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

Posted on June 13, 2011


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.