The Complicator Vol. 39 – Music and the Shape of the Self – Medieval and Baroque Inexpressible Music

Some of the Best Music Expresses Nothing at All

I’ve been listening to a lot of J. S. Bach lately, as well as bits of Thomas Tallis, Josquin, and similar pre-Classical Era composers. Often as I listen to these pieces of music, I find myself thinking: this music expresses nothing.

The power of a piece like this may well be that it can’t be broken down into any kind of meaning other than the meaning that it seems to have as we hear it unfold. Perhaps that helps to explain why, even as it has no message, it still seems to express information that seems both deep and somehow true as well.

In any case, I have become addicted to the experience of listening to these pieces and searching for the meaning in them. I never find anything I can really point to, but that’s meaningful in and of itself, just like the experience, say, of looking at a tree might be. What do I make of a tree? What does it express? Everything and nothing, I suppose.

I’ve made a station for you. It’s called “Inexpressible Radio.” Take a listen and ask yourself: what is this music saying? If it says nothing, then why does it also seem to make so much sense?

6 things I bet you will notice:

1. The pieces are beautiful.
2. The pieces are extraordinary things for a person to have conceived and written.
3. The pieces are evidence that the people who lived centuries ago may not have been all that different from us.
4. The pieces that have no words (especially the solo piano pieces) are the ones that seem most abstract. They seem to be full of a kind of meaning as you are listening to them, but once they are done, there seems to be no takeaway message.
5. The choral pieces seem more expressive than the solo piano pieces do.
6. Listening to these pieces of music is a really great way to spend some time!

I hope you enjoy and find some new music, and I’ll look forward to your comments.

best,
mz

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