Monday, December 11, 2017

Roger Sessions on Gesture

Around the time I wrote this post on some audience members telling me they were deeply moved by music I've written, I came across this post of Elaine Fine's over on her blog Musical Assumptions In Sessions' book The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener he writes:

I believe that music "expresses" something very definite, and that it expresses it in the most precise way. In embodying movement, in the most subtle and most delicate manner possible, it communicates the attitudes inherent in, and implied by, that movement; its speed, its energy, its élan or impulse, its tenseness or relaxation, its agitation or its tranquility, its decisiveness or its hesitation. It communicates in a marvelously vivid and exact way the dynamics and the abstract qualities of emotion, but any specific emotional content the composer wishes to give to it must be furnished, as it were, from without, by means of an associative program. Music not only "expresses" movement, but embodies, defines, and qualifies it. Each musical phrase is a unique gesture and through the cumulative effect of such gestures we gain a clear sense of a quality of feeling behind them. But unless the composer directs our associations along definite lines, as composers of all times, to be sure, have frequently done, it will be the individual imagination of the listener, and not the music itself, which defines the emotion. What the music does is to animate the emotion; the music, in other words, develops and moves on a level that is essentially below the level of conscious emotion. Its realm is that of emotional energy rather than that of emotion in the specific sense.

I've always thought that one way music "touches" us is that it is in part physical gesture made audible. Sessions' point elaborates this in a way I hadn't really thought of. The way I take it is that a successful musical gesture is a sort of mini-archetype of an emotion that allows the listener to re-experience and/or to more fully experience an emotion in the moment the music is made, and in such a way that the feeling lingers. 

This goes a good way towards explaining how others feel emotions in my music I didn't consciously put there. If the music is well made, the gestures in it will elicit emotions in audience members that are specific to each person; and the better made the gestures are, the stronger the emotions.

One way of thinking about it is that a piece of music is like the script to a play, and each audience member casts and directs his/her own production of that play in their imagination, and no two of those productions will be exactly alike. In Swafford's new biography of Beethoven he mentions that Beethoven often had a plot line of his own for pieces of his music, but he never shared them with others, so that they could imagine/feel their own.

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