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Stravinsky, Expression, and Musical Codes

2009 April 23
by Tedb0t

Igor Stravinsky has been labeled a “revolutionary” more or less since the first staging of Rite of Spring, whether as praise or condemnation.  Much of the material of Stravinsky’s 6-lesson lectures, Poetics of Music, I found to be uninteresting at times and nonsense at others—but it was worth every minute for the following quotes, which I think reveal his more truly revolutionary ideas.  Read on!

Igor on imagination vs. invention:

“We have a duty towards music, namely, to invent it.”
—Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p. 53

“Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it.  For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.  What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from its actual being worked out.
—Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, p. 53

Stravinsky’s opinion closely mirrors my own regarding the prototyping abilities of the imagination: it is the fastest method we have, but also the most prone to misjudgment, and the least able to develop an idea.

But it is these quotes, which inspired quite a bit of controversy in Visual Music a few weeks ago, that I am truly interested in and inspired by:

“From the moment song assumes as its calling the expression of the meaning of discourse, it leaves the realm of music and has nothing more in common with it.”
—Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, pp. 42-43

“Do we not, in truth, ask the impossible of music when we expect it to express feelings, to translate dramatic situations, even to imitate nature?”
—Ibid., p. 77

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”
—Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography, 1935, Calder and Boyars ed., 1975, p.53

It’s rare that I see this sentiment voiced (if you are aware of examples please let me know).  Expression is a form of communication, and communication requires a semiotic code for sent signs to be reliably interpreted by a receiving party.  Codes are arrived at by convention, or sometimes, consensus.  Music has never had, as far as I know, conventional semiotic codes of the linguistic kind, but nonetheless evokes many things to many people.  In this situation, communication has been fallaciously conflated with evocation. The former attempts to transmit the intent of the sender, while the latter is only the result of the receiver’s observation.  The reaction of the receiver to a perceived musical input pattern may be psychological and/or physiological.  A physiological reaction, such as dissonance, can be thought of itself as a sign which then leads to normal psychological reactions; the association of one pattern with another, in the vast chain-reaction that is the living mind/brain.

For some more quotes along similar lines, check out Stravinsky on expression in music and Stravinsky on the purpose of music on Theory of Music.  I also stumbled upon this very fascinating BBC Puzzles piece on musical scores as ciphertexts.

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3 Responses
  1. April 23, 2009

    “…communication has been fallaciously conflated with evocation.”

    EXACTLY.

    The power of music lies in the *unmediated* experience of receiving it. Linguistic codes necessarily inject a mediating force between the observer and the observed. The elements of a musical composition resonate with subtleties of the mind and body that language or symbols would be far too clumsy to encapsulate.

    The delicate interplay of how the brain/mind responds to sound is truly fascinating. The subject can be dissected into the minutia and biological ramifications of frequency, amplitude, pattern, harmony/dissonance…etc. Yet listening still remains an entirely personal, subjective and sometimes transformational experience. The value of any musical piece may be entirely different for the composer and the listener…isn’t that magical?

    I’ve been reading psychoacoustic studies to make sense of vastly differing preferences in sound (apart from culture and socialization). For example, I’m often physically calmed or invigorated by music that others find dark or unpleasant. Whereas some standard “feel good” songs make me uneasy. As it turns out, we actually have musical body types. The points of intersection between our outer and inner worlds leave a unique stamp on each of us in terms of how we react to sound.

    I can’t wait to use these principles in behavioral medicine and witness what people respond to…fascinating stuff.

  2. April 29, 2009

    Nice quotes.

    Confusing “communication” with “evocation” is behind a lot of emotional manipulation in mass communication. If you follow the forms of communication (eg. giving a speech) but are actually evoking (through rhythms, repetition, setting), people may become convinced that you are telling them (communicating) deep truths, when all you are doing is just bringing up (evoking) already held beliefs.

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