Finding Meaning Where There Is None
I’ve always maintained the stance that music doesn’t mean anything. I still stand by the notion, with the caveat that, well, there is some sort of idea transmitted through music, just nothing specific—meaning is in the ear of the beholder. As Ned Rorem once told NewMusicBox, “Music doesn’t mean things like ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Jonathan’ or ‘pineapple.’ ” I think this is something we can all agree upon. In fact, this is what makes music so interesting in the first place. Music’s ambiguity is intriguing, artistically speaking.
When I write music, the last thing on my mind is communication simply because even if something winds up transmitting—be it mathematical logic, visceral toe tapping, or whatever—I can’t think of an instance where a composer wanted to communicate X and achieved such exact results. I’ve secretly laden my music with sappy emotional sentiments, none of which, I think, immediately surface in the sonic din of intervals and rhythm. In a way, music is a handicapped language—it has texture and rhyme, maybe even syntax, but no concrete meaning. So whatever sappy sentiment I choose to load in won’t necessarily come out on the other end.
What if a modern-day Schoenberg came up with a so-called method to meaning in music? Total bummer, right? Who among us would want to keep committing notes to manuscript if our veiled murmurings actually “made sense” via analysis. How mundane music would become if filled with symphonic Dear John letters and happy holiday wishes. Fiction writers would takeover our musical canon, creating counterpoint exercises worthy of scrutiny.
Nah. No way this could happen. We composers are going to keep creating our utter nonsense for a few more centuries. And when one of us manages to interlace some sort of universal sentiment, sprung from our personal musical life, onto the written page, we’ll have to chalk it up to luck—finding that elusive combination of pitches that sparks the imagination of the masses. Keep on writing.