Extra-musical programs may seem gimmicky, but then, days later, when you're still discussing the merits of the program with friends--non-musicians even!--it becomes clear that the extra-musicality gives the music hooks which the audience can use to hang on. Such was the fallout from the eighth blackbird concert on Saturday at the MCA, from which spiraled several heated discussions.
The beauty of the program was that, for as much as they tried to create a dichotomy of music into PowerFUL (expressive) and PowerLESS (non-expressive), they failed--perhaps due to the inherent impossibility of the task. Being trained, educated, and generally highly intelligent, the members of eighth blackbird (the birds) must have realized the falseness of the dichotomy. (Lisa Kaplan, the pianist, even said in the promo video that Stravinsky was being ironic--tounge-in-cheek?--when he said that music is powerless to express anything.)
So it's a false dichotomy. This can work in art (and philosophy) but fails in anything scientific or legal. Depending on your background, whether or not you expect an entity like 8bb to make a cogent argument, their pair of concerts can either be stimulating or frustrating.
But when the stimulated and the frustrated get together, interesting conversation ensues.
The big problem that came up was one of semantics. Stravinsky, using words in the same brute manner he uses sounds, bluntly reacts against the preceding century's increasing attempt at expression in music. Today, his words seem even a little old and moldy, like an important piece of history that should be understood in the context of its time. Our collective unconsciousness is so awash with contradictions, such that these idealized notions seem almost quaint.
Stravinsky was coming at the end of a long century of increasingly expressive Romanticism and was making an about-face to look back to a time when music simply expressed itself: shitty but deodorized
. But whether or not music can communicate with as much precision as words, it still communicates. Stravinsky, for example, was communicating his preference for a particular kind of art. Everything we do, in fact, communicates something, from the small unconscious actions, to our daily habits, to major life choices. We are constantly communicating our experience of reality to anyone who might be paying attention.
That's the big umbrella, but what about expression?
When musicians say "expressive", it often means emotional. Whether or not you have an emotional response to music is up to you, but the fact that people do (or at least claim to) should mean that it's possible. Not necessary, but possible.
In fact, thanks to this false dichotomy, it seems like music can be PowerFUL to do great number of things. John Luther Adams attempted to use it to paint the changing light; Frederic Rzewski used it to express the madness beneath a veneer of saneness; Corigliano used it to express a different meaning to familiar words.
But, like other forms of communication, it is not universal. Even body language, certainly more universal than verbal language, fails to be universal--a fact that has gotten me into lots of trouble in foreign countries. But, as always, there's a continuum. Some music is (or tries to be) more universal; some is more personal/individual. Some creates the universal from the individual; some touches on the individual from the universal. Stravinsky seems obsessed by the universal; perhaps, in his attempt to write universal music, he had to dispose with the individual. In order to be universal, music has to rely on patterns--not emotional or psychological patterns, which are more variable depending on the culture, but physical patterns: rhythms.
[This is how gamelan music got off its tiny island.]
The next 8bb concert at the MCA, PowerLESS, has Bach and Reich. Ostensibly, each working with these more universal rhythmic patterns, their music should be less expressive. This explains Reich, but Bach's Chaconne (for solo violin) also uses melody, which, though treated like abstract patterns, are fertile with expression, rife with potential for an emotional response. Again, it's a flawed premise, a false dichotomy, but, like hypothetical situations, it's a mental challenge that makes us stronger.