A QUESTION OF EXPRESSION, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 11th October 1958

Integrity, awareness and a sense of values, as Saint Beachcomber says, are nowadays to be looked for in all branches of art. Only a fool would ask how to detect the awareness of a posthumous Chopin Etude, or how to assess whether there is a greater sense of values in Mood Indigo or Carolina Moon; while the fine integrity of our national anthem is so self-evident that we feel ample justice is still done when only half of the anthem is played. Of course, things may be different for posterity.

Every generation lives with its own fashionable clichés and catch-words. Every age hops on and off its own band-waggons. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when towards the end of the Easter Term last, I observed in these pages some very hoary old jargon, which had, I thought, died in the thirties—but here it was, adduced to heighten the praises of so-called Twelve-note Music.

Catch-phrases derive their name from their catchiness, and, as infections, should be scotched in any age lest they grow into epidemics. The particular example that stimulated my interest was the use of the word “to express”, thus:—”Art must express the significant”, “Music is the expression of emotion”, “Twelve-note Music expresses the vital feelings of our time”. And, amazingly enough, the Concise Oxford Dictionary tells us that a melody is an “arrangement of single notes in musically expressive succession”.

One wishes to ask Who expresses What, and to Whom, and When, and Do they really?

A baby lies howling in a pram outside a shop. Is it lonely? Has it been frightened by some passing shadow or sudden noise, or by an unpleasant inner imagining? Does it seek love and succour? Or does it cry from physical discomfort, cramp, wind, cold, heat, hunger, or self-soil? Or is it for malice, to aggravate a nursemaid? Or is the baby merely exercising itself in nature’s best way, not meaning to communicate in the slightest?

Whatever the truth, each person passing the pram will assign a meaning to the cry. The interpretation rests with them. The mother, after close association with the infant, may delude herself into thinking that she can divine the tenor of its caterwauls, that she discerns a perceptible difference between, say, fear and hunger. She, too, will assign an interpretation to its cries, though she may be wrong in every instance.

But neither she nor the passers-by will ordinarily say to themselves, “Now, let me assign a meaning to this baby’s cry”; they will assign it spontaneously, if at all.

I dreamed last night that I met a lady who had just had her house exorcised. “The gas-fire sparkled and went out,” she said, “and the lighter would not work. So we knew the house was haunted”.

Such is the mind of man. We automatically seek for organization in everything in the wide world. Every effect must be coupled with a cause. If we observe an effect plausibly attributed to its cause, we call the observation Science; but if in our opinion wrongly attributed, we call it Superstition. It is not so many thousands of years ago that man discovered that copulation may be remotely connected with pregnancy. Before that, pregnancy was derived from exposure to the North Wind or some similar cause. There is no study, no human occupation that does not presuppose a sense of the orderliness of things, a pattern. Even the few philosophers who believe the Universe and all therein to be a chaotic jumble of fortuities, have presumably sought for some preconceived pattern before deciding there is none. Consider what difficulty the mathematicians have found in building a random-number machine whose numbers will be truly random. Randomness is alien to the human mind.

This instinctive desire to see organization in things gives us without doubt our artistic faculty; so that we attribute beauty to a face, an animal, a landscape, the sea, the sky, or a single rose, because we spontaneously perceive in what we see a felicitous juxtaposition of shapes, a happy arrangement of colours, some pattern of movement, either well-done in itself or nicely framed in time and place—at all events evidence of the operation of an intelligence. I say “in what we see”, for the mind seems most adept in ignoring what cannot be embraced in the preconceived plan.

And the preconceived plan appears to be gradually formulated through our years of life, tinted or tainted by our mental associations and experience, whether these be consciously remembered or not. It is possible that works of art provide not the reflection of a zeitgeist or even of their creator, but the reflection of ourselves, different for every one of us as we differ one from another.

Music in any place or at any time has (and has ever had) a convention, an accepted usage, which young folk learn by listening to the sounds in which their elders detect an organized pattern. The convention may alter like a language by the incorporation of novel turns of phrase or of slang, which will be taken as intelligent by virtue of their conventional context. But the digestion is slow, and men normally acquire an eventually instinctive knowledge of the convention only by a continuing experience of it. After some time they will have a basic set of fixed ideas as to what constitutes the proper organization of sounds, a yardstick against which all sounds will be measured. But this appreciation will be made automatically, spontaneously, subconsciously. Yet the sounds may not mean to communicate anything, may not be deliberate in their occurrence.

I have lain in a bath, and, hearing the drip of water, have diagnosed a rhythm and varying pitch—indeed, I thought I heard a quite reasonable version of Auld Lang Syne. The performer was a haphazardly leaking tap. I cannot believe that it was acquainted with the Scottish repertoire; yet I heard music.

Experiments have been made with a machine that would emit regular equidistant sounds all of the same pitch, timbre and intensity; and it was found that on hearing it, quite ordinary, not particularly musical persons, mentally divided the sounds into rhythmic groups of two, three, or four notes, each group repeated and having its first note apparently accented.

In fact, music seems to be a series of sounds which a hearer conversant with a convention perceives to be intelligently organized within that convention; and a composer is one who, imagining in his mind some arrangement of sounds delightful to himself within some convention, causes his imaginings to be physically realized, so that other men of similar experience, similar conversance with that convention, may perceive the pattern and after their own sort share his delight.

I cannot see that music expresses anything; and even if it did, Twelve-note Music could not equal conventional music in expressiveness, for its avowed aim is radically to flout current musical conventions. It is amusing to recall that a research student once embarked on a study of “Atonality”; later he applied to change the title of his dissertation to “Some Aspects of Tonality”. Could it be that he found atonality non-existent? There are certainly good reasons for believing that a man who employs the twelve-note technique for writing music is either a humbug or an ass.

Peter Tranchell