Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Dialectic of Expression and Construction

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).


Jonathan said...

For someone who finds the dichotomy to be false, you are pretty quick to deploy it against the straw man of "technique for its own sake" in Bok's book.

I find Bok's language quite expressive and I'm sure I'm not the only one. There's kind of an increased intensity in the limitation of one vowel in each section, giving an eerily different feel to the different parts of the poem. To say that Mathews or Perec have done similar things... well yes, but then again nobody stops writing realist novels just because Balzac already did it. That's a double standard. I really don't think Bok's book is that similar to anything Mathews has done. Maybe in its starting point, yes, but not in its "expressiveness." You might as well say Berg and Webern didn't need to write 12 tone music because Schönberg already did it.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for your comment. I probably could have made myself more clear in this post. (My excuse: I've been sick again.) I do think that construction and expression are actual ways of proceedinmg in art, and that some artists incline more to one than to the other. It's setting the two terms in opposition, as if one has to or should exclude the other, that I find false. The best art amalgamates the two, making meaning out of method and method out of meaning.

As for Christian Bok's book, perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned it, but I wanted to ground my discussion a bit, so that it wasn't purely abstract.

I definitely don't believe that just because something has already been done it can't or shouldn't be done again. After all, breathing's been done before, and I have no plans to give it up. :-) But if you're going to justify your work on the basis of innovation and technical progress, which I don't think that anyone has to do, then you should actually be innovative. Otherwise you pull the ground out from under yourself. I was actually responding to Bok's book in the terms that he sets out.

Take good care, and thanks again for reading and writing.

peace and poetry,


Daniel Pritchard said...

I think what you are observing is the difference between a great poet and a good one. Great poets can perfectly sculpt a work in construction and expression; good poets lack the skill.

scotland said...

Good greetings Reginald,

You must have been fishing for me with this latest post. As a matter of practice, innovative composers are fond of breaking their own rules,which can be accomplished in at least two ways. One is arbitrary,which simply amounts to making an expressive decision on ones personal terms and based on any criteria. The other takes an organized approach implying a default method to consistantly break the rules of higher order structures. What this demonstrates are diverging views towards applying linear order.
As with any musical result there is an inherent (something) value on the sketch table which will always be of technical value. In practice,composers may never show these workshop relics,but they may have already decided where, when and how (something)it can be used to effect. They may have cataloged multiple ways of remodeling the whole or any portion of a particular musical sample.

One might begin to think that composers have it easier than writer/poets and that shaking things up is a piece of cake. That might be true unless one realized that shaking things (acceptability) up gets old after awhile,and if looked at from a distance suggest a fairly limited vocabulary.

Wishing you well,

Love, SPH

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