Powerful vs. Powerless

"Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.”

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Monday, February 14, 2011

New York is still bustling with festivals, festivals, festivals! This week in particular, there's some impressive programming courtesy of one of our favorite chamber ensembles, eighth blackbird. The versatile sextet has set up a short festival, called Tune-In beginning this Wednesday at the Park Ave Armory, based on Stravinsky's famous quote: "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.”

They then set up a kind of a debate-team-style pair of core shows; one concert argues Stravinsky's side (called powerless), and one argues the just the opposite (powerful). This is a pretty cool idea, but even cooler is their lineup! We're talking Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Louis Andriessen, Kurt Schwitters, David T. Little, Stefan Weisman, Matt Marks, John Luther Adams, Bora Yoon, I could keep going!

This week's shows will be inspired by this really cool set of events. There will be a lot of John Luther Adams! But also a ton of performances by the stellar ensembles involved in the proceedings.

How do you feel about Stravinsky's quote? I find it almost enraging, actually! I am one of the biggest Stravinsky fans I know, and yet this quote seems totally out of place given the way his music moves me. What do you think?

Hosted by:

Nadia Sirota
The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Comments [5]

Peter A. Kines from peterkines@yahoo.com

I had never heard of Stravinsky's statement that "music is incapable of expressing anything" and can therefore only speculate regarding its possible meaning. To that end, the quote makes sense to me if the composer means that music (or any art expression, for that matter) has nothing to say about anything else in life except itself. Art conveys no truth about anything; it simply exists for its own sake and no other purpose.To loosely revisit the famous Keats line, the 'truth' of art is its own beauty and its beauty is its own truth; that's all we know and (in fact) that's all we need to know.

May. 27 2011 10:22 AM
Tony Thompson

Nadia, in your exception to Stravinsky's "music is incapable of expressing anything" your use of the word "moved" is important. Can music express something if you cant say what it is? I too am often moved by music as well as painting and dance but am unconvinced that they express anything. They do produce emotion.
<tonythompsonpainter.com>

Feb. 16 2011 01:09 PM
Michael Meltzer

Also, if we remember that English was Stravinsky's third language and that "express" has a raft of definitions, when you go to definitions #2 or #3, "to verbalize" or "to reveal or render explicit," the statement gets less provocative.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the "Symphony of Psalms" doesn't leave us with any questions.

Feb. 15 2011 08:53 AM
Michael Meltzer

That quote has been batted around for years, discussed and argued, and many thanks to Mr. Kline for digging up the Stravinsky follow-up. The last three words of the follow-up are how most people wind up interpreting the statement, that one should not be looking for an extra-musical meaning. Listen, be moved, go back there again and again, leave the explanations to the critics and when you're done reading, them, put them in the bottom of the birdcage.

Feb. 15 2011 12:18 AM
Phil Kline

I think Igor defended himself pretty well:
"The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity, but only the validity of a type of verbal statement about musical expressivity. I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself."
Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (1962). Expositions and Developments.

Feb. 14 2011 12:13 PM

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