Last week’s post about boredom provoked more than a few responses, including a comment of my own that I’d like to expand upon this week:
I’ve always thought there’s a guerilla, Trojan horse element to composing in that if it’s not entertaining or compelling enough for most people, the goods (whatever they may be) aren’t going to make it past the front gate.
This comment of my own in turn provoked a response from composer/performer (performer/composer?) Matt Marks, who pointed out the connotation of trickery in my analogy and rightly decried the unfortunately common attitude that artists must wrap their wares in appealing wrappings in order to make the “medicine” go down—which gives me an excellent opportunity to discuss just who or what is being tricked in my Trojan horse analogy, and why.
In my analogy (hence, developing metaphor) concerning aesthetic appreciation, the “goods” are not some component of the aesthetic experience—not some meaning or intellectual payload—but rather the entire experience of appreciating a work of art, in all its completeness. The defenses that must be overcome—and the reason that the goods must be smuggled—are the well-girded ramparts of our rational minds, which seek to understand by dividing, disassembling, dissecting, and ultimately killing the fullness of the aesthetic experience. While it’s true that our capacity for rational understanding can yield immense insight in partnership with the intuitive mind, it must always begin from the fullness of experience for those insights to be grounded. For the same reason that a joke that must be explained to us is never funny, aesthetic appreciation likewise seems to require a predominantly intuitive connection and a similar suspension of rational analysis (even if such analysis is subsequently engaged).
What is the Trojan horse that draws us into the intuitive world of art, and makes for an understanding greater than rational apprehension alone can provide for? It’s the raw, sensual nature of the experience itself, which remains stubbornly indivisible, unique, and present.
So if we fail to fully engage the senses of our listeners, we can’t hope to do anything beyond that because art is not primarily to be explained, it is to be experienced. No one will be able to appreciate the subtle interplay of my music’s counterpoint (and the deeper resonances that this recognition makes manifest) if my counterpoint is muddy and poorly realized; and no one will be able to connect with any of the threads in your film—emotional, intellectual, or what have you—if the shots are drab, poorly lit, and unappealing.
That’s far from suggesting that artists “smuggle in” the meaning of their work inside a sugar-coated shell of appealing surface textures and mindless bubblegum; what I’m suggesting is that artists smuggle in the entire experience of their works—meaning included—by appealing to the senses and preconscious modes of understanding that are not rational. This is a rejection of the pernicious “take your medicine” attitude which Matt took care to point out, but so too is it a rejection of an equally harmful attitude: one which imagines that art and most unlikely of all, music, might be apprehended on any deep level without engaging the senses in a powerful way.
This is why I’m always at a loss when asked to explain my music in words. Although I am more than happy to use words to set up a listening experience, or to provoke other insights, I can’t explain it, precisely because the meaning of the music is not expressible in words, and is not separable from the experience of listening. In order to get my meaning across I can’t rely on rational argument any more than I could hope to elicit guffaws by carefully explaining a joke; I have to rely on the sensations that my music creates, which can sneak around the rational mind without being caught. By providing for compelling sensations and making sure that my structural designs clearly project themselves on the audible level, I have a better chance of causing someone to feel a genuine connection with the music, which is the beginning of a deeper relationship in which rational inquiry becomes engaged as well.