A dichotomy is commonly made between aesthetic expression and aesthetic construction, in which the two terms are set in opposition as ways of proceeding in art. One is either exploring the possibilities of one’s medium or one is expressing one’s emotional and psychological state. One is either following formal necessities or emotional necessities. I find this dichotomy to be false. As I am noticing more and more, musicians seem to be far ahead of writers in breaking down such false oppositions.
The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera contains an excellent chapter by musicologist Alan Street on Schoenberg and Berg, who along with Webern comprised what has been called the Second Viennese School in music (the first being that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—a loosely defined “school” indeed), that talks very intelligently about the dialectic of construction and expression, pointing out that in the best twentieth century operas (from Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Berg’s Wozzeck onward) the two have worked together, expression through construction, construction through expression: “Schoenberg was at pains to emphasize the impossibility of distinguishing between artistic acts of spontaneous expression and deliberate construction” (89). Street quotes fellow musicologist Douglas Jarman’s description of “the seemingly paradoxical fusion of technical calculation and emotional spontaneity that gives Berg’s music its particular fascination” (94-95).
Much contemporary American poetry is stuck setting the two against one another, and tends (probably in reaction to the still-prevalent aesthetic of personal authenticity) to privilege construction over expression. Again, I feel that in other areas of artistic endeavor this dichotomy has been put to rest, at least among practitioners. (Though self-appointed music critics are still fond of dismissing or denigrating Webern’s—nonexistent—“snarling dissonance” on the basis of an utter ignorance of his crystalline work.). For that matter, I think of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley’s complementary statements on the relationship of form and content—each is only an extension of the other.
For example, Christian Bök is clearly a very intelligent and talented writer, but when I read his book Eunoia, I see all construction and no expression: it’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t go any further than that. If Bök were to attempt to do something more with the technique of using only one vowel per section, that would be more interesting and engaging. But as it is, the book is not only a one-trick pony, but its trick has been done before, by Georges Perec and Harry Mathews and the Oulipo school in general. I’m reminded of another quote from Alan Street's chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera, again about Schoenberg and his circle: “for a group of composers compelled, like so many of their creative contemporaries, to withdraw from the commitment to a consensual form of expression, linguistic reinvention of the medium was never allowed to become the abstract end in itself that subsequent theoretical codification might suppose” (86). They never fell into the trap of valorizing technique for its own sake.
In the words of Pierre Boulez, a doyen of the musical avant-garde, “You are not modern—you are merely expressing yourself according to the coordinates of your time, and that’s not being modern, that’s being what you are” (quoted in Arnold Whittall, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, 9).