Brad Mehldau and the essence of music

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Friday September 16, 2011


Blank expressions: Brad Mehldau and the essence of music
By: Brad Mehldau

Music often seems to suggest 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 in 1936, from his autobiography: “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 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 on to 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 idealised 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.

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