share it with you. The phenomenon of musical expression is extremely broad and complex, so I chose to focus on the link between expression and perception. I truly hope you enjoy reading it.
On Musical Expression

The act of musical creation is an act of expression regardless of whether the creator wants to express something or not. The composer is not always conscious of what it is he wants to express; he might not be even aware that he wants to express anything at all. Regardless of the composer’s intention or lack thereof, the listener might experience an emotional reaction while listening to his music, in which case one could reach the conclusion that music is capable of expressing something on its own.

If the composer embarks on a mission to deliberately express a specific idea or emotion through music only, he will most likely fail because music is flexible enough to allow for a great number of interpretations. This flexibility implies that a wide range of emotions can be attributed to a particular piece of music. Here, the use of lyrics provides an opportunity to cross the borderline of the purely musical.

Bach’s practice of assigning secular lyrics to melodies that were initially used for religious purposes shows that he himself did not believe that a specific melody conveyed an intrinsically religious feeling, but that this was rather achieved by association, an association that can be also achieved through the use of images. A very graphic example can be found in Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of the novel “A Clockwork Orange”, where Beethoven’s 9th symphony is forcefully associated with violence. The conflict is aggravated by the fact that for Alex (the main character) Beethoven’s music was “…bliss! Bliss and heaven!” so projecting violent images while playing Beethoven created within him a conflict that was tantamount to torture.

Exploring the possibilities of musical association at this level can be also a means of exploring the depths of the human psyche. The traditional approach to musical expression is that of “emotivism”, which explores the possibilities of musical expression mainly by observing its effects on the listener. “Cognitivism”, however, (developed by Professor Peter Kivy of Rutgers University) states that the properties of music are intrinsic to music itself and are not dispositions to arouse emotions in the listener. Although I feel more inclined to the latter, both are equally troubling to me. How can we determine that, which is intrinsic in itself, without human observation? This would be possible if we were to isolate the properties of music from musical experience, but I am afraid there is no way to achieve this. If we admit that human observation is indispensable for determining the properties of music, we face the inevitable risk of contaminating our assessment by the introduction of the human element with all its flaws, prejudices, expectations and associations. On the other hand, if we fully embrace emotivism, we are also faced with its all-encompassing relativism.

Music is an incredibly broad manifestation and it does not have a set of narrow codes like languages do. The act of creating, reproducing and listening to music cannot be compared to a process of communication as understood by linguists, where the main purpose is to transmit a single message as clearly as possible from a source to a receiver. In music, the source (composer), message (musical composition) and receiver (listener) can function independently, and although we are certain that something is being transmitted or expressed, there is no certainty that an agreement will be reached over what it is that is being expressed.

It cannot be denied that music does indeed transmit something, that it expresses something. Taking the opposite stance is counter-intuitive and is based more on rational constructs than on direct experience. It is music’s power of expression that has a great appeal on me. But the question of what it expresses, will very likely remain with more than one answer.

It’s only been two years since I wrote this essay, but it does reflect my way of thinking at the time. In it, I avoided to talk about my own works, choosing a more detached approach instead. But I must add that, in retrospect, certain works of mine bear a greater emotional load than others. I do not believe, however, that the subject of expression should be limited to the emotional: the intellectual and the spiritual should also play a part in this discussion. I prefer not to engage in the latter because it goes beyond the scope of this article, but, in my view, music offers a unique synthesis of these three fields and it operates at all levels: from the lowest to the highest, from the physical to the spiritual. Or, in any case, I perceive music as being capable of doing so.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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1 Response to Musical expression

  1. Selena says:

    Hi, I read your blog regularly. Your story-telling style is
    awesome, keep it up!

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