Monday Musings: What Do Musicians Mean, And Does It Matter?

The critic in profile.

Music fans very often want to know something about the author of their favourite sounds. It is a widespread assumption that details of an artist’s biography or personality can provide an insight into their art: while this may or may not be the case, it is undeniable that the idea of the artist, as it exists in the mind of the listener/ viewer/ reader, has a significant effect on the way that they interpret the work.

Artists may adopt a variety of strategies to make the author a greater or lesser presence in the work, to make it more or less impersonal. There is often a sense of anonymity to purely electronic music, which lacks any obvious trace of the human body, in terms of a voice, or of hands on an instrument; but electronic instruments are as expressive as any other, and can be used in ways that are humorous, quirky, passionate, and obviously personal. Other approaches exist that downgrade the importance of deliberation or intentionality: the use of aleatory elements, or the establishment of a process that will generate sound, at a creative remove from the composer/ performer, such as the minimalist practice of establishing two phrases of different lengths, whose layered repetitions will eventually transform both.

All of these forms of music are originated by an author however, and are in some sense an expression of their personality. There is always a person involved somewhere, even if their only intervention is to highlight a particular found sound and declare it an artwork; this kind of minimal intervention seems to undermine a particular set of assumptions around authorship, which say that to be valid a work must be the consequence of an entirely intentional process under the conscious control of its creators. What it draws attention to is the fact that, rather than representing a creative antithesis, conventional work may also be generated with a questionable degree of authorial control, or may be the result of certain ‘fire-and-forget’ processes, albeit ones that involve some human activity.

The exact truth of the matter is beyond the scope of this article to explore, and it is more a philosophical matter than a critical one: what is interesting to me is not the precise degree of an author’s influence on their own work, but the fact that it is an unknown quantity, and a negotiable value. I am obviously far from the first person to think about this.

The French semiologist Roland Barthes published a seminal essay entitled The Death Of The Author in 1967. In it he takes the extreme view that any text (by which he means any cultural product or utterance) has meaning purely by virtue of its internal linguistic structure and its associations with other texts. The author’s biography or supposed intentions are of no relevance: even if the author tells you specifically what the meaning of the work is, it is no more their right to do so than the reader’s, who is in fact the locus in which the various connotative values of the work are combined to yield its sense.

My problem with this, and any other such dogmatic program for the analysis of works of art, is that it assumes everyone is asking the same question, to whit, ‘what is/ are the true or important meaning(s) of this text?’ To discount the author’s biography is a little strange if the question you are asking is ‘how does the author’s traumatic childhood influence their choice of subjects?’, and such questions may well be every bit as interesting as the ones that Barthes was inclined to ask.

I’ve always taken a pluralist approach to these things. Barthes most important contribution to my mind, is that he unseats the author from their position of, well… authority; he points out that they may not be entirely trustworthy or impartial sources, if we want to know about their work. An artist is never entirely in control of what they do, which is part of the beauty of art, and is unlikely to have a complete grasp of all the intertextual relations between their work and the rest of culture. Work is never a simple reflection of its author’s personality.

When I write about music, my own opinion is often the least interesting thing to me. Whether I ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ the music is secondary in interest to how it is structured, and how it carries its meanings. (The fact is that I like almost all music unless it is generic or (unintentionally) technically deficient.) So while I willingly endeavour to remove my own authorial proclivities from proceedings, most music carries a variety of meanings in a variety of ways, and my sense of which of these is the most interesting or relevant usually springs from my sense of the author’s intentions, as expressed in the music. I could take Barthes’ approach, and analyse the work systematically as a web of connected signs, but I doubt that would be as interesting to my readers, or as informative.

So what am I saying? Well, as usual, I’m rambling, and hoping to provoke some debate. But what I set out to say, and will repeat, is that the author is less of a crucial presence in a work than we may suppose, and a less important key to its meaning. Artists of all sorts like to think they have the right to dictate the reading of their work, but once they’ve put it out there, they really have no choice but to stand back and let people make of it what they will. Whether or not their background or intentions are of any relevance is down to what we want to know, and their work may well yield a wealth of meanings without their further involvement.


  1. Interesting article Oli, which leads to some musing of my own…

    Inevitably, these kinds of discussion always have a whiff of semantics about them. The problem with discussing how art is presented and how people perceive it is an impossible one. For example, one of the most common philosophical questions regarding the nature of perception is ‘how do I know that we are talking about the same thing when we talk about colour?’ Both you and I can call a colour ‘green’ but what you actually see when you talk about green could be what I would call red.

    The point proves that it’s impossible for any artist to dictate with any certainty the way other people perceive or receive his work, which automatically lessens his degree of control. What may be more important, or at least more significant to the recipient of art, is their own experience of a given subject. For example, the way a song about lost love is received will likely elicit a different response from somebody who has recently experienced a break up than somebody who is recently married. Note that this doesn’t mean our unfortunate singleton will like the song better, or can appreciate it more, merely that his experience of the art will be coloured by his personal experience.

    Nevertheless, the personality of the creator of art can and does influence the way that his audience receives his work – particularly should the artist choose to be a public figure or the public is familiar with some of the details of his life. It’s impossible to read Hemingway without thinking of the man so much has been written about; it’s impossible to listen to Jeff Buckley in the same way once you know of his untimely death; it’s impossible to listen to late Beethoven without having your perception coloured by knowledge of his deafness.

    This doesn’t mean that art can not stand alone – after all, it’s perfectly possible to experience and enjoy art without any knowledge of the creator other than what you glean from his work. Still, it would seem that two of the biggest influences on the recipients perception of a work of art will be personal experience and pre-existing knowledge of the artist.

    For me the other hugely significant factor is artistic context. Listening to Ornette Coleman without ever having heard Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker would be a very different experience. Perceptions of art are inevitably hugely coloured by familiarity with other works of art in that discipline.

    If you accept that these three factors (personal experience, pre-existing knowledge of the artist as a person or persona and a familiarity with other works of art in the same field) can colour the perception of a work of art, it follows that just how influential these factors are is directly proportional to the degree in which they are found in the recipient of art.

    If you know nothing about an artist, are not familiar with the genre and have no personal experience of the subject then these factors will have less of an impact than if you have read biographies of his life, are intimately familiar with the artistic context in which the work is conceived and have had personal experience of events/emotions/circumstances/emotions being explored in the work.

    Given that these three factors are unlikely to have identical influence from listener to listener, it would seem clear that artists’ ability to control the way their work is universally perceived or received is minimal. Nevertheless, it does suggest that it’s important for an artist consider how much impact he wishes is to have on his audience outside of the production of the art itself.

    Artists who choose to give interviews, write blog posts and introductions or liner/programme notes talking about the nature, meaning and purpose behind the art are more likely to be able to exert an influence on at least a percentage of an audience’s perception than the artist who chooses to stay out of the spotlight and let the art stand on its own.

    This is something that many artists don’t necessarily think about, but given how they run the risk of changing the way their art is experienced, perhaps consideration of the extent they wish to exert this influence needs to become a deliberate part of the artistic creation itself – particularly given the nature and ubiquity of modern media.

  2. Wooohooo! Thanks Barry, that’s exactly the kind of detailed, thoughtful response I always hope I’ll get, but rarely do, thank you.

    I agree, the public persona of an artist is very important: in fact, it is sometimes an integral part of the work. For example, I think Lady Gaga is a very interesting artist, but if I’d only listened to her anodyne pop songs, I’d have had no clue of that: as far as I can make out the music serves simply as marketing hook to get people’s attention for the visual and performance based weirdness which is what she’s actually interested in.

    Hearing a musician in the context of their tradition is also an interesting issue, because the listener and the artist may perceive their relationship to the tradition very differently (as was certainly the case when Coleman started squawking atonally on a plastic sax, since he was building on the work of earlier masters, and the jazz mainstream thought he’d simply gone mad).

  3. Great post, Oli. (And reply, Barry.) In my experience, when confronted with new music without any context the first question I ask is “who is this?” Usually a minute with an artist’s site (or whatever their online platform) tells me as much as I want to know. The next two questions I might have are usually answered in that quick glance too: “When was this?” and, sometimes, “Is this serious? ironic? Homage? Pastiche? etc.

    That’s about as far as my interest in an artist’s intentions goes. And it can be satisfied, most of the time, in that one minute online. I expect that this “one minute” opportunity is very common — and it tells me that it’s important to be focused on the essentials in your online platforms.

    I’ve never been one to care much about the emotional back story of a piece of art. I get all the emotional energy from the art itself, I think. And, as you said, what I receive is probably a different energy than whatever the artist had intended. Not only because my own experience is going to color that information, but because art comes (to a greater or lesser degree) from the unconscious. The artist is probably not aware of the full emotional content of her work.

    But I can understand why people are interested in back story: it’s a way — or at least it seems to be — closer to the music. Generally, if I want more information about art, I want to know about the process of making it — and, if it applies, some biography. I like details. How long did it take? Was it easy or hard? What was the schedule that produced it? That kind of thing. It helps me with my own work, but it also tells me something that matters to me about the artist.

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