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“On inexpressivity (and eclecticism)”: Suspended expressions – an ambiguous approach toward an old idea
I approach composition from a double point of view: the creation of musical objects, and the creation of the conditions under which they are to be heard. The composer does not only create forms, but also (with a psychological mastery of expectation) integrates these forms within a general phenomenological structure of expectation and memory, by means of a system of signals which could be evaluated with the tools of linguistic communication.

It is in this way that one can speak of expressivity in music – rather than in searching for an answer to the fundamental question: “is music expressive? Does it have something to say?”, or else: “what would an expressive music have to say?”.
First, let me just say a word regarding this eternal question, and it will be coming from a composer, not from a composer-philosopher, composer-linguist, composer-scientist, composer-artisan and so on (I am none of these). Very briefly:
  • Music is inexpressive (in the Stravinskian sense, to be clear), which is to say, incapable of saying, and of formulating any signification in an intelligible and rational way;
  • Any piece of music (rather than music) is expressive, or, to say it another way, no inexpressive pieces of music exist;
  • Any piece of music must be expressive, or is obliged to be so, in spite of its creator’s intentions.
While its origin may be of an emotional nature, expressivity is situated on the highly ambiguous connection between expression and the meaning being expressed, or, better said, the desire to express and the meaning which is in effect expressed. One might therefore say that pure music does not exist, since all music, be it vocal or instrumental, is marked by a desire for expression. Whether inexpressive or not, any piece of music establishes relationships to meaning, which will be examined by the stimulation of a desire for intelligibility which goes along with desire for expression: a sort of perpetual quest for meaning, which arises in all acts of artistic communication.
One could continue as follows:
  • The quality, or the degree, of expressivity of the music of a given composer or of a piece of music are not due to a sort of emotional charge which the author seeks to instill in his work, or which is intrinsic to an object, to a piece – an emotional charge which the composer will then attempt to bring out in each listener;
  • Expressivity should not be linked only to the emotions (and in the first place, it would be necessary to delimit the emotions which arise in a creative process) which are transmitted by an artistic work or which transmit an artistic work. However, if expressivity and emotions go together, everything is expressive, since everything is emotional (is subject to the emotions), “coldness’ being nothing other than a possible variant of the forms and formalization of the emotions;
  • One could therefore say that a work is expressive neither because of its content, nor because of the “temperature” of this content;
  • Even if it were possible to imagine the creation of a totally inexpressive work, there would be no getting around the “expressive expectations” of the listener, a willingness to perceive things emotionally which comes into play often, and in spite of the intentions of the work’s creator (how many listeners listen in an exclusively formalist way to the music of Brahms— in the manner of Hanslick—, and how many are capable of listening in a structuralist way to Boulez’ Structures?). The opposite is also possible; an inexpressive view (not activated by the emotions) of expressive music.
In order to continue along on this unreliable, deceptive and dangerous path, and provide a sort of definition and explanation of my way of approaching the subject of expressivity in music, I still need to clarify the following:
  • The true domain of this notion of “expressivity” as I approach it—not without ambiguity—in this talk, is that of the æsthetic, rather than the cognitive sciences which make it the subject of research;
  • One cannot reduce the discourse on expressivity applied to the artistic to a discourse on emotions, and imagine an “expressive music” to be, quite simply, “a carrier of emotions”. Rather, it is necessary to analyze on what level, and in what way, emotion is related to the expression of a meaning, even when a signification is not formally possible – as is the case with music – and is at the basis of the “desire to say” shared by all composers, and which may symptomatically be proclaimed by the title of a piece, the more or less known proposition of an artistic project before it is realized;
  • The emphasis is not on the expressive quality of an object or of an artistic work – which remains unimaginable and impenetrable as concerns its relationship to the intrinsic or extrinsic expressive value of an object being considered from an artistic point of view – but rather on its expressive force, a concept which is just as ambiguous and impossible to quantify in the domain of art;
  • the relationship between expressiveness controlled by the composer (intended / mastered / generated / undertaken / controlled / rejected – many senses are possible here), transmitted by a piece of music, inevitably transformed by the performers who must bring the work to life, recognized by the listener or projected by the listener’s personal subjectivity, is complex and presupposes a more dynamic and complementary vision of the roles of creator and receiver, based on a sort of complicity implicitly created by each work between the protagonists of its creation.
“Of inexpressiveness (and eclecticism)”: Suspended expressions – an ambiguous approach toward an old idea. The title of my talk, intentionally overcomplicated, is an attempt at showing my way of summing up this complex and ambiguous relationship between expression and sensibility in the context of composition and the way a musical work is received. Here are some questions to start with.

In composition, is one expressive because one has something to say, or because this something is the carrier of a complex of sentiments connected to the emotions? Is one expressive, or does one intend to be expressive? Furthermore, is expressiveness the result of this process which leads one to speak, and which is subjected to the resistance provided by sound material or of our spirit? Is composing a matter of transmitting/arousing an emotion, or allowing the comprehension (an alternative comprehension) of this something that one would have to say? Say or emote? Seduce, then (the emotion being intentionally manipulated by the composer, who is thereby able to have a specific effect on his listeners)? Or else, fascinate (emotion, being less than perfectly mastered by the composer, directs his work, but it cannot be used to create specific states during the reception of a piece by a listener)? Making comprehensible the emotion driving that which one has to say and which is contained in what one has to say, or making it comprehensible by means of emotional signals? Is a piece of music expressive because it demonstrates emotion, or because it makes use of emotion to express something other than an emotion, or any other thing it might have to say? Is expressiveness the primary goal of a musical work?
It would be possible to go on forever in this vein. There’s no way to answer each of these questions; and each of the problems underlying these questions are implicated, to an extent which is impossible to determine, in any process of artistic communication.

It’s clear that we are here confronting two movements headed in opposite directions. Expressing (ex-primere: to bring something out through pressing), implies a movement from the interior to the exterior in order to say something; moreover, this movement is necessary to give life to something, whether it be a carrier of emotions or not, whether or not it seeks to express an emotional dimension. Yet, this movement must coexist with a movement of impression, which takes the opposite direction, making an interior impression of that which one would like to exteriorize. This double process is also confronted with the process initiated by the listener, who must interiorize what the work, through the medium of the performer, exteriorizes, impressing on him its quota of emotion without which no apperception by the listener would be possible.
Expressiveness is expressed (if you’ll pardon the repetition) in this double movement, it arises in this margin between creator and receiver: the composer is neither a simple carrier of emotions (either his own, or what one would take to be the emotions of others), nor a receiver of emotions of others (his listeners or performers).
This is why I prefer to talk about inexpressiveness, and why, in my compositional work, I aim for inexpressiveness (expression having been thwarted) as opposed to direct expression. Holding back in order to express more, or to express better. Be more expressive because of aiming for inexpressiveness. This, of course, brings to the fore an essentially poetic preoccupation, tied to my personal and artistic tastes, to my temperament, to my inclinations in life…
The statement, “discretion as a form of expression has always fascinated me, as much in music as in life”, provides an excellent synthesis of the questions that have thus far been heard, and is at the core of my way of composing music, but doesn’t go very far toward explaining the problems this raises, even for me. And yet, this statement directs my aesthetic choices.

I prefer, then, to say something through holding back an emotion, rather than deploying it in all its full power. I place more importance on the types of expression which result from a process of extreme control over the emotions, almost in an attempt to prevent them from manifesting at all.
I would also like to stress the word fascination, which I mentioned earlier, coming back to the definition of a composer which I gave at the outset of my talk. The composer, for me, is indeed the creator of his objects and of the conditions under which they are heard, but in an honest way: he himself is fascinated by the effects which the mechanisms of his piece can produce on his listeners. He is master of his means, but not of the results which these can produce in his listeners. He may be happy enough simply to put these mechanisms in motion, refining them and putting them as much as possible in accordance with his expressive aims, transforming them into provisional tools for producing a result, thereby playing the role of seducer of his audience, rather than that of accomplice or partner to his listener, an indispensable role in the circuit of artistic communication. Fascination therefore has got something to do with the unpredictable, the heterogeneous, the impossibility of controlling everything and placing himself at the center and the generator of artistic communication. To express, then, from the interior to the exterior his unique volition, sure of the effects it will have, and to imprint (or, better put, to impress) his listeners.

Being neither simply the carrier of his emotions, nor only the receiver of the emotions of others, but rather creating an indivisible, complex and even contradictory unity between the two, the composer is a catalyst for expression. The listeners (along with the performers) participate in the role of the creator—not in the artistic object itself—but rather in the creation of its expressive force. This is where all the ambiguity of the question of ‘expressiveness’ comes out, the expressive force of inexpressiveness coming into being in this margin between composer and listener, composer and work, in this process of interiorization and exteriorization, in the distinction, so impossible to make, between emotions which are the driving force behind a work, or which are put into motion by the work, in this process of retention, of dissimulation, of filtering (of emotions, but also of formal elements) which would incontestably be the true source of expressiveness.
Composing will then be a matter of engendering inexpressivity, which, paradoxically, will reveal the full expressive force of an object.
The attentive listener may have noticed in my remarks a number of allusions to Vladimir Jankélévitch, a philosopher preoccupied with discretion, with charm and with the ineffable. In his book “Music and the Ineffable”, Jankélévitch devotes a chapter to the subject of inexpressiveness (an “inexpressive espressivo”) and speaks of the duality of organ / obstacle, one of the essential points in his thinking. I would like to present two quotes from the philosopher on this subject.

“Language, like the eye, represents an obstacle overturned rather than a means employed; men speak not so much to make themselves understood as to reveal themselves, and the catch lies in the fact that they must be misunderstood in order to be better understood! Language is therefore an obstacle which functions as an organ; it first intercepts, then allows things to pass through, as meaning can only be put across when it is intercepted and narrowed down. It is in this contradiction that the whole tragedy of expression lies: in order for thought to exist, it must limit itself, or, as we have already stated here: one cannot be at once everything and something”. (Irony, p. 45)
“Before the physical phenomenon, there would therefore be metaphysical music—whether this be metamusic or ultramusic, music which is perfectly silent and indifferent to all given types of expression. Ultimately, the music expressed would be, for this music-in-itself, more of a hindrance and an impoverishment than a true means of expression. Omnis determinatio est negatio:  the flute which would channel, in order to transform it into sound, the “serene and divine artificial breath”, limits the extent of infinite music; the same applies to the auditory canal, receiving the sound wave emitted by the instrument, narrows down inaudible music in order to perceive it. Under these conditions one might well ask if our ears, far from being the organ of hearing, would not in fact be the cause of our deafness: does the sense of hearing put us in communication with the world of sound, or does it rather bar us from the music of the angels? Does it allow us to hear sensitive music, or does it prevent us from receiving intelligible music? The organ having become a screen, the conduit having become a mode of interception, the positive becoming negative—these paradoxes point to a truly expressionist perversion of the connections between the senses and the sign.” (Music and the ineffable, pp. 37 – 38)

Composing with the aim of inexpressiveness would therefore mean giving credence to the notion of an obstacle with regards to the notion of an organ: The formal construction of a work (elements of a work: ideas, emotions) becoming the downfall of the very work whose perceived form is disjointed, corrupted, made internally fragile. In this rupture, the connections between meanings and signs as well as with the associated (or associatable) emotions are multiplied, producing a sort of intensification of the expressive force of the resulting work. The specific work of the emotions will be done not in the sense of manifesting a contained emotional value, or associated with an idea or a musical gesture (expressivity as direct expression of an emotion) but rather in the creation of an expressive state which is ambiguous due to the opposition, detouring or filtering of the expression of an idea or of a musical gesture with or without its emotional content. This instant – the margin between the composer and the listener, between the motion toward exteriorization and interiorization which was invoked earlier – in which the composer is both organ and obstacle in his own right – is the moment resurging from this particular expressiveness which is its hidden side: inexpressiveness. If my aim is for “inexpressiveness” – it’s perhaps time to start putting this word in quotes – it’s because the work of de-expressifying, of subtraction of expressiveness, is interesting from the point of view of the compositional strategies and procedures which thereby result, and also because it’s at this exact moment that a new expressive force is free. Here we encounter, once again, the Jankélévitchien paradox: in opposing oneself to expression, greater expressiveness is obtained. And if expressiveness is also, or above all, a result of the interference of emotions in the formal structures of artistic works, one might say—always bearing in mind the obstacle on the organ—that the emotions are obstacles to pure formal expression, just as much as the work is an obstacle to the emotions, and that the combination of this double action determines the characteristic expressiveness of a work.

The putting into form / putting into trouble which intervenes in the process of artistic creation is obvious when setting texts to music. Setting a text to music, giving it a musical form, inevitably means compromising its intelligibility, even in the case of a melodic piece which attempts to take into account the prosodic characteristics of the text being employed. This can be done in an extreme way by pushing the putting into form / putting into trouble of a text to the point of deconstruction. One might say, to turn upside-down and slightly modify the latin expression quoted by Jankélévitch, all negation is a new determination. In any case, this basic operation of vocal music, and simply of music, acts just as much on its morphology as on its signification. Extreme deconstruction reduces the text to a sort of emotive signal of the music and assigns a new intelligibility to each fragment of text associated to sound, a sort of burgeoning of meaning, and initiates a new dimension in which the semantic is lost within the acoustic and vice-versa, in much the same way as the emotions, or the purity of an idea to be expressed in music are shaken up by the organ/obstacle of composition. Even more interesting is the fact that the confines of the domain of the semantic and of the acoustic also become enfeebled. To such a point that one could conceive of a semantic quest within the purely acoustic, beyond all division between the linguistic (music) and all that is a-linguistic (natural acoustic).

The work of the obstacle-creating composer, when associated with the work of the composer-psychologist of expectation, produces, in deconstruction, an explosion of sound and meaning capable of reassigning their expressive value: sound, affect, memory, imagination, no longer unequivocally identifiable or oriented by a comprehensible meaning, are associated in a new way in the creation of a meta-expressivity.

From expressiveness to inexpressiveness, the work of the composer thereby becomes a work of in-scription (the binomial scrivere-inscrivere, écrire/inscrire describes best this fundamental movement toward meta-expressivity), in which a movement away from expression dominates. It’s more a matter of imprinting (impressing, as for a film negative) the material being used, to encode it subliminally, to hide heterogeneous elements in it, to announce it in a paralinguistic manner, to work as though on a palimpsest, than to deploy an emotionally persuasive, and seductive,  discourse on a listener. A stratification and encoding which confounds and bypasses emotionally direct expression. Whatever intensifies expressive force through emptying expression, the loss of old linguistic habits which keep it mired in a direct and functional connection with meaning and sound, will enable a new meeting ground between the creator’s expressive volition and the expressive expectations of the creator via the performer.

Inexpressiveness therefore puts into motion a reversal which confounds expressiveness. The expressive force which comes about as a result of the valorization of obstacles, also valorizes the role of the listener, which thereby becomes the creative adjunct to the author of the work, requiring him to reorganize the deconstruction engendered by the composer in order to locate a new intelligibility.

Holding back on words in order to say them in another way: such for me is the basic foundational act of music, and the fundamental gesture which unites vocal and instrumental music, the domains of linguistics and of acoustics.

Rather than saying an emotion: saying, with the inexpressiveness so specific to music, the “je ne sais quoi” (and the “almost nothing”) of Jankélévitchien memory, which provokes emotion.
S.G., Paris, 17 June 2008
Translation: Samuel Andreyev

Musical examples
  • Godspell: stratification, implicit text
  • Six lettres à l’obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten): inscription, encoding, throwing emotion off course (expression of love)
  • Com que voz: "eclecticism" (in quotation marks), obstacles to expression (a prism which opens up suffocating expressiveness, rendering the fado autistic and diffracting it in the contemporary pieces which serve as organ/obstacle). Between parentheses as this represents an experiment conducted on an overwrought emotional expressiveness and of directly expressed emotion. The expressive function of sound (no longer expression, but evocation: a linguistic signal with no relevance to the content being expressed). The mirror as motor of deconstruction.
copyright 2013 - 2017 Stefano Gervasoni | credits Web-Press sas
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