I am happily working my way through Peter Kivy’s Philosophy of Music during Spring Break amidst some writing and a lot of grading. Though I am only halfway through, I can heartily recommend the book as an excellent introduction to the central issues in music aesthetics. Kivy is defending the formalist position of Hanslick with some special modifications that allow him to acknowledge and speak about the emotional aspects of music. (The monograph is from 2002, so it is rather uninformed on the advances in musical semiotics in the past 10 years.)

The formalist position nicely avoids some of the awkward problems that arise in the philosophy of music. When one of my students brought up what Kivy likes to call the “arousal” theory of music and began talking about how the music communicated emotions, I tried to get the student to clarify her position by asking the hard questions the formalist position asks. “Is the composer somehow putting his or her emotion into a major 6th? When you perform it or listen to it, are you somehow extracting that composers emotion from the major 6th? If that is not happening, what exactly are you saying?”

One solution to this problem is something that I have heard articulated by Eph Ehly on more than one occasion. That is, the composer is providing a structure for me to communicate my feelings. Now, I won’t presume to understand everything that is going on in an inspired and brilliant conductor like Eph Ehly. However, I will start this series of posts contemplating the idea he proposes as I understand because it is actually interesting philosophically.

The concept is attempting a sort of end around of the formalist position. The emotion is not in the music qua music, the emotion is in the performer. The composer’s emotions aren’t in the major 6th, but you can put your emotions into the major 6th and somehow the audience can unpack that major 6th and hear/feel your sorry/happiness/melancholy/whatever. It is a nice solution in some ways, but when you parse out the implications, it becomes more and more disturbing.

Let’s take the emotions out of the major 6th. If the major 6th exists solely for the purpose of expressing my personal emotions, then what does that mean for me as a conductor? Does that mean that the choir/orchestra exists solely to express my personal emotions? It seems the same thing to me. If an interval can be a structure upon which to express myself, why not 10 very real, human altos? Without doubt their are conductors that think this way. (Or else, why would we have sayings like, “All conductors are assholes.”) But, most conductors are not like this, and surprisingly, most musicians don’t even feel this way about their own instruments.

Talk to a violinist that owns an expensive instrument sometime. They never say that their instrument is simply a vehicle to express their personal emotions. They talk about the history of the thing. They talk about the other people who have put their heart and soul into the wood of the thing. They use mystical language to get at a more pertinent truth.

In the same way, I really don’t think that is what we are doing when we are conducting is just expressing our personal feelings. I especially don’t think that is what Eph Ehly is doing when he is conducting. When I have played for him, he said that sort of stuff in such a way that it invited each member of the ensemble to make their own contribution. The end result was not some sort of personal emotional display, but a coalescence of multifoliate expressions working toward a single musical end. What that end might be is another question.