sine wave

What I have always liked about playing musical instruments is that you don’t need to have anything to say. You can just pick up an instrument and start making sounds. “Sounds are sounds and nothing more,” as John Cage said. Sounds have no inherent meanings in themselves. They are different from words. As Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

A sound is a vibration in air, and it either moves you or does not move you. If it moves you, then that opens up many more possibilities. You don’t need to have anything in particular to “say.”

The problem with words is that if you sit down to write, you must have something to say. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everybody’s time. For instance, right now, at this moment, I do have something to say. I am saying that words have meaning, but sounds have no inherent meaning.

In music, self-expression is overrated, in my opinion. That’s why so much confessional singer-songwriter stuff is so unsatisfying. So much of it is about me-me-me, or about me-and-my-problems. Too much "meaning" drags down the performer and can be embarrassing for the listener.

Sound resists any kind of meaning. When I make a recording, it’s not because I have something to express. I have nothing to say in music. If I'm compelled to record something, it’s because I have hit upon a set of sounds or chord changes or rhythmic patterns that move me, and if I record it, maybe it will move you too. Sometimes a single note on a Wurlitzer electric piano just thrills me. The word “meaning” never enters the discussion.

Bob Dylan’s great records are great not because of his lyrics but because they so compelling musically. People who know no English can enjoy Dylan's great records. When Dylan's literal meaning overwhelms the music, he ceases to make great records.

In music, you can pluck a guitar string or press a key on a piano without a thought in your head. In fact, it’s better if your mind is a blank, and press a key and then another key, then two or three keys at once. Sounds are sounds and nothing more, but if they are effective, they can give you a certain feeling, and from that point the possibilities are endless.

Also, in music, you can improve your skill by playing other people’s music. If you want to play better piano, you can learn one of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. But if you want to write better prose, then typing a chapter of “Moby Dick” won’t help you at all.

Of course, one can write excellent lyrics without resorting to self-expression. Dylan does it all the time. Carole King wrote great lyrics to "Up on the Roof." Not a word is wasted, and the lyrics and melody are so entwined, they are one in the same. Was she trying to express herself? I have no idea. Whether her initial impulse was self-expression or something else, the overall excellence of "Up on the Roof" is such that it doesn't matter how she got there. That song goes way, way beyond self-expression.

In 1978 Brian Eno was quoted in an interview in Creem magazine:

"There are some bands who want to give the illusion by their music that the music itself is the result of incredible, seething passions and turmoil from within, and all this music comes out as a direct result of that. It's a case of 'Boy, are we in a sort of emotional turmoil, here it all comes...' "The way I work, and the way a lot of other people work, is to create music that creates a feeling in you. You set out in a rather deliberate way to do this by carefully constructing a piece that will evoke in you the feeling that you want. It's not the other way round, where you have all these feelings that then suddenly force this piece to exist in whatever form it takes. It's a matter of constructing a piece which evokes that, and evokes it time and time again. Every time you play it, it triggers the same thing -- until you finally become immune to it, which you will at some time."

Bingo! He got it in one!

For right now, let me reiterate that sounds are sounds and nothing more, and if they are used effectively, they can move you deeply. In my own experience, self-expression has little or nothing to do with it.

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